Friday, 27 August 2021

The State of our Riverine Nation




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 to say.


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 decrease.


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 ongoing.


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.


You may read the full report here .....




Weed cutting made easy


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 weed boat.


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.




Morning campers!


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 roster.


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.


You may see more details of Avington Glamping here ....




Right as Rain


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 readership.






The normal random collection of questions inspired by the date, events or topics in the Newsletter.


It is just for fun with answers at the bottom of the page.


1)     What explosion, 13,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, took place on this day in 1883?


2)     Which is the country that chiefly produces a deep red, sweet wine called tent used especially as sacramental wine?


3)     Which band performed the first ever song on the BBC's Top of the Pops?


The Rolling Stones - I Wanna Be Your Man


Have a great Bank Holiday weekend!


Best wishes,



Simon Cooper

Founder & Managing




Quiz answers:


1)     Krakatoa volcano

2)     Spain

3)     The Rolling Stones on 1 January 1964, with "I Wanna Be Your Man"

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