Monday 25 March 2013

A little bit of sunshine would be nice

One afternoon, this time last year, I spent a sunny half hour without my jumper filming a dozen or more grayling making their opening dashes across the shallows in preparation to spawn. Principle concern was over the amount of water and the fact that several of the fish had their backs out of the water. In complete contrast to last year the wind chill is minus something or other, my thermal vest with “I feed millions” on the front delivered free with a tonne of fish food is close to being worn out and there is a stoat at large still clad in winter ermine lest the snow returns. Water levels are good, a little above average, but not yet exceptional so I shouldn’t complain. A few days of sunshine would make a huge difference to both mind and mood and buds currently reluctantly breaking on hawthorn would joyously unfold; a flick of the spring switch would bring a few mild sunny days and birdsong would inevitably be delivered with a tad more gusto than the current reluctant chorus , that said it is often quoted that we are statistically more likely to experience snow at Easter than Christmas but a few days of warm sun as opposed to prolonged grey and gloom would certainly lift the mood.

Bridges have drawn the eye in the past ten days. Most winters one must be replaced, but this year has seen one reach the end of its life and three others in need of a face lift. Green oak purchased from the local saw mill but plucked from a far flung corner of Europe is the material of choice, and banging the posts through three feet of gravel with a bumper doesn’t get easier as the years progress. The fishing hut stands on four eight foot lengths of telegraph pole that I drove seven feet into the ground, by hand, twenty years ago before my chest had slipped. The hut weighs a bit, with over a ton of tiles on the roof, and it remains level (I check every year) When they next need replacing I will get a nipper to bang the bloody things in while my wasted muscles give instruction from distance via megaphone.
Banging square posts into gravel by hand can be a tedious business. Putting a four faced point on the end rather than two reduces twisting as the post goes down into the earth but it is still necessary to stop every few tonks to twist the post one way with the two hands while gently rotating it the other to bring it back on line; go through the gravel seam and the post can disappear, rub against a root and a rakish angle may result. When you walk over the thing every day, any anomalies grate, there’s no photoshop for real time viewing and I am very grateful to all those who paint pictures of the fancy bridge over to the fishing hut and make it look level, but if you bang a post in that is likely to remain in situ for a decade or more it pays to take the time to get it straight and get it right because every wonky post draws the eye and serves as a reminder of a job bodged.

The accompanying photo of a newly constructed bridge has not been touched up or subjected to soft focus.

Surface feeding fish are few and far between in the current conditions, although most appear to be in reasonable knick. There are quite a few rainbows in the river between a pound and four pound in size which suggests that the neighbouring "big fish" water lost a few during the festive floods. Rainbows don’t count on this stretch so some of our early rods could be taking home a bigger bag of fish than anticipated. Water on the meadows through winter often results in poor Hawthorn fishing and wind may be welcome in late April to blow a few on to the river from surrounding higher ground where the larvae will not have been affected by pools and puddles. Weed is growing well and ranunculus in particular looks to be having the time of its life in the strong flowing water, bets are off on the likelyhood of cutting weed in mid April.

There are a few funny birds around, plenty of duck and geese with an eye to pairing, and one small tweeter that makes a funny noise whenever I approach that I have yet to see beyond a sideways silhouette; more people in the valley are reporting having seen a Bittern. The Common land below this stretch often appeals at this time of the year and is currently fairly inaccessible to all but the most persistant of intruders due to the amount of water lying about. Emboldened by a belly full of beef and fortified with Fitou I sallied forth on a Sunday afternoon to conquer the common and record any species I may find, think Dr Livingstone without the elephants, porters and accompanying caravan but with a glass of wine on board.

Owls are always about on the common day or night, one obdurate barn owl tolerated me to within ten yards of his perch before he flopped off and flapped away. The local school at which the lady who sleeps on my left has worked for many years and which both Child A and Child B attended, has an owl as its emblem, nobody knows why, but it is particularly apt as the village and the surrounding countryside play host to every single species of owl native to the British Isles.
A Curlew was making its distinctive call somewhere on the common but it remained invisible despite some super silent creeping by yours truly in muffled wellies before snow flurries drove me home for tea.

The roads around here are in a bit of a mess, the little lane that is both entrance and exit from this diminuative collection of dwellings is pocked with holes. For thirty yards the route traverses the bank of the river with a hedge bordering the other side, holes big enough to swallow a swan cannot be avoided and subsequently it is a rocky road to town.

The Von Trapps, at home.

Once while camping in Switzerland, when Child A & B were not very old and I could comfortably pass for Ewan Mcgregor, we crossed the Alps into Italy via the Simplon Pass. They save their holes for their cheese the swiss and we enjoyed a stunning ascent in spring on superbly maintained hole free Swiss roads that had seen far harsher conditions than we have here this winter. On the Italian side of the hill the contrast could not have been more stark and much of the budget for road building and repairs appeared to have been siphoned off somewhere. The same was true of roads around Naples and the Amalfi coast where we briefly sojourned recently, mistakingly ticking the “car hire” box to take on a lawless road system where anything goes,and good luck on your quest for your final destination. It is with this in mind that much of our menu currently carries an Italian theme, as every pop to the shop brings back memories of our bone jarring entrance to Domodossolla or bumping around the bay of Naples.

