Friday 30 March 2012

I counted them all out and I counted them all in

This week the river has dropped. We have had a mini heat wave in March which brought some butterflies out but is not the principle cause behind the river’s recession, the first effects of a dry winter are kicking in and as everything wakes up and reaches for the bedside glass of water, the demands on nature’s water reserves increase substantially. The roots of Alders that are normally submerged are out in the open and an old bank repair from well before my time sticks

out from the bank like the ribs of a dinosaur. An invitation has been received to a “low flows” workshop not “ indicators and effects of a dicky prostrate” (although there will be talk of interrupted streams of flow) but sensible action by the Test & Itchen Association to ensure riparian owners are doing all they can to preserve the aquatic environs in the arid months to come. Donning other sporting hats, advice has also been given on the watering of cricket squares and the preparation of football pitches, we hope the swimming pool community received similar advice.

On this river contingency plans mentally formed months ago, are fast “firming up”. The local “big fish water has snapped up extra aeration for lakes and ponds that diminish by the day and calls have been made to local eateries to push the trout on the menu in the coming months. Our own stew ponds are starved of water and I am not able to feed the fish hard to pack on weight in these growing months. Fish are on half rations and the inlet pipe that is twelve inches in diameter would normally be submerged at this time of year; currently we have half a pipe full pushing through the ponds and the river is only going to get lower.

We won’t dry up......I think. When the weed flourishes it will be possible to maintain a level, and early season fishing could be quite spectacular, we have high hopes for the Hawthorn, crystal clear water and a river full of fish, but by August the river’s source will be considerably closer to this parish than it has been for a very long while and we may have to move fish from our stew ponds if we are unable to get any more water through them, particularly when the water warms up.
I have given up on the tinning, there is insufficient flow to have any significant effect and have turned to titivating and tarting up in preparation for the new season. The Fishing hut has had a new coat of preservative as have fences gates and a bridge in the house garden. We have several Mallard sitting on eggs, tadpoles in the pond and the Coarse fish are very active, particularly in the afternoon. We are still inundated with Geese, and a Kestrel is slowly building a nest in a large beech tree near the bottom bends. I have been patiently scanning our back field for some weeks now to photograph hares at the frolic as they have out there most years, but have seen none. Only stunning Cock Pheasants in a crop that I have not come across, it may be some kind of Vetch or a “save the world” Biomass crop, the pigeons loved it early on as did the Pheasants but it doesn’t seem to float Hartley Hare’s boat

On the Itchen the leaky transformer continues to drip, not into the aquifer, but a cutting edge bucket; Lesley continues her quest for justice and has the electricity people firmly by the short and curlies.

Today the local school paid us a visit. Many wouldn’t, deterred by the Health & Safety and Risk assessment involved with walking ten year olds alongside a channel of water. They have visited every other year for quite some while now as part of their river studies and each time, in the words of Brian Hanrahan, “I counted them all out and I counted them all back” It’s all about erosion, deposition and ox bow lakes and every year eddies are a bit of a let down when it becomes clear that they are not the raging whirlpools that they were sold in the classroom. Chalkstreams don’t always to stick to the rules. We have bends where deposition occurs on the outside rather than the inside and the same with erosion which can take some explaining to a persistent ten year old, and inevitably turns to tales of overwidening caused by the devil’s own tree.

Midway through a satisfactory retail experience at our local countryside supplies emporium I bumped into a retired keeper who was employed on a stretch of the upper main river. After several years he had returned to the stretch and was dismayed at the condition of the river following a lengthy period of not being keepered and concerned that the new owners did not realise that a chalkstream must be managed, thoughts echoed by parents and pupils on the school trip who were unaware that the rich environment in which they were walking has been heavily influenced by man and his hand over many hundreds of years and is what it is because of that.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

PCBs and ipads

Spring equinox and still we wait for the winter rain; the Merlin didn’t turn up either. Slash and burn has continued for much of the week, along with a bit of spraying, no end of praying (for rain) and burning the bits of the last reed beds off. All week the Grayling have been hard at it on the shallows, a dozen or more dark minded and dark bodied males charging across the gravels to compete for the lighter coloured females who glide up from the holes below. Mostly fish of around a pound and a half, the water is of sufficient clarity for courting couples, triples and multiples to be visible from space.

