Monday 16 September 2013

Roots and wings

All the fields around here have been cut with high yields reported, plenty of duck have found the stubble, feeding hard in the evening before flitting to water to roost. We are fortunate enough to have every species of indigenous owl within a mile of here and many make the most of easy hunting across the stubbles at night. On occasion while out rabbit shooting we have come across an obdurate owl perched on a fence post happy to take the full force of the spotlight from little more than ten yards refusing to budge, often it is us who blinks first turning the spotlight away and moving on in pursuit of bunnies, else the owl flops away to another perch. There are plenty of Roe deer about, out in the open hovering up any spilt corn, give it a couple of weeks and they will revisit the meadows to knock over my pheasant feeders in search of a free feed.

Apples abound in these parts both cookers and eaters, the senior Bramley in the garden by the river is covered with hundreds of small fruit, while the eater that resembles a Discovery twenty yards from the fishing hut has its best crop for years which has drawn most wasps in the vicinity. Plums are par for the course, and the figs are fairly good although pale when compared to the crop we saw ripening off in Corfu.

The hops that rampage across the thicket below the top shallows are beginning to brown, and misty mornings and a dew that betrays miraculous feats of web spinning by spiders in the night suggest that autumn is imminent. No trees are yet on the turn other than a Whitebeam in the garden that always seems to go early, and all bar the Cherries have had a reasonable summer, even the conker, that in recent summers has turned to rust by the end of July.

It is difficult to walk up the river or the road without hearing the squeak of a kingfisher filling their boots on the masses of minnows in the river or chasing silver fish in the pond. The phragmites is threatening to take over the pond and recent forays in the boat to trim it back a tad revealed huge numbers of roach and rudd in gin clear water, a few big bream remain and a couple of swan mussels lay in the fine silt. I returned a few hours later with my camera hoping to get a photo of the mud loving mollusc but it had shuffled off somewhere. Unaware of just how quick across the ground they can be I returned home to consult the font of all knowledge and googled “how does a swan mussel move” which threw up a video on Youtube by a german guy with too much time on his hands of a swan mussel making haste beneath the waves.

Child A returned from her ten days on a volcanic island and Child B survived Dublin, just. He is currently coughing and spluttering with some gaelic oojah, a condition he will retain in the coming weeks when he mixes with the masses at Cardiff. On the two occasions that I have fished in Ireland we have always returned with some to share amongst the neighbours, One year my brother brought back the gift of chicken pox for his classmates and subsequently his sibling during exams, and I found some form of Eire flu picked up after extensive bobbing up and down on Lough Ree in pursuit of pike in rain and wind of the eighties.

On this river, fly continue to hatch, trickles of olives through the middle of the day, and several fish have been caught. The factor of a local fishing tackle emporia visited and caught four fish in a few hours the best a fish of five pounds that I had no idea was in that part of the river. But the river remains very low, if a pair of swans shuffle their feet for five minutes upstream, the whole river turns cloudy. In May the Indian runners that occupy my employers orchard strained their necks to get at the barley on the bed of the river margins that we broadcast for their brunch. This morning they walked across a river which was too shallow to swim in to receive their provender. I won’t go on, but we need a wet winter with no new abstraction, nuff said.

Over on the Itchen the river has assumed the late season sparkle that the Dever is sadly lacking. The river is gin clear with verdant weed enjoying the light, a similar case exists on the middle Test. In times of low water it’s the tributaries and upper reaches that suffer on groundwater fed rivers, while in times of high flow the clear water is to be found in the far flung reaches as opposed to the main river. Hatches of fly have not been as prolific as last year which is a surprise, but after a murky start the short stretch which I jump in and out of is in prime condition.

At home, the lady who sleeps on my left and myself have begun to compile a bucket list of “things to do once the kids have gone” strictly sedentary stuff so far until we pass the medical, but having spent an afternoon at a christening in the company of fifty odd, most of whom were marshalling young children, we eyed them enviously while they reciprocated with equal envy at our imagined opportunities to attend various abodes and try this and experience that now our ties were reduced.

Mdme has some ideas, Otis has great expectations and eyes the sofa regularly, but myself I look forward to doing things a tad better with more time available. In peanut butter terms I have been spreading myself a bit thin in the last five years.

Child A and Child B will be back at Christmas with their chaotic ways, when we will no doubt be reminded that our standards have slipped since they last departed and could we make sure that the car is fully fuelled as they have places to be and people to see.

