Friday, 9 February 2018

The precautionary principle

Nether Wallop Mill, England February 2018


About now I don't think I'd much fancy being the PR officer for the Environment Agency (EA) who has chalkstream issues coming across the desk. Last month it was the charges furore. This month a petition that has been gathering a head of steam regarding an application for salad processing plant discharges into the headwaters of the River Itchen.

River Itchen headwaters
It is easy to see the EA as the enemy of the chalkstreams but that would be a mistake; they are in the end simply the body charged with policing the regulations handed down to them by central government and, for now at least, the EU. In fact many of those inside the organisation are sympathetic to the issues that upset us all so much. In response to my last blog Robbing Peter to pay Paulan EA officer wrote to me to say:

"Just to let you know I passed this [the blog] on to those internally who are dealing with the consultation. Your views are shared by all locally and nationally internally and externally."

So, let us not be quick to shoot the messenger. That said I do wonder about mechanics of the EA consultation process, this latest development on the River Itchen being a good example. This is how we have arrived at the point we are today.

The upper reaches of the Itchen have long been an industrial centre, at least in the sense of a chalkstream. For centuries barges ran up the river to gather at Alresford Pond, close to the source, to service an international trade in wool, the fleeces washed by the town's fulling mill. More recently this was a major watercress growing region, even to the extent that the steam railway was named The Watercress Line. However, in the 1950's watercress rather fell out of consumer favour and many of the beds slipped into disuse, some in turn becoming either trout rearing farms or fishing lakes. And that is pretty well how it stayed until the 1970's when a coterie of entrepreneurs, in most cases visionary local farmers, saw the commercial potential for watercress and they were, to their credit, hugely successful. But in recent times that success has come at a price to the river.

The Itchen for all its fame is not a big river even by chalkstream standards. It is under twenty miles from font to estuary and at few points would you ever struggle to cast across its full width. Its catchment is also very small, the valley through which it flows narrow and, until recent times, sparsely populated. Put that all together for something that is very fragile and is now, as I write, suffering badly.

Now, before we hang all watercress farmers from the highest tree it is worth stepping back. Hampshire was in living memory a distinctly rural county. Of course it has always had the thriving coastal cities of Southampton and Portsmouth but Basingstoke (current population 112,000 and source of the River Test) wasn't even invented in 1945. The market town of Alresford, location of the processing plant at the centre of this controversy, is in many ways typical of how the county has gone from rural to semi urban. In my early life is was a small town that serviced the farming community and the outlying villages, the highlight of each week being market day. The concept of commuters was unknown, visitors rare and new development unheard of. Well, why build when in 1960 you could buy any one of a dozen perfectly good houses for under £1,000? But how that has changed.

Ten of thousands of houses have, or are being built, within what used to be regarded as Alresford's rural catchment. Now that is progress but when concrete replaces grass nature suffers. Rivers are sucked of water as aquifers are plumbed for domestic supplies. Of course the water doesn't 'disappear' but when it does return to the river it is as unclean run off or less-than-pure treated sewage water. In the short term a river can stand that, but in the long term? Well, think of it a bit like your garden - for a while it might survive if only watered by your washing up water, but in the end ...... Agriculture has also had a huge impact for in the 20th century it went from chemical free to chemical dependent; all manner of farming practices and crops, entirely absent or alien to the English countryside in previous centuries have become common currency.

I say all this not to diminish the importance of the current fight but to put it in context of the wider difficulties; winning this is one of many battles that have to be won and it will not be easy. The one thing I learnt researching The Otters' Tale was that government and the bodies that work on their behalf are complacent to non-human risk. It was plain as a pike staff from the very first years of use that the agricultural pesticides that took otters to the brink of extinction were extremely bad but it took thirty years for them to be eventually banned. Why? Well, you can justifiably say that lobby groups and vested interests play a huge part, but the fact is that the regulatory deck is stacked in their favour. It presumes any application is innocent until proved guilty and for anyone fighting such an application proving guilt on the basis of effects that might be felt 5, 10 or 20 years down the road is almost impossible. If we are really serious about saving our countryside and wildlife we need to work on the precautionary principle to turn that on its head - guilty until proved innocent with the applicant providing the burden of proof.

