Monday 28 January 2008

Week 3

After a weekend of high wind and rain, first job on Monday after feeding fish and pheasants was to deal with the Mother of all Willows that had fallen in the river. One of the annual tasks on the river is to manage the various species of Willow tree that line the river bank. Golden and Red Willow are pollarded annually to provide winter colour, the one year old stems reaching six feet plus in length and glowing red or orange in the sunshine, are cut off in early spring tied into bundles called faggots and used for riverbank repairs. Pollarding also prevents the trees getting to big and falling in the river. Crack Willow would take over the earth if left to grow unchecked. As the tree develops the weight of the crown causes the the main stem to lean more and more, until “crack” it falls over puts roots down from the fallen trunk and starts to grow again. The few Weeping Willows that we have, tend to do their own thing as do the white willow and goat willow.
The Leviathon that had fallen during the weekend was beyond management. A maverick Willow it was the main feature on the lower bend of the river. Shelter and friend to a huge Female Brown Trout that lived beneath its boughs, and the bane of rods who lost countless flies in its branches in their attempts to tempt the monster that lurked in its roots.
As is often the case with Willows there was not one main trunk to deal with, instead there were around eight trunks between 12 and 24 inches thick, piled on top of each other above six feet of water.
After a certain amount of head scratching I set about the top branches that lay on the bank, a task that took up most of the day. Once this was complete it was time to start tackling the big bits. Because of the depth of water I decided to take the trunks back bit by bit. If the river had been wadeable I may have been able to drop the whole trunk into the water and cut it up while standing in the river.
I attached a rope to each piece that was about to fall so that it was possible to pull each cut piece out with the pick up, this proved to be relatively easy until the ground started to cut up and the pick up lost grip. Deciding which bits to take next require a great deal of thought, you must consider where the limb is likely to fall, and where you are going to be when it does fall. Because the main trunks were over the river, much of the chainsawing involved climbing and cutting while standing on other parts of the tree, the piece you cut off may hit the limb you are standing on, or remove pressure from your foot hold causing it to move. Lots of things to think about, and relatively hair-raising stuff when you are working on your own, inevitably I will have to take two or three calls on my mobile phone while hanging out of the tree, the caller asking “are you ok to talk” my reply while holding the chainsaw in one hand and holding on to a branch with the phone at my cheek, six feet above the river. “yes, I’ll have a go”
With Heavy rain forecast it was important to get as much of the tree out of the river as possible, so as not to obstruct the flow and hold any water up, by the end of the week I was left with a big heap of logs on the bank and 4 main trunks still across the river. Towards the end of the week, my employer had a hernia operation. Friday was spent retrieving her from hospital, chopping logs, cleaning the fry in the tank and filling up pheasant feeders. Working on your own you have to be prepared to do everything, domestic jobs like unblocking drains or chopping logs, have to be carried out alongside the fishery management an game keeping. The buck stops with you, no one else is going to do it so you just get on with it. My employer is on the committee of The National Coursing Club, has been involved with Greyhounds and Coursing for many years, and as such has always kept Greyhounds. Ten years ago, she would have had six dogs in the kennels at home that were in training, anything up to eight Saplings in the paddock waiting to go off to various trainers, plus a couple of old favourites living in the house. Today she has only retired Greyhounds in the Kennels, these still have to be walked and cleaned every morning, With my employer having a wing down this task falls to me, and becomes part of my morning routine alongside feeding the fish and pheasants, until she is back on her feet again. Before the Hunting ban came into place, this time of the year would have been very busy for the Coursing world, all eyes would be on the blue riband event the Waterloo Cup held in late February. Dogs entered for the cup would be at a critical point in their training. At home we would be galloping dogs daily, this would involve running two dogs behind a lure over a distance of 80 – 100 yards, For a short period we were able to use a neighbouring paddock that had a slight incline, which was fine until the Dogs started to see real hares in the field beyond, running past the lure to chase bunnies across a field full of flints that played havoc with their fragile feet. Then it was up to an all weather gallop used by a local racehorse trainer, this involved a short car journey but proved a much safer option in the long run. At this time of year there would be two or three Coursing meetings a week from as far afield as Scotland to the Isle of Wight, some better attended than others, but often attended by the same few faces who travel miles to give their dog a run. I should mention at this point that this is legal Coursing where the objective is not to kill the hare but to test one dog against another. The Hares are driven by a line of beaters towards a Slipper whose job it is to release a pair of dogs, one in a red collar one in a white collar once they have sighted the running Hare. The judge sits on a horse, and awards points for the lead in the run up, and for turning the hare. The judge then signals his decision by raising a white or red handkerchief. An average meeting may have a card of three eight dog stakes, this would require twenty one good Hares to get through the card, sometimes this can be achieved in a matter of hours, sometimes you may only see 5 Hares in a day in which case everyone gets their money back and sets off for the long drive home. What I found more interesting than the running of the dogs was the mix of people who would turn up to one of these meetings, alongside the usual mix of country workers, there would be Super Rich Landowners, Racehorse trainers, Several top Greyhound trainers, top bookies, people who worked in offices in town, always a few Irishmen, and often a group of Pakistanis who trained their dogs in Birmingham (Coursing being hugely popular in their homeland) all competing equally and mixing socially, it really was a unique atmosphere repeated several times a week throughout the coursing season that has now gone forever.

