Hatches wide open at Ibsley today.
There have been several good barbel out this week with the coloured water and floods stirring them into life. I only hope whoever the guy was sat under the umbrella down at the tail of the weirpool this morning caught a monster, he certainly deserved one.
A dog walker and errant hound heading for the marsh.
The inevitable result.
A busy day started with a look at the marsh to see if the wildfowl were finding the habitat to their liking. Considering the unseasonal mild weather numbers are building well some five hundred plus duck have settled in but the waders have yet to feel the need for any inland feeding. I spent a very pleasant ten minutes looking through the gathered flock with the scope in search of anything unusual before the entire marsh was flushed by an approaching hound on the opposite bank of the river. The problem of disturbance in the countryside is one that re-occurs all too frequently. The wildfowl that historically used the Avon Valley had the period of the duck season, September to February, totally undisturbed; no anglers, no farming tenants even the keepers kept a very low profile. It is a question all users of the valley must address if we are to see a return to the historic numbers of wildfowl. Itís not as though the birds do not wish to make use of the valley as in flood conditions when they have it to themselves the numbers soar into the tens of thousands. The one or two areas where access has remained strictly controlled still see increasing counts and new species making use of the valley. The need of the landowners and farmers to diversify and maximise the financial return from their assets has obviously meant angling access has increased dramatically. This access has been in an ad hoc fashion with no overview ensuring a balanced regime; it is this balance that requires some very serious thought.
Home for breakfast and quickly back out to see if the Dockens Water has dropped sufficiently to allow an invertebrate count to be taken. Happy to see it was safe and clear I managed to take the required three minute sample. Hopefully the river will continue to fine down allowing me to get at the main channel and larger carriers; unfortunately that doesnít seem very likely at the moment as I have just come home from a roost count and it is chucking it down again.
Driving back from the Dockens I skirted one of the lakes and stopped to watch an angler in action. John Urch was playing a good fish that judging by the scrap a double figure carp. Sure enough John won the struggle and netted a fine common, his sixth fish of the morning and it was still only midday 19.9, 11.12, 8.3, 13.10, 8.0, and what subsequently proved to be a 17.10 in the net. Considering at the time the weather was bright, cold and clear that is a good start to the day; I hope the action continued at the same rate for the rest of the day.
John with his sixth of the morning.
Mid afternoon I had to leave the valley and head out into the forest where a group of us were attempting to put numbers to the massive Redwing roost that is currently using one of the fir plantations. The previously mentioned rain made counting extremely difficult; despite this a count in excess of ten thousand birds was achieved. Numbers had been higher last week but many of these may have moved south. We may get a further chance of a count otherwise we will have to wait until next year to have a second go.
A casualty of the storm that has fallen aross the Park Pool ox-bow.
The marsh recently flooded in readiness for the winter.
It may have been wet and windy but I donít mind these conditions at this time of year, weíre meant to be receiving our autumn cleansing flows so "bring um on". Just what rate of flow we receive might be a little more benevolent than has been so tragically suffered further north but high flows we need. It would be nice to arrange things so that it rained at night and didnít interfere with the work of the day but letís not get overly fussy here, if it makes invertebrate surveys and bird counts a little awkward so be it. It must also be remembered we wish to know what our bugs and birds are doing at this time of year under the seasonal conditions we might expect to experience.
I have to admit I did give up on the "Bug Survey" as the colour of the water made sampling almost impossible. I did however stick with the Webs count on Sunday that requires the counters to be out on a predetermined day to ensure good coverage of the area. I also had another reason for wishing to complete the count despite the rain in that I had flooded the newly cleaned ditches and drains up on the "Snipe Marsh" Friday afternoon. I was keen to see if all our work had interfered with our ability to control the levels. I didnít wish to get into the depths of winter, when we like to have water for the wildfowl and waders, only to discover we couldnít maintain the water levels. I need not have worried Sunday morning and the marsh was a picture, there were even some geese and duck that had found the new splash. The valley resident Great white egret was also on parade and just one Black-tailed godwit, there may have been one or two more but I didnít flush them purely for the count. I only hope our single BTG is a portent of things to come and we see those Icelandic visitors back in their thousands later in the winter.
The seasonal change of the river is now in full swing, the transformation we would have expected to have got underway a month ago is rushing to catch up. The weed is being torn up and swept away and the summer silt scoured from the gravels in readiness for the arrival of the spawning salmon and seatrout.
As the seasons change perhaps now would be an opportune time to look back at the past summer and see what it dealt the valley. Firstly to look back to the salmon season seems a remote memory. Whilst the season technically runs through to the end of August in reality it was all over by mid June; very much in keeping with the historical season on the Avon. In fact the reason for the curtailed season last summer was the high water temperature and low flows that put the salmonids at such risk. To exploit salmon under such conditions is felt by many to be unacceptable and I fully support that view. In seasons past I have picked up numerous dead salmon whilst clearing hatches on the estate. Many of these fish show the tell tale signs of being played out on rod and line; line burns, net marks and hook damage in the mouth. I reported nine one summer with seven or eight the following year the EA attend and duly remove the corpse where possible. I was later informed this was acceptable mortality to be expected from handling under such conditions. The figures they based that on were the result of work carried out on easily accessible rivers such as the Dee, the relevance to the Avon seems distant! I have all too often heard the cry from the rods that the fish swam off without a problem; unfortunately I believe shock and secondary infection subsequently take a considerable toll. Letís hope we see a higher flow regime in the river that will allow the rods to extend their season for a week or two more next summer.
