Friday, 5 May 2017

Who wrote the rules for progress

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire, England


I am not entirely sure how I came to read Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. It is a remarkable book, far more interesting and readable that its tag as the conceptual book on environmental ethics suggests. 

Aldo Leopold
Despite being published way back in 1949, written about a way of life that has long disappeared, it still sells forty or fifty thousand copies a year.

In a world where media currency is counted in millions or billions that may not sound very many, but when you consider that the most recent blockbuster of natural history writing H for Hawk has sold 180,00 copies in total, the scale of the Almanac's achievement during modern times is colossal.

Leopold was, by profession, a United States Forest Ranger the service he joined in 1909, working his way up through the ranks before moving into academia to become the world's first ever wildlife professor at the University of Wisconsin.  

However in his early days his job was to kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions in New Mexico at the behest of local cattle farmers. But he hated the task, the product of a policy that believed that the wilderness should be tamed for the benefit of man regardless of the consequence to animals.

So began his evolution to become an ecological ethicist. Put in the simplest of terms he believed in the balance of nature, in a world where progress did not subjugate the needs of wildlife to the requirements of mankind. Long before he entered the halls of learning he put such beliefs into practice returning bears and mountain lions to the New Mexico wilderness.

Later in life, settled in Wisconsin with his family (incidentally all five of his children followed his path into environmental academia) he bought eighty acres in the sand country in the centre of the state. This once-forested region had been logged, swept by repeated fires, overgrazed by dairy cows, and left barren. It was here he put his theories to work and A Sandy County Almanac is the product of that time.

This is my favourite section of the book; I can't do it justice by précising it, so I hope you will pardon me for quoting it at length:

"Old Bigfoot was a robber-baron, and Escudilla [the mountain] was his castle. Each spring, when the warm winds had softened the shadows on the snow, the old grizzly crawled out of his hibernation den in the rock slides and, descending the mountain, bashed in the head of a cow. Eating his fill, he climbed back to his crags, and there summered peaceably on marmots, conies, berries, and roots.

I once saw one of his kills. The cow's skull and neck were pulp, as if she had collided head-on with a fast freight.

No one ever saw the old bear, but in the muddy springs about the base of the cliffs you saw his incredible tracks. Seeing them made the most hard-bitten cowboys aware of bear. Wherever they rode they saw the mountain, and when they saw the mountain they thought of bear. Campfire conversation ran to beef, bailes, and bear. Bigfoot claimed for his own only a cow a year, and a few square miles of useless rocks, but his personality pervaded the county.

Those were the days when progress first came to the cow country. Progress had various emissaries.

One was the first transcontinental automobilist. The cowboys understood this breaker of roads; he talked the same breezy bravado as any breaker of bronchos.

They did not understand, but they listened to and looked at, the pretty lady in black velvet who came to enlighten them, in a Boston accent, about woman suffrage.

They marveled, too, at the telephone engineer who strung wires on the junipers and brought instantaneous messages from the town. An old man asked whether the wire could bring him a side of bacon.

One spring, progress sent still another emissary, a government trapper, a sort of St. George in overalls, seeking dragons to slay at government expense. Were there, he asked, any destructive animals in need of slaying? Yes, there was the big bear.

The trapper packed his mule and headed for Escudilla.

In a month he was back, his mule staggering under a heavy hide. There was only one barn in town big enough to dry it on. He had tried traps, poison, and all his usual wiles to no avail. Then he had erected a set-gun in a defile through which only the bear could pass, and waited. The last grizzly walked into the string and shot himself.

It was June. The pelt was foul, patchy, and worthless. It seemed to us rather an insult to deny the last grizzly the chance to leave a good pelt as a memorial to his race. All he left was a skull in the National Museum, and a quarrel among scientists over the Latin name of the skull.

It was only after we pondered on these things that we began to wonder who wrote the rules for progress."
That phrase, who wrote the rules for progress, floated back into my consciousness the other day as the media wagon moved from Brexit to General Election. Who is writing the rules these days?

