Christmas week and a cold start followed by a warm middle and an icy blast towards the end. For two days we had the bedroom window open through the night, not because of a surfeit of seasonal sprouts but because the overnight temperature was approaching double figures; woken both mornings by a particularly randy Male Blackbird singing outside our window trying to convince any females in the area that now was the time to “get jiggy” as I believe they term it these days.
At the start of the week we had a crack at the ducks, my employer’s son and grandson along with an elderly gent from the village. Initially the signs looked promising with plenty of cloud cover and a steady wind that typically dropped just as it was getting dark. The wigeon that have been around for a few weeks didn’t put in an appearance and we only shot five birds, four Mallard and a Gadwall. A little disappointing after the numbers that have been coming onto the pond in previous weeks, but that is Wild Duck shooting for you. I declined the offer to shoot instead concentrating on picking up with Zebo and Otis. Zebo is a bit of a whiz at locating dead Ducks in the Dark and didn’t disappoint on this occasion, even picking up a roving Indian Runner that normally inhabits the lower river around my employer’s house. Twice the weight of a Mallard he bought it to me alive and intact for me to release onto the river. If it had been my stupid spaniel with jaws of steel the Duck would have been crushed in seconds. Zebo has always had a very soft mouth, when he was around one year old, and out with me feeding the fish one week, he would pop behind the fish food hut and carefully pick up a Duck who was sitting very tight on a clutch of eggs and bring her to me. Each morning of that week I would take the duck from his mouth and put her back on the nest, by Friday she had a resigned look on her face as she was carried to me each morning that screamed “Good grief here we go again!” She hatched off her eggs the following week and was spared her morning ride in a Labrador’s mouth.
The cold temperature and icy easterly wind towards the end of the week blew in a load of Snipe. The dogs putting up over half a dozen on a Boxing Day afternoon trek across Bransbury Common. On this particular stretch of the river the Snipe, if they are about, always seek out the same ditches, muddy scrapes, bends on the river that they have inhabited in previous years. I think I saw the Merlin that has turned up most winters, earlier in the week, the dogs spooking a small bird of Prey from the ground by the Flight Pond.
The river has cleared and dropped an inch this week, The Brown Trout have come through spawning very well, and on the two mild days in the middle of the week, even raise their noses to the odd fly that was on the water. The Grayling are in spanking mid season form and, as I have stated previously, are an ounce or two heavier for a given length than in previous years. The eggs in the hatchery have been hatching all week, and so far look to be a particularly good batch. For much of this week I have just left them to get on with hatching, next week they will need a good clean and the unhatched and empty egg cases removed. The fencing for the stew ponds was also delivered this week, Otter proofing the stew ponds one of the first jobs to be tackled in the New Year.
The Pheasant and Partridge are a bit thin on the ground on our morning feed around. I am feeding half as much food compared to a month ago, and much of this is being gobbled by Pigeons and Roe Deer; although walking up the road at Dusk this week I have heard quite a few birds“cocking up” as they go up to roost which suggests that they are feeding on something else somewhere else.
Friday, 19 December 2008
An up and down week again for the weather, beginning with a huge downpour followed by some nice cold days and finishing with high winds and the afternoon temperature climbing into double figures degrees Celsius. Early in the week we had our third days shooting. My employer’s grandchildren plus friends filling the sky with lead while we beaters poked around for the few remaining Pheasant and Partridge. For much of the week we have been inundated with pigeons although these failed to show on the day. The bag was half what was shot on the first two days but more importantly, all enjoyed the day, an important lesson to learn in all field sports: it's not about the bag, but all about the day.
A little Egret has turned up this week. Every winter we saw more and more of these highly conspicuous birds, I have a photograph somewhere of one fishing in the small stream that runs through the Mill House garden. In stark contrast to the brilliant white plumage of this small member of the Heron family is the black cloud that I see flighting up the main river every morning: between twenty and thirty Cormorants all heading to the Upper Test for a day feeding. I have seen groups this big while fishing a pond that borders the Middle Test and know of several keepers who see them roosting in numbers in a particularly isolated tree; sitting like the birds from Noggin the Nog. I have said it before but up until five years ago I had not seen a Cormorant on this stretch of the river, I now see numbers every day either passing over or pitching onto the river and pond to feed. With no national strategy to prevent their steady rise in numbers something radical must be done regionally to protect fish stocks on the chalk streams of the south where the clear water provides easy fishing for a Cormorant. An organised and concerted effort by keepers and riparian owners to go out with their shotguns, pigeon bangers, crow scarers and fireworks at the same time for a few days to keep these birds on the move and push them on somewhere else, preferably back to their natural coastal environment. It's an “I’m alright Jack policy” but in the absence of any National effort to limit the damage being done by these birds to freshwater fish stocks it seems the only option available.
