Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Hedgehog rescue

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire England

The headlines in the past few days for hedgehogs have been pretty stark - their numbers have apparently halved in the past 15 years. As is often the case the facts behind these sorts of headlines, generated by a pressure group, aren't always as rigorous as maybe they should be. You will find the press coverage caveated by plenty of phrases along the lines of 'reliable estimates of hedgehog numbers are hard to come by ...... '.
All that said from my various perambulations around the rivers I'd say I don't see as many Erinaceus europaeus as I did. Believe it or not, despite appearances, hedgehogs are really quite good swimmers. Living beside rivers is a favoured haunt with worms and insects aplenty plus, naturally enough, fresh water. They don't seem to relish swimming as a pastime but they will happily cross a fairly sizeable stream when need be.

I will also promise you for such a tiny creature a baby hedgehog, combined with a panic stricken mother, is capable of creating a considerable racket. Two winters ago I was at home beside the fire late one night when I heard this piercing wail outside; at first I assumed it was the cat or a stoat doing to death some rabbit or other but the wailing kept on and on. Eventually I had to investigate. There trapped between the slats of a bridge over the stream was a baby hedgehog, its mother at its side trying to haul it out.  But somehow however much the infant scrabbled and however much the mother screamed (I assume it was encouragement but it was hard to tell), the situation was not getting any better.

I headed back indoors, grabbed a tea towel and whilst the mother eyed me from a distance I managed to safely extricate the baby from the slats. The poor thing was completely exhausted so I left him (or it could have been a her) for while until the mother returned to investigate and then the two toddled off together.

When is a restoration not a restoration?

You will read a great deal about river 'restorations'; in plenty of cases it is nothing of the sort. Chalkstreams in particular are very much the creation of man and the rivers have been adapted over millennia for all sorts of purposes such as agriculture, navigation, milling and so on - today we want something different from our rivers and so what we are really creating is something new that chimes with our current desires. I am not exactly sure under which heading the recent work on the famous Oakley beat at Mottisfont Abbey on the River Test would fall but I am certain that as the home of dry fly fishing under Frederick Halford he would have approved.

If you've ever fished the Oakley Stream you will know that the character of the beat very much divides into two sections; the first half is relatively shallow, with a fast flow over gravel and the river is very much part of the landscape. The top half is different in two ways; firstly the river almost seems 'above' the surrounding meadows the banks built up like small dykes and the river itself is deeper, without the gravel bed. This is probably not accidental.

In all likelihood in the dim, distant past the gravel river bed was dredged out, the spoil used to build up the banks to their current height. I can't be exactly sure why this was but my guess is that the deepened main river was used as a reservoir to feed a now defunct side stream that branches off the Oakley Stream. What that side stream fed again I'm not sure but it could have been for water meadow flooding, fish rearing or powering a mill. These were fairly typical uses for a river in times when neither ecology nor fishing featured much in the calculation of many.

Today of course we feel differently; rivers are being changed to create a diverse habitat both in and along the river, with great emphasis on work that encourages a self-sustaining wild trout population plus spawning areas for salmon. 

With all that in mind a jointly funded project between the owners of Mottisfont Abbey (The National Trust) and the Environment Agency, using the brains in the hydrology department of Southampton University, has seen 1,600 tonnes of gravel put into the upper section of the Oakley Stream. It has all been part of a scheme under the guidance of Heb Leman, the man who runs the Test & Itchen Rivers Restoration Scheme and really we have him to thank.

Yes, you have probably guessed that what Heb and the team are essentially doing is putting back what was dredged out all those years ago. It is a fairly common sight along the chalkstreams these days. ARK (Action for the River Kennet) recently completed a similar project in Berkshire with almost twice that amount of gravel, though shockingly they were making good dredging done as recently as the 1970's. 

The work itself is quick and straightforward. Bring in the gravel; large stones for the base and smaller stuff for the topping. Scoop it into the river with a big machine and then use a smaller one in the river itself to profile the gravel. Job done. Sometimes the banks are graded down to create a gradual slope but this wasn't required at Mottisfont.

