Friday, 16 November 2018

Not wild about re-wilding

Not wild about 're-wilding'


Sometimes issues that concern us in the countryside, and the solutions or alleviations that we propose to resolve those issues come back to bite us firmly on the arse as others, with a different agenda, ride on our coat tails. Take re-wilding for instance.

It is interesting how a particular word or phrase is able to become the currency of a particular cause or set of beliefs. For a while sticking eco in front of anything worked a treat if you wished to burnish the credentials of a person, movement or thing.

Global warming and climate change are clearly the big two that fall into this category. We have all experienced it. Dear Customer: To help the fight against global warning we will no longer be posting you a bank statement. 

Now I'm perfectly happy with that but be honest - it is all about a cost saving that drops straight to the bottom line but by using the phrase 'global warming' you have taken the moral high ground. Anyone who, for perfectly valid reasons still wants the paper version, is suddenly against the proposition. But back to the rivers.

For some time now there are plenty of us who have felt the best way to protect the chalkstreams for future generations is to step around progress. Not avoid it. Not oppose it. But craft a countryside that protects what we have from the downsides of progress and rolls back the damage that progress has caused. Strangely we haven't had to do anything radical or invent some fancy new initiatives because by some bizarre twist of fate the European Union handed us the solution on a plate.

Younger readers will probably not recall the agricultural excesses of what was back then the European Economic Community of the 1980's. It seemed like every week we were assailed by some new glut of products as farmers were paid to produce food nobody wanted to buy. Nobody excepting the EEC who bought and stockpiled millions of tons and gallons (sorry litres). We had wine lakes. Butter mountains. Potatoes. Wheat. Olives. The list went on and on. So the solution was a new policy: set aside. Farmers were paid to produce nothing. In the topsy-turvy world of European economics it was cheaper to pay a farmer to do nothing than do something so suddenly 10% of agricultural land was taken out of production.

And what happens if you let nature take over? It goes wild but in a good way. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of acres free of the plough. Free of chemicals. Free for creatures, animals and insects to thrive. Which they did. Saving the countryside was simply as uncomplicated as doing nothing. On the chalkstreams the penny dropped: the less we interfered the better. We needed to bend to the will of nature rather than bend nature to our will. Wild was good. But somehow, somewhere wild has become re-wilding, creating in an Animal Farm-like turn of events. A whole new concept of its own, as if wild in itself was not good enough. Now, not only do we have to return things to the wild but we have to return them to a wildness that exists only in the imagination of a body or group who have a particular cause to espouse.

I have absolutely no idea why the re-wilders have taken beavers to their hearts, using the cover of 're-wilding' to promote a species that has been extinct from the British Isles for at least six hundred years and probably longer in all but the remotest part of the nation. But they have the ear of government. The recent press release from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs extols the introduction of a pair Eurasian Beavers to Essex in a project that will see this 'keystone species' who, if you believe what is written in the text, save the county from the effects of global warming by juxtaposing the life of a beaver in the huge expanses of Canada with life in a 4 hectare compound in East Anglia.

It really is ecological madness. In a time when squeezing any money from any government body for even the most basic of environmental project is all but impossible I simply dread to think how much time and effort is being wasted in this pointless project. It involves, if you care to know: the Anglian Eastern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Environment Agency East Anglia, Essex County Council, Essex & Suffolk Rivers Trust, Essex Wildlife Trust and Natural England.

The time when beavers were key is long past. They disappeared for a reason - the landscape they require, for right or wrong, has disappeared. It will not be coming back any time soon. Nor should the beavers

John Wilson dies

I was very sorry to hear that John Wilson died earlier in the week; he was really an unlikely fishing celebrity. Did you know he started his professional life as a hairdresser?

John was born in Enfield, London, where he fished on several local waters including the River Lea. When hair proved to not be his thing he joined the Merchant Navy, then tried his hand as a printer before opening his own fishing tackle shop in Norwich in 1971.