The first few eggs in the hatchery started to hatch this week, they will go on hatching throughout the next week. So far they have been one of the best batches of eggs that I have ever done, with few to pick out daily. There is time for it all to go wrong yet.
With the National Trout and Grayling Strategy preventing us from supplying our natural mixed sex Brown Trout to the few people that we have supplied over the past five years, we are exploring various ways of replacing the income lost from these orders. Either by buying in some non indigenous Rainbow Trout Fingerlings and growing them on to a stockable/smokeable size or growing on some Carp to supply Coarse fisheries, either of which is alien fish culture to that which should be going on this river valley, the rearing of native mixed sex Brown Trout to replenish stock in the river.
The National Trout and Grayling Strategy for the River Test?….. Bonkers!
And like so many strategies dictated from on high over the past decades, completely unworkable, unenforceable and out of date before implementation.
On the dog front Otis had his best day shooting yet, although we are currently on our third house phone in as many months and he proudly demonstrates his soft mouth by pinching baubles off the Christmas tree.
Sunday, 14 December 2008
A significant drop in the temperature this week with two nights of minus five degree Celsius and one of minus seven. No snow, but one morning rain fell shortly after the sun rose and froze on the road; The world’s worst Spaniel – Dobby, struggling with the conditions and like Bambi on ice with his gimpy back legs. Cold Snaps like this are welcome at this time of the year and reaffirm the point to everyone that winter is really here and the growing season has ended. Mild winters can often result in weed, grass trees and birds failing to go into their period of winter shut down, rousing themselves early in the new year with out of season buds and nests that are often caught by late cold snaps in late March and April.
The Flight Pond partially froze over during this week, the pond houses a spring that keeps the temperature a few degrees higher than other ponds but in prolonged freezing periods it will freeze over. It is tempting to divert river water though the pond during cold periods to keep the pond clear of ice, the pond would however act as a silt trap with suspended solids in the river water settling out and the pond eventually silting up, while a shallower pond would still attract Mallard and Gadwall, it would not prove to be as attractive to other types of Duck such as Tufted and Pochard – diving Ducks who prefer a greater depth of water. If there is a significant amount of ice on the pond, many ducks land on the adjacent river and toddle over to where the evening’s food has been tipped.
Cold Snaps always bring Wigeon onto the pond. Arriving en masse and at high speed they are smaller than the Mallard and have a distinctive whistling call. Many of the Ducks that overnight on the pond rouse themselves at dawn to fly a few hundred yards to my employer’s orchard where they are fed everyday. Most days this week when opening the bedroom curtains I have seen half a dozen or more duck circling overhead before pitching on to the river for breakfast. I have never shot Duck here in the morning but I am sure a hide by the apple trees would produce a few brace for someone who could shoot straight. A lot of Duck are shot up and down the valley, mostly wild, some are morning ponds some evening ponds, several estates will also drive the marshes for Duck. In some places they may take a bit of a hammering for a few weeks before learning a lesson and using other pieces of water. It pays to be sensible with wild Duck only shooting them when conditions are right, and leaving them alone when they are having a hard time of it with the weather, do that and they will continue to use your pond.
Few fish were active in the river, not even the Roach; my son failing in his attempts to tempt them or the Grayling while trotting a single maggot. A brief excursion to the neighbouring Put and Take Trout Fishery not only revealed a stunning display of Christmas lights being manoeuvred into place but also a brace of hardy anglers making their way home with a bag of Triploid Rainbow Trout. Sterile fish who maintain their condition throughout the Winter this is where they belong and is what they were initially developed for, a non native fish that is incapable of spawning but will provide good sport for anglers when native Trout populations are going through the rigors of Winter spawning, and not for a half baked, half hearted attempt at protecting a particular river’s wild trout population.
Heavy Rain at the end of the week has turned the river to cocoa, and put the Kibosh on a planned Sunday afternoon of Pike fishing and enabled me to go Christmas Shopping - Oh Deep Joy!
Friday, 5 December 2008
Much colder weather this week, snow fell heavily in many parts of the country although here it fell as heavy rain, turning the river chalky grey. Little fly hatching at any time of the day and fish difficult to spot in the coloured water. The river had cleared by the end of the week; too much silt and colour in the water can affect the hatch rate of the Trout eggs, a fine layer of silt settling on the eggs inhibiting their ability to absorb oxygen eventually killing them. The eggs in the hatchery are eyed up and the developing fish can clearly be seen. The spring water that they are raised on has no suspended solids and is a constant temperature and rate of flow resulting in a far higher number of them hatching compared to the eggs in the river.