Other than Otis taking up space on the sofa (he has the mother of all booties) I don’t think we would have it any other way

Roots and wings, roots and wings

Sunday 8 September 2013

igas and precipitous bridges

To the current generation the word “sick” is often used to describe something that is “really good” Well this river currently assumes a reasonably sick appearance, but only in the original sense of the word.

Understandably following a hot dry summer the discharge has decreased and the river has become increasingly diminished as the summer has progressed. In the week prior to the August weed cut, the ranunculus started to die off and pull out, as I jumped in the river to thrash around with my scythe, it already looked like someone above had carried out a couple of days cutting, as dead weed hung in clumps on the weirs and shallows. The ranunculus doesn’t normally die off until after the season closes. During times of low water I would normally bar cut the lot seeking to maintain a decent level of water but the weed was not in good enough condition to maintain its place in the stream and I was left with no option but to cut back what weed remained. As a result the river is now down to its bare bones, lower than the period when water restrictions were last implemented. Four miles upstream from here at Weston Colley the river is barely running and is a foot off the bottom of the gauging station. Our bridges are decidedly precipitous and the water seems a long way down when mowing the banks with the tractor. We have barely enough water to run our stew ponds and the few fish that remain are on half rations and are not having the best time of it. The fishing in the river normally picks up in September when the river can take on a late season sparkle but la truite are reluctant to feed and most sulk and skulk. Spawning may be a few months off but currently the spawning gravels remain inaccessible to all but the weaniest fingerling and parr as the water flowing over them is barely a few inches. The fringe has been allowed to encroach as has the watercress that in some places extends half way across the channel helping to squeeze the flow, but when the first frost hits and the cress sails off downstream a trickle of water running down the centre of the channel will be all that remains.

We really need a wet winter, wetter than last year. At the start of the season I am able to make an assessment of how much water we have by the number of notches the hundred and seventy year old hatch is open on the mill house, it carries away spare water that would push the water over the banks on the main river. This April I thought we would be just about ok, with enough water to run the mill stream until the July weed cut when the hatch would be closed and all the water sent down the main river for the second half of the season which is what I would expect on a normal year. The hatch was shut after the June weed cut and the river has dropped at a remarkable rate, In recent years I have expressed my concern over the rate at which the river has dropped through the summer, it is on here somewhere, these are not rose tinted spectacles through which I peer at the past, but this river seems to drop much quicker through the summer months than ten years ago. It seems a smaller river than the one I first started looking after many years ago.

This river is crying out for water, and decent winter replenishment of the aquifers that feed it.

In 2005 the catchment abstraction management strategy for this river stated that no new abstraction from the aquifers should be considered, other than during the months December, January and February, when the aquifers should be brimful. This was a little much for some who correctly thought that the river needed all the replenishment it could get throughout all the winter months. In March of this year a review of the catchment abstraction management strategy was undertaken by command centre central and this valley received a classification that permits new applications for abstraction to be considered for six months of the year, not the three of 2005 but throughout the winter months when it is hoped a surplus will be available. There are many that would state that the chalkstreams are suffering a death by a thousand cuts, and this is just one example. Since 2005 the population in the south has increased, the amount of rain falling has decreased, yet applications for groundwater abstraction in the region will be considered over a greater part of the year.

In an era when all things new and funky are preceded with the letter “i” a fossil fuel company trading under the moniker of “igas “ have been drawing oil from below the aquifers a few miles from here. On three sites they trumpet their CBM operation as sustainable and having little impact on the environment, the process involves water, so I contacted the company and questioned them at length on their operation in the valley. It involves the retrieval of oil from coal seams deep underground and while it involves the use of water, all water used is sourced from the coal seam itself and then re-injected to the same place once the oil has been retrieved, some sites do not have the ability to re-inject the water and in such cases water is taken off site for reinjection elsewhere, if this were happening in the oil field underneath this valley I would be kicking up a fuss as it is water leaving the catchment for which it was originally intended. All three sites within a few miles from here re inject their water from whence it came. There are concerns with the process over localised drawdown of aquifers but whether that is the case here is difficult to ascertain.

The same company has identified large reserves of shale gas on several of its sites in the south, which it does not plan to currently exploit but may do in the future. Its current operation of sustainable extraction of fossil fuels should be welcomed, but can it extract its shale gas bounty from beneath this valley in a sustainable manner without impacting on the groundwater fed river above? The powers that be appear to have given them the green light to apply to use the groundwater supply during the winter months which will impact on this river and all who live, work and fish in it.

