Thursday 18 October 2012

Otters by Chris de Cani

The following article features in the current issue of The Shooting Times and has been classified a 14 by the WH Smith age classification board.

Otters have been present in the British Isles since the Ice age, an oversized weasel with a paddle for a tail and a talent for sub-surface swimming, their numbers took a rapid decline from the 1950s to the 1970s with populations restricted to parts of Scotland, Wales and south West England. The decline was closely linked to insecticides such as dieldrin used on seed dressings. When first used these chemicals proved to be persistent organic pollutants and caused large scale mortalities in several species, the impact the greatest among top predators because of the of the build up of the chemicals in the food chain and numbers of birds of prey and mammals such as the otter experienced a rapid decline. Once dieldren and related chemicals were withdrawn from use, isolated populations of otters that had survived in areas with low intensity agriculture responded and along with a series of introductions of captive bred otters during the 1980s and 1990s spread to every county in England and Wales.

Adaptable and opportunistic they will inhabit any body of water that is unpolluted and contains a population of fish. With a lifespan of up to five years, an adult otter can weigh between fifteen and twenty five pound and requires around 3lb of fish a day to keep it in trim. Fish make up 95% of its diet and they do not just eat eels as has been suggested in some quarters. All fish are targets and this has raised problems for inland fisheries across the UK as otters are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside act and EC Habitats directive. It is an offence to kill an Otter or to disturb its habitat.

A resident otter will have a clearly defined territory that may extend to twenty miles depending on the amount of food available. On the southern chalkstream where I work, the territories are considerably smaller due to the high density of food available. Within this territory the otter will have several above ground resting sites, these are generally in undisturbed areas such as dense scrub or reedbeds, the territory will also included a number of underground holts that can be any hole in the bank that is of sufficient size, one of which will be used by the female to raise her offspring which can occur at any time of the year. On this river the largest litter that I have seen is two but there are reports of Otters raising four young.

The most obvious sign that an otter is in town is half eaten fish on the bank, be it the back end of an eel, half a roach or a double figure carp with a chunk out of his shoulder. Adult otter footprints are relatively easy to identify and are around five centimetres across with five digits, larger than a mink with a greater area of webbing. Otter apologists will often cite mink as the reason for dead fish on the bank, but as well as the difference in footprints the otter spraint is easily distinguished from a mink scat. The spraint is more cylindrical in shape, black through to green with a slightly sweet scent; the mink scat is squiggly and does not smell at all pleasant. Ten years ago if evidence suggested that an otter was about it was rare to actually see the animal, the slightest hint of human activity sent them scuttling off to a quieter part of their territory. Today, as numbers have increased, it is not that uncommon to see them in daylight. The otters on this river have become more accustomed to human activity, I have stood on the riverbank with my two dogs and had a female otter and her two full grown pups stop and stare at me for over a minute. An angler trotting for grayling one winter afternoon on the beats above had a single otter bumble along the bank towards him making its way to some fish rearing ponds a little further upriver, it turned back at the sight of the angler but made three attempts in the following hour to get past.

To commercial fisheries, fishing clubs and fish farms the impact of otter predation is significant. A fishery in the south of England recently lost a carp of over forty pounds to an otter, one fish that would cost in excess of £5000 to replace. In 2008 the British record barbel was found dead on the bank of the Ouse with a bite out of its underbelly. These big fish deaths are particularly galling amongst anglers as little of a fish that has reached such a great age and size is actually eaten. Large carp in lakes are particularly susceptible during the winter months when they are sedentary creatures and easy targets. Big barbel in rivers can take on a similar torpor in low water temperatures and are also easy pickings for a hungry otter. When otters returned to this stretch of river a decade ago we lost two hundred one and a half pound brown trout from our fish rearing ponds in the space of one winter month. All of our ponds are now protected by fencing which is the only effective means of keeping the otter out. In the neighbouring river the fish must take their chance as it is impossible to exclude otters and all species, trout, grayling, roach, chub, perch and pike must take their chance.

