Wednesday 19 June 2013

A proper June Weed Cut

Two days to go of what has been a proper June weed cut. There is a reason that more days are allocated to cut weed in June than any of the other summer months and that is because historically it is the time of the year when there has been most weed to cut. This hasn’t been the case on the under replenished Dever for a few seasons, the Itchen was a bit manic this time last year, but good winter flows on the Dever have stimulated the weed growth to such an extent that Ranunculus is in full flower and water celery is poking through the surface. Sensibly most Keepers started cutting on day one, there can’t be much weed left in the Dever upstream from here, and on several occasions this past week the river here has been bunged up with cut weed backed up on a bridge, and for a few hours the bottom bends by the house were completely clogged as large rafts squeezed through a short section where the river narrows. All of my cutting has been carried out with an eye to drying out the banks while maintaining cover and lies for fish.
The manner in which the hundred yards or so below this beat is cut affects the water level through our bottom bends and on up to the fishing hut. During one of my first weed cuts I spent an age bar cutting these bottom bends maintaining what I thought would be a good level of water for the coming month, only for the keeper below to strip out the top hundred yards of his beat and drop the level of the water by six inches through all my fancy weed cutting. A lesson learnt, I now put a board in the top hatch to reduce the flow by a quarter, pushing more water down the mill stream during the weedcut, I then cut the weed in the main river with this reduced flow. If weed cutting downstream drops the level late in the cut, I can push the water back over my bars by pulling the board out and increasing the flow through the river. Chalkstreams are rivers that have been managed by man for one reason or another for hundreds of years and despite what experts would have us believe not every hatch is a bad hatch, it’s about knowing what is achievable with each hatch or sluice and operating it accordingly. A veiled reference to River Restoration Strategy and a bum report by Atkins perhaps, but scythe induced rumination reminded me that we were promised a report of reaction to the consultation by April but nothing yet has been published, and it remains one of the few UK River Restoration Strategy consultations undertaken under The Water Framework Directive not to have published comments that were invited following consultation.

Fishing through the weed cut has been a little hit and miss, completely unfishable when large rafts are pushing through, the fish have been quick to settle once the cut weed has passed as mayfly continue to hatch in numbers. Along with the mayfly we have experienced some huge hatches of olives, more numerous than in recent years, a few three tailed BWO, but mostly twin tailed medium olives. One afternoon while swishing my scythe, I was treated to a spectacular aerobatic display as many martins and swallows swooshed above my head tucking in to an appetiser of olives before a main meal of mayfly. Trout have also been taken on olive patterns, more so than during most periods when Mayfly have been on the menu.

The fen that we fired earlier in the year is dense with growth and hums to the drone of buzzy things dipping their wick into the many flowers of Knitbone, a few Orchids are pushing their way through and several seem paler than in previous years,
I don’t know why, and it may be my failing eyes, but I took a photo of this plant last year and it was definitely a darker purple.
The pond is crystal clear and completely free of carp following a winter with the otter. Roach and rudd abound and will no doubt tempt Billy the bittern to return in the winter months but the biggest fish in the pond are the bream, there are plenty of one to two year old fish mucking about in the margins but a troop of senior fish that must be pushing double figures regularly patrol, I have only ever found one dead on the bank, a fish of around eight pound done for by dear old Tarka, so maybe they don’t taste very nice, although we once fished for carp on the Saone in the summer near Macon and a neighbouring “pecheur” took a bin bag full of the things home after a night on the bank. They would not be my bottom feeder of first choice, I will always carry a torch for Tinca Tinca but boring as they may be Bream seem to do well in this pond.

Fears over fracking in the Test Valley have got a few roused. Water supply is the key issue in these quarters, along with the disposal of post fracked water, as it is full of nasties that won’t do much for the chalkstream environment and all who live in her. Bridge design will need to be addressed if seismic activity is to increase along with earthquake damping on the fishing hut. Research across the pond over whether fracking is a goer reported that environmental impact was ok if it could be “managed” Big business and the bottom line speak if ever I heard it, why not “eliminated” rather than “managed”? Recent events on the Bourne suggest that our agencies entrusted with environmental protection are a toothless bunch. If they were an educational establishment subject to regular inspection I have no hesitation in suggesting that they would be classified as “failing” when what these rivers require is an “outstanding” classification, especially when faced with big business and the bottom line. The trashing of a chalkstream environment would be small beer in comparison to some of the things that have gone on worldwide in the name of energy provision. I like my electricity , but give me a thousand hamsters spinning wheels in the garden over this dodgy process a few miles up the road any day.

