If you have an interest in the state of our riverine nation
one of the best publications every year is the Game & Wildlife
Conservation Trust annual report.
Now, I would not recommend it all as a light reading. These
are, for the most part, extracts from scientific papers that are written
with exactitude in mind. But often they provide enlightenment on issues of
concern. The 2020 report does not fail in this respect covering nine
topics, three of which struck a chord with me.
River Frome salmon population
The Frome Atlantic salmon population is one of the most
monitored in the world, with the East Stoke counter dating back over 50
years. Though this is helpful historically the problem has been that salmon
run data only measured returning fish with no corresponding data on the
smolts that left the river. All output but no input as the scientists like
However, since 2005 an annual cohort of Frome smolts have
been inserted with a unique micro tag which allows the station to
monitor when each individual departs to sea and when it returns i.e. Fred
out, Fred in. In 2020 8,000 were tagged as part of this long-term research
which should aid separately analysis of the changes affecting survival that
occur in freshwater and those that occur at sea.
It would be good to have a silver bullet of an explanation
for the decline of our salmon runs since the 1990’s but sadly this report,
as with all others, has not yet found the definitive
explanation. There are a few bits of good news (Frome smolt run up 40%
in 2020) but as yet, to labour the analogy, no smoking gun as to the why.
Understanding grayling survival
The grayling population on the River Wylye has declined
dramatically in the past 15 years, 75% lower than it was in 2003 with an
even larger decline in bigger specimens. The report by Jessica Marsh
examines whether more frequent summer and winter low flows are the cause
with the consensus being yes.
I picked out two sections of the report; one which drives me
bonkers and the other confirms what many of us have long thought. The
second first. Marsh writes, “Interestingly, we found no negative
impact of large trout abundance on grayling survival estimates, suggesting
that the two species are well adapted to coexisting in the same geographic
area.” She goes on to say that essentially good trout habitat is good
grayling habitat and vice versa.
However, when examining the reasons for low flows Marsh
falls back on the lazy explanation: climate change. “Low flows in
summer and winter seem to be becoming more frequent in the River Wylye,”
she writes, “ suggesting that its grayling population might be vulnerable
to climate change.”
Well, I’m sure grayling are vulnerable to climate change but
on the Wylye (and most other rivers) it will be over abstraction and
pollutants that do for them long before climate change.
Do beavers affect brown trout?
Bearing in mind that the UK government announced this week a
12-week consultation into the wild release of beavers this is a timely
piece of research which examined a site in northern Scotland comprising of
two streams that feed the same freshwater loch, one stream modified by
beaver activity whilst the other was unaltered.
This, for me at least, was a fascinating study because it
was as far as I know the first and only attempt to concurrently compare
like with like. The conclusions are not overwhelmingly surprising.
Bug life: in the slower water above the beaver dam there were more
invertebrates but the population altered to favour insect life that
preferred slower moving water such as midges. The population of
invertebrates preferring faster water decreased.
Brown trout: the same slower water favoured the older trout but reduced
the number of younger trout. This research took place over a single year
(2016) which suggests that over time the trout population would inevitably
Migration: the trout in the study do move between the loch and the
river so it was considered ‘possible’ that beaver activity ‘reduced the
propensity for individuals to migrate to the loch.’ Further research is
It seems to be pretty clear to me that the introduction of
beavers will simply replace one habitat (fast flowing rivers) with another
(wetlands). Which is better? Well, I personally prefer the landscape we
currently have but ultimately it is a choice that our government, driven by
a zealotry for so called rewilding I don’t fully understand, will be
visiting on a section of countryside near you very soon.
River keepers up and down the valley are looking forward to
the August Bank Holiday more than most as it marks the final day of the
final weed cut of the 2021 season.
Weed cutting is, for the most part, hard, physical labour.
Swinging that scythe might look like bucolic bliss but in truth, along with
the less blissful task of clearing down, it is relentlessly hard work when
you have to do it for 7-10 days at a stretch.
However, we don’t do it all by hand even though hand cutting
is the best and preferred method. The middle-to-lower stretches of the
Avon, Itchen and Test are simply too deep to wade so we have to call in the
Not many of you
may have seen it, but as we had a drone out the other day, I thought you’d
like some shots to see it at work on a lake.
It is essentially a diesel-powered paddle driven aluminium
boat with a set of interchangeable tools that are fitted to the hydraulic
grab on the front. The cutting blade is a reciprocating U-shaped cutting
bar that is lowered into the water. Out on the river the weed would just be
left to float away but on a lake or canal the blade is replaced with forked
bucket that skims the cuttings from the surface.
It is not the easiest thing to drive. James Joy, the current
operator who recently took over the business from his Dad, has that
helicopter pilot skill of having to maintain the speed and direction of the
boat whilst controlling the depth, angle and velocity of the blade. Added
to that are a set of caterpillar tracks beneath the boat which are used to
free it when it gets grounded or putting in or out of the water.
Some of you may have noticed that Avington had disappeared
from the radar over the summer but, as of, September 4 it is back on the
It is a tough gig these days running a stillwater
fishery. I won’t bore you with the economics and demographic
explanations but I’m sure you have noticed that there are fewer and fewer
trout lakes with each passing year. I truly cannot recall the last time a
new fishery opened but I need more than a pair of hands to count the number
that have closed in the past year.
So, as a fishery owner you have to be nimble. At our most
local of lakes, Amport Fishery, Will Hawkings-Byass, closes to fishing
every Monday so he can open for wild swimming. At Avington they took this a
step further building a 14 tent village around the trout lakes that were
‘repurposed’ for swimming, paddle boarding and even some fishing
though not all at the same time!
Judging by my visit last week the Avington experiment over
July and August has been a success. All the tents, which have proper double
beds, carpets and hay bales around a firepit, were fully booked. The large
barn was adapted as a café and bar, with a shower block and all the other
facilities to make this more glamping than camping.
All that said I think Ginnie, Ben, Aaron and all the team
will be grateful to return to the relative calm of us fly fishers come the
end of next week.
Being an occasional writer for The Spectator is a
precarious business. You take a lot of rejections but actually the people
at Old Queen Street are all really kind even when saying no.
However, even when you have an article accepted you are at
prey to the national news agenda. Last year my Beaver Fever article
had the misfortune to be slated for the week lockdown was announced hence
it appearing a full five months later.
A fortnight ago Right as Rain was only bumped for a
week, this time due to the Afghanistan crisis. The eagle eyed will notice
this is Newsletter piece from July repurposed for a more generalist