Recovering a dead salmon for inspection.
The silage cut in full swing.
The desire for a higher flow regime for the salmon rods might not be so welcome for the farming community as the big news in the valley this year was the fact the EA do not intend to cut weed for land drainage purposes in the future. Weed cutting is always contentious and the cuts of recent years have been under the guise of meeting agri/environment conditions. The summers of 2007 and 2008 were high flow summers and despite weed cutting much of the valley hay and silage cut was lost. The farming community were up in arms and despite receiving generous payments under the HLS and ESA schemes, part in compensation, believed the cut should have been more severe to have allowed further access. This summer has seen a more traditional dry summer and we have not seen the problems of the last two summers. Certainly in the area of my concern we do not and have never mechanically cut river weed for land drainage purposes. We have also had the least problem with high water levels in the fields, we have many other problems but they are not down to the weed in the river and they are for us to resolve in-house. I have heard some pretty amazing claims made for the continuance of the weed cutting of the Avon. Those from the farming community related to the problems they face I understand and in some instances sympathise with. Many of those problems can be resolved by other means such as ditching and control structures; I hope the necessary investment can be made to allow this to take place in time to deal with high flow summers. I have also heard some claims I find amazing to say the least, "Fish cannot swim upstream because of the weed"!! How did all these salmon in our rivers cope before 1960, co-incidentally the beginning of the decline in MSW salmon on the Avon. How do they get past Somerley where we have never cut weed; those sealiced fish at Ibsley in June from the "Bus stop" lie must have caught the bus!! I have even heard that once you cut the weed the fish begin to run. Iíll agree with that, those fish that were safely tucked up under the weed in their summer residence when they suddenly found the cover removed and had to find new sanctuaries. Every year when they cut downstream of us we get an influx of coloured fish in the holding pools looking to settle in for the summer to await the autumn rains.
A good year for grazing the water meadows.
Buttercups and clover ablaze in the water meadows.
The other aspect of the farming regime that high water has potentially serious consequences for is that of grazing. The previous two summers have been exceptionally wet and the ground has been slow to dry in the spring and tended to poach very quickly in the autumn. This heavy water logged soil has benefited the course grasses and sedges with much of the meadow sward becoming rank and spoilt. This season we have had ideal grazing conditions with firm ground and ample grass. The ground has remained firm right up until the last week or two which has allowed the animals to make inroads into the rank sedge and reeds. Given a couple of similar summers we will hopefully see a return to the spring flowers that make the valley such a magical place. These same meadows we have been busily ditching and draining and whilst we managed to clear most of the blocked channels we were driven off before we could complete the final restoration. I hope we have the balance we need that will suit the Godwits and wildfowl when the wet weather arrives in the coming weeks and allow the fields to drain for the farmers and breeding waders next summer.
On a brighter note the summer has seen a much more productive coarse season, with chub catches continuing to amaze and the barbel behaving in a more angler friendly fashion this year. My comments on these pages back on the 15th June pondered the effect of low clear water through the summer and they would seem to have proven prophetic. With the old barbel haunts producing consistently throughout the summer. The barbel are proving that they do learn from experience and the most successful rods have been those who take time to prepare their swim and allow the fish time to gain confidence before attempting to fool them. A true test of patience to sit for a couple of hours with the hook in the bottom ring as half a dozen barbel hoover up your freebies and pellets.
To sum up; we are faced with conflicting requirements of next summers weather, wet for the salmon anglers, dry for the farmers and coarse anglers. I personally will put my lot in with the farmers; I think we can still enjoy the best of the salmon fishing the Avon has to offer in the traditional spring and early summer. Once the water warms we should leave them alone to rest in preparation for the winter demands that lie ahead of them and get the coarse rods out.
Carefully returning a forty plus.
Other happenings have seen the lakes produce catches that we begin to accept as normal, or to be expected, which is astonishing when the quality of catches is compared to past decades. Forty plus carp, huge bags of tench and bream, three pound crucians, unimaginable when I began my fishing career, these vast gravel pits and warmer winters have changed the face of angling completely. The only downside to all this available fishing is my time spent on the bank actually partaking in the experience. It all looks so wonderful and is all so available I tend to put it off rather than make the effort to take the rods out of the bags and enjoy it - must try harder this winter. Only this evening I was talking to Peter Reading and saying how the problem with the Avon is that it all looks fantastic we are spoilt for choice. I will admit to being a frustrated roach angler and the lack of topping two pounders in the evenings is a very real disappointment to me. It is wonderful to see the shoals of eight to twelve ounce fish swimming below the re-emergent dace shoals but the famed Avon twos are few and far between. Fingers crossed these new generations will replenish the glides and runs so beloved of Avon roach anglers in the next few years. I have promised myself I will make the effort to find one or two of those huge Avon chub we are blessed with at the moment and if my luck holds I may even be lucky enough to meet one of the three pound perch that are back with us once more. In actual fact if I manage just to get out with the rods I will cosider it a success, the problem with this river is the more involved with it you become the less time you have to fish. Weather permitting I should be getting on with the invertabrate monitoring as I have eight sites to get sampled in the next week and I also have a WeBS count this Sunday so that chub seems a little more distant already.