I recall it well, tucked down the tiny Bridwell Alley, when I was a student at the University of East Anglia.

He was a prolific author with over twenty books to his credit but his big break came in 1986 when the first of the Go Fishing series was commissioned by Anglia Television. Today angling shows are two-a-penny but John's genius was to have a hit TV series on terrestrial television when angling was desperately unfashionable and politically incorrect. Quite how he secured his prime time slot year after year on Channel 4 I will never know but he kept the angling flame alive with his sheer enthusiasm for our sport.

It is a while since I last saw the programmes but if I recall it wasn't overly technical. Just a guy going fishing sharing his passion for the sport - all the different aspects of it - as it grew to cover locations all over the world. He, as he would admit, wasn't the most elegant fly caster, but he was a regular on the chalkstreams with a particular penchant for the Indian restaurant on Stockbridge High Street. The last show was broadcast in 2009, the same year John was awarded an MBE.

John, voted as 'The Greatest Angler of All Time' by readers of the Angling Times in 2004, died on 13th November of a stroke in Thailand, where he had lived since 2013. He was 75.

Sea bass back on your menu

Good news for those of you who like to catch a sea bass for your tea: you are no longer an enemy of the people.

The history behind this was a botched, if worthy, attempt by the EU Council to arrest a dramatic decline in sea bass stocks when they banned all recreational fishing for the species last year. This came out of the blue for most of us, resulting in some considerable head scratching when it transpired that the commercial sea bass boats were left unaffected by the ban even though they take 25 fish for every 1 caught recreationally.

It did seem incredible that we were being banned from catching a publicly-owned fish for personal consumption from public beaches but such is the power of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

However, it was soon proved that recreational anglers took 85% fewer fish than the data supporting the ban had purported.

So now a catch limit of one fish (under 42cm) per angler per day is in force until the end of the year. But watch this space as the rules for 2019, Brexit or no Brexit, are yet to be set.

Photo of the week

Gorgeous morning on the River Coln with my friend and French agent Jean-Pierre. Two grayling, one on the dry and one on a tiny nymph plus two accidental browns. 

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director

Friday, 2 November 2018

That was the season that was

That was the season that was


Until I scrolled through the Feedback Form Inbox to randomly stop at the 2018 Simms Pliers winner I didn't realise quite how many of you had taken the time and trouble to report on your fishing day.

This is Britain ..... allegedly
To you all, thank you. I am pleased to report back that nearly all were overwhelmingly positive. The compliments you pay, not just in regard to the fishing but also the river keepers and guides you meet, are deeply appreciated. You also pick up on those little things that we don't notice or know but are easily remedied saving the day for whoever follows. That is a huge help, so do keep the reports coming.

How would I summarise 2018? Confounding. Three months out from the start we were bewailing the lack of rain. Then it, plus snow, arrived in deluges and drifts. Be careful what you wish for. The rain continued, barely without respite until the first week of May when, quite suddenly, it went away. As I write we are awaiting its return.

That absence of rain came as something of a shock to some of our overseas visitors for, Americans especially, are conditioned to believe that it rains in Britain all the time. No, I explain, that is Scotland. We hosted three consecutive weeks of parties flown over from the USA who had, in total, just one half morning of rain. I think the organiser was mildly affronted having included a vast array of all weather clothing on his 'must have gear' list. They are coming back in 2019 so he might turn out to be correct in the end.

The Mayfly hatched on time and in vast clouds; there was no shortage of insects. The only problem, which in truth was a big one, was that the trout paid scant attention. I simply can't recall another season when the Mayfly catches across the piece were so poor. The reason? I have no idea though I'd speculate that the fuller-than-average rivers may have had some impact on the behaviour of the trout and nymphs. There were, of course, still good days when Duffers Fortnight lived up to its name but it was sporadic. We joked, with an element of truth to it, that the real Duffer days came in July - sometimes it was incredible.