Sunday 20 January 2008

Week 2

First day of the week and our third “shoot “ of the season. Four beaters dropped out at the last minute leaving me with a total of 6 beaters plus dogs. In high wind and heavy showers we shot 38 head, predominantly pheasant but with half a dozen partridge, a brace of snipe, a mallard, 3 pigeon and a rook, unusually for this time of year we saw no Woodcock. Fifty Canada Geese got up from the water meadow between Bransbury and Barton Stacey but flew away on the wind. For the third time this year, we saw Muntjac while driving the wood that runs alongside the river; I had not seen any of these shy creatures in Bransbury until five years ago.
The following day I began the process of replacing one of the bridges over the river, I have three to do before the start of the season. In previous years, I have built all of the bridges from “Green oak” a thirty - foot bridge costing around £500, taking up to 10 days to build and lasting for around 10 years. This year, because of the high price of timber, I have opted to use telegraph poles as the main runners with a deck on top made from Green Oak slats, The telegraph poles will see me out, the oak deck easily replaced after 10 years. With the decision on materials made, the next issue to contend with are the Logistics of getting all the materials on site. Working on your own, jobs like this progress slowly. First task is to get the thirty feet telegraph poles from the field where they lay over a mile away, across a field of rape, down the road, through a ford and along the riverbank. As the bridge is to be a single span footbridge I opted to split a telegraph pole in half. This I did with a chainsaw after taking about ten pounds of metal work off the telegraph pole. I should point out at this point that these telegraph poles were not upright and carrying telephone lines, but had been deemed to have passed their sell by date and had been laid to rest under a hedge. Once split it was a case of man handling the poles onto the back of the pick up. Picking one end up, hugging it and inching it slowly up the back of the pick up; Once in place, lashing it down with ropes, crossing my fingers and making for the river. This process took up the best part of two days.
On Thursday after cleaning the alevins up in the tank, I had to prepare for Duck Shooting in the evening. My employer generously offers fishing and shooting to various charity auctions. I am constantly amazed by the amount of money some people are prepared to proffer in the name of a good cause. A few years ago the bidding surpassed £3000 for a days fishing, while for a days fishing in summer, we regularly reach “four figures” in a Charity auction held in America. On this occasion the two clients had paid a substantial amount of money for an evening’s Duck Flighting. Duck Flighting is one of the most exciting, and at the same time infuriating forms of game shooting; Sometimes they are there sometimes they are not. The aim is to shoot wild duck as they are coming in to roost on the pond for the night, this they do in the last few moments of dusk. It’s an acute test of the eyes as the Ducks come hurtling into the pond in the fading light, to shoot a bag of 10 ducks you invariably need a hundred plus ducks coming onto the pond. The pond has four “hides” in which to conceal the guns, each will shoot differently depending upon the direction of the wind, and therein lies the key – the wind and moon. The ideal night would be with the wind blowing a “hooley” and no moon, the Ducks are keen to get down on the pond, and any sound from shots is carried away on the wind. On a clear still night with a full moon, the Ducks may flight all night, they will circle the pond to check if it is safe to land, and if there is any sound of shooting as they approach the pond they will veer off and head for another pond. If there has been rain in the preceding week, the ducks will favour the flooded fields rather than the pond, in freezing conditions Ducks will seek out our spring fed pond in the knowledge that it will be free from Ice. The predominant species visiting the pond has changed over the time I have been here. Fifteen years ago the bag would have been predominantly made up of Mallard, with Tufties the second most abundant species. Five years ago half the Ducks visiting the pond were Gadwall with Mallard a close second, this year we have shot mostly Mallard. A cold snap will always bring groups of Widgeon and Teal and over the years we have shot Shoveller, Pochard, and Mandarin. It is incredibly hit and miss, and while you are desperate to put on good shooting for people who have been so generous, some things are beyond your control.
Thursday’s weather seemed ideal, high wind with showers; yet at 3.00pm, an hour before we were due to set off, the wind dropped and the clouds parted. With Mark, my employer’s son placing the Guns, I set off with Zebo, my black Labrador, to rouse up a few ducks. Running across part of Bransbury Common we shoved a few off the puddles, and raised a few on the Water meadow above Bransbury, but with the wind gone the ducks were wary off flighting our pond. The Guns did fire over thirty shots for 3 brace of Duck, but the weather earlier in the day had promised so much more.
Once Mark has called time on the shooting it is time to pick up the shot game, and time for the Labrador Retrievers to come into their own. The Labrador was specifically bred for this kind of task. It is pitch black, the dead game could be on the pond, in reed beds, on the island or in the river. With luck the gun will have some idea of the general area in which his shot duck has landed to give you a start, but from then on it is down to the dog. I am particularly blessed with Zebo, He is 9 years old and when it comes to Duck shooting he knows more than me. On the occasions when I am required to shoot I wish I could give him the gun. I would suggest that I am one of the worst shots in Hampshire, Zebo will sit and watch me swing through the line at a passing duck willing me to bring it down, only for it to carry on its way, Zebo shaking his head at my ineptitude.
On this night we only had six to pick, and Zebo and Hector – Mark’s chunky yellow lab, had the job done in minutes. A disappointing night for the Guns, softened by my employers generous offer of another day next seasonOn Friday it rained all day, colouring up the river and raising it to a level that you would expect for this time of the year.

