Peter Lapsley explains the establishment by Dr Cyril Bennett of an Anglers
For those who have followed its progress over the years, the success of the Anglers’ Monitoring Initiative (AMI) should come as no surprise. For those more recently come to our sport, it is an inspirational saga, but it is now changing quite dramatically for the better.
Briefly, the AMI is founded on three solid pillars. First, anglers, particularly fly fishers, are the only people with a strong, direct interest in the health of the fly life of lakes and rivers. Second, it is supported strongly by the Environment Agency (EA), which sees it as making a valuable contribution to the monitoring that will be essential when the Water Framework Directive comes into effect in 2015. Third, the AMI has been driven forward by teams of committed volunteers, most of them trained and motivated by the dedication of several people, including especially Dr Cyril Bennett. There can be no-one involved in the AMI who does not know about his work.
Whenever one sees a really successful project like the AMI or a really good river restoration project, behind it lies the enthusiasm and drive of a couple of people who care deeply and have the ability to inspire others. Where the AMI is concerned, there have been more than a couple. Its origins go back to about 1995 when the John Spedan Lewis Trust for the Advancement of the Natural Sciences (JLT), chaired by Warren Gilchrist, an outstanding naturalist, and Cyril, began running fly life identification and monitoring courses at Leckford on the Test. The publication in 2000 by Peter Hayes and Allan Frake of their Report on the Millennium Chalk Streams Fly Trends Study gave the JLT additional focus and purpose.
By 2004, they had established a constructive working relationship with the Natural History Museum which, supported by Natural England, provided a lot of the additional equipment they needed. That same year saw the first National Riverfly Conference and the launch of the Riverfly Partnership. But it was not until the second Riverfly Conference in 2007 that the AMI was formally launched, enthusiastically endorsed by the EA.
In the five years since then, 80 active AMI groups have been trained, many of them by Cyril, and there are more in the pipeline. The existing groups are monitoring over 200 sites throughout the UK.
The AMI could never have become so successful had it not been for fly-fishers’ vested interests. Dismayed by the decline in the fly life on many of our rivers, anglers – especially fly fishers – need answers to a number of fundamental questions. When chatting with Cyril the other day, he made the point that the more we study river flies, the more we realise how little we know about them. An important objective of the AMI is to improve our understanding of the natural history of aquatic invertebrates.
The second but no less important objective is to understand more clearly the state of our watercourses and what can be done to improve them. Aquatic invertebrates are their ‘miners’ canaries’. The Wild Trout Trust (WTT) does much excellent work in restoring wild trout habitat, chiefly by helping people improve and maintain environments in which aquatic invertebrates should flourish – to the benefit of trout and the host of other wildlife that lives in, above and around our lakes and rivers. It is essential that the AMI and the WTT should collaborate.
The third has to do with developing a far clearer picture of fly life decline and resurgence, and the reasons for them. We have learnt a fair amount already. We know, for example, that the causes of fly life decline vary from watercourse to watercourse. Purely illustratively, it seems that much of the decline of fly life in southern England’s chalkstreams has to do with abstraction, diffuse pollution, siltation and agricultural phosphates; in south Wales, the use of cypermethrin sheep dip played a far greater role until its sale was banned in 2005 and its use from 2007 onwards. But we certainly do not know all the answers.
The fourth, and perhaps the most important from the angler’s point of view, has to do with population boosting and restoration.
Almost by definition, the Anglers Monitoring Initiative is run by anglers. These volunteers are more than happy to try to meet the first three objectives set out above, but can only be expected to maintain their enthusiasm for so long if their labours produce little or no improvement in the fly life upon which their sport depends. There can be few things more frustrating than monitoring fly life month after month, year after year, getting increasingly predictable results each time, and being given little feed-back and less expectation that their endeavours will lead to any improvement in the variety and numbers of fly species seen on their rivers.
That river fly populations can be restored and boosted relatively easily is evidenced by a number of initiatives – notably, the successful reintroduction of Mayflies to the Derbyshire Wye, the restoration of blue-winged olives (b-wo) to the River Wandle in south London, and Cyril’s own successful boosting of the b-wo population on the River Wey in Surrey – by 30 million last spring. The keys to success are that the water in question should have been restored to a standard in which the imported population may be expected to survive and thrive, that the ova introduced into the river should be free of parasites or other contaminants, and that no attempt should be made to boost a population beyond what could be regarded as the ‘norm’.
We used to say, also, that it would be wrong to try to introduce species into watercourses in which we were not confident that they had existed previously. But, so incomplete are the records of which fly species existed where, and so good is Nature at distributing species to any watercourse in which they might take hold, that we now think that superfluous. If you wish to introduce a particular species into a river in which it may or may not have existed in the past, try it. If Nature does not want it there, it will die out; no harm will have been done.
So far so good, but the AMI’s course and its relationship with its ‘parent body’, The Riverfly Partnership (the Partnership), has not been consistently smooth. The Partnership now consists of almost 100 member organisations, many of them ‘scientific’ with little real understanding of anglers’ entirely reasonable self-interest in riverfly monitoring. It could be argued that so unwieldy and diverse an organisation could never be expected to reach unanimous agreement about anything. Less understandable has been the lack of communication from the Partnership; questions, suggestions and proposals from the AMI seem too often to have vanished into a black hole, rarely eliciting a reply.
Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was the Partnership’s lack of response to the protocol Cyril developed for fly population boosting and re-introduction, a revised version of which he put to the Partnership for comment. Co-ordinated by Steve Brooks of the Natural History Museum, it is now, at last, being reviewed by Paul Knight (S&TA Director and RP chairman), Richard Whiteman of the EA, and Cyril himself, and will be used as a basis for the reintroduction of fly life on our rivers.
In Cyril’s view, the lack of any real interest in angling matters within the Partnership and the change in name from the AMI to the Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (RMI) might be a good time for angling interests to move away from the Partnership. In particular, he is keen to start something really worthwhile that will spread to angling organisations nationwide and outlive him. He foresees this as angling associations working within their local EA areas, as they did before the Partnership was formed – and as was the case when there was a devastating pollution problem on the River Wey in 2002/3. On that occasion, the angling clubs successfully sought the help of the ACA to goad the local EA into action.
Recently, a (free) Tutor Training course was held at Leckford to enable local AMI coordinators, who have been monitoring their waters for a very long time to do their own in-house training. The aim was to cut through the bureaucracy that has developed within the ‘empire’ that has grown up around the AMI; things such as certification, central records, detailed questionnaires, over-preoccupation with health & safety, central records and workshops costing over £1,000 – an empire that now needs a full time ‘Riverfly Monitoring Initiative Coordinator’ to control it.
Over the past few years, Cyril, who lives in Amesbury, no more than a decent Spey-cast from the Wiltshire Avon, has developed an excellent and friendly working relationship with Andreas Topintzis, general manager of The Salisbury & District Angling Club (SDAC). At present, they have twelve AMI monitoring sites on their waters and hope to have more. Unsurprisingly, they have proved enormously supportive to what Cyril refers to as the Anglers’ Entomological Centre of Excellence (AECOE); a somewhat grandiose title they will need to grow into, but it is already posing questions to which they are beginning to find some answers.
The SDAC’s headquarters at The Cart Shed at Stratford-sub-Castle, near Salisbury, offers ideal facilities. The Upper Avon is one of relatively few British rivers that still have the sorts of fly hatches that used to be seen everywhere before the Second World War, with a good diversity of caddis flies, including spectacular hatches of grannom, Mayflies, and huge numbers of b-wo throughout the summer.
In September 2012, The JLT very generously made over the monitoring equipment (microscopes, buckets, kick-sample nets, drift nets, sampling trays and the like) to Cyril and the SDAC, and Andreas is arranging for the provision of a laptop and projector. They are adjusting the space at The Cart Shed to enable the running of courses – probably two monitoring ones and one identification one in 2013; and they are facilitating an intriguing research project which Cyril is keen to run. Also, Cyril has clearly enjoyed fitting out his camper van as a travelling laboratory. While Cyril’s mobile laboratory can be taken to the river, the river can also be brought into the laboratory.
In the meantime, he has also been hard at work since the move, monitoring population sizes and growth rates of b-wos, studying the effects of siltation on b-wo ova and looking at ways of moving them safely. He planted 30 million in the River Wey this year, virtually all of them hatching successfully.
So, what do the SDAC and Cyril plan to achieve with the launch of AECOE? The important thing is that it is a team effort. Cyril and the SDAC will be working with ‘Aquascience’ (Dr Nick Everall) in Derbyshire. As well as continuing monitoring on the club’s water, they need to learn from the relatively good fly populations on the Avon. AECOE is determined both to conserve the Avon’s fly life, to learn from it, and to pass on what they learn to other angling organisations; S&DAC have just published, Chalk Stream Fly Fishing, a superb book with each chapter written by one of the S&DAC team and with the importance of the fly life rippling through the entire work.
A number of experimental streams are under construction in order to investigate fly life under controlled conditions, including things like growth rates of nymphs under increasing water temperatures, the effects of siltation on the adhesive qualities of riverfly eggs, and changes in seasonal and annual life cycles; all of which should further our knowledge of riverfly ecology.
Predictably, Cyril has varied and ambitious plans. He wants to devise new methods for collecting and moving large numbers of eggs to improve fly populations elsewhere. Hatching throughout the summer, the b-wo and its spinner, the sherry spinner, are amongst our most important flies. B-wo hatches on the Avon now extend throughout the summer and autumn months, rather than peaking in June and July as they did in the past. Why? Cyril is keen to study the effects of siltation on b-wo eggs, which could be the cause of loss of adhesion and the reason for the species decline on many other rivers.
The AECOE is keen to establish links with the WTT and the Angling Trust. As Cyril says, the more minds you have applying themselves to a problem, the more likely are people to come up with better ways of doing things.
I asked Cyril what he saw as possible alternatives to the AECOE? “Well,” he said, “We could do nothing. We could assume that our fly life will remain as it is. If it is poor, we could assume it will improve. And we could assume that someone else will do something about it. Personally, I take the view that ‘if necessity is the mother of invention, assumptions are the mother of all cock-ups!’”
I wish him the very best of luck with this admirable and ambitious project.