The same is happening over on the Itchen in slightly deeper water with fish at least a pound heavier, the water is not as clear as the Dever although the Ranunculus is a little further on. I had added the final flourishes to the covered seat when my attention was drawn by the owner to a transformer slung on a telegraph pole fifteen yards from a spring hole. The oil from the transformer was leaking onto the ground below. The owner is a bit of a whizz where chemistry is concerned and was aware of the possible contamination by PCBs. Calls were made to the Environment Agency and Scottish Electric who, for some

reason, service the poles in the South. Scottish Electric put a mat underneath the transformer before removing it the next day along with the top inch of soil; the transformer remained, leaking. After an underwhelming response to a pollution incident on the Dever last year I did not hold out much hope of seeing an EA man before the end of the week but they responded magnificently. Lesley was despatched from Romsey with a van

full of stuff and a light on top which disappointingly was not switched on and flashing; the “guys in groundwater” were concerned, along with someone else whose name I fail to recall but may well have been Newt related. Lesley, after donning a very bright coat and some very safe shoes, took copious notes and photos, Emails have subsequently been flung far and furiously into the ether, mats have once again been placed under the still dripping transformer and we await the results of Lesley’s ire!

The pole and transformer lie next to a spring ditch that runs through the village joining the river at the bottom of this beat, a spring lies fifteen yards from the dripping pole. Throughout the winter the crack willow has been cut back, the channel cleared out and a soft line established to the banks as marginal growth has quickly returned. In a normal winter the channel will be three times the size so it is important not to put too many “hard” features to determine the line of the bank, a soft line of marginal growth can easily be cut back during times of high water. It is stuffed with minnows plus the odd trout and with effective management would make a perfect nursery stream, provided the PCBs don’t do for it in the coming weeks.

I am called to do many things in the line of duty, I work alone so all tasks must be tackled. I have run up the final furlong at Cheltenham in my best shoes in front of a crowd of 10,000, chased an errant hound around an arena with the chap from the “Horse of the year show” commentating on proceedings, played Chris Tarrant in an over 60's "Who wants to be a millionaire and much more besides. On Friday at 7am I was outside the local “Apple” emporium in Barbour and wellies, not queuing for Cox but the latest version of the Ipad, a generous birthday present from my employer. Not the technological type I declined conversation with the two hundred or more geeky guys in the queue and avoided the eye of the “appleteesers” employed outside the store to ask how excited we were about our prospective purchase. At 8 am the doors slid back and the thirty or more employees lined up outside to give us two minutes applause for what I can only assume was “doing good queue” before purchasers were allowed into the store. A bubbly man in hat and microphone welcomed each customer individually outside the store and formally introduced `them to the “i dude” who was to guide them through the purchase. Each customer was subsequently clapped into the store to much “whoopin and a hollerin”, high fives, hugs and the odd tear. Money was paid and a brief ten minute intro to the machine by an “i guide” followed. Alex was my “i guide” and during the process he ascertained that it was my birthday. Fearing another round of whoopin and hollerin and cries of "You the man" I swiftly hissed that if he started banging on about my “special day” he would be pulling apples from places that apples don’t normally grow. Alex quickly replied that several had expressed concerns over the edgy guy in the smelly coat and wellies in the queue so best tread carefully, the "birthday thing" would not be mentioned

After an emotional retail experience, I left with my fantastic birthday present and was not clapped out of the store.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Not Rhianna naked in the back field again!

It has been mooted in some circles (painting and decorating mostly) that I have been banging on about the lack of water a little too much of late. Now that it is very much in the public eye and action plans are to be implemented to stop everybody getting too thirsty, I will try not to mention it again for a while.