Congratulations to Tim Hodges who wins the Simms pliers in the end of season draw and Scott Mulholland the snood in the October draw.
And so to summer. I recall some years ago Capital Radio ran a competition inviting listeners to predict the date and hour when the London temperature, such was the rarity, would top 30c. In 2018 for six weeks from late June to mid-August we laughed in the face of such old-fashioned notions when 30c became the new norm; nine consecutive days were logged at one point. 

The chalkstreams and the trout in them, on the other hand, remained blissfully unaware of the temperature gauge. The groundwater statistics, which is basically a measure of natures' underground reservoir, were then, and remain thanks to that beastly spring, at average or above average levels. As to the fishing the weather ground us all down in the end; for a while it was something of a novelty but by August we were all feeling the heat. The autumn, such as it was, could not come too soon.

So another season draws to a close. Today we are packing up the fly fishing school here at Nether Wallop Mill. The trees are fast shedding their leaves. We will start to put the rivers to bed very soon. The last trout has been caught; all they have to fear until April is otters, herons and the deprivations of winter.

It is time to plot and plan for 2019.

Chalk Talk in Trout & Salmon

I am not entirely sure how it came about but I now find myself as a regular columnist in Trout & Salmon magazine with my monthly Chalk Talk page. For someone who campaigned (successfully) that his boarding school library should carry the magazine (1970's cover price 17½p!) it is an enormous honour.

During the fishing season the column is largely topical, featuring what is going on across the chalkstreams plus an interview with a river keeper and his Fly of the Month. However, out of season editor Andrew Flitcroft allows me to range over any topic that takes my fancy. If you'd like to catch up on the most recent "Harsh times for grayling" click here.

If you'd like to subscribe to Trout & Salmon, which is available in print (£32 for 13 issues) or electronically (£26) here is the link. My next piece is on the dramatic decline in Rod Licence sales and the best possible remedy.

Photo of the week

I love great photos - aside from Pop Art it is my favourite form of art so I always enjoy scrolling through the finalists for the Landscape Photographer of the Year. Unusually fishing got a look in this year, though in truth by accident. 

Mick Blakey, winner of the Living the View (adult class) takes up the story: 'I hoped to photograph a serene sunset - but was in for a shock. There had been strong winds, which resulted in a big Atlantic swell. Initially disappointed, I started to notice spray around the cliffs as the waves were breaking - backlit by the sun. I sat happily on the rocks photographing the waves but then the magic happened ... a fisherman appeared in frame.'

Does anyone want to admit to being famous by accident? The photo was taken at Porth Nanven, Cornwall. Review all the entries here.

Video of the week

The Hatch
The Hatch
One of our old friends at Fishing Breaks, photographer and film maker Matt Dunkinson, has just released a great video courtesy of Loop Fly Fishing featuring a bunch self-described 'hairy arsed' Hampshire river keepers fishing the Mayfly.

It is a fun six minutes or so as a reminder to what has been and to what will come again as we set off through another winter. All I can add is that it is a good thing the hairy ones fish better than they play the banjo.

Here is the link. Happy watching!


The usual random selection of questions to confirm or deny your personal brilliance. As ever it is just for fun with the answers at the bottom of the page.

1)     In what year was the Gunpowder Plot discovered?

2)     If you were kovtapyroergasoiphobic what would be scared of?

3)     Who is the world's largest consumer (not a country) of fireworks?

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)     1605
2)     Fireworks
3)     Walt Disney Corporation

Friday, 19 October 2018

Hares in danger

Hares in danger

You see a great many corpses beside the road at this time of year as the animal hierarchy redistributes itself ahead of winter. 