The before and after photos  give you some idea of what is trying to be achieved. The after is a short section that was done on the Oakley ten years ago. In fact it is a little on the shallow side so some of the gravel will be scraped off as part of this work.  
The effect on the river is almost immediate; the heavy winter floods will re-profile the gravel yet again but in the exact way nature likes it. But even before then the new gravel will show those tell-tale pock marks as both the trout and salmon get busy spawning. Some judicious planting of ranunculus will kick start the weed growth and I suspect in less than a year it will all look totally natural, which is exactly how it should be.

Jon Hall's pike secret is a comb

Really no excuse is required to show this great photo of Jon Hall with the monster pike he caught back in February.

However if you want to read more about Jon's deadly weapon (a comb) and how he finds these huge female fish catch my interview with Jon in the December edition of The Field magazine. 


The usual random selection of questions to confound and amaze. Answers at the bottom of the Newsletter. It is just for fun!
1)   What speed does Usian Bolt reach during a 100m race?

2)   What do you call a baby beaver?

3)   What is a petroglyph?

Tattoo artist turns fly tyer

I have watched a great many fly tying films in my time and frankly they are generally on the boring side of interesting. This one however, about tattoo artist turned fly tyer Pat Cohen, is different. Get a cup of coffee, set aside 10 minutes of your day. It will be worth it.

Here is the link that will take you to the Bloomberg page. As the screen will say click to watch or scroll down to read the article. 

Enjoy the rest of the week.
Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

1)  28 mph 2) A kit 3) An image carved into rock.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The course of true love

The course of true love
I have a pet swan; his name is Arthur the Arthritic on account of a gammy leg. He is of indeterminate age, though clearly getting on a bit and lives on the lake here at Nether Wallop Mill. I must admit I never set out to have a swan for a pet - they are not the friendliest of creatures and are, in truth, a bit messy. That said we have reached a sort of amiable compromise over the past four or five years.

Happier times?
His daily routine mainly involves paddling around the lake, rear end in the air and head underwater whilst he eats away at the pond weed. For this he has my eternal thanks; he is my 24 hour a day feathered river keeper who requires no more payment than a chance to gobble his share of the fish pellets. You might wonder if he is a nuisance to the fishing. Well, not really. Our accommodation is so complete that at the sight of fishermen he hauls himself from the lake to spend the day in the mill pond, returning again when all is quiet.

For years he has been a confirmed bachelor, the sole guardian of the lake since his mate died some while ago. In the intervening time other pairs have dropped in from the sky, but after a fierce turf war left Arthur all to his lonesome. That is until last Saturday when I woke to the unmistakable sound of swans in flight, the whooping wings alerting Arthur to inbound strangers. As is his wont he positioned himself in the middle of the lake, arching his body skyward, aggressively flapping his wings as the pair circled ever lower.

Now swans in a straight line, high in the skies are graceful birds but a low speed, with sharp turns to make they are anything but and as one of the pair took aim for landing she entirely misjudged the landscape hitting the chimney of the fishing cabin, tumbling down the roof into the trees behind. For the other swan clearly out of sight was out of mind so after a few desultory minutes circling the lake he disappeared into the distance.

I was firmly convinced, such was the thump, that the swan had died on impact but a little while later this slightly dazed and wobbly bird came out from behind the cabin slipping gently onto the lake to join Arthur. His joy was unconfined. He preened and pivoted as the two became a pair within minutes. By the afternoon they were together on the bank, tearing rough grass from the fringe, a sort of nesting thing swans do. By dusk they had settled down to roost together for the night. I could hear the distant pitter patter of little cygnet feet.

But by morning it had all gone woefully wrong. Whilst Arthur, clearly agitated, pushed himself around the lake, the female stood on the bank, twitching her head this way and that. Occasionally he'd make a pass to bring himself as close to her as he could without leaving the water, but she'd edge ever further away until her mind made up, she ran at the lake flapping her wings and paddling her feet on the water until she took flight to never be seen again.