Fencing ponds and lakes is an expensive business; an effective fence of metal mesh with several strands of electric can cost around £5 a metre to install. The cost of protecting stock from predators has been part of the fish farmer’s budget for years, but the cost of protecting a lake of a few acres or more can prove prohibitive to fishing clubs and syndicates and stock is subsequently lost. Money has been made available through the environment agency to those in need of help, but the national annual budget of £100,000 to help fisheries protect their stock against otters is a token gesture at best to the angling world whose contribution to the UK economy estimates put at between four and six billion pounds a year.

Most keepers on the chalkstreams with fish rearing ponds have fenced their stock ponds, metal mesh up to five feet high with a few strands of electric are the minimum requirement. Otters are persistent creatures and will repeatedly test a pond’s defences, a keeper on the middle Test was asked to produce twenty four hours of video footage of the “mother of all” electric fences protecting a pond, the night time footage revealed regular sparks of light as electricity arced towards the wet nose of Tarka who despite the shocks, kept coming back for more. A heavy fall of snow reduced the efficiency of the electric defences surrounding one of our own ponds; several trails that resembled a small canoe being dragged through the snow betrayed three otters who swiftly took full advantage of an easy evening meal.

The revival of the otter is one of the biggest conservation success stories in recent times and whether we like it or not, the otter is here to stay. A lake that I used to fish with my son not far from my home contained a balanced population of coarse fish with most species present in various sizes in clear water to a depth of eight feet, it was a perfect place to teach youngsters to fish and provided an introduction to angling for many in the surrounding area. Two winters of twenty cormorants paying it a visit did for all the fish up to two pound in weight and last year a family of otters dined for several months on the remainder of the fish that were predominantly carp aged thirty years or more up to a weight of twenty pounds. The pond is now unfished, dead water that is financially not worth restocking. The impact of cormorants is slowly being addressed across the UK, but the otter’s impact on inland fisheries in the coming years must be closely monitored. There are extremes of view on either side of the otter debate but a middle way must be found that meets the needs of a balanced population of otters and the angling world in the UK.

Chris de Cani is a middle aged riverkeeper in Hampshire a role he has carried out for 26 years. Knees click and ache when he runs but can still manage stairs. Hair grows where it shouldn’t and is missing where it should. Struggles with teenagers but dog still finds him reasonable company. Still believes that he is good enough to play football for Liverpool, cricket for Hampshire and would have been great at the javelin if Fatima Whitbread hadn’t kept jumping the queue
He writes regularly online at and is open to invitations to fish anywhere for anythimg.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Branded by my cheating bloke!

A few frosts in the week caused the first leaves to fall to the floor; disregarding a whitebeam in the garden that always goes too early, the sycamores are the first to discard their foliage closely followed by the ash, the oak is always the last, clinging on to memories of summer. Currently the fish show little sign of doing anything about spawning, the last couple of weeks of fishing saw everyone who turned up take fish, and we still have fish rising around the middle of the day. I have started to put the river to bed, knocking off the fringe and edging in where required before stripping the weed out in the coming weeks. I have also tackled the hedges, that have enjoyed prolific growth this year, if it weren’t for the huge range of “biodiversities” that live in and around hedges I would readily promote brick walls and fences as the future of boundary markation. Conkers, acorns and hazelnuts abound a portly Muntjac feeds every evening under the Horse Chestnut near the fishing hut and squirrels are busy dashing around burying their bounty.

Yes, we have no bananas today...... and take it as read that we have no apples but the two grape vines that grow up around our house are also pitifully short of fruit. A leading grower of award winning fizzy wine in the South of England has abandoned his 2012 crop because of poor quality after a wet summer, and there are similar reports from the many vines that have been planted along this river valley in the past few years, not quite on the scale of the Garonne or Lot but several have got carried along on the “we’re all getting warmer” wave and have marked their fields out for vines.

As has been the case for the past few years we have few ducks visiting the pond despite seeing good numbers during the summer, cold weather could yet bring them flighting up the valley but currently very little barley is being eaten overnight. The pond has also seen a bloom of duckweed which should also prove attractive to the quackers when they deign to put in an appearance.