A report by the Institute of Fishery Management has called for fishery owners and managers to lay off Cormorants as their numbers are dwindling. A bizarre request as numbers of cormorants on inland waterways needed to dwindle. Graculus is not on his uppers, and can still be found in numbers in places far from the sea where he really shouldn’t be.

Bonkers! too much Noggin the Nog.

Further ruminations while swishing a scythe:

“Wild” is a much used word on the river bank these days. Many anglers have been wild at the weed running the river this past week, for which I apologise, but more often than not it is used to describe a small Brown Trout that has been plucked from the river and returned with gentle hands. Like “Organic”, “fat free” and “The Duchess of Cambridge” it is often uttered with great reverence and can impart a warm glow on the orator. It is a small fish I have caught so it must be wild.

Now on some bodies of water you could be reasonably confident in the statement that the small fish that gulped your fly was wild, whatever wild is?

On some lakes and rivers a self sustaining population of Brown Trout could confidently be termed as wild. a Scottish Loch full of four year old four ounce fish or a wild welsh river with no history of stocking. It’s a tough life and they have retained a genetic purity that some may covet, and others consider an evolutional hindrance. An island not far from these shores was inhabited by a small population of homo sapiens that for hundreds of years bore one of two surnames before everyone got fed up with marrying their cousin and hit the bright lights and exotic arcades of the mainland. History suggests that quests for genetic purity are not the way to go. A side on view of myself hints at distant origins somewhere around Easter Island, particularly if the statues on the hill looking out to sea are anything to go. A match up with a paramour from the island displaying a similar profile as my own would have resulted in an extended run in Dr Who for the generations to come.

Last year during an EA survey under EU Water Framework Directive to assess fish populations, all fish caught were counted and measured, and the Brown Trout given a classification as to whether they were wild or stocked; a visual classification that, to some, determined their genetic line. Half of the fish captured were deemed to be wild.
A Chalkstream to a Brown Trout is akin to a high end grow bag for tomatoes, conditions are perfect for their culture. Chalkstreams have been stocked with fertile fish for over a hundred years and the genetic line of the native fish that flipped a fin when Jove was a lad was mixed up decades ago, if it’s genetic purity you are seeking to preserve, it probably disappeared around the time that the white horse was walking about on Wembley.

If however “wild” means brown trout getting jiggy despite their source of genes then there are wild fish in the chalkstreams, their lineage may be a complicated soup, but fish do spawn and fry are present. If a few fingerlings sought refuge from a stock pond, or were stocked deliberately in numbers, some would cash in their chips early in the piece. Others would adapt and survive through to a sexual maturity and spawn, a process that some would term “natural selection” These fish could be described as stocked fish that have gone on to spawn, but are they Wild? Filthy genes, undoubtedly, but in a perfect habitat for Brown trout reproduction they have been stocked, been subject to natural selection before reaching maturity and spawning.

If it pops out of the gravel, no matter what its lineage, it’s a wild fish, if it has been hatchery raised, stocked at a young age and survived through to sexual maturity it’s a stockie. But I am buggered if anyone could tell the difference by visual inspection alone. So if preserving genetic purity is taken out of the equation, does it really matter if both go on and reproduce, where's the harm in stocking fingerling Brown Trout and would "The Brown Trout Habitat Preservation Trust" be a more preferable moniker for The Wild Trout Trust.

My head's a whirl

Thursday 6 June 2013

Fracking in the Test Valley

Licences have recently been granted to allow exploratory fracking for methane gas trapped in subterranean layers of shale in the Upper Test Valley. The process seeks to exploit reserves of methane gas by injecting a mixture of sand and water at high pressure into the shale to displace the gas. Concerns have long been held over the possibility of increased minor seismic activity associated with a period of fracking and over the threat of possible contamination of ground water. But for a unique river like the Test that relies on groundwater flow for the majority of its replenishment, concerns must be held over the source of the huge quantity of water required for the fracking process. A report produced by the Environment Agency almost a decade ago stated that the upper Test Valley was at the limit of possible groundwater abstraction and that no more could be pulled from the ground, but bar a bunch of bottles or a train of tankers there is no other obvious source of water in the area for the thirsty fracking process.