Since then I haven't seen much of Arthur as he's forsaken the lake to sulk on the mill pond, even forgoing his daily pellet ration. It is hard to work out what could have gone wrong in those few hours of darkness. In the bird kingdom what on earth is the ultimate dating crime? Was he too old? Or maybe swans truly do mate for life and she felt impelled to find her erstwhile mate. Frankly if I was her I wouldn't have bothered; he was quick enough to say adieu when she thumped the chimney but then again even in the animal kingdom it is doubtful that the course of true love ever ran smooth.

Ban on sea bass fly fishing 

Unless my memory serves me wrong I am pretty certain that two decades ago sea bass on a menu would have been a rarity. Maybe it was common enough in top end sea food restaurants, but on a pub menu, well hardly ever. Today it is very different and sea bass are paying a price for their popularity; the breeding population around our coast has dropped from 16,000 tonnes in 2010 to 7,000 today. 

This has not gone unnoticed. ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, flagged this up during the summer and the EU acted yesterday with a complete ban on all sea bass fishing January to June, with severe restrictions for the remainder of the year. 

For the day trawler fleet, that is boats under 10m, this is a body blow. Behind sole, sea bass is the most valuable catch. For the line fishermen who specialise in sea bass out of ports like Weymouth, it is crippling.

But this is not just a commercial decision; we 300,000 recreational anglers are included with a complete ban for the first six months of the year and a limit of one fish a day for the remainder of the year. Quite how it is going to affect the saltwater fly fishing guides I do not know. Will we be able to catch and release, or will even the intention to fish for bass be illegal? In truth it is going to be impossible to police but nobody wants to wilfully break the law with a livelihood at stake.

In part I can understand bureaucratic even-handedness when it comes to applying a ban equally to both commercial and recreational anglers but is it really necessary? I suspect fly fishermen and beach casters are a pinprick on the sea bass population. It is time for a rapid rethink from Brussels. 


The usual random selection of questions to confound and amaze. Answers at the bottom of the Newsletter. It is just for fun!
1)   Other than Great Britain itself which is the largest island in the UK?

2)   It is Prince Charles' birthday this week. How old will he be?

3)   What is a dynast?

Review of the season & feedback winners

Two winners this month as we wrap up another trout season; thank you to you all who contributed replies, which are an invaluable insight to every day on the river.

2015 will be the year the dog didn't bark in that we almost had a drought but nobody talked about it. Certainly the water companies, scared of egg on their faces so soon after the floods, didn't say a word but the winter, spring and autumn have been exceptionally dry, especially the last two months with rainfall only half the normal average. I guess our memories are coloured by a very wet May (157% average rainfall) and August which was the wettest on record. If you want to check out the full statistics for southern England follow this link to the Met Office web site.

All that said the chalkstreams held up well, though they were certainly starting to look thin as the season drew to an end. Generally I thought hatches were good in every month.  The Grannom has made a comeback as the April fly of choice, the Mayfly was a good as any year though the wetness of May itself seemed to stop and start the hatch from day to day. Sedges continue to be prolific and the back end has seen huge clouds of tiny olives daily.

The feedback showed remarkably consistent fishing across the season; no sudden decline after the Mayfly and only a few dog days in high summer. If I had to pick out one theme it was the lack of consistently rising fish. I think as Guides it is fair to say we read the water more, pick the best seasonal fly and encourage more speculative casting. Poor old Mr. Halford, who thought such a tactic was a crime, must be spinning in his grave.

Anyway enough of the past: well done to Graham Dunn who picks up the October draw prize of a signed copy ofLife of a Chalkstream having fished at Avon Springs. Philip Watkins, who took his children on Fish Camp to the River Dun in July, collects the Hardy Cascapedia reel in the annual draw.

Have a good weekend; I certainly will if Storm Abigail brings a dump of rain.
Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

1)   Lewis and Harris, Outer Hebrides 2) 67 on November 14th 3) A member of a powerful family, especially a hereditary ruler.