Provided I continue to look left and look right when crossing the road, my active existence, along with a diet that includes the determined and sustained consumption of red wine, tomatoes and dark chocolate should lead me to cash in my chips at a reasonable age. On days when the black dog looms, thoughts centre around warmer weather and less rain, a larger population, increased abstraction and the prospect of this river becoming unfishable during my lifetime sustained during periods of low flow by the sewage outfall at Barton Stacey. A doom laden prediction perhaps, but thirty years ago three miles upstream from here a fishing club thrived. As a student on an estate further downstream from here the fishing department would regularly deliver fish for stocking through the summer months, today any fish over half a pound would have its back out of the water.

This might sound like a case of the post holiday blues. But to quote Geoffrey Boycott (sorry) “I just say what I see” I have lost faith in those delegated to protect the chalkstream environment in recent years. This river is exceptionally low, it is lower than when water use restrictions were last in place, and I can see it with my own eyes every day. And with my conspiracy theory hat on, to allow applications for groundwater abstraction to be considered for a greater part of the year suggests that some quarters may have succumbed to government pressure over shale gas extraction and groundwater levels are now being measured with a fracking friendly ruler.

I hope I am wrong and if in the future igas apply to use groundwater to explore the possibility of exploiting shale gas beneath this valley and the groundwater is low. Someone at command centre central will ignore the "bottom line" and say that the chalkstream environment will be impacted on, the river needs every drop of water it can get, and please source your water elsewhere.

Well done to the Conservative member of Parliament for the Meon Valley for speaking up for the threat posed to chalkstreams in the south and the possible threat to groundwater supply by shale gas extraction.

He’s an angler, and not a bad one at that!

A midnight raid under a gibbous moon

Sorry about the delay in updating but have been away for a week on a Greek island with the lady who sleeps on my left, three teenagers and two twenty year olds. The travel rod that had been secretly stowed away, in what I had thought was a secret corner of my suitcase was, at some point, removed during the mad dash for the airport......... no fishing for me then?

Under a gibbous moon, ours was to be a midnight raid on the island, but first we must all pass muster as a non threat to all on board plus the aeroplane, which, following an extensive bag search, I failed to do. The machine didn’t go bing and the dog was singularly uninterested in any of my unique scents but the lady with the rubber gloves spotted something spiky amongst the tangle of leads and lenses in my camera bag which was doubling as my hand luggage. The small metal knife with an inch long blade and corkscrew that was much travelled and had already visited Portugal, Spain, France and the low countries was now deemed to be an offensive weapon, I was obviously carrying the air of an international man of mystery and the lady with the Stasi accent and rubber gloves proceeded to give me a demonstration of how I could take out the crew and down the plane in a matter of minutes, an impressive feat for which she seemed to have received extensive training.
The upshot of my attempt to smuggle arms was either to relinquish my travel corkscrew or pay £80 to put my hand luggage in the hold. Frauline took ownership of my travel corkscrew, which I hope she enjoyed and had we exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch we would have laughed at how my plans to bore holes in the carcass of the aeroplane or drill into the crew’s skull one by one, would never have got off the ground with a tool that failed to deal with the least obdurate corks. She didn’t seem to mind the Leatherman that I am convinced, with the right training, could deliver a coup to most tin pot African states. I was dragged away by teenagers, as the Stasi lady had sensed my ire and begun to stretch her rubber gloves in a deeply threatening manner.
For the record it was a Christmas present from the lady who sleeps on my left and had been to ninety nine percent of the places I have visited with my camera bag.

North West Corfu was our destination, three apartments in a quiet strung out village with super snorkelling, and some spectacular scenery. The sea was incredibly clear and a boat was hired to carry us to some of the more inaccessible coves for a sub surface shufty, the most spectacular, some caves that you could bumble about in before exiting into forty feet of water with shafts of sunlight streaking to the seabed, I felt like I had fallen into an advert for something or other. There was a bit of a swell when we were out and some of the beaches that we hoped to visit proved inaccessible and some were briefly seasick,
but returning to coves closer to home and a rugged coastline we came across several areas where the water was cooler and the sea less salty as freshwater springs spewed out into the sea. We saw the obligatory bass, bream and mullet plenty of territorial wrasse that grumpily guard their stone or crevice of first choice, one trigger fish, one octopus, some sandy looking things on the bottom that looked like a form of goby and some spectacularly marked eels. We snorkelled every day and It was one of the best places I have ever donned goggles and peered into the water below.