The arrival of the Painted ladies.
My other highlight of the summer must be the arrival in late June of the Painted ladies; they drifted up the valley in their hundreds. The pleasure they gave seemed disproportionate, it harked back to childhood memories of poppies, cornflowers and butterflies in the school holidays. I last witnessed such a sight sat in an Alpine meadow as clouds of the multicoloured creatures drifted up the tight valleys below us as the warmth of the day lifted them onto the higher slopes. Iím told we had a similar invasion of clouded yellows but apart from the odd one or two I was not lucky enough to see a repeat of the earlier numbers. It would be so encouraging for those involved in the conservation world if we were to see our butterfly population recover from the devastation of habitat loss and pesticide damage we have inflicted on them; I will certainly be looking out for the painted ladies next June with fingers crossed for a repeat performance.
A poor year for holly, hardly a leaf in sight.
Derek landing a good bream
Matt waiting for the witching hour
...and a lovely fully scaled mirror for Budgie but that's only half the story.
A weekend off, absolutely nothing arranged or expected of me, time to catch up with what was happening on the fishery.
A walk around the lakes and a visit to the river with no agenda other than to potter about, lovely.
I was considering going up to one of the local view points to watch the ongoing Woodpigeon migration which whilst thirty
thousand pigeons a day heading for Spain is an amazing sight it couldn't draw me out of the valley.
The forecast heavy showers seem to have made an effort to avoid us, making it an early November to remember with plenty
of people out enjoying the day.
Should the air ambulance pilot be looking in, Trevor didn't realise what you were and was waving just to be friendly and
not to attract your attention; they actually thought it might have been me up there having wangled a chopper ride!
Despite the fact he and Budgie do a good impression of an accident about to happen they didnt realise James was the other
side of the reed bed having just broken his leg falling down the bank!!
As for James it was his first visit to Somerley,
we met in the morning when he first arrived, when I turned up at the scene of his accident this afternoon he was more
concerned about letting me know he'd just landed a 5+ chub than the bone sticking out of his leg. I wonder what his
memories of his first Somerley visit will be?
Had Trevor and Budgie known they would still have waved, that's the way they are!
The weather has finally broken and we have seen the first real rain of the autumn. Sunday's rain has given the river its much needed lift and a tinge of colour to afford the fish a little protection from the sharp eyes that have harried them in the low clear conditions of the past six weeks.
Dace of a quality that the Avon was famous for showing again
Something I've not seen before are the Harlequin Ladybirds gathering together for the coming winter hibernation. The arrival of the Asian Harlequin in recent years right across Europe is giving rise to concern for the survival of our native species. The capacity of the Harlequin to reproduce at a faster rate and the more rapacious appetite put our indigenous ladybird at a considerable disadvantage. Shades of the Grey squirrel and the Signal crayfish being re-enacted once more. When you see hibernation groups the like of the one we disturbed today it seems little wonder our will be hard pressed to survive, the photo doesn't show one tenth of the number in the wall cavity.
The newly arrived invasive Harlequin Ladybirds preparing for hibernation.
WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) today, which is the second of this winters monthly counts that are undertaken across the country in an effort to assess the state of our wetland birds. It means an early start to the day as I try and get on the northern limit of my area before the birds arrive in order not to disturb them and corrupt the count. The big danger is that if disturbed the birds cross boundaries and numbers become duplicated. Unfortunately my presence is not the only source of disturbance the birds have to contend with these days. By seven oíclock this morning I had already seen two dog walkers running along the river bank with their three dogs running free, scattering all before them, plus the arrival of several anglers making todayís count a particularly difficult one.
Disturbance is a factor little considered in the restoration of the Avon in the effort to achieve favourable status of the SSSIís. That is assuming the wetland birds we are counting are the favoured species that determine such measures. This has to be considered against the period when the valley was deemed to be in favourable condition during the first half of the last century. During this period the valley was preserved almost entirely for duck shooting during the winter. Whilst it might seem a conflict of interests to be shooting the very duck that are deemed so worthy of protection the measures taken to provide this shooting had enormous benefits for other wildlife. As with todayís wildfowling the flight ponds are fed with huge quantities of barley that attract vast numbers of duck in for the free food. Whilst a percentage were and are undoubtedly shot the greater majority are provided with food when conditions tend to be at there most severe. One other measure was that the valley was out of bounds to virtually everyone from November to the end of January. Everybody meant just that with the tenant farmers not even allowed into their fields and no anglers on the bank for the entire duck season. This provided an enormous area of undisturbed valley for the birds to enjoy.
Today we have other pressures that have brought with them unfortunate complications. The necessity to diversify the rural economy has meant fishery assets have had to be maximised and where it was unheard of for anglers to be on the banks after September we now have rods on the river bank right through the season. This unfortunately means the large area of previously undisturbed valley has become a busy place with all the associated comings and goings.