But that will take a sea change that may or may not be possible in a post-EU Britain. For now we have to appeal to emotion, reasoned argument and common sense. It is not my place to tell you to sign this or that petition but do take a look at the River Itchen - Urgent Pollution Appeal.

PHOTO HEAVEN

I haven't put together a brand new brochure for two or three years; we have rather cheated by re-badging the same one for each new year. However, for 2018 I have bitten the bullet and I am so glad I did for I had the most amazing collection of photos from which to choose.
Californian photographer Ken Takata visited for two weeks in both 2016 and 2017, capturing thousands of amazing images. He always comes in mid June to early July which by my way of thinking is absolutely the best time to photograph the chalkstreams. You might think it would be May, but despite the excitement of the Mayfly the countryside still looks a bit 'raw'; plenty of trees will not be in full leaf, with the bank side vegetation yet to bloom into that amazing proliferation of summer colour.
I also had the bonus of the some great shots by Chris Cooper and Leo Cinicolo from CHALK. One of the bonuses of filming in HD is that every frame has the potential to be pulled off as a hi res image. I was truly spoilt for choice and the greatest shame was that I only had sixteen pages of brochure to play with.
If you would like a copy of the 2018 Fishing Breaks brochure please email me with your address or you may view it online here.





A GLIMPSE OF HOPE

I know I regularly bore you with my well known winter rain obsession, but you could not do better than this for an illustration of the power of precipitation.

When we talk about rain for the 'winter flush' on the chalkstreams this is what we mean and this is the result. Pristine perfection of bright, clean gravel (did you ever know it could be this white?) not to mention the first sprouts of new season ranunculus as shot yesterday by keeper Simon Fields on the Test headwaters.





















Bring on the spring!


QUOTE OF THE MONTH

I am not sure when Ellen DeGeneres, American stand-up comedian, sitcom actress and latterly a hugely successful TV chat show host actually said this but it made me laugh out loud. 
Thanks to Stuart Spindler, a Fishing Breaks regular for more years than both of us care to remember, for sending in these pithy few lines:
"Catch-and-release, that's like running down pedestrians in your car and then, when they get up and limp away, saying -- Off you go! That's fine. I just wanted to see if I could hit you."

QUIZ

The bleak February countryside, shorn of all cover, is a great time to watch the local residents going about daily survival. These are who I see from my desk as I write this. As ever, all just for fun and the answers at the bottom of the page.
 
1)     Who lives in a drey?

2)     Is the egret native to Britain?  

3)     Who imported the rabbit to the British Isles?


Have a good half term.

 
Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director


Quiz answers:
1)     It is a squirrel nest, typically a bundle of twigs. It may also be spelt 'dray'.

2)     No. This small, white heron first appeared in the late 1980's from mainland Europe and begun breeding in 1996.

3)     The Normans from what is now northern France in the 12th century.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Robbing Peter to pay Paul


I know when you look at the price of the a day on a prime chalkstream it might be fair to assume that someone, somewhere must be coining it, raising a glass to us fly fishing fanatics from the sun-drenched beach of a tax haven far, far away. A bit of me (actually quite a big bit) wishes this was true, but it is not which makes the latest news from the Environment Agency all the more depressing. Here is the story so far.

An endangered species?
Chalkstreams are very much the product of man. That much you well know, the original rivers created many millennia ago as primitive man drained the marshland to provide fertile farmland. Over time the streams have been variously, to use the modern argot, re-purposed: for navigation, irrigation, drinking water, numerous industrial and agricultural needs and more latterly fishing.

Until the early part of the 20th century this was largely a process of evolution, river owners doing whatever suited their requirements until oversight appeared in the form of government bodies such as Drainage Boards and Water Authorities that eventually combined into the National Rivers Authority that in turn became what we have today in the form of the Environment Agency (EA). I would attempt to tell you in a brief sentence the duties of the EA but they straddle a list so diverse it almost blows my mind from licencing passenger carrying boats to radioactive substance regulation for nuclear sites. Rivers are just one tiny bit of this regulatory monolith. Take a look if you dare at the EA services information page on their web site.