As always food and drink featured highly throughout our stay. Following last year’s odyssey I questioned the mystery of mythos the premium hellenic beer that at the time was unavailable in the UK. For the last six months our local supermarket has stocked the stuff and on the odd occasion when it has been cold and miserable outside I have consumed a bottle in an attempt to take me back to a sunny beach or tatty taverna. I returned home with a bottle of the Greek stuff for comparison and after scientific tests under laboratory conditions I can report that the two don’t taste the same, which leads me to suggest that Heineken are possibly banging their subsidiary beer out in a unit in Amsterdam for consumption in northern Europe.

All of our party show a keen interest in food and drink, and while we ate together a few times most days started with echoes of the “Ronays at home” and a conversation over who had eaten what and where the previous night and good points and bad points. While all of our apartments were self catering the price difference between eating out and eating in was negligible, the small supermarket seemed to have adopted “tourist” prices with even the tomatoes and fruit more expensive than the supermarkets at home. On our second night the seven of us ate a fantastic meal with a few bits to start, nubs of bread, olives, tzatziki and stuff followed by a fantastic main meal, buckets of beer, plenty of wine, dancing waiters and the smashing of plates all for one hundred Euros, needless to say we returned on our final night for an equally satisfying dining experience. The lady who sleeps on the left (the right on this’s good to try new things when away) consulted Trip Advisor and were not disappointed with a gourmet meal on the beach, Greg and Rick would term it FINE DINING! in their shouty way, several courses, grown up wine, fancy nibbles and free liquor at the close, all for fifty zobs. There were failures, and for the first time our Trip Advisor method failed with a visit to the restaurant in Bronze medal position, which must be maintained by favourable reviews from family and friends. A bar two hundred yards from our abode has spectacular views across the bay and some stunning snorkelling at the bottom of a short flight of steps and for the price of a beer we whiled away an afternoon taking in the scenery while soaking up some rays, and were about to partake of some food when a sixty year old man with pony tail clad in nothing more than a string posing pouch with a zip at the front strutted into view, mdme’s order of spaghetti was immediately withdrawn and I eschewed the local sausage dish. A fantastic bar in desperate need of a dress code or at the very least a sign reading GRANDAD, PLEASE KEEP YOUR SHORTS ON.

The young found a suitable bar that emitted the requisite bleeps and twerts that passes as music for this generation, one that I confidently predict will be described in years to come as void of melody, or rationed at the very least. Mdme and myself attended the establishment one afternoon in the name of snorkelling from the rocks on which it stood, After half an hour spying fish I returned to Mdme who guarded camp and on my return was being questioned by the Slovenian DJ as to whether she would be interested in entering a Wet T Shirt competition, which if nothing else seemed a little “retro” so we exited stage left. Needless to say teenagers attended the establishment most afternoons to take in the tunes and dive from the precarious perches high up on the cliffs into forty feet of water. Brits abroad were few and far between, most of the young were Greek, Slovenian or Italian who still receive a bad reception for misdemeanours committed over the years, and the odd blinged up and seedy ageing Albanian.

A drive up into the mountains, revealed some stunning views. The Inuit people used to have a quaint custom of pushing their old folk out of the igloo onto the ice when they had passed their period of usefulness. In the hills of Corfu a similar custom exists whereby the old folk are directed to the side of the road, provided with a plastic chair and encouraged to wave dubious bottles of olive oil, homemade wine and honey at any passing vehicle. More marketing required I think, and let’s get these old folk in out of the midday sun, some of them were getting really grumpy.

A midnight flight brought us back in Blighty, where Mdme dashed straight off to work, Child A hung around for 24 hours before dashing off to a Canary Island for 10 days, Child B made 48 hours before departing for a cricket tour of Devon and then on to five days in Dublin, while I wandered up the river and wondered where all of the water had gone. Child A will arrive home for 24 hours before setting off for her final year at Portsmouth University, while Child B will begin his first year at Cardiff University, leaving the lady who sleeps on my left, myself and Otis at home alone. The cuts of meat will be considerably better and wine may be taken with each evening meal, our time will be spent in togas lazily reclining on plumped cushions occasionally popping grapes into each other’s mouths enjoying complete control of the television remote control.