Whilst I fully support Natural Englandís objective of the open vista there are areas where this can have an adverse impact. Our meadows opposite this latest area of clearing have in the previous nine year become recognised as an area of international importance for their value to a particular wader. This increased environmental value seems to have been ignored when planning the HLS strategy for this section of valley. This has brought about some interesting and unforeseen conflicts. This current removal of willow and alder, to return to the open aspect, has seen a rise in the disturbance levels as the walkers and anglers now using the valley become far more visible. This has meant areas such as the shared section of river on our northern 2000m, which is very lightly fished on our side, now has the comings and goings of the far bank, which has disturbance virtually every day of the year from dawn to dusk, fully exposed to the area of high conservation value.
If anglers wish to be taken seriously about their claims to be guardians of the rivers they are going to have to provide a little more proof than much of the fine rhetoric we hear these days. Fisheries and their associated land without doubt cover an area far greater than any other aspect of ecological interest within the valleys of Wessex. If we wish to see our fisheries as an integral part of a thriving riverine ecology we might well have to give up sections of river to afford sanctuary to other species that share this environment with us. If as a starting point and to provide food for thought one in every ten miles of river were given over completely as a sanctuary area. Not only would this provide a wonderful area for the birds and mammals that require undisturbed surroundings but areas where fish could be left to act as a measure of the rivers natural capacity without angling pressure. It would also provide areas of mystery where the unseen denizens lurk only very rarely travelling out of their hide-aways to meet the neighbouring anglers. The asset value of this area would have to be made available to the owners in recompense for giving over this section of river but I don not see that as a problem that can't be overcome.
Itís an interesting prospect, fishery owners and tenants working to provide a series of sanctuaries with connecting fisheries managed with their conservation value given equal priority as the fishing. In our area it would provide conservation areas stretching from the sea to Salisbury Plain; that must be a worthy objective for the angling community to aspire?
As for the WeBS highlights; I suppose it would be either the Jack snipe or the Great White Egret a bird that has spent several seasons in the Avon Valley originally having been ringed in Northern France.
The ditching and clearing work at Hucklesbrook continues apace in the hope of beating the onset of the autumn wet weather. The rain of the last couple of days has seen the river begin to rise and with five thousand plus meters of ditches to clear and clean it will be touch and go if we succeed this season. The method of ditching adopted these days is completely different to that of the past when the only priority was to drain the fields for agricultural purposes. We now have a different agenda in that the agri/environment payments that now are received by the majority of land owners in the valley require the emphasis to be firmly on protecting the environment and particularly the species deemed at risk under the conservations designations. The old ditching technique was to dig the greatest depth possible and pile the resultant risings on the bank creating a baum which very often prevented the flood water reaching the flood plain along side. We now create a shallow profile ditch and spread the rising thinly on the surrounding land. This has the correct gradient to facilitate the drainage, still enables the water to reach the flood plain and allows the waders and ducks to gain easy access to the ditches for feeding and resting. We are endeavouring to maintain 300mm as the low summer water level below the surface of the meadows to ensure tractors and livestock do no damage the sward. This maximum 300mm depth allows us to quickly raise the water close to the surface of the meadows to provide optimum feeding conditions for the summer waders. If we are unable to control the levels in this fashion we risk the meadows becoming too solid for the probing bills to penetrate.
Old style of ditching and today's environmentally friendly technique.
Hundreds of Widgeon, a lapwings nest and thousands of waders.
Our efforts to provide suitable habitat for the ducks and waders have been well received by the bird population in recent years. The duck population has been likened to that of forty or fifty years ago with clouds of duck making the most of the flooded meadows in recent winters. The waders have been an even greater success with internationally important numbers of Black tailed godwits using the area. This has all been achieved independently of the agri/environmet schemes, it is only now the extra investment is being ploughed back in an attempt to safeguard this vital area and ensure the agricultural interests do not suffer as a consequence.
The background to the wildlife objectives to fllow
A swan grazing the ranunculus and the resulting gravel cleaning.
Good looking water.
Clean gravel between the ranunculas and trapped silt under the elodea.
Whilst watching the swan in the first of the photographs above I was reminded of the problems they cause on the upper river where they completely strip the shallows of their ranunculus. Swans give rise to genuine problems in the head waters yet down with us where we have depths they can't reach they possibly provide a real service. If you look at the second photograph you can see the gravel has been excavated to a depth of up to 200mm in places and during the process the silt and fines has been flushed away. This is the norm on many of the carriers and when gazing at this bird this morning I realised the areas they so rigorously dig are the same areas that the salmon cut in last winter. Was this coincidence, or down to the fact the flow salmon deem suitable for redds is also prime habitat for ranunculus certainly food for thought. With one hundred and fifty resident swans on the estate something I will be watching closely in the future.
Gravel cleaning is a contentious issue on many rivers and the methodology adopted by the authorities to implement it is in need of serious review. The basic requirements of a redd would appear to be a reasonably well understood, medium sized gravel substrate in a fast, preferably increasing, laminar flow; such as at the rising plain at the tail of a pool or depression where the water, thus oxygen, is forced through the redd and over the eggs. The redd has been cleaned of all fines and silt by the hen and the choice of site will help prevent subsequent re-silting.