There are some good looking birds in the fields around here, and I don’t mean Rhianna getting her kit off for another album cover with an agricultural theme. What Cock Pheasants remain following the winter’s shooting are in pretty fine fettle, tip top plumage to catch the ladies’ eye. The valley is still inundated with geese, well over a hundred Greylags and Canadas on the top water meadow; the sheep will be out there soon which could make it a tad crowded. There are also plenty of Pigeon feeding hard on the field behind our house most mornings when I draw back the curtains. Only the odd hare out there at the moment. It’s only six and a bit acres but some Springs can see a dozen Hares out there mucking about.

Earlier this week we played host to a car clad with bits of wood and a camera crew shooting the front cover for a book that is soon to be released. Most who saw the car, commented that they had owned one once and hankered after days when motoring was much simpler. Give me ABS brakes, powered steering, air conditioning and air bags any day. The memory of my first car, an 850cc minivan that we hand- painted with Hammerite green just to make sure we got all the rust, is still fresh in the memory. Brakes that must be pumped two or three times to work, sliding windows that didn’t shut, a heater that didn’t heat and a mixture of cross ply and radial tyres that drew £36, (one week’s living expenses for a student at the time) of fines in a day. The car clad with wood was plonked on the lawn and photographed with the author and a dog for most of the morning, an exhaustive process the results of which will soon be available at all well known bookstores.

To add to the car parking chaos of the day, one of our regular Grayling fishermen arrived for a last cast before the close season, at the same time as the camera crew, beautician, publisher, and wooden car man. Fresh from the Frome he had caught a fish of a lifetime earlier in the week, a 3lb 12oz Grayling that was well over 50cm long. They don’t go that big here but there are a few 2lb plus fish in the river. He bought along a film making friend who had just returned from Mahseer fishing in southern India. He is responsible for some of the better fishing programmes that have been made, including my favourite with Bob James and Chris Yates, who Paul Whitehouse said of recently:

“He’s that bloke who uses split cane everything, he’s even got split cane hair!”

There are a few fishing programmes that I find hard work, the presenter of “River monsters” paints the riverbank as a scary place to be, and if Robson Green were fishing on the opposite bank I would spend most of my fishing time firing all manner of things at him with my catapult, particularly if he took his clothes off and jumped in the swim, as he seems prone to do on occasion. Anyway “film man” and “regular”, negotiated the sprawling photo shoot. “Regular” picked up Grayling throughout the day, all to nymphs, and “film man” having bagged 60 Mahseer the previous week on baits that sounded suspiciously similar in shape and size to the fat balls on our bird feeder, took a dozen Roach to a pound and a half on trotted single maggot.
That’s it now for the Grayling, Roach Pike and Perch who will soon turn their minds to spawning. It used to be a frustrating time for me as my birthday falls on the final day of the coarse fishing season, any new tackle given as gifts would not see frontline action, only practice runs in the garden for three months until the season re opened on June 16. Nowadays stillwaters stay open throughout the year and in most cases the coarse fishing close season applies only to rivers, although there are some regional byelaws that change things in some places.

On the river the interminable battle with Crack Willow continues but I shan’t go on, needless to say it is attritional, not very pretty, but victory will be mine. The water is clear, and the first shoots of Water Celery and Ranunculus are poking through the gravel. There are some very big fish in the river although the large hen that has been on the middle bends for the past three seasons seems to have gone. Olives continue to trickle off in the early afternoon and several fish feed sporadically on the surface, nothing regular just a rise every now and again.

Late last week I was asked to look at a short stretch of the Pilhill Brook, or what’s left of it (Sorry low water’s back) A tributary of the Anton, in turn a tributary of the Test, I would be surprised if it’s still running in June when it should be fifteen feet wide and a foot deep.

Monday 5 March 2012

F*&% Y*&$ Lark!

