Friday, 1 March 2019

Better news than you might think

Better news than you might think


A couple of years ago I had the temerity to question the 'spin' put on the publication of research document that was the result of a survey on the upper part of the gorgeous River Itchen. It had revealed a disastrous decline in the shrimp population, a vital food source for trout and something of an indicator species.

River Itchen
I was as upset as anyone to read this news but one of our most revered campaigning organisations took it upon itself to issue a press release that extrapolated this local disaster into a nationwide Armageddon for the chalkstreams. It was clearly tosh. A great headline grabber that all the national media ran with. But all the same, a complete and utter misrepresentation of the facts.

And I said so both in print and to any poor sod who would listen. All manners of hell was rained down upon me. I became whatever the chalkstream equivalent of a climate change denier might be. Emails were sent. Letters arrived. Someone was dispatched to take me out to lunch to give me 'the talk'. One owner even withdrew his water from the Fishing Breaks portfolio. In the end we all gently moved on. Then last week the Catchment Invertebrate Fingerprinting Study of the River Meon dropped through my letterbox.

I know it is not the most catchy title but please don't switch your brain off just yet; it's really just a study into the health of this small East Hampshire river and contains better news than you might at first suppose. There are essentially six measures to determine how a river is doing: sediment, low flows, phosphates, organic pollution, pesticides and bug life.

Gammarus hanging out
Sediment is the mineral and organic material washed into the river from all manners of sources, both natural and man-made. It sounds bad but it is essential to the life of the chalkstream - Mayfly nymphs for instance burrow into the silt. However, too much, particularly at the wrong time of year can stifle weed growth, suffocate eggs and clog the gills of fish. Fortunately the Meon has been monitored for nearly two decades so we know where we stand on sediment - since 2002 it has decreased and the conditions for fly life have improved.

A chalkstream derives 80% of its flow from the aquifers, the springs recharged by rain that falls over the winter months. Hoarding that invisible reservoir is the key to avoiding difficulties in dry years. So river restoration helps by holding back the flows, abstraction licences have greater scrutiny and the sympathetic management of the wetland catchment does its bit. Result? Since 2002 the pressure from low flows has decreased.

Like sediment the instant reaction to the word phosphorous is one of panic; it must be bad. Actually it is an essential component to all human, animal and plant life. However, there is a tipping point when too much phosphorous encourages the dense growth of plant life in the river which in turn dies, then decomposes sucking oxygen then life out of the water. Just about everyone is responsible for phosphorus - industry, farming, water companies and us through domestic sewage but despite that multiplicity of sources there had been no change in phosphorus pressure since 2002.

I don't think I need to explain in too much detail what animal and human organic pollution might be; its effects are fairly similar to that of phosphorus plus the physical ability to smother the river bed. There have been great strides in both sewage processing and farming activities; I'm sure you have fished rivers that are now fenced off from cattle. The upshot is, that despite a big increase in the population of the Meon valley over the period of the data gathering there has been no significant change of biological conditions being altered by organic pollution.

I did rather anticipate that the pesticide measures might tell a different story to the above four but apparently not; the pressure on the river has either (surprisingly) decreased or remained stable within the Meon catchment since 2002. However, there is a caution that the nature and use of pesticides, primarily in agriculture but also gardens, golf courses, sports pitches, roads and railways, is prone to rapid change or has long-term effects of which we are not aware.

Finally there is the bug life, ultimately the mother lode for us fly fishers. The historic Environment Agency data from invertebrate monitoring of the River Meon 2002-2015 concludes that 'environmental pressures have deceased or remained unchanged .... resulting in improved conditions for those invertebrate communities.' The much talked about Gammarus that caused all the furore on the River Itchen are generally in rude health on the Meon.

So, what to conclude from all this? Should we all being doing high fives? Some might say that a comparison back to a time as recent as 2002 is no comparison at all. I'm not sure that would be a true assertion. Chalkstreams have been my business since 1990 and my refuge since 1973. I don't recall a golden age, one better than this, in all that time. The fact is that the Fingerprinting Study proves beyond doubt that we are not locked in the inexorable downward spiral that some might have you believe.

The six indicators show, even on the most glass-half-empty reading, that we have at worst reached a point of equilibrium. However, we should not be complacent. The dangers are still there. Bad things are happening. Pollutants and practices that have no place in our precious countryside still need to be eradicated. None of us should pause in our efforts to lobby, pressurise and reform where we can. Support those organisations that can help. Do our little bit by adapting our lifestyle to protect the things we wish to preserve.
Summer on the River Meon
But just occasionally it is worth lifting your eyes from the fray. Gaze upon the wondrousness of the chalkstreams and salute the fact that, in one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, they survive at all. And so let's just pause to take stock and to thank those, many of whom are long dead, for being the guardians of what we have today. They appreciated and preserved with cool heads. We should do the same.

Not so new broom

After 32 years working on the Shaftesbury Estate in Dorset, which includes the source and first three miles of the River Allen, Stewart Hand has taken early retirement. Weirdly this is great news for this lovely piece of river because Stewart, still an ox-strong sixty, has swapped his multiplicity of Estate jobs to return to his original passion - river keeping.

I think we can hold our hands up to say that in the past few years the river hasn't been the way we'd like it. 

The demands on Stewart's time were such that he couldn't do the river justice and it suffered. But now Stewart has, with the help and agreement of Lord Shaftesbury, taken over the fishing as his own project. Being realistic it is a three year plan. Essentially the fishing divides into two sections spread over four beats.

At the top, where the river emerges from the ground, is the Village Water. It is long (more than a mile) but very narrow and very wild; you can read about my fishing adventure last year here. Beyond sorting out the access and stiles don't expect any change this year; this is marked down for work in years two and three.

Below the Village Water the river disappears from view for half a mile as it flows through the private grounds of Shaftesbury House. At one point it does truly disappear from view, flowing through a tunnel under this Elizabethan stately home. The tunnel hasn't always been a great success; until the recent renovations the best furniture on the ground floor stood on four inch oak blocks in anticipation of the worst. The river then flows into the lake which is famous as the venue for an episode of Passion for Angling, the one where Bob James and Chris Yates deployed a dummy to fool the prize carp.
Emerging from the lake there are now three beats collectively known as the Home Beats; Upper Brockington, Lower Brockington and Bowerswaine. Stewart has nearly completed his work on Lower Brockington (pictured) and will now fan his way out onto the other two. 

For the first time there will be a fishing hut at Wimborne St Giles, located at the top of Lower Brockington to be shared by the Home beat fishers. In a world where we are too often assailed by planes, trains and automobiles it is a delightfully peaceful spot to relax and make a cup of tea.

For those of you who don't know this part of the Allen it is the very definition of crystal clear. It is not deep but best waded; I wear thigh waders or wet wade accepting I'll have to crab around a few deep spots. Other than that it is mostly small, wild fish plus some stockies. There is a Mayfly hatch, largely late May to mid-June that Stewart describes as steady rather than spectacular.

The season opens May 1st. Prices start at £50/Rod. The Home beats takes one to four Rods. The Village beat one or two. More details here ......

The Quiz

More questions to hopefully entertain and enlighten. As ever it is just for fun with the answers at the bottom of the Newsletter.

1)    What is a lacet?

2)    In what country is today (March 1st) National Beer Day?

3)    Which country is hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director


1)    A tie placed around the neck of a hunting cormorant to prevent it swallowing the catch.
2)    Iceland. Beer was prohibited by law until 1989.

3)    Japan.

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