Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Week 11

Week 11

After last weeks battering, this week has mostly been about chopping up fallen trees. The wood shed is already full up for next year, so it is a matter of hauling the trees out of the river, burning the small branches, cutting the bigger bits into four foot lengths and stacking them where they lay, to be picked up at a later, drier, date. With one eye on the impending fishing season, I have to be wary of where I take the pick-up. The river is high after all the rain; the meadows boggy and any damage inflicted now by the pick-up may not be healed in time for the fishing season. With Friday a bank holiday, every day of this four day week has been spent chopping up fallen trees, hard physical work and with me turning forty last weekend, I am feeling it at the moment.
The fish in the hatchery are growing quickly now, gobbling up any food you throw them they will soon be ready to go outside to the next pond. The next pond outside is a small concrete raceway, a narrow channel with block work sides that has river water rattling through it. Because the pond is run on river water the water must be sufficiently clear so as not to induce gill problems in the fry. Raised on spring water, the fry are used to incredibly clean and clear water at a constant temperature. High suspended solids in coloured river water can irritate the fish’s gills causing excessive mucus to develop on the gill filaments. This reduces their efficiency and subsequently affects the fish’s general health and resistance to other infections. On river water the fish are exposed to fish parasites and bacteria present in the native fish population, the better the general health of the newly introduced fish the better chance they have of resisting these threats. Too big a difference in the temperature of the spring water on which they were raised and the temperature of the river water in which they are to be introduced can have a similar effect on general health and a fish’s ability to cope with the rigours of life in the river.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Week 10

Week 10

What a week for weather! From Monday morning to Wednesday night the wind did not stop blowing. Five more big trees down, a Big Balsam Poplar in the paddock that can wait for a while. An Ivy coloured Ash tree across the top of the mill stream, a Horse Chestnut in Solids – the bottom of the beat, and two huge Aspen across the river by my employer’s garden gate, two more of this lanky shallow rooted Aspen Aspen will have to come down because they are dangerous. The Fishermen will welcome the loss of part of the Horse Chestnut on Solids; it was a real flytrap on the back cast and afforded safety to many a Brown Trout. The Balsam Poplar will have no affect on the fishing although its strong scent in the spring when its buds are breaking will be missed. A very brittle tree, its wood is used to make matches. This Forty foot tree, had roots extending barely eighteen inches down into the peaty ground, with the water table not far from its base it pushed its roots out extensively just under the surface of the soil. I also had to deal with several other trees around the village, one across the school path, a dangerous limb on the recreation ground and an ivy covered hawthorn across the Bransbury road.
While all this mayhem was going on, I could safely work on a weir that I had to replace without fear of any trees falling on me. The bridge that I have had to replace had a weir underneath for the purpose of holding up the water above the bridge to improve the fishing. Weirs can have several effects on the stretch of river in which they are placed. The most obvious feature is the lovely weir pool that is created by the falling water, it screams fish, and the crashing water mixing with the air, helps raise the dissolved oxygen levels in the river. This can be particularly beneficial in periods of hot weather when the water temperature rises, and the water is unable to hold as much oxygen as cooler water; couple this with a period of intense low pressure such as a thunderstorm and the waters ability to hold oxygen is reduced even further.
The biggest change to a stretch of river with a newly installed weir is to the stretch of water upstream, the flow is slowed and as a result the river is more likely to start depositing silt, this can affect the weed growth and subsequently fly life and fishing.
The weir I am replacing has been built to slow a particular section of the beat up. Without the weir the river falls considerably over a short distance, is very fast flowing and shallow and holds few Trout. Holding the water up with a weir made of telegraph poles has raised the level by six inches and steadied the flow sufficiently for Trout to find it a suitable place to lie and feed. The water still flows quickly enough for Ranunculus to grow, and deposition of silt is minimal. If the weir were any higher, the flow would be slowed even further and deposition may start to immediately upstream of the weir, which would affect the Ranunculus.
The construction of the weir is not just a matter of chucking a heap of bricks across the riverbed and hoping for the best. Whenever you place an obstacle in the river the water will try to find a way around it or under it. I have used telegraph poles, placed horizontally against oak posts driven into the riverbed. These must be made level, to ensure an even flow of water over the whole weir. To prevent the water forcing its way under the weir, sheets of corrugated tin are driven by hand down into the river bed and attached to the horizontal telegraph pole, these have the added bonus of preventing the undercurrent of the weir pool eroding the weir from the downstream side. Rubble topped off with gravel is then placed on the upstream side of the weir, for this I am using broken up staddle stones that were in place from the previous weir, raking the gravel on the river bed over the top.
It may be a small-scale construction using materials I have to hand, but the principles behind the siting and construction are the same as much bigger hatches and weirs further down the river.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Week 9