And here’s the thing:

Roads can be made from hard surfaces that take a long time to wear out, the principle drawback of such surfaces is road noise at speed and a harder ride. The same sections of our little lane have been repaired many times in the past decade, the fifty yard stretch over the spring ditch by the football pitch is repaired annually after each winter; the same old holes patched up with soft tarmac each year.
Rather than resurface with blackstuff and gravel why not go for something harder, it isn’t the fastest road (or it shouldn’t be) so road noise shouldn’t be an issue and I’d take a harder ride if it meant avoiding holes in the road that I enter wondering if I will ever make it out the other side.

Friday 8 March 2013

River restoration meetings in a hat lifted from Lenin

After a cold dry week during which the wind caused the toughest skin to chafe and flake, the scorched earth policy has been rolled out and reed beds burnt to a cinder. For a few days conditions were perfect and a single dropped match caused a steady burn driven on by a zealous zephyr that ensured much of what stood is burnt. I had a go over on the Itchen but the growth is not as thick and it didn’t make quite as good a job of it, this may be because it has not been burnt off before, dense dry reed beds undoubtedly burn better than those with more sparse growth and it may be that the job will be easier next year for having been done for the first time this year.

The black soon turns green and I can’t emphasise how thick and diverse the re-growth has become on reed beds that we have now been burning off annually for well over decade, like whacking into the willows and maintenance of marginal growth a prolonged management programme really does make a difference to the chalkstream environment.

We currently have more duck on the river and meadows than we have for some while, cold weather normally sees an influx of teal and wigeon but the ducks flitting about this valley are still mostly mallard with the odd bunch of tufties, not many geese or snipe either who can often arrive in numbers when the wind blows cold from the east. Following a dry spell the river has dropped a little although the banks retain a squidge factor of five. The water is clear and weed is starting to grow Trout are keen to feed as are the pike who are preparing to move to the spring holes and ditches to think about spawning as will the grayling who also remain active but will soon switch off and shuffle to the shallows to do their thing. The next month we will scan the skies for winged oddities as it is often at this time we see migrants moving through in their way to nesting grounds, an osprey hung around for a while five years ago, taking a fine fish of about three pounds from the river in front of the fishing hut on my fortieth birthday. At the time, which happened to be an alcohol fuelled birthday lunch, this was attributed to be a bad sign. Runes were subsequently read, juju wood burnt and a totem pole constructed featuring my own features above a carved osprey head, but all came to naught, and a few winters later the totem pole was introduced to the wood burner along with our old kitchen table chairs during a particularly cold snap when the requirement for warmth won over the need to ward away evil avian spirits.

Recent cold weather and the loss of my favourite hat led to a new purchase from the internet, crafted from the finest fleeces of eight week old persian karakul lambs in uptown Ukraine it was offered on ebay and may well have been lifted from Lenin’s tomb. It’s the warmest hat I have ever had which outstrips the fact that it looks a little odd. After initial approval Otis has since taken to walking at least ten yards behind me, as has the lady who sleeps on my left who declined my offer of wearing it in bed for some Russki role play, I was to play the surly diplomat and she the dusky maiden seeking freedom from her life of turnips, cabbage and vodka derived from their peelings. When we first connected up to the internet over ten years, ago one of our opening emails after “welcome to compuserve” included a list of four hundred such women seeking to make a new life away from the Russian Steppes. The email had profiles for each and every one who were keen to offer marriage along with a list of items, attributes and skills that they were able to add to our union, last year when we were struggling to get a plumber to call, in desperation we dug out the list in the hope of a Svetlana skilled in the use of a pipe bender and stilsons, but no joy.

Demolition is well underway on the stable block whose roof I fell through before Christmas. Two days of crash bang wallop and driving at it with a digger has reduced it to dust, well sixteen loads of concrete at the very least.

The first draft of the Test and Itchen Restoration strategy report has now been published online. To recap, the EU’s water Framework Directive requires the SSSI’s of the river’s Test and Itchen to be brought up to scratch, they are currently deemed to be failing and if they are not brought up to the required standard by 2013 fines will be issued from Brussels, or possibly Strasbourg.

The Environment Agency and Natural England subsequently commissioned a highly reputable company to come up with a detailed plan of action. On the company’s website they describe themselves as :

“One of the world’s leading design, engineering and project management consultancies with the breadth and depth of expertise to respond to the most technically challenging and time critical infrastructure projects

