Making it Better

Trevor Harrop - Avon Roach Hero - someone who really is making things better for fish and fishing
Trevor Harrop – Avon Roach Hero – someone who really is making things better for fish and fishing

Anglers are legendary for finding things to have a good old moan about. Usually it’s the weather, the water conditions or a lack of fish as the reasons given for why we are not catching – never of course our own angling abilities. We are pretty good at expecting things to be done for us – after all we pay our rod licences and our club membership subscriptions so why isn’t everything just laid out on a plate, waiting for us to turn up and enjoy spectacular sport?

Well, if you are a millionaire who is prepared to spend a small fortune on a syndicate ticket for one of the heavily managed and manicured beats on the Test you can be pretty certain of catching plenty of half daft, stew fed trout for your money. The same applies to an over-stocked commercial carp puddle where fish welfare is well down the priority list. So yes, you can buy your fish but is it fishing you are after or just catching?

To me fishing is about much more than the act of persuading our quarry to take a lure, a fly or a baited hook. It is about our connection with the lakes, ponds and rivers of the landscape into which we love to escape. It is about our own stewardship of the waterways and environment upon which the fish depend for their survival and on which we rely for our sport. In short – it’s all about the habitat.

Every year my Environment Agency Fisheries Team organise a programme of Rivers Weeks in partnership with angling clubs, wildlife groups and the local fisheries consultatives. These involve willing volunteers, working with professionals to improve the habitat for fish and wildlife in our local rivers and streams. The work can be hard but it is always rewarding and it is a great way for anglers to put something back and to demonstrate that we really are ‘true guardians of the water’ as we like to claim.

Creating a gravel riffle to aid spawning habitat on the recovering  River Blackwater
Creating a gravel riffle to aid spawning habitat on the recovering River Blackwater

Loddon Rivers Week

A busy diary meant that I was only able to attend a couple of sessions of the excellent week long programme that had been put together on the catchment of my local river Loddon.

The Loddon Rivers Week is a partnership project between the Environment Agency, Loddon Fisheries and Conservation Consultative, Wildlife Trust, Wild Trout Trust, Blackwater Valley Countryside Partnership, and Loddon Valley Residents Association supported by local anglers from Swallowfield, Aborleigh and other angling clubs in the valley. This year’s activities were coordinated by the EA’s Karen Twine, known to many anglers for her fascinating research work on barbel populations on the Bedfordshire Ouse.

On the Monday there was an electro-fishing survey at several sites on the beautiful little river Whitewater, Hampshire’s least famous chalk stream, where trout, perch, chub, minnow and bullhead were caught. The event was open to everyone to watch, but the majority of people that came were landowners. It is hoped to plan a series of gravel cleaning days throughout the catchment to try and improve spawning habitat for brown trout and other fish as many of the gravels had become choked and very compacted.

Huge increases in fish populations followed habitat improvements on the upper reaches of the Blackwater in Surrey
Huge increases in fish populations followed habitat improvements on the upper reaches of the Blackwater in Surrey

On the Tuesday and Thursday volunteers from the local community, conservation and flood groups worked together on the Blackwater, an improving river that had had more than its fair share of problems. Over the two days there were more 25 volunteers making fagotts, cleaning gravels, adding new gravels, introducing and securing woody debris in the river channel. This is part of a larger project with the land owner, who is currently re-profiling the river banks to reduce flood risk. There are also plans to install low cost baffles on the gauging weir to improve fish passage later this summer.

Then on the Friday, workshops were held in two local venues to give members of the public the chance to visualise (with the help of the superb EmRiver model, which simulates river processes) how flood risk can be managed using natural processes such as floodplain connectivity, flood water storage and retention, which can also help to regulate erosion and deposition. It was good to see local councillors as well as residents at these events and to watch as they began to understand how dredging rivers can often make flooding worse and how important it is to work with natural processes to hold water back on the floodplain.

Installing woody debris as cover for young fish
Installing woody debris as cover for young fish

A Better Blackwater

Even though he has retired our old friend and former Fisheries Team leader John Sutton turned up in his new role as proprietor of Clearwater Photography to record our efforts to revive the habitat in the Blackwater. This river is particularly close to John’s heart and in the past had got into a terrible state thanks to sewage discharges upstream from the ever expanding urban footprint of Aldershot, Frimley and Camberley.

The images are all courtesy of John Sutton – http://www.clearwaterphotography.co.uk

John’s video of our Blackwater improvements can be seen here

Best of all I received an enthusiastic report back from the landowner the other day which said:

I’d just like to say many thanks to all of you for giving up your time, energy and humour for a few days on the River Blackwater at Swallowfield earlier this month. The banks and channel are looking a lot better than they were, and have recently been seeded with native riverside plant seed. I shall be fencing the banks off shortly as well, to prevent livestock from accessing the channel as well as harrowing the fields to grade them properly. If anyone would like to see the finished results, please let me know.

The gravel in the weir pool is still there and has shifted around slightly to provide some much needed variations in flow and depth.

– The woody debris items in the weir pool are working well, and there is a noticeable difference in the flow now, along with some nicely scoured areas which will hopefully be used for spawning shortly.

– The woody debris margins and channel narrowing is working well, and after the addition of some larger timber and geotextiles, I pushed some of the bank down in the area to provide the connectivity between the river and flood plain.

The graded banks are starting to colonise and submerged weed growth is started to show, which means that hopefully the high flow channel will work when it comes to the higher flows later in the year.

– The new gravel added in the narrowed channel has also moved about, although the special stop log seems to be working very well in containing it on its journey downstream. I have since seen two trout holed up just downstream of the structure.

The coarse woody debris added on the marginal berm downstream of the pollarded willow is working well, and already debris is starting to build up behind it to create a narrowed channel. Hopefully it will grow and provide some cover for juvenile fish later this year.

A happy band of habitat volunteers working under the guidance of Andy Thomas from the Wild Trout Trust
A happy band of habitat volunteers working under the guidance of Andy Thomas from the Wild Trout Trust

Making A Difference

And of course it’s not just in the Loddon catchment where anglers and conservationists are making a difference. I’ve just heard from Trevor Harrop that the Avon Roach Project has had its best year yet for the survival of juvenile fish. Trev and Budgie are thrilled with the amount of true Avon roach that they have been able to re introduce to this once iconic river.

You can read and see more of their excellent work and experience Trev’s boundless enthusiasm on their latest blog here

http://www.avonroachproject.blogspot.co.uk/

I also hear that SKY TV’s Tight Lines will be filming some of the roach releases for a future programme.

A future Avon three pounder perhaps ?
A future Avon three pounder perhaps ?

Last Words

I’ve written plenty about how as anglers we need to moan a bit less and do a bit more. The Loddon Rivers Weeks, the Avon Roach Project and the very many other excellent fisheries and habitat projects that are crying out for resources and volunteers are one of the best ways that we can put something back.

I’m going to leave the last words to Karen and Trevor.

It’s been fantastic to see so many volunteers and interest groups coming together to improve this much loved river and enhancing the Loddon’s natural processes using low cost and simple techniques. It is essential to get the message across that managing flood risk can be achieved without compromising our beautiful rivers. The Loddon catchment is environmentally rich and an important resource for wildlife which needs protecting and enhancing for future generations.

Karen Twine – EA Fisheries Officer and Loddon Rivers Week organiser

We are currently having the most extraordinary year in terms of sheer numbers of roach we have managed to release as adults from our stews into the river, and one year olds we have managed to raise in the tanks this year. It’s been our BEST EVER year.  What an amazing experience! “

Trevor Harrop – Avon Roach Project

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