Standing on the bridge looking upstream on a warm sunny morning in early May was no hardship, in fact I could think of no better place to be. The birdsong was almost deafening. It was difficult to pick out individuals but I managed to identify blackcap, sedge, reed, garden, wood and willow warblers, the usual thrushes and tits and behind all this the monotonous but evocative call of the cuckoo. Life was in the river too, with a good hatch of olives coming off and the trout responding; I could see half a dozen regularly rising in the first 50 yards. It was a good place to be.
But I was not there to fish, at least not yet. Instead I was on the Kennett to meet and talk with two river keepers who between them have nearly 40 years of experience of this stretch of river. I wanted to try to find out what happens at the sharp end of chalk stream conservation.
It seems to me that on a chalk stream the river keeper has two vital functions. One is to make sure the river remains a river and doesn’t simply silt up and disappear and the second is to maintain the health of a stream for the good of the fish, the fishermen and the huge biomass of plants and animals that call a chalk stream home. Put simply, without these guardians, especially with the environmental pressures pertaining in the 21st Century, these unique habitats would die.
Chalk streams, particularly the big three, Test, Itchen and Kennet, are like most of southern Britain’s landscape heavily influenced by man and our agricultural practices. If it hadn’t been worth providing livestock with early pasture the tangle of carriers that add so much to the character of the fishing and were designed to flood the fields to kick-start grass growth would never have been built. And without man’s intervention they would fall into disrepair and vanish.
According to figures there are around 200 chalk streams in the world and over 80% are found in England. That’s good. But of those 80% more than 3/4 are failing to meet the Good Status under the EC Water Framework Directive. That’s bad and is getting worse. So what are the problems and what is being done about it? I may be being cynical but with Brexit looming I am guessing that the environment in general and chalk streams in particular are not high on the political agenda unless they are vote winners. What I am interested in is what those who deal with the problems on a day to day basis can do to improve the situation.
There can’t be many more famous bits of trout water in the country than the Wilderness section of the River Kennet. I almost wrote iconic but as I’d have to stab myself if I did, I won’t. It is the fishery where much of the research for Goddard and Clarke’s groundbreaking “The Trout and the Fly” was done and has been enshrined in Neil Patterson’s “A Chalk Stream Chronicle”. Incidentally Neil is still a syndicate member. It also featured in the TV series “A Passion for Angling” – the scene where Bob James poaches two very large pike from Chris Yates’ swim. The Wilderness and the downstream fishery, the Park, are both part of the Benham Estate and between them have some 10 miles of double bank fishing on the main river and the cat’s cradle of carriers. Fishing heaven. Both operate as syndicates but there are day rods available on the Park.
Gary Allen became river keeper on the Park Fishery in 1994 and John Colley has been in charge of the Wilderness since 2002, so they should know a thing or two. They were childhood friends in the same town in South Yorkshire where Gary, a fisherman almost from birth, introduced John to the piscatorial art. Later on, John pursued a career as a river keeper in the soft south and tipped Gary the wink about the Park vacancy, subsequently taking on the Wilderness himself. I met them on a Thursday which is the one non-fishing day of the week. Far from being a day off the absence of fishermen probably means it is their busiest day. I don’t think John and Gary really do days off.
Of course the main problems for chalk streams are the three As: Abstraction, Abstraction, Abstraction. Water companies pump too much water out of our rivers and aquifers, it’s as simple as that. Abstraction leads to reduced flow and increased silt. It also exacerbates the effects of diffuse pollution, as Gary said “a cure for pollution is dilution”, which leads to more algae, poorer plant growth, reduced insect populations and so on, and so on. It will need social and political change to stop water companies pumping water from the aquifers, which will always be the cheaper option, and those changes must include metering, rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling and stopping the squandering of our most precious asset.