The potential for seismic activity may add a little “frisson” to the day and I know that in some parts of the world it is seen as a clean and bountiful source of energy, but the common link with all those parts where fracking is seen as a success is a plentiful supply of water.

The Test Valley does not have a plentiful supply of water, neither does most of the South East of England, so I am sure that somewhere in this proposal for exploratory fracking someone has got a really clever plan as to how the required water can be sourced from elsewhere.

But then again.......

There now follows a short film taken at 8.30pm on the 4th of June 2013 of a chalkstream full of water and, bar a bit of colour to the water, not far from its prime.

If there is no plan for an alternative source of water, and the water is to be abstracted from the surrounding aquifers of the Test Valley, we will be the last generation to see this river in this kind of condition.

Time to start taking the threat of over abstraction in the Upper Test Valley seriously perhaps?

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Ladies who Leffe and Charles Jardine

Half term and the lady who sleeps on my left and myself depart for continued exploration of the Polders, and surely Mole’s muse for his writings, several of his works sprang to mind throughout our brief stay “Lo! the flat hills of my homeland” “Sparg from Kronk” and “The White Van” to name a few.

We were bound for Bruges but had time to kill so headed to Ghent for lunch, parking at the university and walking through the student quarter to the centre which also seemed to be part of the student quarter. Stunning medieval architecture mixed with a tangle of tram lines as we made for the river that runs through the centre and a picnic lunch amongst, you guessed it, a thousand students. Take away the tourists and Ghent has the feel of a university campus about it, we dined on salad and cake washed down with some potent Belgian beer and ignored the whine of europop eminating from a plethora of student beat boxes. Leaving Ghent we headed for Brussels before a highway epiphany that it was actually Bruges we were due to visit.

Dumping the car at the station we shuffled into town to find our apartment, just off the cobbles on the top storey of a three storey building. Opposite was a medieval pile with the date 1672 writ large across its frontage which we thought was quite old until we broke out the walking shoes and headed into town, where ninety nine percent of the buildings are of a similar age and no two are the same. The buildings are stunning, and intricately constructed, why chuck up an easy wall with big blocks of stone when a Flemish twist can be added that involves diddy little bricks andthree times as much work and head scratching.. It’s a UNESCO special site and an easy place to wander about for three days getting lost in its higgledy piggledy lay out.

Chocolate and beer featured highly throughout the stay, some good some bad, there are plenty of chocolate shops several selling what can only be described as tourist tat, but a long established non descript store three blocks down from our base made them in the room at the back and were the best we had all trip.

Beer is a funny one, most are super strong and too full of fruit and gloop for my sensitive palette, this gentleman certainly prefers blondes, but the locals lap it like water at any opportunity with no obvious effect. We encountered two toilet attendants emboldened by a steady supply of Stella, and for Ladies who lunch, read Ladies who Leffe, these three were taking their “ first of the day” during a break from the market in Markt square at 10.15am while we struggled on with coffee.

Mannequins are a must in the Polders, our first encounter was on the motorway where a six foot C&A special was stood at the roadside clad in high viz and holding a flag to warn us of impending roadworks, (beats a digital screen I suppose) the second was a striking blond, who would not have looked out of place in a window in the Amsterdam red light district, who provided customers to a coffee shop with a wonky handed greeting. Some stores had run out of heads and substituted footballs while a grinning Humphrey Bogart stood guard at the door to a bar. There were many more, including various body parts strewn hither and thither but it’s a curious one, that’s for sure.

A boat trip was taken and like a smuggling craft running from Africa to Europe was packed to the gunwhales with people from many different countries. The multilingual skipper took us to see the smallest gothic window in Bruges, which drew a Whoop and a “go gothic window” from the stern, we were then treated to the ex-scottish consulate that has been turned into a primary school and was much photographed by many on their tablets and then on to see a dog that looks mournfully out of window at the bloody boats below who was photographed by myself.

As we made for the shore, the captain drew his cutlass, and issued a reminder in many languages of the Belgian maritime tradition of tipping the skipper on disembarkation, a trip that was a steal at ten euro per head and provided me with a valuable opportunity to inspect the back of an Italian’s head for almost twenty minutes.