The Water Framework Directive has potential to afford these two Hampshire rivers protection against a variety of threats and the results of the two year survey were eagerly awaited. I can only comment on the report for the two stretches of river for which I am responsible, but if it turned up in a pile of marking for the lady who sleeps on my left a line would be drawn through it with “do it again” writ witheringly large in red at the base. It may be that those who assessed this stretch of the Dever were from the “High Protein diet division” because they failed to demonstrate any understanding of how hatches and sluices work or where they are on a map. As expected, the report suggests an alternative method of use for the hatch in front of the house. A few years ago during the opening skirmishes of the restoration strategy I had an entertaining afternoon with the late Tim Holzer, a keen protagonist for throwing open all the hatches on the river. I argued that if the hatch on the house was removed it will undoubtedly improve the hundred yards of man-made stream in front of the house half of which has a concrete bottom but would impact on the mile of main river which is in pretty good shape. We have done what we can with the top two thirds of the man-made stream with woody debris very much to the fore and a plethora of faggots, casting platforms and replanted marginal growth, so the SSSI may have to take the hit of a hundred yards of perched stream, and anyway there has to be an eye to heritage and a seventeenth century mill house and its elaborate workings, the voles can’t conquer all. The survey put the sluice in front of the house on the main river and not on the mill stream, classified the hatch at the top of the mill stream as a weir and fundamentally failed to grasp the machinations of these two split streams and what is achievable with either. The Mill itself does not appear on the list of “in stream” Mill houses on the river despite the current building being in situ for over four hundred years and a mill on site for over a millennium.

On the Itchen the report’s findings were surprising. The short stretch of single bank that I am responsible for is hard piled throughout its length and the EA have installed a gauging station to warn Winchester of impending flood, there is also a substantial fixed feature midstream below the road bridge that deflects flow around the top pool but also holds the water level up by a foot above the bridge. Following the November restoration strategy consultation meeting, I made contact with the EA about the possibility of removing the piling and of a week with a digger re-profiling the bank. Extensive onsite meetings with the EA, Natural England and the magic man with the digger confirmed that this was undoubtedly the way to go, even the hard-nosed man from hydrology conceded to the removal of twenty yards of piling that afforded belt and braces protection to his gauging station, some funding was even secured. The survey conducted twelve months prior to these meetings subsequently declared that there is nothing to report and the current state of this hard piled bank should be conserved and enhanced, the massive structure two yards downstream from the bridge that is having a significant impact on the stream was missed and does not appear on the list of “in stream structures”.

I have only been working on this stretch of the Itchen for a just over a year but on my opening forays down the river I suggested that a few weeks bank work with a digger would pay dividends, a lifetime walking up and down bank of one sort or another suggested that all was not as it should be . It’s expensive work, bank re-profiling and persuading a riparian owner that this is the way to go to benefit his stretch of stream is made all the more difficult following a duff survey that declared everything to be “tickety boo”. Germaine Greer recently wrote an enlightened article on the threat faced by the rivers in the south, which was a quite a surprise from this champion of female emancipation, perhaps she should be given a go at surveying a few stretches of stream and the international company of fine repute return to their more specialised field of high protein diets.

It is only a draft copy and I am sure that common sense will prevail and the mistakes will be corrected, but it doesn’t instil faith in the whole process. I desperately wanted to write something positive about this report, and it may be that all the cock ups occurred on the two stretches for which I am responsible, but for the two bits of bank that I bumble along it is inaccurate at best, inept at worst.

How much is this consultation costing the public purse?

The meeting that followed on from the draft publication was reasonably well attended, and ran through what happens next. Examples where given of what the ideal chlkstream should look like and at one point the leading lady suggested that if anyone needed guidance as to what the ideal is they should take a look of any bridge bordering bank that has been classified “conserve and enhance” and there ye shall find. The stretch of Itchen on which I walk has received this classification and the bridge at the top gives a clear view of the bank so expect a rush on pig iron in the coming months. The survey continues to peddle the myth of the miracle of “woody debris” which has the potential to become the monorail of The Simpsons season 4 episode 12, but for the first time I saw writ in “action to be taken to conserve the chalkstreams” a hint that all wood in the river may not be such a good thing.
You have to know what your about with woody debris, done well in the right spot it can undoubtedly help, done badly in the wrong spot it doesn’t and thousand plus word articles in the Angling Press urging all to fling timber willy-nilly into any river by those who proclaim to know better were irresponsible (I’m sorry I will not let that one go for a long time)

Advice on Willow management was muddled and one riparian owner eloquently highlighted the problems of meeting the different requirement of higher level stewardship schemes and managing the SSSI each of which called for conflicting management plans to be undertaken.
There was however sensible advice on changing angler expectation as to their chalkstream experience with regard to mowing and marginal growth.

We heard from the Environment Agency, Natural England, The Test & Itchen Association and the company of International repute, a complicated enough cabal that will be muddled further by an increased role for The Wild trout Trust. Strong leadership is required to prevent a repeat of “The people’s front of Judea” of Monty Python fame.

Most recognise the need to protect and improve the southern chalkstreams, they have taken a bit of a battering in recent times and need protection from diffuse pollution, over abstraction and much more besides. The Water Framework Directive and the push to improve the condition of SSSI’s promises to do this and should be encouraged, but if fundamental mistakes are made early on in the surveying process and the group charged with implementing the action are seen as a large unwieldy alliance it will fail, and Riparian owners and keepers who in my time have received contradictory advice to both remove fences from river banks and fence river banks, chop down trees and plant trees, received grants for the installation and renovation of hatches and sluices and been asked to remove hatches and sluices, will understandably question whether the advice being given is valid and return to practices of old, both good and bad.