No rain this week but a couple of very mild days in the middle that made all sorts swell up. A couple of buds have broken on the thorn hedge bordering the lane at the bottom of this stretch and I have been bitten by a fly/ horse fly/ crocodile in February. I have finished clearing trees from our bottom bit. The island that twelve years ago was covered in six inches of water following a particularly wet winter stands eighteen inches proud of the water with roots exposed all around. Eighteen inches may not be much for some rivers but for a chalkstream that will only rise an inch when many rivers would overflow, it is an awful lot. The spring that runs from the bottom of the iron age defence ditch and would have been one of the principle reasons for “Iron age Alan and family” to settle on that spot has dried up. It may have done so before, but not during my time. A recent run up the Bourne valley in the name of Sunday football revealed a river that has been dry for three years and an interesting football pitch in the water meadows that appeared to have medieval ridge and furrow ploughing across its middle. Dry winters in winter bourne valleys lead to all manner of articles accumulating in the dry river channel. Fences put across to contain livestock, dogs or children, dry bridges made into dens by young adventurers, even wood piled up for winter storage all of which cause problems when the water returns.

Following recent press coverage the shortage of water in the south is now very much in the public consciousness. For keepers on this river it has been a topic of conversation for some while. Some are trepidatious over the impending fishing season, others too cool for school. Here we may have problems with the stew ponds and getting sufficient water through them to keep the fish within in good order. They were chronically short of water for much of last summer, and we have a fourstroke two inch pump standing by to bash the water around a bit, but if the water falls to such a level that there is no water going through the inlet pipe the fish will have to be moved “tout de suite” The ponds hold three pound Rainbow Trout so we can’t just chuck them in the river, we would need the relevant section 30 movement order and the river is stuffed with fish as it is. It may come down to a quick google of “Big Rainbow Trout recipes” or advertise locally for someone who requires half a tonne of Smoked Trout Pate. Problems could be compounded midsummer by an extended hot spell warming the water leading to depleted oxygen levels, a thunderstorm during such a period and the resultant drop in air pressure could be devastating as oxygen levels are reduced further. Of course it could rain yet, or we may have a cool damp summer, either of which would relieve the pressure a tad.

With the bottom bit done, the chainsaw’s eye has been drawn to Willow on a weir pool upstream from the fishing hut, named after an old factor of the neighbouring estate who lived in the house overlooking the bend with a bottle blond Retriever called “Lark”. Lark would sometimes appear on the river bank and stay for sometime despite a booming base baritone calling across the fields on many an afternoon:

“Lark!...Lark!........Lark! .............. Oh F*** Y** Lark!

He was a nice chap to talk to but was fast approaching his wit’s end over his errant dog who always went home in the end.

Two weeks of two stroke power will ultimately reduce the arbours formed by the willows to dust, light will once again enter the river, weed will thrive and victory will be mine! It’s been warm work on the chainsaw front, and every now and again a jackdaw flies past with a stick in its beak as a reminder that spring could soon spring, but then again nature has been fooled before and I can remember sledging at Easter on a couple of occasions. Following invasion by Siskin we are now inundated with Goldfinches and are refilling a niger seed feeder daily. Mid afternoon is a twitter fest as the various groups strive to make themselves heard before flitting from tree to tree.

A bitch in the hood has been “shakin her tail feathers” causing no end of grief to our resident gangster Otis. Early this week we returned late from an indoor cricket match at The Dummer Cricket centre. On the short transfer from kennel to kitchen “ the world’s worst spaniel completed the trip”, but the doofus bolted and the lady who sleeps on my left and myself couldn’t see his black ass for dust as he bolted into the night. He has done this on a handful of occasions and each time, on reaching the site where “the lady” has passed, he re-enters the room and realises he doesn’t have a clue where he is. The poor dog is a slave to his conkers so we toured the parish for much of the night. He likes his cricket and football so we looked in at our home grounds, plus a couple of away ones. He wasn’t in the woods, hanging around the village, at the pub (I did that one) or cruising the lanes so in the small hours we returned to bed. He came back at some point as there was much barking at dawn with the paper man repelled and the paper strewn across the yard. We do not know if he found what he was looking for, my guess is he didn’t as he stills bangs his gums in front of the TV and eyes the Spaniel with the eyes of Eros. If Rubens, Hogarth or Norman Thelwell were commissioned to come up with an image of a dog Otis would result. Any pups he has sired will stand out a mile and paternity claims will undoubtedly follow.