There are fish in the canals, lots of eels and some quite nice carp, but impossible to fish for in the day time due to the constant and chaotic traffic of boat trips. Might be worth a go at night though in a backwater canal.

Chaos caused by day trippers extends to dry land. Two hundred yards down the road from our apartment in a small square outside a church with a tower that contained a Michaelangelo, the crocodiles gathered, hundreds of trippers bussed in for a day long Bruges experience formed long lines behind guides holding signs above their head and miked up to their earplug wearing audience. Elbows out, we barged through on more than one occasion having stood for five minutes while a slow moving train of people crossed our path. Bruges and Brussels have claimed Christmas as their own, goodness knows how busy the place is when the Christmas markets are on.
On our second day we came across a school crocodile stuck in a small alley, after a little greasing they popped out like a cork from a bottle and made straight for Mdme who they identified as an educator and could she runs a quick eye over their maths homework. While she went to work with her red pen, I was quizzed by several as to why I had come to Belgium, which to my mind, hinted at a national identity crisis.

Disinterested on the subject of Great Flemish painters of the past (many of the buildings depicted are still standing) we opted for a small museum with a couple of rooms of twentieth century stuff. The highlights of which were a few pages from Rodin’s top shelf sketch book, some drawings and a ceramic by Picasso, we arrived late and were admitted for half price as they closed in half an hour, which was perfect because the two rooms and a corridor don’t occupy much more time than that.

And then there are the statues. Bruges plays host to a Michelangelo, purchased by some Flemish merchants hundreds of years ago and placed in the church of our Mary, or something or other for the people of Bruges. Emboldened by their good fortune in the statue stakes, they have since gone to town with statues placed in the most unlikely of places and some of the newer installations are not very good.

This statute took centre place in Zand square, we scratched our heads for a while before internet enlightenment informed us that the ladies depicted the Belgian towns of Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and Antwerp, which was obvious although we were unsure as to which town had water piped through the nipples and why it didn’t qualify for a bird on its head.

Having done the “boat” experience we eschewed the offer of a tour in a horse drawn buggy, although thousands didn’t. I swear I saw Charles Jardine driving one, which suggested the Mayfly fishing at home had yet to get going.

Apart from buildings the highlight of our stay was the food. The lady and myself are keen followers of Trip Adviser and have had some fantastic food in recent years by opting for restaurants that feature in the top twenty of restaurant ratings for that particular city. On our first night we visited a small cafe and opted for Asparagus with a Flemish twist, which was superb. A jolly couple from across the pond sat down at a neighbouring table and eyed our food enviously, before asking us how it was and what was the “Flemish twist” Unsure of our Flemish cuisine we informed them that it may be the square plate, which seemed perfectly feasible, until their asparagus arrived on a round plate, at which point we exited stage left.

The following night we had slow cooked duck with sausage lentils and beans that raised concerns over IBS but in the early hours never actually shifted the duvet. Moules and frites for Mdme on the last night while I opted for Flemish stew, which proved to be very similar to Boeuf Bourguignon. Beef Casserole, Irish Stew, Beef Kleftiko, and a Portuguese dish that I forget the name of. In these days of the single currency and all things European Union, isn’t there a case to be had for standardising slow cooked beef with onions and red wine and applying a pan European name that crosses all borders?

We picked the car up, paid the 10 euro charge for three days parking and headed home. Bruges is a Beautiful City, busy and bustling with some crack pot statues and magnificent food, and great place to stay for a few days.

Polders box ticked, move on.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Further triumphs for drunken blundering

There now follows a Whitsun tide holiday special edition of this column, which, in the grand manner of Hello and OK, is picture based with little real content.

One month ago I was kindly invited to fish for a few days for salmon on the Carron, an hour north of Inverness. My employer, her son and two of their friends were my hosts, and after feeding the fish and walking the dogs in the morning, a midweek flight for an hour in orange from Bristol set me down in the middle of the afternoon in the capital of the Highlands.
A car was hired and my course plotted. Five minutes in, I was distracted by signposts to Culloden, and in the spirit of the “Butcher himself” The Duke of Cumberland (whose sausage I greatly favour) I hurried my trusty steed and made tracks for the field of battle.
The visitors centre bordering the battle field is fairly new and reasonably well done, telling the tale of the lead up to the battle that saw the end of the Jacobite rising in 1745. The price for the visitor centre was a tad toppy and compulsory re enactments grate a little when a hairy arsed Jacobite born under the only hedge in the Highlands and is all growl and spit is portrayed by a genial wisecracking septegenarian hailing from the heart of Hereford.