River keepers can’t stop the water companies pumping so what can they do to minimise the effects? As it happens, quite a lot though when you have each got over 9,000 yards of river and stream to look after quite a lot of time is simply spent on maintenance, for instance it takes John over a day every week just to cut the grass on the Wilderness. Weed cutting is another task that has to be undertaken week in week out with the ribbon weed in particular needing constant trimming. That means getting in the river and wielding a scythe. In fact most of what needs to be done has to be achieved with hand tools, the machinery simply doesn’t exist. Hand tools and elbow grease. I watched while the pair demonstrated how they build deflectors. Four chestnut posts driven into the stream bed with a post driver (and the biggest mallet in the world) support two hazel faggots that are wired in place. Everything has to be as firm as possible or the deflector won’t do its job and the first flood will rip it out. The only machine in evidence was the chainsaw they used to trim the posts. They use these deflectors to channel the water, thereby protecting the bank, increasing the flow and even allowing them to extend the banks, which helps make the most of the water they have got. Gary and John use a similar system when remodelling the carriers using dozens of faggots, sculpting the water courses and back filling with chalk.
They do have a digger and Gary showed me various carriers on the Park fishery where he has used this to grade the bank closer to the water level. At some point in the past the river was dredged and the gravel heaped on the banks. This meant increased depth of the water column, slowing the flow, and higher banks making fishing more difficult, neither desirable. This work takes a long time but it is surprising how soon after using these techniques that the river and carriers look natural again, helped considerably by sowing seeds of waterside plants. They also use the digger to gently rake the gravel in certain stretches to remove the silt and make weed growth viable again. Weed, the right sort of weed, is a key issue. Weed bulks out the water, increasing flow, oxygenates and provides home for all those invertebrates the trout like to eat. Again, this is another laborious task involving nothing more than a garden fork and physical effort but the results are immediate, algae allowing, and the weed grows away quickly. Ranunculus is the main species.
I don’t want to give the impression that either of these two fisheries are over manicured, it is called the Wilderness for a reason and the Park is called the Park simply because it was part of the grounds of Benham Valence House. In fact part of the charm of both stretches is the variety of the fishing, from the wide main river to some of the carriers where the fishing is more like jungle warfare. Both John and Gary are quite content to leave the odd fallen tree and tangle of shrubs and away from the fishable parts are reed beds and happily neglected habitats.
A problem peculiar to the Kennet is the interaction with the Kennet and Avon Canal – the river actually flows through the canal in a couple of places. Inevitably this sometimes adversely affects water flow and quality but there is not much to be done about that without major engineering works being instigated.
It is not just water quantity and quality that is the issue. Cormorants are a constant problem. They have a licence to control them but not in sufficient numbers to make much difference. Otters are back and must have some impact on fish stocks but as they also help with the mink and eat large quantities of American signal crayfish both keepers welcome them. The signal crayfish really are a problem. When Gary first arrived there weren’t any, now the keepers trap and remove tens of thousands every year. Like so many introductions this species is not beneficial, to put it mildly: they decimate the insect population, outcompete our native crayfish and undermine the banks making them more liable to collapse. Terrific. Trapping them helps to control the population but the only other thing the keepers can do to reduce their effect is use fly boards. This keeps the invertebrate eggs and young nymphs and larvae off the bottom and away from the greedy crayfish and has the benefit of making it easy to boost the insect populations in any stretches where there is a scarcity.
Usually these are the two questions you ask a river keeper: “How’s it fishing?” and “What are they taking?”. Not much of a conversation really. Never forget that such is the fragility of a chalk stream that without the keeper’s constant care and dedication we wouldn’t have the trout to fish for and the trout wouldn’t have the food to grow. I have witnessed the tragedy of the uncared-for river.
They said bring a rod. It would have been rude not to. Anyway I needed fish and fishing pictures – obviously. Part of my duty as a journalist, wouldn’t you say. The Kennet never has quite the crystalline clarity of, say, the Itchen, but I think it can’t be beaten in quantity and quality of fly life and the fitness of the fish. I had a wonderful afternoon, thanks to the river keepers. I pray that there is another generation ready to take over whenever Gary and John decide to hang up the waders.