How does this impact on the chalkstreams? Well, if I or anybody or any organisation wants to embark on a river conservation project they must seek EA consent in the form of a Flood Defence Application. I know that in itself might sound weird but the EA duty of care (sorry, more jargon) is to prevent flooding as opposed to improving habitat. That is the benchmark by which they will measure the application.

Fair enough you might say, why should you have the right to flood your neighbour? And I would agree though in reality few projects would have the potential to have this effect however badly implemented. So, you dutifully fill in your SR2015 form. That in itself will not be easy; you will require the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and many hours. I am paid to complete them and I find them confusing, designed as they are to cover every eventuality, for every type of river across England and Wales.

But you do it because in the case of most clubs, societies, river trusts, owners, tenants and passionate anglers you love your river. You want to make it better. Better for fishing. Better for trout. Better for all the bugs and creatures. And preserve it for the next generation. And then the EA stick you with a bill and here is the rub. Two years ago it was a nominal £50. No problem. Then in 2016 the charge rose to £240. Ouch we all said, but austere times and all that. Now the EA are proposing to raise the charge to £764, a bill the experts tell me will likely rise to double that for anything other than the simplest of schemes.

If you are wondering what I mean by a 'scheme' here are a few helpful examples put together by Jeremy Legge, the incisive Executive Director of the Test & Itchen Association:
  • £446. The proposed cost of an application to carry out activities such as putting up a notice-board, erecting a fishing shelter/hut or creating or improving a riverside track or path.
  • £764. The proposed cost of an application to carry out bank protection work over a distance of less than 100m, construct a footbridge or install a flow defector affecting a distance of less than 200m.
  • £968. The proposed cost of an application to remove silt, sand or other material, to install gravel, or to manage woody debris over a distance of more than 200m.
I suppose in some respects these sums do not sound a great deal but actually in most cases the cost of the application will greatly exceed the cost of the project itself. For the vast majority the cost is just few hundred pounds on materials but hundreds of hours of freely given labour.

For that is the truth about river conservation. Nobody is making fortunes from our rivers so all improvements rely on goodwill and enthusiasm; volunteer effort if you like. And it really is happening out. I have a Google news alert that flags up anything chalkstream and every week new projects pop up that are simply the product of enthusiasts - schools, clubs, associations, wildlife groups - the list goes on and on, who want to preserve our rivers. But put this EA administrative and financial burden in the way and they simply will not happen. Given the choice between spending your hard won money on gravel and chainsaws or lining the pockets of government what would you do?

The simple fact is that the EA is being both greedy and short-sighted. The net result of these proposals will be to discourage conservation work, send other projects underground and in the end the EA will be a financial loser as the applications dry up. Except of course, ironically, for all those grant aided projects which are for the most part funded by government, which makes for nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul.
 
EDITORS NOTE: The deadline to respond to the EA consultation document that contain these proposals is today (26 January). The new charges are due to take effect 1 April. If you would you like to write to or email the Environment Agency with your views I can supply a draft response template which provides the postal and email addresses for your submissions. Or visit the EA web site here 


THINGS YOU MAY NOT WANT TO BUY

I confess I am a sucker for any headline that screams The 10 Best new Bits of Gear or some such.  
Field & Stream the US magazine are masters at this. I am the very personification of the click bait they seek and today, once again they got me: New Gear For The Warm-Water Fly Addict.

Well, I'm not really into large-mouthed bass, but hey it's all fly fishing so I had to look. Oh dear. I do wonder who a) invents these things b) puts them into production c) markets them in an absolute belief of success.  
 
O'Pros Clip Rod Holder
O'Pros Dragon Fly Belt Clip Rod Holder
I am still at a loss to understand why I (or anyone) might want this. But on the plus side it is available in three colours. $25.
 
Loon Rouge Quick Draw Forceps
Now, I like the look of these. A much better use for $25.













Vedavoo Sling Pack
Vedavoo Tightlines Sling Fishing Pack
Anglers are rarely the last word in sartorial elegance, but have some pride. $150.

Smith Creek Rod Rack
Only an amateur would buy this. Pro guides rely on bits of old fly line strung washing-line style. $130.

