Friday, 31 January 2014

Eels: chalkstream denizens in danger

Friday January 31st 2014
Leckford eel traps
Eels: chalkstream denizens in danger
I often walk by the eel traps at Leckford; if you are familiar with them you will do, like I,  a double take. Where has the hut iconic hut gone? Don't despair, it is all part of a restoration, albeit a dramatic one, by the owners John Lewis of Waitrose fame.
The eels traps have always been part of the River Test scenery and though long disused, they make perfect sense to me. However, not everyone knows what they are about and falling into conversation with first-time visitors there are all kinds on fancy theories. Naturally, some kind on salmon capture device is high on the list of possibilities, which is not so far from the truth. Otter traps get a regular outing or crayfish, which again is not so ridiculous, as the baskets bear a resemblance to traps for them.  I guess some people don’t realise the cages are lowered into the water to operate, which might explain why plenty of people think they are traps for kingfishers, ducks or swallows.
But the truth is that a century and a half ago the eel harvest was big, big business. In the time before refrigerated transport eels were much sought after as fresh meat, living as they do for days out of water. The so called Sprat & Winkle steam railway line that ran from Southampton to join the main London line passed along what is today the Test Way, provided an easy route to an eager and profitable market.
I say the salmon theory is not so far from the truth because eels, like salar, are part of the great migration to and from the chalkstreams across thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean. Eels are extraordinary; born in the Sargasso Sea a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida they drift back towards the English coastline on the North Atlantic Current, growing from half an inch to two inches.  Sniffing out the freshwater rivers they head upstream in summer,  haul themselves out and cross the water meadows to find a damp ditch or pond to live out the next fifteen or twenty years. I know, it seems an extraordinary length of time to live in that one spot, but that they do, putting on an inch or so of growth each year.
Eventually the time comes to leave, so the eel retraces the route back to
Eel buck traps
the river (they have a remarkable sense of smell) and head downstream towards the sea and it is at this point during the summer months that the eel trap is sprung.  Lowered into the water across the width of the river and at night, the time eels like to run, the ‘eel bucks’ as the traps should be termed, capture the eels that swim through the funnel-shaped entrance to become trapped at the point of the basket from which they cannot escape. For those who make it past the traps the English Channel beckons, before turning into the Bay of Biscay and then west to be carried on the North Equatorial Current back to the Sargasso Sea, were emaciated having not eaten since re-entering salt water on the year-long journey, they will spawn and die.
The Leckford traps, like their counterparts on the Thames, Severn and numerous other rivers, fell into disuse in the early 20th century when the working classes largely stopped eating eels with the proliferation of other fresh food. But sadly even if there was demand the declining eel population might not be able to support it. Since the 1980’s it is estimated that across Europe as a whole the population has declined by 95%. In Britain the situation is not quite as bad at 70%, but this in itself is a crisis figure with the European agencies seeking to find the causes of the decline which are likely a combination of changing ocean currents, temperature fluctuations and a fatal virus particular to eels that has spread from the southern hemisphere.
You can see the Leckford eel traps where The Bunny crosses the River Test. Here is the Google map link; I highly recommend The Peat Spade Inn for lunch.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Rain: as good as money in the bank

Rain: as good as money in the bank

Dear DEREK,  

Be careful what you wish for or so it is said and for those of you who recall some of my scribblings from the autumn you will know my greatest wish was for a wet winter. By now my wishes have been granted in spades and more than one person has suggested that is all my fault. Oh well, that may be a small price to pay for great chalkstream conditions this coming season.
This map, courtesy of the Environment Agency, shows how wet some of the region has been, though interestingly there are some huge variations within relatively short distances. The Isle of Wight and the tip of the Sussex coast can't be more that 50 miles but the 264% vs. 136% LTA (Long Term Average rainfall) is remarkable. All that said we are not quite out of the woods yet. The rain has to percolate into the the groundwater reserves. It is that water, absorbed into the chalk layer thousands of feet underground, from which the springs spring to sustain the rivers over the summer months.

Currently the December reports from the groundwater sites range from Below normal to Exceptionally high but I suspect by the end of this month it will be Exceptionally high everywhere. For those of you who fish or rely on reservoirs for your water like Ardingly, Bewl, Farnmoor, Powdermill or any others you care to name, capacity is at 100% or very close.

For this report in full or any of the other four regions in southern England visit the Environment Agency South East water situation reports web site.

For us chalkstream obsessive's the really interesting aspect of these wet periods is how the water meadows start to operate of their own free will. Hardly anyone manages them today, but much of the engineering of the carriers and ditches that transported the water across the flood plain remains. However, it takes a really wet winter for them to fill up and if you flew over any of the chalkstream valleys this week you would see a river with water filled off-shoots spilling out over the meadows to either side. If you think of it in terms of human anatomy with the spine as the main river and the channels as the ribs you will get the general idea. This photo of the Nether Wallop meadows, taken over the weekend,  is an good illustration of a small scale system.