The EA have been cleaning gravel based on some very poor science for over a decade now without as much as a jot of evaluation or monitoring. Much of the science on which compaction is based has resulted from core samples taken from unsuitable areas, due to the difficulties of sampling in the full flow of many redd areas. Similarly gravel cages buried in the bed of streams without any attempt at simulating the hydrodynamics and construction of natural redds. To believe we are capable of constructing a redd in such a way as to simulate the work of a hen salmon is more an indication of the arrogance of science rather than the state of the gravel.
No other organisation would be allowed by the EA to implement any scheme on these rivers without a fully validated monitoring strategy attached. Not just the impacted lifecycle stage of the scheme, be it egg, first feed fry, parr or smolt, the EA insist on monitoring adult returns attributable to the scheme. As for their gravel cleaning, not so much as a bullhead can be directly proven to result from the work yet the EA blunder on down this route.
From personal experience of historic cutting areas I have seen cleaned the salmon have subsequently abandoned them, so something is not as it should be. It is not as a result of a reducing population as fish have cut in increasing numbers in new areas within 500 meters.
The EA commissioned a report from one of the leading experts on siltation and gravel cleaning from the states and totally ignore the recommendations. The concern of the report was the organic fines and silt that settled on the eggs after the formation of the redd. Also concerns related to the risk of encouraging salmon to spawn in unsuitable areas of cleaned gravel that subsequently become silt traps. One other statement included in that commissioned report was, "Field staff also did not understand the physical processes involved in redd building and the hydrodynamics within the redd during the incubation period." The field staff referred to the EA staff on the ground and it would still seem to be very much current today. Gravel cleaning in deep water on the inside of bends in a continuous channel over silt, sand and clay is the technique currently deemed suitable by the EA. If ever a method was designed to put a failing population at risk this one would appear to be it!
On a different note
On my way back from the estate this lunchtime I thought I would drop in at the lakes to see how they were fishing which is always a pleasant way to spend half an hour. I drove between the lakes which allows me to see plenty of the swims and gauge the mood the lakes are in. Mid way along the dividing bank I came across Laurie, attached to something that on being hooked had departed for the far side of the lake. This looked interesting so I parked the truck and sat on the tail-gate watching developments. Fifteen minutes later the fish was still on the far side of the lake and I could see a concerned look starting to appear on Laurieís face. Dropping down the bank to the swim Laurie let me in on his concerns about how much line was left on the spool of his ABU 506; things were looking close!
It turned out a couple of hours in the sunshine after some perch was Laurieís intention, waggler, three pound line and a worm on a barbless 14 a rod length out. It was certainly no perch chugging about on the far side of the lake and Laurie wasnít feeling very confident about the outcome. I might like to think my words of encouragement helped win the day but it was purely as a result of Laurieís patience that the fish was persuaded to come back across the lake and ready for the net. This was the next problem in that Laurieís net was a small match net designed for fish of a maximum of four or five pounds and by now we could see this was some way over that. I had already looked up and down the bank in hope of a nearby angler coming to the rescue, alas no-one in sight. There was nothing for it other than try and get the head in and hope we could balance the rest of the body long enough to get it ashore. Laurie was literally bring the fish to the surface in readiness for me to try this balancing act when along the bank came two of the regulars who had the net to answer our needs. Once more round the swim as the net was assembled and as neat as could be in she came - job done, twenty two and a half pounds - well done Laurie.
Laurie Adamson with a twenty two and a half pound common carp.
Laurie is 83 and he informed us he has fished since he was a lad but has never landed anything close to that super carp. It had taken an hour and five minutes to land that fish and at times I was worried which of them was the most exhausted. That was not only a special day for Laurie, to see the look of joy on his face made that a very special visit to the lakes for both of us. Congratulations again to Laurie and thanks to the lads for their superb timing and help with landing, weighing and returning that cracking carp.
As I have mentioned previously we are busy ditch clearing on the floated meadows north of Ibsley. Digging ditches is not quite as simple as it may at first appear in that we are not simply excavating a deep channel. We are creating shallow profiles that allow wading birds easy access for feeding at the same time ensuring a gradient that will carry away the water. The old ditches are not blocked with silt but choked with vegetation and root mass. They are choked to the extent there is no visible water, what drainage there is better described as seepage which raises the water level in the surrounding meadows making grazing and hay making extremely difficult.
Our problems begin with the fact we cannot get a wheeled vehicle out onto the water-logged meadows so it has to be a tracked excavator. Having got our 360 out there we have to clear the ditch and attempt to spread the risings evenly across the adjoining fields. The only problem with this being that most of the material removed is root mass which does not take to being spread evenly; usually rolling into balls and clumps. What we have to do is clear the ditch, to allow the water to flow and drain the surrounding land and then return in a day or two to see if the drier material works any easier.
Reminders of the risks from a past experience and eels from the ditches.