Today’s paper pronounced that WH Smith had restricted the sale of The Shooting Times. Under pressure from “Animal Aid” who earlier this year published a report that claimed the “lurid pro-violence content” of country sports magazines could have a “corrosive, long lasting effect on impressionable young minds” the magazine will now sit on the top shelf, side by side with Readers Wives, Top Tits and Boobs and Bum and will not be available to anyone under the age of fourteen. Now I must declare an interest here because now and again I submit poorly written pieces for publication in The Shooting Times. Occasionally I also get other requests for written rubbish and around a year ago was invited to submit three thousand words of erotic fiction for an online magazine. An offer I declined, not on grounds of morality or decency, but because after two attempts that amounted to one and a half shades of grey the denoument was delivered after about two hundred words; I couldn’t do it. If I am required to “sex up” my pieces to compete with magazines on the same shelf I may struggle, but I am sure it won’t come to that. The magazine covers a range of countryside issues, and bar the florid faced cove who rambles on about rivers ad neuseam, is well written, balanced and serves as an introduction to many youngsters keen on country pursuits. It is hard enough getting some youngsters to read so why deny them reading material on a legal pursuit in which they have some interest.

A Fourteen year old can walk into WH Smith and buy magazines written in the spirit of Jeremy Kyle in which Shaz proudly displays the cosmetic surgery that she bought her daughter for her sixteenth birthday, or Kanye who introduces us to his wife and sister who turn out to be one and the same person. Two headlines in the current issue of one such magazine, priced at less than a pound proclaim “Mum forced me to marry a rapist and “Branded by my cheating bloke” a lurid tale involving a wayward partner and a hot iron. This magazine and many others of its ilk carry no age restriction on purchase.

Corrosive effect on impressionable young minds?

A Fourteen year old can buy a magazine on cars, lorries, planes and many more pursuits that he has yet to reach the age of consent, so why shooting? Pigeon Pete, and Richard Faulds both won Olympic Golds and I am sure neither were averse to a quick flick through the pages of ST in their youth, Mr Faulds lives near here and I have heard no tales of a corroded mind.

The current badger cull is being portrayed as some new form of hunting in some quarters and both this and the restricted sale of Shooting Times display a lack of knowledge of the countryside and rural pursuits. The Badger Cull is neccessary countryside management carried out under government legislation and not a new sport, the restrictions of sale of The Shooting Times by WH Smith is just plain daft and if it has any impact on the minds of the youth of today, then in the words of the great Hugh Falkus super salmon and sea trout fisher, writer and keeper of chickens,

“My Cock’s a Lobster”

Copy and paste the following link to your address bar if you feel inclined to sign a petition asking WH Smith to lift the age restriction on the sale of Shooting Times magazine

Monday 8 October 2012

This is the age of the train, more lies from Jimmy Saville

End of the season and fishing finished with a flourish, several caught their limit between heavy showers and mostly around the middle of the day. Water levels are good for the time of year although cutting the weed and fringe in the coming weeks will drop it by at least 8 inches. Despite us not shooting as we normally would this year, I have put the feeders out in the wood along the river which are drawing a few Pheasants. We are also inundated with Jays. Some have suggested that this is due in part to the failure of the acorn crop in mainland Europe, we always get a few squawking through the wood and shoot a few each winter.

The trip to the lower reaches of the Itchen was a great day out despite variable weather. Half the width of the stretch I look after on the middle river but twice the depth, there had been reports of plenty of fish present. Unfortunately heavy rain during the preceding 24 hours coloured the water and they were difficult to spot. A chalkstream is managed differently forSalmon than it is for Trout, bar cutting of weed is out, small groynes are used to flick the flow out from the bank to provide an easy lie for fish, and the weed cut with a mind to getting the flow onto the groyne. My first forays were with a flying C, I then switched to a single handed 9ft, 7wt fly rod, casting a super heavy nymph on the end of a super fast sinking leader across the stream allowing it fish round before raising the rod when the fly had reached the bank, the fly lifts and, if you are lucky the salmon can be seen rising from the riverbed to take the fly. My host for the day had a salmon and I had a big Trout, there were many fish present and, despite my feeble efforts, the beat on which I fished is heading for a bumper year. Over lunch we mused on the aircraft with propellers that were skimming the hedgerows as they departed Eastleigh for the Channel Islands, I remarked that surely the jet engine was the future of aviation and I wouldn’t fancy going up in one of those.