Smith Creek Rod Rack
 


















SIMMS Shirt
SIMMS SolarFlex Armor Shirt
The marketing guff promises 'a built-in hood .... giving you the option to look like a ninja and cover your entire face and head from the sun's harmful rays.' 

A bit optimistic for the British summer but I like it nonetheless even at $130.

 
Total Redneck Manual
I told you I was click bait. I saw this as a pop-up as I read the Field & Stream piece and went to Amazon. At £22.50 it is now on its way. I did try to precis the book blurb but really you need to read the entirety:
 
"Do you keep a few favourite squirrel recipes committed to memory? Know by heart the way to the best deer stand on Grandpa's 20-acre farm? Have an old tractor rusting in the back field, because you just might need the parts one day?You're not alone. So do the authors of The Total Redneck Manual.

Whether you're winching your truck out of a mud hole, packing in a good dip, or teaching your bird dog to fetch a beer from the mini-fridge, there's something in this country-fried cultural document for you.

This is a loving celebration of an all-American cultural icon, but it's also a hands-on working book that can help anyone better enjoy the great outdoors. In true Field & Stream fashion, it's packed with 200+ tips on essential outdoor 
skills, from picking the right hunting dog and sighting in a rifle, to fixing just about anything with duct tape and paracord (thin nylon rope), to frying up catfish just like grandma used to make. You'll also learn to open a beer bottle with just about anything, spit on a campfire with deadly accuracy, and kit out the truck of your dreams ... with spray paint.

So, kick off your boots, crack open a cold one, take a seat on the porch, and learn from the best."
 









NEWSLETTER GOES AUDIO

My publisher tells me talking books are now the thing. Goodbye Kindle hello Audible.

I have to tell you creating a podcast is no easy task. You have to buy a strange looking microphone, download some audio software, record the thing, then upload it to the internet via some other software, this time for a podcast. The one I use goes by the marvellous name of Buzzsprout.

Well, it is done. If you'd like to listen rather then read here is the link.


QUIZ

Three questions which are as ever just for fun and the answers are at the bottom on the Newsletter.


1)    What is the origin of the word 'podcast'?

2)    When does the salmon fishing season on the River Test open?

3)   Who recently advertised for an 'access officer'?


Have a good weekend.

 
Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director


Quiz answers:
1)    A portmanteau of 'iPod' and 'broadcast'.

2)    January 17th.

3)   British Canoeing for a role that will include expanding the network of rivers and waterways accessible to paddlers.

Friday, 12 January 2018

My World Cup bet on England

My World Cup bet on England
 

Every four years an unstoppable juggernaut comes down the road that cuts a swathe through the hospitality industry. For some it is a boon but for most it is a 'what can you do?' moment as wedding receptions empty, horse races go unwatched and restaurant waiters stare across seas of empty tables.

My preferred World cup venue
If you are thinking this might be the Olympics you'd be mistaken; strangely August 2012 over the London Games was one of our busiest summer months ever. 

No, it is the World Cup that arrives this year in June, keeping us busy until July. As you will know it is not actually arriving on our shores, Russia has that particular honour, but frankly if we assume the usual avalanche of media coverage, it might just as well do.

So, if you need some preparation time to get in the beers. Or equally raid the attic to find your tin hat to don to avoid the whole damn thing here are the critical dates for the diary: Monday June 18, Sunday June 24 and Thursday June 28 when England play their first round matches. As for the final, well I guess, as optimists all we better put it in the diary just in case. It is Sunday July 15.

And I give you this promise in case you are conflicted between fishing and football. If you book for World Cup Final day before the competition starts and England subsequently reaches the final I will either give you your money back or a free day to take before the season ends. As they say in the Paddy Power adverts - get on!

ROYAL WEDDING DÉJÀ  
VU

It is good to be back this year with the One Fly Festival after the break we took in 2017 with the Iron Man Challenge, a special screening on CHALK and of course, the One Fly itself all lined up for 2018.

Better things to do than fish?
This year marks the tenth year since the inception of the One Fly but actually only the eighth year of competition as we bowed to the inevitable when the Royal Wedding of William and Kate was announced for the same day as the One Fly in 2012. 