Visitor centre done I set out for the battle field, which can be walked free of charge and is the highlight of any visit. There are a series of guided walks and a variety of flags imparting any amount of information on the battle. The clan graves at the centre of the carnage are particularly moving, each cadaver identified by his tartan and flung in the relevant hole. Signs asking for quiet and respect, for what are war graves, were routinely ignored by a variety of visitors and the cairn at the centre of the piece marked the spot where literally hundreds and hundreds were hacked to death in close quarter fighting.

Suitably humbled and thankful that I have never had to experience battle or war close up, I sped on my way, crossing the Black Isle before turning left up a hill where the temperature dropped to freezing and for five minutes snow fell, breaks in the cloud revealed the oil rig repair shop at Invergordon and brief glimpses of the coast road.
On descent Dornach Firth, the body of water that receives the waters of the Carron, Oykel and Shin came into view, and within ten minutes I was munching the first of nine miles on the single track road that winds up the Carron valley, where I was distracted at every turn by photographic opportunities of one of the prettiest salmon rivers I have ever seen.

Many photos later I pulled up at a lodge on the Amat estate. A beer was pushed in my hand, supper was at least an hour away so,get that beer drunk boy, pick up a rod and get out there and fish. The party had caught four fish to date during the week and there was much concern over air temperature and water temperature.

Now at this point I must point out that I am fairly hopeless with a double handed salmon rod. With a single handed rod I would back myself to flick a fly most places with the other hand placed jauntily on my hip but introduce a second hand to the rod handle and my mind goes to mush. All of the salmon that I have caught have fallen to a spinner, worm, maggot or electricity, never a fish on a fly. Now, following my oddyssey north, I was presented with a 13ft double handed salmon rod, 9wt line, sink tip with a murderous monkey (I think thats what he said)on the end and required to spey cast, an action that has previously resulted in near multiple piercings and a Harry Potter scar on my forehead that aches whenever an ally’s shrimp enters it’s ether.

Slightly foxed by beer and keen to see the river, I set off, and in a further triumph for drunken blundering my fourth cast was snaffled by an eight pound salmon which careered around the pool before beaching itself five minutes later, a mass of torpedo shaped muscle and my first salmon on a fly. Emboldened by my success I fished on but no further fish followed so we returned to a fantastic dinner that featured scallops, black pudding and belly pork, to a monologue of epic proportions (think Beowulf with fish)as to how I had tamed this leviathan. Later I climbed the sunshine mountain for my first night as a successful spey caster and fly fisher for salmon.

As expected the following day saw four seasons in an hour, with bright sunshine followed by hail and snow, freezing temperatures climbed to near double figures in a matter of minutes before the wind got up and blew some more clouds in. The pools we fished were stunning and each one individually different.
The Glencalvie falls are prime territory for Tom Daley should he take up salmon fishing, although he may have difficulty sourcing some neoprene budgie smugglers, and the pools below are fished from a series of board walks that require the cutest of roll casts that was completely beyond me. Pool followed pool and created what must be one of the sternest tests for a returning salmon. The fish that run the Test and Itchen have it easy with a few hatch pools and ladders and must be relatively flabby when compared to these freshwater athletes that run the Carron.
Trees lining the bank hung heavy with lichen, a sure sign of super clean air,
Oystercatchers nested amongst the shingle and scree, Sika deer were all over the show and on a splash in a field up from the house a Bar tailed Godwit probed daily for dainties.

Towards the end of the day, I ended my fruitless thrashing with a fly, to visit a church in a neighbouring strath, built to a design by Thomas Telford in 1827 and infamous for events during the highland clearances when Landlords drove out tenant farmers whose families had survived on subsistence farming for generations, in order to make way for sheep.
In 1845 ninety people were cleared from Glencalvie, and with nowhere to go, they took refuge in impoverished shelters in the grounds of Croick church where they recorded their plight in scratchy writing on the windows. Like Culloden there is an eerie felling hanging heavy in the air, particularly as I visited alone in the perfect silence of this little glen.