Monday 14 January 2008

Week 1

Week 1

First week of the New Year, and in the small hatchery that is supplied with spring water, the Brown Trout eggs that were stripped in November have hatched. The 5mm orange eggs sit in baskets in a trough of running water. Because the spring water is a constant 10 degrees it is possible to estimate within a few days when the eggs will hatch, the colder the water the longer the eggs take to hatch. At 10 degrees the eggs hatch out around Christmas time, the newly hatched elevens lie on the bottom of the tank absorbing their yolk sac for around 2 weeks before swimming up to the water’s surface and feeding like normal fish.
This week one of my daily tasks has been to clean up the small transparent egg shells that litter the tank and any dead eggs or alevins, I do this with a pipette and siphon, gently moving the alevins around by blowing the pipette and hoovering up any shells or dead alevins with the siphon. Because the fertilisation is carried out artificially, and the eggs receive a higher level of care than in a wild environment many eggs hatch that would not normally make it in the wild. It is not uncommon to see two headed or two tailed alevins; many have deformed spines some enlarged heads. These genetic deformities invariably die in time, as they are unable to compete successfully for food or shelter.
The spring water in the hatchery is “old water” drawn from the chalk aquifer it has been filtered over time, is alkali and can be depleted in dissolved Oxygen and high in dissolved Nitrogen. This can be a problem to fish raised on spring water in a hatchery. Similar to the “bends” bubbles of Nitrogen form inside the alevin or fry, showing as a dot on the fry’s head or an air bubble inside the yolk sac. So far this year this has not been a problem, but occasionally in previous years I have found it necessary to “bash” the water around as it falls into the tank, mixing it with the air to replace the dissolved Nitrogen with Dissolved Oxygen.
As I write it is raining heavily, the river certainly needs the rain. To date we have had a relatively dry winter, we need lots through January, February and early March before everything else starts to take a drink. The aquifers are below what you would expect for this time of year. A wet winter can have a significant effect on mid to late season fishing when the river is solely maintained by water from the aquifers. Weed growth and fly life are far more abundant after a wet winter and fishing much the better for it.
Tomorrow we have our third shoot of the season, my employer’s children, grand children and friends will shoot, my friends and family will beat. By early afternoon we will have a bag of anywhere between 6 and 60, chiefly comprising pheasant and partridge with the odd duck, goose, snipe, woodcock, and pigeon. We will all sit down together in my employer’s house, Guns and Beaters, and have lunch all afternoon. It’s a great days shooting enjoyed by all who take part..The backend of this week has been spent preparing for tomorrows shoot, and clearing my employer’s house of Christmas decorations.

Sunday 13 January 2008

I am a Riverkeeper on the river Dever, a tributary of the river Test in Hampshire, England. The Test and its tributaries along with the neighbouring river Itchen are true chalk streams; the vast majority of the catchment area for both rivers is made up of chalk giving the two rivers unique characteristics that make them particularly suitable for trout fishing.
Both rivers are steeped in trout fishing history and both lay claim to the genesis of particular aspects of fly fishing. Originally from the North West of England, I have worked on the Test and its tributaries for 22 years initially working on the middle Test on some of the most famous beats, and under some of the most reknowned keepers. I attended Sparsholt college for three years in the late 1980s leaving with a HND in Fish farming and Fishery Management and have been in my current post on the river Dever for nearly 17 years.
The stretch of river I am responsible for is privately owned, the majority of rods fishing the mile and a half stretch are syndicate members, with a few “let” days at weekends. There is a small hatchery and fish farm, producing mixed sex Brown Trout for stocking the river, with a small surplus sold to help balance the books. I am also responsible for a small “family” pheasant shoot on around 200 acres of woodland and farmland, and a pond used for wild duck flighting and coarse fishing.
I have been married for 16 years and have two children aged 12 and 14. My wife works in the village primary school as a special needs assistant, my two children attend the local secondary school in the Test Valley.
I am keen Coarse fisherman, love gardening, and am involved with my local football and cricket teams. I am often asked about my job and what it is I actually do, so to silence all those anglers who think I have the winter off, over the next 12 months I aim to keep a diary of my working year