What has come as a surprise is the number of eels that are in the vegetation choked ditches. There is no visible free water yet we are seeing buckets full of yellow eels that must be living in these tangled masses. We are told that eels are a threatened species but judging by the numbers we are seeing and the number of herons and egrets that are in attendance there is no shortage here.
Left ...........................Middle ............................Right
I have had another day off part of which I spent pollarding the old Crack willows beside the river at Hucklesbrook. The pics above give a brief history of the trees in question which form an intrinsic part of the Middle and Lower Avon landscape.
The order of the photos is a little confusing but run from the top some fifteen years ago when several of the old willows blew down or were up-rooted. Left pic, in an effort to salvage the remnants I and a work experience lad spent a day or two clearing up the debris. The lad in question decided against a rural occupation and is now an officer in the marines - close? The next phase is on the right taken a year later and then the middle photo taken this week. Left with such a large canopy the old week trunks split and shatter, hence every seven to ten years the need to remove the canopy and give a further lease of life to a once shattered windblown tree as per the bottom pic.
As for the river itself we are definately in the grip of a dry spell. It does suit us at present as we are able to get on with the ditch work and it wouldn't appear to be doing the fishing any harm as there are still plenty of fish coming out. The section of river at Hucklebrook is extremely low due in part to the lack of rain but also the recent channel work which has taken out all the coffering weed for the entire length of the section. Despite having witnessed lower flows I have never seen so much of the river bed exposed. What the greatly reduced channel has allowed us is to spot the likely looking places to try this coming winter when flows get back to normal and visibility is but a few inches. I will add one or two swims that might be worth remembering should you find yourself up at Hucklesbrook in the next few months.
A very low river and a deep hole worth trying in the winter.
The deep hole is best trotted with maggot from the spot in the reedbed marked in yellow; once the winter flow has cleared and taken on that glorius Avon green tinge. Many years ago in the late 70's or early 80's my father landed a 2.14 roach from the swim in question but I would imagine chub will be the most likely species these days. Having said that it might well be carp and bream if the number I have seen in the area in the last two days find the bait. The bottom is a sandy gravel but there are dense lily roots in one or two spots so be careful if you choose to try the lead.
I decided to take a day off from the routine of the estate today to do the by now extremely late returns for the Charity Commission. I had not expected to be doing these returns this year as I had envisaged the new Wessex Chalk Stream and Rivers Trust would have superseded the WSRT by now. Matters have not gone as smoothly as I had hoped for in setting up the new trust and so returns are required. Unfortunately todayís glorious weather didnít help in concentrating the mind on facts and figures and with contractors clearing the ditches on my favourite meadows a visit seemed justifiable and a great deal more attractive than paper work.
Preparing the wet meadows for the waders and winter wildfowl
The meadows in question serve two important roles on the estate. There is the obvious agricultural asset which is realised through a grazing license involving livestock and the silage cut. The other is the importance of the area to the breeding wader and wintering wild fowl populations. Historically the importance of the waders and ducks was purely to the shooting fraternity and to a lesser extent this remains the case today. Wildfowling does not have the importance of times gone by as the numbers of duck have declined so has the economic value of the shooting asset. With the waders and wildfowl being important species in relation to the SSSI/SAC conservation designations this area of interest is becoming increasingly important. The value of the Avon Valley has been recognised for its high ecological value and as such the effort is very much in trying to understand the decline of the waders and ducks and reverse the process.
To that end the drainage of the land has to be carefully controlled, as does the grazing regime and mowing of the grass, hence our efforts to get the drainage ditches cleaned out. The length of the grass sward and the availability of the invertebrates on which the young waders are dependent are critical factors. The grazing prescription for the valley SSSI, under the HLS payment scheme, is extremely restrictive. I personally feel a little more development of this regime is required if we are to see the return to conditions that will bring back our birds.
Having been up to see how the ditching was going I felt the call of the paperwork to be even less attractive and decided to make the best of the fair weather and cut back one or two of the willow pollards that were much in need of a hair cut. These old pollards are also very important elements of the valley with their hollow and gnarled old trunks being host to countless insects and dark loving creatures.
"The Old Man of Gorley"
I feel I should try and explain some of the apparent rampant destruction going on in the Avon Valley. Whilst I vehemently oppose the EA consented gravel cleaning exercises that have been going on, with the associated deluge of silt and rubbish that has settled on the fishery during this low flow period, some of the willow clearing I feel to be justified.
Clearing the willow car from beside the river
If you view photographs of the valley taken during the earlier part of the last century trees were a relative rarity. Farming was far more productive with rough areas not being tolerated with today's areas of willow car and reed-beds, if not part of the shoot or thatching requirements, were all in-hand. The rise in labour costs that brought about the decline in the number of labourers involved in working on the land plus the added difficulties of working the larger modern machinery, in wet and enclosed areas, has seen a dramatic increase of these tangled masses.