Week 9

Finally got back to building the bridge, no more trees down, or new ones to plant, so it is back to the river. The bridge is to be a single span using the split telegraph poles as the runners, sitting on uprights made of straight telegraph poles driven into the river bed, all topped off with “steady oak” slats. First job is to drive the uprights into the ground, to carry this out I use the “mother of all bumpers” to bang the posts into the ground. The bumper weighs a ton and you know, when flopped in your chair in the evening, that you have had a day on the bumper! The telegraph poles are treated and last for ages in the ground. The fishing hut that was built fourteen years ago stands on telegraph pole stilts; it has a peg tile roof and must weigh several tonnes. The telegraph poles were cut into eight-foot lengths, and then banged into the ground until I hit the gravel, which happened to be seven feet down; it took the best part of two days to bang the four posts in by hand. The hut was then built on top of the stilts. I annually check the hut with a spirit level and it hasn’t moved an inch, once you get down on to the gravel you are guaranteed a firm base on which to build. Ten years ago while carrying out some work on part of the Mill House, Brian Parsons top river man, and the man to call for any major construction job on the river, pointed out to us that the oldest part of the house, which at one time was three storeys high, was built directly onto the gravel with no foundations; this part of the house is around four hundred years old, according to Brian it is not that uncommon for some of the older buildings in the river valley to have been built straight onto the gravel.
With this in mind I felt fairly confident about banging my telegraph poles down into the gravel to support my single span footbridge.
Once banged in, I use string across the river to determine that the bridge will be level, cutting into the uprights at the correct spot to provide a base for the main span.
I then drag the single span across the river by hand, and put in place on the uprights. I then use this to determine the level of the second span that sits alongside. The bridge is then topped off with steady oak slats and a handrail. The Grayling in the river are showing signs of thinking about spawning, the larger fish moving onto the shallows to dig a shallow redd. Grayling were introduced to the Test during the early part of the last century. The initial stocking of a small number of fish from the North of England, was made in the Stockbridge area. They soon spread throughout the river system, and up until ten years ago, were considered a pest. I can remember electro fishing on the middle Test and removing hundreds and hundreds of Grayling, along with Pike, Roach, Perch and anything else that was not a salmonid. The Pike would be taken alive to Broadlands Lake, a commercial coarse fishery. Some of the other coarse fish would be transferred to other lakes, while the Grayling were banged on the head. For several years a man would come down to Hampshire and take hundreds of Kilos of Grayling back to his Chinese Restaurant in the North. In the past ten years Grayling fishing has become a very popular sport. They provide good sport on a fly through the winter, when the trout are out of season, and we regularly have parties from the North of England and France and Belgium who come to fish for Grayling in the autumn. The Grayling season ending on March 16th, it is at this time of the year that you see the really big Grayling moving onto the shallows to spawn. A big Grayling for this stretch of river would be around two and a half pounds, although they go well over three pounds on the main river Test, the spawning process takes a heavy toll on these bigger Grayling and a high proportion of them die post spawning. Electro fishing to remove Grayling, now no longer takes place on this stretch of river.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Week 8