The truth is we have the most amazing and beautiful country, which despite some of the terrible things we have done to it in the name of progress, still takes my breath away daily. But there is only so much pain a landscape and the creatures that inhabit it can take.

At some point a rule book needs to be written. I would say 'new' rule book, but that wouldn't really be the truth for there is no 'old' rule book. Countryside policy, such as it is, has been by gradual creep, bowing to the needs of agriculture and urbanisation. Take housing: nobody ever asks 'should' we build more houses, simply where and how many.

Of course if you ask the 'should' question you stand prey to the accusation of denying progress, but this was Leopold's answer:

"Man will always kill the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in."

Well, I don't think we have yet killed the thing we love but we are perilously close. It is time, in this crowded part of England, to truly protect the precious for when it is gone, it is gone forever.


You have to admire our dedication to the cause here at Fishing Breaks. Diane took time out from a family weekend in Derbyshire to spend the day with guide, Andy Buckley, on the Middle Dove. Now, the way Diane tells it she says escaping from an in-law event was just a huge coincidence ........

I know Andy from his days behind the counter at Farlow's in London. It wasn't that long ago; I recall he arranged a book signing event soon after the publication of Life of a Chalkstream but since then he has travelled the world, taking a stint guiding in the Seychelles before being drawn back to his native county.

To say he knows this stretch of the middle Dove well is something of an understatement; he caught his first ever trout on the fly on this very beat. Now if you are wondering where exactly we are talking about, it truly is not a far extremity of England. Draw a line from Birmingham to Sheffield and more-or-less at the midpoint is the farming town of Uttoxeter.  As Andy says you are just over two hours from London, an hour from Manchester and less from Birmingham.

Now I think what took Diane by surprise was that Andy appeared bristling like a hedgehog with four rigged rods; that is his modus and it is something of an eye opener for us staid southern chalkstream types. He carries two eight foot 4wt rods for dries and two ten foot rods for spiders and nymphs. So don't bring your own, rely on Andy.

This is fishing something akin to shooting with a loader; no messing about for a change of fly or new tippet as one rod departs and another smoothly slides into your grasp. And if you want a whole new arsenal of techniques this is the place to learn:  dry flies, dry-dropper rigs, indicator nymphing, North Country spiders and the French leader all get an airing during an average day. And the fish? Well, it is largely brown trout, the occasional wild rainbow trout and if you are after a specimen grayling you will always be in with a chance.

As Diane will attend Andy is the most charming and helpful of guides. This is no boot camp. Simply a gorgeous river with an enthusiast who really knows his stuff. More details here .....


I am delighted to say that we have surpassed our Kickstarter funding target for CHALK - The Movie so things are moving apace.

More details here ....
Firstly, thank you to everyone who has supported us in all manner of ways. The actual initial offering closes today at 4pm so it is not too late or if you need to ponder some more don't hesitate to be in touch later on.

We already have a slew of filming dates in the diary. Mother Nature waits for no man so we've had to get a wiggle on to arrange the rivers for all that amazing Mayfly footage you'll be expecting of us.

SAVE THE DATE: London premiere of CHALK will be on Thursday November 23rd.


You will have done very well to get a drop of rain on your head when out on the river during April which looks like being the driest April for twenty years. It was also very warm so we were treated to some tremendous hatches of olives and grannom.

The winner of the Fishing Breaks snood was Graham Winer who fished with his regular group at Compton Chamberlayne, commenting that they had never seen the Nadder so clear, so early. It makes sense.

Everyone is now in the end of season draw for the Abel TR1 reel. Good luck!


A bit of a week for gaffes, so as we are all familiar with a fishing gaff, I am using that tenuous verbal connection for the quiz. It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page.

1)      A hakapik is a Norwegian type of gaff. It is used for killing what?

2)      A gaff rig is what?

3)  The unsuccessful Operation Gaff overseen by Field Marshall Montgomery in 1944 was organised to assassinate or capture which German Field Marshall?

4)      Why would a chicken wear gaffs?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 

1)      Seals   2) A configuration of sails, mast and stays on a gaff cutter  3) Rommel    4) They are cockfighting spurs

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