First job this week was to sort out a Christmas tree to stand outside the pub in the village. The Christmas tree plantation has two sizes of tree, massive and miniscule. This year I backed the pickup up to a fifty footer and dropped it straight onto the back of the pick up, chopping twenty five feet off the bottom to use as fence posts. The top twenty-five feet was then driven up to the pub and delicately erected between a spiders web of telephone and electricity wires. The Roe Deer have hammered some of the smaller Christmas trees and some will not make a good shaped tree at all. Later I will have to search out trees for the shop, church, village hall and myself.
I have spent much of the week refilling the wood shed with some of the wood that I cut up at the start of the year; some of it is still quite wet and has not seasoned much at all over the summer. Up until a few years ago the central heating in our house ran off the wood burner and we would get through around six tonnes of wood a winter, recently we have had oil central heating linked up which has eased the pressure a little on this stretch of river to produce logs. Over the past ten years some very mature trees have passed on, one ash in my employers garden was enormous, over a hundred and fifty years old it took a team of four the best part of two days to fell and kept both my employer and I in logs for one and a half winters.
I am seeing considerably fewer Pheasants on my morning feed round, many are sat in a block of Maize on a neighbouring bit of land, with luck they will shoot this drive before our next day shooting sending some of our pheasants back. Numbers of Duck visiting the pond continue to fall, and, with heavy rain this week, there are plenty of splashes out on the meadows for them to overnight on. The Canada Geese have turned up on the water meadow upstream from here and should be around for our next day shooting.I have received several messages of support this week about my letter to the Trout & Salmon Magazine in which I aired my concerns about the implementation of the National Trout and Grayling Strategy, principally with the enforced stocking of Triploid Trout into this river. The whole strategy is incredibly muddled, ill thought out and out of date. The Strategy was flawed at inception with the decision to develop a National Strategy and not a regional one. Far bigger noises than myself have raised their objections to the strategy in the angling press over the past year and I feel that is important that the pot continues to be stirred to force change to several aspects of the strategy.
Monday, 1 December 2008
A mixed week for weather with the early morning temperature ranging from minus three degrees on one day to seven degrees on another. There are still a few fish in the Redds, although the majority of the spawning is doe and dusted now. On the warmer days of the week we have had a flurry of Olives early in the afternoon with some of the early spawners raising a nose to the surface to feed. The quicker the fish get back on the feed after spawning the better condition they will be in come the start of the season. The Grayling are in prime condition along with the perfect Roach that average a pound and have a blue sheen to their silver flanks. With the weed all stripped out, several shoals of Roach have joined up to form a “super shoal” that move up and down the river like Mackerel in a harbour.
The number of Ducks coming onto the pond has tailed off a little; as a result the water on the pond has cleared a little making the Fish in the pond particularly vulnerable to Cormorants.
The Old Barn up the road that is being renovated now has a new roof, windows and doors. The previous incumbent a particularly soporific Barn Owl has not been given a key, the Estate putting up a smart new Owl box in the tree next to the barn, which he has yet to use. An estate further down the valley, for several years ran a Barn Owl breeding programme and put up several Owl boxes up and down the valley. Inspection a few months after installation revealed a few Owls had taken up residence but families of Mandarin Duck inhabited most. The Owl that lives next door is relatively used to human activity. On two occasions he has lolloped his way over the grass verge of the lane flying slowly at a height of six feet while I have driven alongside him for several hundred yards.
In the garden we have been invaded by Long Tailed Tits who visit the Bird Feeders en masse every day. We also have a particularly vigorous grape vine that covers a pergola behind our back door, the grapes are inedible to even the tartest of pallets so we leave them on for the birds, who are now whacking in to them as they have passed their maximum sweetness and started to ferment. By teatime and after several hours of getting tipsy on the alcoholic berries we have a huge Kafuffle instigated by the only Blackbird I know of with an Asbo, drunkenly hanging sideways from the pergola eating berries before having a drunken swing at a passing Blue Tit.
We had our second day Shooting at the end of the week. The weather was much better than our first shoot, we did not see as many birds as the first time through, but thanks to some particularly straight shooting we finished up with the same bag; predominantly Pheasant with a few brace of Partridge, Duck, Pigeon with a Woodcock thrown in. We saw four Woodcock in all, no Snipe and no Geese; a cold snap will change things considerably. On the first two days shooting last year we put up three or four Muntjac deer on each day, this year we have seen none.
I have sent the annual fishing report off to the Test and Itchen Association, a tale of woe with much grumbling about the weather and weed, and have also had a letter published in the Trout & Salmon Magazine revealing my old fashioned views about the stocking of Triploid Trout.Otis has now chewed through three phone cables and a pair of my wife’s best boots, although he received better reviews for his performance on the shooting day.