Badgers are so commonplace as to not raise comment. Deer something to steer around. Grey squirrels inexplicably more frequent that you might expect. But the saddest of all for me are hares, the white, jagged broken bones of those strong rear legs poking out of that beautiful golden brown fur. So, knowing how the population is in decline, it made me sadder still when I read this week that myxomatosis, the disease that wiped out 99% of the British rabbit population when deliberately introduced in 1952, may have crossed over into the previously immune brown hare population.

Hares have long been one of my favourite British animals. They are, a bit like otters, remarkably strong and large with a propensity to range far across large tracts of countryside doing their best to avoid people, conducting their lives out of the sight of humanity. For centuries they had made the empty downlands, where the greatest disturbance was a few sheep, their home. But in the post-war drive for more home food production, ploughs bit into land untouched by man since it was exposed by the retreating ice cover millions of year ago. The places they lived and the grassland they lived off has been disappearing ever since, the marginal habitat they are forced to inhabit polluted by agricultural chemicals.

Sound familiar? You'll have read something similar to describe the plight of water voles, song birds and hedgehogs. In the case of hares it is estimated that the population has gone from something above 4 million a century ago to 800,000 today. The worry is that myxomatosis will all but wipe out the remaining hare population. However, as ever with these stories the headline may not tell the whole story: nobody is as yet certain that the unexplained deaths of hares in East Anglia are directly attributable to myxomatosis. In the 1930's Australian scientists tried to deliberately infect brown hares with the myxoma virus but failed. There have been similar deaths in Spain but the evidence is inconclusive. In Ireland, where hares are relatively more populous but myxomatosis incidence is of a similar level to the UK, there have been no reported deaths.

Myxomatosis is spread by the rabbit flea that carries the virus, infecting the rabbits by biting as they hop from one host to the next; mortality once infected is close to a 100% as the rabbits go blind, lose fur to ulceration and the body organs shut down. As you might imagine in the close confines of a warren the fleas are easily transferred, so populations are rapidly wiped out. Hares however live a different life which suggests myxomatosis would not so easily take hold.

Brown hares prefer the solitary life, living in very exposed habitats so they may use their acute sight and hearing to avoid their primary predators - foxes and raptors - by running at up to 45mph, which is faster than a horse. Unlike rabbits hares live in the open, creating 'forms', small depressions in the ground among long grass. Here they spend their day moving out to feed in the open at night. Tender grass shoots, including cereal crops, are their main foods. Breeding takes place between February and September with the young, known as leverets, born fully furred with their eyes open who are then left by the mother in forms a few yards from their birth place. Once a day for the first four weeks of their lives, the leverets gather at sunset to be fed by the female, but otherwise they receive no parental care. This avoids attracting predators to the young at a stage when they are most vulnerable. They don't live particularly long lives, 3 to 4 years is the norm, with disease and predation the two major causes of death.

This difference in lifestyle, and in the absence of any firm evidence, has suggested by some that the culprit may be rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) which first emerged in China in the 1980's. It has since spread around the globe first reaching Britain in 1992 when the domestic rabbit infected the wild population. But RHD is more virulent than myxomatosis wiping out 10m rabbits in 8 weeks when the virus escaped quarantine on the 20km2 Wardang Island off the south coast of Australia in 1995, spread as it is by contamination and the wind.

So for the moment, despite many assumptions, we don't really know what is happening. The University of East Anglia, along with the Suffolk and Norfolk Wildlife Trusts are trying to gather dead hares for analysis but it is all certainly very odd. One report was of six dead hares in a single field; for a solitary mammal that would be quite a conclave. I suspect we have a while to go before we get to the bottom of this particular problem but even when we do it won't change the truth: disease or no disease, we are gradually, just a little at a time, destroying the British countryside that we purport to love.

A 50th celebration

Two weeks ago I was so pleased to host a very special lunch at Nether Wallop to celebrate the 50th
 anniversary of fly fishing at The Mill.