Further food followed in the evening, the highlight of which was a magnificent beef wellington before I once again climbed the stairs to ponder where my salmon catching skills had failed me during the day. Was it the beer on arrival that had been key to my early success? Worth another try I suppose.

The following day, the river had risen a few inches, temperatures were good and fish were reported to be running the river. Early morning found us on the river where I saw two fish move in fast water before I hooked my second fish, a bright bar of silver that my host put at around eight pound but I had at nearer twenty. Further fish jumped, I had another touch later on and three other fish were caught by our party before I had to depart for my evening flight back to Bristol, where I drew admiring glances from some of Stelios’s tangerine clad crew (particularly Nigel) at what they were not to know was a black pudding in my pocket.

Ding Dong the Chump has gone

Finally the mayfly has got going with our first heavy falls of spinners this weekend just past. The river is bank high and some parts of bank are hard going, the ranunculus has broken surface and is in full flower, next week’s weedcut should drop the level little and restore a little order where the anglers carefully tread. Last week, I had to pull the tractor out four times in the space of an hour while mowing as it broke through the surface and bedded down in the bog. At this time of year during the past two seasons, I have stated that I could safely do the strimming in some super high slingbacks, this year’s footwear of first choice for the mayfly angler is rubber, preferably wellies or waders.

The fringe is in fine form and a few inches taller for having plenty of water around its ankles, the same is true of the reedbeds that were burnt off earlier in the year. A few patches did not burn and the difference to the density of growth of a patch that was incinerated is stark. We have a plethora of marsh marigolds and cuckoo flower and the wisteria on the side of the mill house has never been so spectacular. Several pairs of tufted duck are in residence plus a few gadwall; the tufties, a diving duck, particularly relishing the extra depth of water.

Unfortunately the world’s worst spaniel has wobbled his last wobble and shuffled off to wreak havoc on the other side,

Look out Doris Stokes,he'll have your ouija board in pieces, before you get to "Is there anybody there"

Approaching thirteen, with failing sight and hearing and hopeless hind quarters he had his second stroke in the space of twelve months during his morning walk. The vet said it was time to go, and that “Chump” deserved dignity, which he did, but Chump didn't do dignity,chaos and confusion were his thing and he made it his life's quest to implement their state whenever possible. A useless working dog he crushed anything he found, he was nonetheless great fun and a good friend who never gave up despite his obvious disabilities. He couldn’t cross a bridge without falling off the side and was suspicious of any flower in bloom in the garden, rolling them flat with a bout of convenient wobblyness. He could clear a dinner table with a switch of his hopeless hips and despite his proletarian air was incredibly well bred albeit accidentally
He is buried on the riverbank a few yards down from Zebo, and while digging the hole I’m sure I heard a doggy sigh. Zebo never thought much of spaniels particularly chaotic ones. Otis is mooning about a bit but has also grown up now that his rabble rousing spaniel friend has gone.

Earlier this month DEFRA Minister, Owen Patterson, made a startling statement at a farming conference. The EA budget for clearing ditches and waterways has been slashed and the onus has been put on the private individual to get on and clear ditches out himself, which is fair enough. The farmer upstream from here, maintains two spring ditches very well, clearing them out at the correct time of year and in the correct way. Others may not be so sympathetic, especially when given the green light to dredge away to their hearts content on hearing Patterson state that:

“The purpose of waterways is to get rid of water”

Pared down to their most simplistic form this is undoubtedly what waterways are. Apply the same criteria to a politician, and they are a democratically elected person chosen to represent the views and interests of a majority and to carry out their duties in an honest and open manner as befits a public servant, which I am sure they are, but there are many more facets to each and every politician, as is the case with waterways, they are not just a conduit for getting rid of water.

An officious application process for such works exists that needs attention, else most will just ignore it.

Mr Patterson is right to want to simplify the licensing process for such works, but please add the caveat that waterways are not just a means of getting rid of water, and could the applicant have an eye to possible effects of his project and please be sensible about when and how he carries out the work.

Normal service will be resumed shortly

Apologies for the delay in posting, more to follow soon,

Meanwhile the Testcard