Four days later I was strapping myself in to the "Tail end Charlie" seat on the same runway alongside child B on a trip to Newcastle for a University open day. Up close and personal the plane is patently too long, the wings too short and the bits of twig and branch picked up from the hedge at the end of the runway do not suggest safe aviation. Take off had a “shit or bust” feel about it, but as we climbed the fear was assuaged by the view as we followed the river valley north, picking out different beats and cricket grounds as we thankfully climbed higher. Landing was another “seat of your pants” experience, the flooding that we could see out of the window provided some distraction but it was with huge relief that we wobbled off the plane and into Toon. The University was great; the herd of cows in Leazes Park slap bang in the middle of the city a surprise and the walk along the Tyne impressive. On return we boarded a plane with two jet engines and a jolly bunch of saga aged stewards keen to give out free drinks. The two flights were much cheaper than the train and the journey time four hours quicker. "This is the age.... of the train!" more lies and deceit from Jimmy Saville in the seventies and eighties.

At home the weather is getting cooler, although quite barmy after a day on Tyneside. Much of the past week has been spent filling up the woodshed with logs. We have piles of wood littered around the place cut into four foot lengths that have been drying out all summer. I used to log them up in the wood with a chainsaw but a “time and motion” piece of enlightenment has led me to leave them in lengths and bring them back to the woodshed to be cut up on a saw bench powered by my tractor, if calculations are correct the logs are lifted up fewer times than logging in the wood which counts for a lot with the amount that must be cut and moved with my creaky joints. It’s a mixture of Ash, Oak Alder and Willow and the saw bench is straight out of Tom and Jerry.

In this valley two weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, anglers were enjoying the last knockings of a topsy turvy season, With the roast beef and red wine duly punished my wife was ensconced in her shed making things out of paper and card, after football in the morning my son was ploughing through homework and I had popped over to the Itchen to talk about winter work. Mid afternoon we assembled in front of the television to take in the exciting climax of the Ryder Cup. One mile behind our house at the bottom of The Common where we often walk, a father and his two young children parked their car after a lunchtime visit to see Grandad in the neighbouring town. The father, an ex soldier then took out a knife and stabbed his two children and himself to death, an act of incomprehensible brutal savagery with echoes of ancient Rome. The bodies were found at 6pm by a dog walker and the emergency services called by an ex parish councillor who lived in his cottage nearby. For a whole week Police have been conspicuous across the parish as understanding is sought as to what happened and why, the media made merry across the parish for twenty four hours putting Newton Stacey in the nation’s consciousness.

As a freakish aside, neighbouring Barton Stacey was also put in the spotlight. The previous week, the team in green, Barton Stacey FC were playing an important league game against a side from Andover. My wife and I, always keen to mix with the cream of Andover society, donned our wellies and sallied forth to take in child B’s exertions on the wing. The first half was a tense affair and remained goalless at half time, several of the opposition supporters and crew had been spoken to by the referee for their actions and quotations throughout the first half. During the second half Barton Stacey took control with two early goals with child B very much to the fore. A penalty for Barton Stacey was missed but a second was awarded soon after leaving the opposition linesman apoplectic. His ravings drew the attention of the referee who was left with no choice but to send him from the field. Now I have long held the view that ninety minutes is too long to play for adult football. As boys progress through the age groups the game is lengthened until they reach U17 when they play the full ninety minutes of football. Once they pass twenty five they should start taking time off. Many of these games start well with all involved having a good time but once past the hour mark many get tired and it all turns a bit grumpy and spiteful. On this occasion the referee had his hands full throughout the game and had no option to send the linesman home because he was providing no support whatsoever.
Somehow the story ended up on the front cover of The Sunday Telegraph and in the London Metro. A journalist down to cover the gruesome events of the previous week must have picked up on the story and submitted an “amuse bouche” to fill a small gap.