The guests of honour were Renée Wilson, widow of Dermot Wilson, and their son Fergus. As Renée said to me they were initially hesitant at accepting my invitation; neither had been to The Mill since 1982 and the thought of a return stirred up all kinds of memories. But as it turned out we all had the most wonderful time reminiscing about Dermot, the wonderful camaraderie of the customers and the whole madness of the venture he set his family on.

Charles Jardine, back then a perm-haired recently graduated art student, joined us as he had been the resident trainee guide/instructor under the guidance of the irascible Jim Hadrell. Barrie Welham, a long time friend of Dermot and Renée was there, producing a copy of the 1971 Trout & Salmon (cover price 17.5p!) which featured the British record rainbow trout that he had just captured from The Mill lake. Neil Patterson, he of Chalkstream Chronicle fame, read a letter that Dermot had written to him apologising, in the most charming of words, for inadvertently taking credit for a pattern Neil had invented. Richard Banbury showed us where his desk had been in the days when Orvis took over The Mill from Dermot and Renée. 

We rounded the day off unveiling a blue plaque that I hope will remain for many decades as a fitting tribute to a great man.

Diane Bassett. Richard Banbury. Fergus Wilson. Renee Wilson. Charles Jardine. Barrie Welham. Neil Patterson

A troika of greats

I was very touched as Renée Wilson handed me a gift wrapped package by way of thanks for the day. As I undid the wrapping in her very understated way she said, 'These are just a few bits and pieces from Dermot's collection I thought you might like.' I was overwhelmed when she told me the provenance of each of the three items.

The first is one of Dermot's very own reels. As the original UK Orvis dealer he was very loyal to the brand who, you might be surprised to hear, actually made all their high-end reels in the UK as late as the 1980's. 

Renée tells me Dermot was a bit obsessive, tagging everything, hence the label. The reel still has the leader from the last time he fished.

The net was a gift from the legendary Lee Wulff, he of Gray Wulff fame, who was a regular visitor to The Mill. 

The final item is a fly box full of flies that were tied by Ernie Schwiebert an American angling literary colossus. He was a great friend of Dermot, the box a gift from him to Dermot when they fished together in Montana.

Schwiebert is not so well known in the UK but though I never met him I owe him a huge debt. He wrote a two volume master work on trout in which, as a schoolchild, he enraptured me about the chalkstreams. They were so much the weft and weave of my upbringing that it took an outsider to show me how very special they were. 

The quality of his writing is without measure. Let me quote from a speech he gave in 2005, shortly before his death. It is the very definition of why we fish.

Ernie Schwiebert
"People often ask why I fish, and after seventy-odd years, I am beginning to understand.

I fish because of Beauty.

Everything about our sport is beautiful. Its more than five centuries of manuscript and books and folios are beautiful. Its artefacts of rods and beautifully machined reels are beautiful. Its old wading staffs and split-willow creels, and the delicate artifice of its flies, are beautiful. Dressing such confections of fur, feathers and steel is beautiful, and our worktables are littered with gorgeous scraps of tragopan and golden pheasant and blue chattered and Coq de Leon. The best of sporting art is beautiful. The riverscapes that sustain the fish are beautiful. Our methods of seeking them are beautiful, and we find ourselves enthralled with the quicksilver poetry of the fish.

And in our contentious time of partisan hubris, selfishness, and outright mendacity, Beauty itself may prove the most endangered thing of all."


The usual random selection of questions to confirm or deny your personal brilliance. As ever it is just for fun with the answers at the bottom of the page.

1)     What is the Latin numeral for fifty?

2)     Who are on the rear of the current £50 note?

3)    In what year did Queen Elizabeth II celebrate her 50th year on the throne?

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)      L
2)      Matthew Boulton and James Watt, 18th century makers of steam engines
3)      2002. Makes you feel old ........

Sunday, 7 October 2018

How not to get lost

How not to get lost


We have known for some years that birds and fish navigate across oceans and continents by using the earth's magnetic field as a compass - it is a truly astounding ability. However the assumption has been that the knowledge of where to go is either imprinted at birth or the magnetic signature of home is remembered. There was no actual learning to navigate. However what nobody has been able to explain is how this particular compass works. Until now.