It was at this time of a more open aspect of the valley that the number of waders, Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe etc were at their peak. Coincidentally it was also the peak of the salmon and coarse fish fame on the Avon. This brings us to the thinking behind the removal of these derelict areas of willow car and scrub. The rationale is an attempt to recreate the landscape of that earlier period in an effort to make the meadows more attractive to the breeding waders that have become so rare in recent years. The apparent unseemly haste is in fact not quite as it appears in that many of these plans have been on the drawing board for several years under the agri/environment payment schemes; schemes so lucrative for the landowners and tenants. The rush is now on for these schemes to be implemented in a last ditch attempt by NE to meet the 2010 favourable condition requirement of the PSA (Public Service Agreement) that Defra have imposed on the Agency. Whilst I do support this scheme I have my doubts as to just how effective it will be. It will hopefully be implemented along side a return to the historic grazing regimes that also brought the birds into the valley to feed on the insects that attend the herds. Hobby farming in the form of twee little herds of "special cattle" is not what is needed; a more flexible prescription for cattle under the HLS schemes needs to be introduced to promote this direction. The current monoculture of silage is a disaster for wildlife and the increase in horses now seen in every landscape similarly leave meadows soured and lifeless; whatever happens we need change.
So there you have it, the valley is taking a step back in time with many of the hidden areas that have become accepted as part of the Hampshire Avon in recent years disappearing. It does mean there will be harsh changes that many will object to but we have to try and repair the damage that has become accepted as the norm. Have patience and please give the schemes a chance to prove their worth before condemning them out of hand. Having said that, there have been one or two glaring cock-ups with areas of woody debris being removed from the river without sufficient consultation. There was no fishery remit to undertake this work and a break down in communications a year or two back has brought about this unfortunate situation. I can only apologise to those anglers that feel this to have been so ill considered and promise to keep a much closer eye on the plans of the farming community in the future.
On a happier note I thought I would put up a photo of one of the carriers I visited today. Despite the low flow conditions in the river where we can control the flow the streams are looking bright and fresh with the second growth of weed tight to the bed in readiness for the winter.
A splash of Autumn colour to brighten a difficult day
Life's full of little problems
I think we're going to need a bigger tractor!
Thanks to Rob Carter for the photo
Our problem in moving the fallen tree is a minor blip on the screen when compared to the problems that face our rivers. The vision of the future I glimpsed at a recent EA angling promotion evening I recently attended did little to reassure me it was in safe hands. In fact I left with the sound of the death knell ringing in my ears having just listened to the future of angling as perceived by the EA and it has about as much appeal as some Orwellian nightmare.
Many years ago I wrote an article expressing the view that the rivers had been nationalised by stealth, emboldened by their success it would appear the agencies are now turning their attention to still-waters.
We already have the requirement to apply for permission to put fish into enclosed privately owned lakes now we are going to have to apply to take them out. If you own a lake and wish to have a few fish in it for your own pleasure or to recognise the asset value of the water the intention of the EA is to add a further tier of legislation to control who is allowed to take what out. If you simply have friends visiting, who enjoy eating carp or tench or many other freshwater fish as is common practice all across the Continent, Africa, America and Asia you have to have the permission of the government to let them fish your lake and eat your fish. How do they justify this? Hiding behind a consultation of 827 responses the majority favoured giving the EA these further new powers which they seek? How many of those respondents owned lakes or fisheries? How many had the slightest clue about the management of such waters? I would hazard a guess that the vast majority had either an amateur passing interest in a tenancy or were promoting a personal agenda or blindly following the lead as directed by the questionnaire.
Friends around for dinner
Unfortunately this is an all too common a practice these days, not only within the EA but many government agencies, when it comes to consultations. When going out to consultation the deemed best practice is to spread the net as widely as possible in this way you get a vast cross section of views. Unfortunately the vast majority of those views will be from people who have no interest under English common law, only a self serving desire to promote a personal transient objective. How the agencies then decide to interpret these submissions or responses is to balance the responses numerically to fit it into their chosen policy. As with and statistical exercise the manipulation of figures can give what ever answer you seek. Should a considered professional view of a representative body be opposed to the EA stance, this can be counteracted by the submission of a once a year angler who has been reading the hysterical, xenophobic drivel in some of the Angling publications.
Angling is about magic; and mystery; with a drop of anticipation thrown in. How are we going to attract a new generation into angling if we see more rules and regulations stifling the wonder at every turn. This national one size fits all, stifling initiative and promoting the all enveloping grey of bureaucracy falls at the first hurdle. Institutional protection certainly, fishery protection not a chance, we have legislation coming out of our ears and our fisheries under the control of the EA fail at every turn; yet the Environment Agency wish to add a further tier. They wish to add this tier of bureaucracy and administration at a time when they are so under funded they are failing lamentably in their existing statutory obligations to protect, maintain and develop our fisheries. The argument that they require these changes to do a more efficient job is the cry of the bureaucrat not the conservationist.
We are told the agency are not the unfriendly officials but our best friends acting in our best interests, pity because from where I sit it is very hard to see. We do not want job protection schemes dressed up as conservation measures. What are fisheries division doing spending 6.5 million a year of rod licence income on promoting angling??? That is not their statutory role they have no remit for this; better they got on and dealt with their legislative obligations and left the plight of angling to those involved in the fisheries. If the fisheries are healthy with sustainable populations of fish the anglers will come. The appeal to the agencies of this promotional policy appears to be in the fact the expenditure is incapable of evaluation. So the stats can be further manipulated to show any increase in rod licences is down to their actions. They seem to conveniently forget the dozen of volunteers running the juniors sections and open days across the angling community.
