Back in England and it is still bitterly cold, while away in France the first swallows arrived to take up residence in the stables, two weeks later than last year, they have struggled to find any insect life to feed on this week, although by the end of the week when their numbers had reached into double figures they were hawking around in the evening over a field of winter wheat, feeding on some insect that was hatching.
This is the penultimate week before the Trout fishing starts, I still have several trees to tidy up, the cricket bat Willows that were planted earlier have bent over in the wind, so they have all had to be straightened up. The grass is beginning to grow around the newly planted Christmas trees, this has been sprayed with Roundup to prevent the juvenile Christmas trees being grown over with grass. Midweek I had a day cutting weed at the bottom of the beat, this was necessary to lower the water level on the bottom and middle part of the Bransbury stretch of river. Weed cutting on both the Test and the Itchen is strictly controlled. Weed is only allowed to be cut at certain times of the year, one week in June, July and August respectively, and then any time from mid October through to the third week in April. Normally the June weed cut is the heaviest, but this can change with unseasonal weather. All the keepers cut the weed at the same time so as to limit the number of days when cut weed is floating down the river affecting the fishing. If left unrestricted there would likely be someone cutting on most days of the fishing season. All of the cut weed is allowed to flow down the river Test until it reaches a boom just north of Romsey where it is taken out by mechanical digger. If allowed to flow into Romsey it would block the many culverts and carriers and cause flooding in the town.
Cutting the weed is one of the most important tasks for the riverkeeper. It is possible to hold water up, or let water go depending upon how you cut the weed. Lies can be created for the Trout with judicious bar cutting, undesirable weeds – those that collect silt can be cut out, desirable weeds – those that harbour a profundity of insect life can be left and encouraged. On this stretch of the river allof the weed cutting is done by hand, although further down on the main river there are several weed cutting boats in operation.
There are several methods of cutting weed by hand, Turk Scythe, Pole Scythe and Links being the most common. I am able to cut allthe weed at Bransbury by wading with a Turk Scythe, similar to the Grim Reapers tool of choice but in aluminium. If the water was too deep for wading then I would have to use Pole Scythes or Links. A Pole Scythe is a scythe blade fixed to a long larch pole, two are required, one with the blade fixed pointing to the left, one with the blade pointing to the right. When cutting the blade must point down stream so a different one is needed for cutting from the opposite bank. There is quite a technique to cutting with a pole scythe, starting at the top of the beat and working downstream the pole is held in two hands and the blade is thrown out into the river, the pole sliding through your hands, gripping tightly as the end of the pole approaches, the blade is then pulled and shuffled along the bottom of the river to produce a cutting action, the whole process repeated when you have pulled the blade back into the bank. It is quite tiring and several things can go wrong. A common mistake, and one which I regularly made when a student on the middle Test, is to throw the pole Scythe out, failing to grab the end as it passes through your hands, the pole scythe ending up standing proud in ten feet of water in the middle of the river. Another is to fail to sand the larch pole adequatley resulting in a handful of splinters as it slides through your hand.
Cutting with Links is back breaking work, and requires two people. Links are made of a dozen scythe blades riveted together in line, with a rope leading off either end to a riverkeeper on either bank. The line of links are pulled back and forth and slowly worked downstream. It is possible to cut a lot of weed with links, although it is not possible to be as selective as it is with Turks Scythes and Pole Scythes. Links cut everything and boy don’t you know it at the end of the day. While working as a student in the middle Test, I was pulled into the river while cutting with Links, my strength failing towards the end of a very long hot day, Naïve, and slightly addled by hot sun, hard work and poor diet I took a sip of the gin clear river water, and was struck the next day by Salmonella poisoning, keeping me off work for over a week. The secret with all weed cutting, whether it be by hand or mechanical is to keep the cutting implement sharp. The weed must be cut, not pulled out by the roots, it is always better to have weed that needs cutting rather than no weed at all.