Week 8

A dry windy week and spring is definitely in the air. No more trees down so with a bit of luck I shall be back onto bridge building next week. The fish in the hatchery are growing apace; they are now around an inch long, with round fat bellies. The tinning in the river is also going smoothly, the river has dropped an inch this week which is a good thing for the stretch that you have already cleared of silt, but reduces the “silt clearing” action of the tin, slowing the whole process down.
Because the weather has been dry and windy, it has given me the perfect opportunity to burn off several areas of Spearbed. Chiefly made up of Phragmites – Norfolk reed, the reed beds are a home to all sorts of flora and fauna. Burning the dead reeds off thickens the reed bed as well as supplying certain minerals to the growing red bed. Left unburnt the reed bed will still grow but a certain amount of new growth will be inhibited by last year’s dead reeds lying on top of them. In the years that I have been burning the reed beds, numbers of Orchids have risen along with various other wild flowers that grow amongst the phragmites. Once burnt the reed beds look a little stark for a few weeks before turning green almost overnight as the new shoots come through. The practice was frowned upon for a few years, but is now seen as an accepted method of managing spear beds in the Test Valley.
On a windy day, after a dry spell it can take only a couple of minutes for an acre of Spearbed to burn off, with a little bit of damp in the bottom it can take hours. While working as a student on the middle Test, I once spent the morning with one of the keepers burning up a tree that had come down. We went home for lunch at twelve, returning at one to a moonscape, several acres of Spearbed had disappeared as the fire we had left gaily burning, had sent sparks into the neighbouring Spearbed that had caught light and vanished in a matter of seconds.
With the weather warming and spring just around the corner, the Hares in the field behind our house have started to lose their marbles. For much of the year they prefer their own company, coming together to herald the impending spring. Several times I have witnessed a Parliament meeting in the fields bordering the river, up to a dozen hares gathered in an area thirty feet across. Oblivious to my presence just checking each other out before a bit of boxing and reproduction, behaviour not dissimilar to a Friday night in Andover or Winchester. They don’t look much but they are fascinating animals, full of quirks and foibles, they will favour one field one day and another the next. Sometimes they will fancy the wood, other days a small bit of plough completely devoid of food that turns their feet to balls of mud. They are seen as a pest on some estates, although, to me, crop damage from Hares appears minimal. Some estates will cull hares to deter the Pikeys and illegal Lurcher men who are out to run their dogs and check out the local area. While other estates will offer Hare shooting as a days sport. An estate local to our area regularly kills between two and three hundred hares a year with no apparent affect on the population. Myself I am not keen on shooting Hares, I don’t care much for eating them and they are bloody heavy to carry around once you have shot one. I can look out of my bedroom window most mornings and pick one out in the field behind our house, snuggled down in his scrape against the harsh weather, leaping around in his mid march madness, or cruising across the field in first gear on his morning commute to the neighbouring field.
Three years ago at this time of year, while walking the dogs up the river I came across three Otters, the first I had seen in my time in Hampshire. There had been prolonged efforts to reintroduce them to the Test and Itchen, and today they are resident throughout both rivers. The three I came across looked like a mum with two grown youngsters, I had only occasionally come across signs of Otters, the odd spraint or a half eaten fish. These three looked like they were passing through, Otters have a huge territory, and an Otter seen down in Stockbridge can quite easily be an Otter seen on the Dever. Despite the Conservation Officer’s protestations that Otters only eat Eels, they will decimate numbers of valuable stockfish held in a stew pond if given the chance. Many keepers now surround their stew ponds with a low electric fence, and at the moment fish losses to Otters are minimal, The real damage will occur if Otters are allowed to reach unnatural numbers through over protection, as was the case with the Cormorants and Herons several years ago. I remain unconvinced that the Conservation Officers of the Environment Agency and English Nature are the right people to make that judgement, which will be to the detriment of the fish populations in the Test Valley. On a lighter note we are due to get a new Labrador puppy in May. Zebo will be ten next year and is steadying up considerably. His brother Jacko, who works with a keeper friend of mine at Stockbridge is due to be a dad for the second time and we have first choice of the dogs. Jacko is slightly smaller than Zebo, as is the Dam, so our new pup shouldn’t be the big-footed chunky monkey that is Zebo, but should hopefully be as intelligent and hard working.