Though not operational in any meaningful sense the flooded meadows are performing a marvellous service and it is all the more extraordinary when you reckon that the engineering dates back at far as the 17th century.  The most grateful (and that includes me here at Nether Wallop Mill) has to be us residents; without the flood plain which acts as a giant over-spill many of us would be flooded. In fact, very few houses in chalkstream catchments are damaged by flooding; the majority of the problems (excepting new developments with names like Meadow Close and Riverview) are from springheads that burst open under floors laid in drier times.
The River Test at Stockbridge on Friday, still within its banks.

Back in the river the flood is flushing the gravel beds clean, perfect for oxygenating the trout and salmon eggs that have
been laid in the past month. The ranunculus weed, caressed 24/7 by the fresh water is getting an early growth spurt but best of all the silt and river detritus is being washed out of the river to settle in the fields where it will act as fertilizer for the meadow grasses and plants in the spring. Out in the wet fields the herons are having the time of their lives as the hunting grounds expand many times over competing with the ducks who are in heaven, snagging worms and chomping on the sprigs of new grass that are growing on the edge of the water that remains a balmy 51F.
The only real drawback is for the river keepers who can't get on the banks for repairs; in the mud any job takes three times as long, machinery gets mired and at the end of it all the result is a Somme-like landscape. So for now it is clearing trees, sharpening scythes and painting jobs until the worst is past. But do we complain? Certainly not, this winter rain is as good as money in the bank.

NEW FOR 2014

Following up on the success of The Boathouse I am pleased to announce the very lovely Wherwell Studios, a granary barn bought back to life and lovingly restored by wildlife artist and painter Janet Marsh, which runs down to the River Test.


Right on the banks of Wherwell Priory beats and a one minute walk to the White Lion, the two twin bedded studios make an ideal place to stay. The package is for two nights with additional nights available on request, plus whatever fishing you wish to add. If you are not fishing the studios have a swimming pool, orchard garden and the village is picture postcard beautiful.
Rates are £75/night per studio. For more details ........
Have a good week.  
Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Simon Cooper    
Founder & Managing Director  

Thursday, 2 January 2014

2013 in Photos

Here is my photo diary of the year; I hope is triggers some good memories and gets you excited for the season ahead. 

All the best for 2014!

Rain then snow
So if you thought it was wet over this Christmas, just remember what it was like in January  2013...... this is our fishing cabin at Nether Wallop and what I usually describe as the burbling Wallop Brook
 The Mill in snow Jan 2013  
Best Guide Never
This still remains my favourite You Tube clip from the year. It was part of the Fly Fishing Film Tour which I am delighted to say we are bringing to England in April 2014.  
Best Guide Never

Blown out?
The eight wind turbines the height of the Post Office Tower planned for the Test valley were no idle threat. The consensus seems to be that these will not happen thanks to two critical policy changes since the application was lodged. Government subsidy for land based turbines is being reduced and the final say on applications now rests with the local authority rather that the Secretary of State.  
Wind turbine campaign 

Making F M Halford proud
The River Test One Fly celebrated its fifth year and was won by a nymph pattern. This year as a nod to the 100th anniversary of F M Halford's death, the inventor of modern day dry fly fishing, dry flies will score double in this year's event. 
Winning One Fly

Buttercup time
It may have been late and it may have been wet, but the arrival of spring and the Mayfly was worth the wait. This photo is of the River Dun at Mottisfont Abbey which for three or four hours had the most sustained hatch and feeding frenzy that I have seen in twenty years. You get a double hit on buttercups - the yellow in the fields and the white in the river, for
ranunculus weed is essentially a water buttercup with white flowers.
Oh to be in England ....
Hard to get much English than this where the River Test runs between the thatched cottages in Wherwell village. 
Wherwell garden bridge

Made in England?
It was one of those years for big changes in ownership; Fulling Mill Flies was sold by the founder to a Scottish based syndicate. House of Hardy went into administration to be bought by an American conglomerate who already own a roster of famous brands. Farlow's, another Royal Warrant holder, was bought by a Russian with an impressive salmon fishing pedigree. With Orvis opening a flagship store just a few steps from Farlow's expect a fight for your custom!

House of Hardy 

In an English country garden
I sometimes forget how quirky and quintessentially English our chalkstreams are. I doubt you would find anywhere else in the world where you are greeted quite like this with a country garden to guide your way to the fishing.

Summer garden at Wherwell

My man Alan .... 
I almost ran this photo as a caption contest. It was taken at Nether Wallop Mill when we had a lovely family for a tuition day. Alan Middleton, provided the instruction that day. I reckon the girl is saying:
"I let my man Alan do all my fishing for me". 
My man Alan ...

Kingfisher shot at last
This kingfisher is our daily companion at The Mill, scudding to and fro over the river and lake creating havoc for the Bullhead population. Rarely do I have my camera ready when he uses this perch, but just for once it came together.
Kingfisher on fish

Bonefish time
It is been a while since I have chased bones; every bit exciting as I remembered it being. I took this shot with an Olympus Waterproof Tough TG-1 12 Megapixel camera which is the best fishing camera I have ever come across. 
Bonefish underwater

Sunrise and moon set
I took this shot at dawn on the top of the downs that divide the Test and Avon valleys. It might not be fishing season, but it is a reminder that the chalkstream valleys have beauty all year around.