I must admit I had always thought of the geomagnetic field, to give it its correct title, as an earth based phenomena; that shows how much attention I paid to science at school. The electrical currents created by the movement of the molten iron in the Earth's outer core radiate out into space. Without the magnetic field that creates deflecting the solar wind that would otherwise strip away the ozone layer, we'd all have been fried millions of years ago. It seems that birds are able to 'see' this magnetic field by way of a sort of avian heads up display.

It is, inevitably, more complicated than that but the conclusions of two separate studies in Sweden and Germany which found evidence of an unusual eye protein called Cry4 in European robins and zebra finches, have come to essentially the same conclusion. 

It seems that the Cry4 protein is sensitive to blue light and the ability to see the magnetic field relies on being able to see the blue wavelength of light within the field. So the protein creates a filter, or sort of gauze, over the birds' vision which enables it to identify magnetic north and navigate accordingly, the process enhanced by a greater production of Cry4 during the migration period.

The scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created a graphic that puts it all in a bit more context; look out for the defined arc and central black spot in the middle column of squares. Now all we need is for someone to check out salmon eyes .......

Father & Son Taster Days

As you will see from the video we have rather a surfeit of fish in the Nether Wallop Mill lake. I base my stocking numbers at the start of each year with a certain attrition rate, largely reflecting otters and people. We have had plenty of the latter but very few of the former. Sadly I think Kuschta, the star of The Otters' Tale has died - we have had just the one young otter who comes and goes.

Nether Wallop Mill
Trout frenzy!
So, with fish still to catch and half term coming up I'm running a series of special Half Day Father & Son (or grandparent/mother/daughter) Tasters. You have the choice of a morning or afternoon session, with full instruction and tackle provided.

The format will be based around an hour of casting tuition for the children (under 16's please) in a group of three whilst the parents relax. Then we'll all come together for some bug work before everyone fishes together for the remainder of the session, ending up with fish gutting and some fairly rudimentary fish biology. I am hopeful everyone will have a fish to take home.

The dates are October 20, 21, 25 and 27. The sessions start at 9.30am or 2pm. The cost is £125 for a Father & Son. To book click here, or call 01264 781988.

The rain is coming

Meeting with one of my river owners last week, who also happens to have an extensive farming operation in Berkshire, we got to talking about the weather and rainfall in particular.

He reminded me of an interesting statistic: whatever period you take since 1961 the southern England rainfall each year remains remarkably consistent at around 780mm annually. So on that basis be prepared for a wet run up to Christmas with six months of rain due to fall in the next three. 

You have been warned!

Life of a Chalkstream talk

It seems like forever since I last did one of my Life of a Chalkstream talks; it tends to be a winter thing so I guess the clocks must be changing soon.

My first of the 'season' so to speak will be at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens near Romsey in Hampshire on Wednesday November 21st 2018. Unusually this is a lunchtime event at 12.30pm.

For tickets and information contact Terry Lewis

Photo of the Week

The River Itchen water meadows but perhaps not as you have ever seen them.

September feedback winner

It is a terrible thought but this is the penultimate draw of the year; next time it will be early November with everyone who has returned a report in the hat for the Simms pliers.

But for now it is Patrick Moore who fished twice in September, his trip to Barton Court coming out of the hat. The Fishing Breaks snood is on its way.


The usual random selection of questions to confirm or deny your personal brilliance. As ever it is just for fun with the answers at the bottom of the page.

1) This Sunday sees the running of Europe's richest horse race the Prix de l 'Arc de Triomphe. What was the Arc de Triomphe built to commemorate?

2)   Who is the Viking god of rain?

3)   At what speed does a large raindrop hit the ground?

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)     Those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
2)     Frey
3)     20mph