Many would probably think me the last person in the world to be defending the right of the individual to own property. Iíve said before on this diary, I believe perception to be an odd thing, I am regularly taunted as being a communist lefty as on the rare occasion I buy a newspaper these days itís probably a Guardian. Those in my private life consider me right wing as I choose to work within the long established land owning rural community who in the outdated views of many are the elitist ruling class preventing them access to the rivers for their canoes dogs and offspring. I have a simpler raison detre in that I believe in the riverine environment and I believe I understand it. After a lifetime of angling and twenty five years of professional involvement my empirical knowledge does provide a different view point to many; having witnessed the latest EA antics both on the river and from their ivory towers it certainly gives me a different perspective than many within that august body.
The daily routine doesnít seem to be getting any less cluttered. I have managed to visit the valley a little more often and with the clear water the fish have been easily spotted if equally easily spooked. Whilst I have had little time to get out with the rods those that have taken a careful approach to the river have been rewarded with some good fishing. Show yourself or send any vibrations out into the river and you can forget it; the fish just will not tolerate any disturbance. It was odd to see a large group of fish including four double figure barbel, one that is close to or may well exceed the current Avon record, half a dozen large chub, carp to twenty and a couple of salmon for good measure, all in one swim. Its interesting to see them get their heads down and mop up the free-bees with complete abandon yet a hook bait is treated with complete distain. Itís currently turning far better anglers than me into fits of distracted despondency and depression. All I can advise is not to give up, sheís bound to make a mistake some when! You may well have to catch an awful lot of dace, chub and carp first though! I should add that the annual mysterious arrival of the huge dace shoals is with us as the river appears black with them in some areas. I will further add that they will disappear equally as mysteriously around the turn of the year so if you want to have a good days sport nowís the time to get the trotting gear out.
Last week I attended the SW launch of the 2009 Climate Change Impact Predictions for the South West, down in Taunton. The extent, to which climate change will impact on our every day lives will be ever increasing, be it real changes in climate or changes in the approach and consideration of the regulatory agencies. Under the 2008 Climate Act government agencies are obliged to produce for the government an assessment of the implications for their area of concern. This will eventually involve consideration of potential climate change implications at planning and consent stages of each and every application we submit. In reality what this means is the agencies will have to make their policy based on the best available scientific information and that is contained within the UKCP09 as produced for Defra. This information is all available online and I would strongly advise those involved with long term planning that they log on and ensure they are familiar with the predictive software available to them.
What will this actually mean for our rivers and dependent ecology and fisheries? If my interpretation of the information is correct the Wessex area would appear to be particularly hard hit with forecast change. If we see the hotter drier summers and wetter winters forecast it means the species we currently deem as indigenous will migrate north and we are likely to see an increase in species of flora and fauna that we previously considered continental or even Mediterranean. What of the species we look to preserve at the moment such as salmon? If the water temperatures continue to rise as forecast not only in our rivers but in the North Atlantic feeding grounds, the salmon population of rivers such as the Hampshire Avon change from being marginal to being unsustainable. What then the investment structure currently aimed at preserving this EU designated species? If it is to survive in our warmer rivers it will need to adapt and change not only the times it enters the rivers to spawn but the actual physical ability to survive warmer less oxygenated water. The genetic base will have to widen to achieve this yet we are locked into a one size fits all approach of the agencies dogmatically enforcing outdated and ill considered national policy. If we are to see the salmon survive as a Wessex species we will need to be sending considerably more smolt to sea. These will be needed to compensate for the higher mortality of the river changes and the previously mentioned longer seas journeys to the cold water feeding grounds of the North Atlantic.
Even if the threatened changes fail to occur the planning stage will accept the potential implications of the 2009 information and make their decisions accordingly. Will the agencies continue to invest money in a species that the scientific evidence tells us is not sustainable? Will the agencies continue with their refusal to allow private enterprise to attempt to save their fisheries? Lots of questions, very few answers; certainly little to inspire coming from the direction of the EA fisheries.
I have spent a couple of very pleasant hours cleaning down the hung up weed from the recent dredging work and the removal of the EA weed boom upstream of Ibsley Bridge. I have actually stood in places on the estate that I have never been before and after twenty odd years that takes some doing. With the water attracted down one side of the river it is now possible to wade from Gorley Corner to Botney some 500 meters. Wading has a very particular attraction for me and I love to wade with the fly rod in search of salmon, to be mid river gives a far greater sense of isolation and being at one with the river. Itís an ill wind blows no good and if like me you enjoy wading we have a fabulous venue to enjoy next season.
The aftermath of the recent dredging has given rise to new opportunities.
Today was the first of this years monthly WeBS counts, with the dry valley any area of wet ground held the birds. Add livestock to the equation and you had a recipe for a very healthy bird population; plenty of Snipe, Lapwing , Teal and perhaps not so welcome Cormorants. I also spent the afternoon counting bugs for the Anglers Monitoring Initiative, say what you will about the Avon the bugs are in fine fettle.
Plenty going on in the sample tray, baby barbel and hatching olives.