I must admit I rather had my heart in my mouth when the Megan/Harry news broke. Surely they were not going to do it to us again? But fortunately for us they simply chose a Saturday in the midst of the Mayfly. Watch the wedding on TV or go fishing? I think that is what iPlayer was invented for.

So, safe in the knowledge that April 26th/27th is free from Windsor goings on, fly tyers get ready. The Iron Man Challenge is back supported by Orvis. The chance to show your skills to win a great prize - last time it was a Helios rod. There is, of course, a catch. Not only are you given just 15 minutes, but the materials are chosen for you. After that it is up to you. Well, that is not entirely true. As the clock reaches midpoint we pause for the mystery material which has to be included in your final tying. At the World Fly Fishing Fair version of this event a couple of years ago they gave out flip flops. Surely we would not be that cruel?

Knowing all that I hope you are still up for the challenge. We have a few places left (15 people compete) so to register email me. The event takes place at 6pm on Thursday April 26th at the Orvis store in Stockbridge. More details here. Everyone welcome. Entry is free. Beers are on tap plus some special in-store deals. The One Fly competition is full but we do have tickets left for the CHALK screening on Friday evening. Book here.

 
ENOUGH RAIN FOR YOU?

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for rain. From November to March I positively beam on those days when the rain lashes the windows. Met Office yellow weather warnings warm my heart. I am almost tempted to make any five day forecast that shows continuous black clouds spouting heavy rain drops a screen saver. Friends who curse the weather I delight in, invariably say something loaded with sarcasm along the lines of 'enough rain for you?' I rarely answer no.

I refuse to feel guilty. You can have your three seasons, spring, summer and autumn whichever way you want them. I will roll with the punches. But winter is for rain and snow. The chalkstreams demand it. The price you pay for the most perfect rivers on the planet is precipitation. The drops that fall today into the turf high on the chalk downs will be the water that flows before you in six months time. You cannot have one without the other.

So, as you might have gathered I have rather enjoyed the past few weeks which wrapped up a see saw rain year, for this time last year the chalkstreams were looking down a gun barrel. July-December 2016 had been exceptionally dry. That is fine we thought, the New Year would bring wet relief. But it didn't. By the time we reached June 2017 southern England as a whole had experienced the driest 12 months since the early 1990's, with some areas as bad as 1976. Fortunately the rivers held up. We had a good store of water in the aquifers after a succession of wet years, but it was worrying nonetheless. A dry summer would bring all sorts of problems. And then just as we were despairing the wet summer came returning the river flows to normal with 2017 as a whole almost statistically perfect at 99% of Long Term Average (LTA) rainfall.

To put that figure in some sort of perspective the LTA for southern England in December was 132% and in East Anglia an eye-watering (and watering everything else for that matter) 165%. If you'd like to see all the Met Office 2017 weather summaries for UK and all the regions click here.


LIFE OF A CHALKSTREAM RETURNS TO A SOURCE

I am going to be making a visit to next month to Cheriton, which is the Hampshire village that is the source of the River Itchen to give a Life of a Chalkstream talk in aid of the rather splendid St Michael's village church.

Not your usual sermon
.
Being the adjacent village to where I spent my teenage years it will be something of a shock to be in the pulpit having spent more than my fair share of time in the pews for services, marriages and more recently funerals. I can't pretend the River Evitt in the book was modelled on the Itchen but I guess subliminally bits of it must have crept it. 

The price will be £12 for the talk that takes place on Saturday February 10th. Canapés and a complimentary glass of wine are included with the talk commencing at 7.00pm.

Tickets on sale by sending a stamped self-addressed envelope with your cheque (payable to Cheriton PCC) to: Penny Scott, Burnt Platt, Cheriton, Hampshire SO24 0PY. Enquiries to Penny Scott on 01962 771 263, and see www.cheritontalks.com All proceeds to St Michael's Church Cheriton.

QUIZ

Three questions broadly based on the topics this week. As ever it is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom on the Newsletter.


1)    Who was the Greek god of storm?

2)    Who has won the football World Cup most times?

3)    What odds are England currently to win the World Cup?


Have a good weekend.

 
Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director


Quiz answers:

1)    Zeus

2)    Brazil. Five times.

3)    16/1. PS. I have hedged out some of the risk! Well, at that price it seemed to good to miss.