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In England’s green and pleasant land

Fly fishers notice important environmental changes - are they alone?

2018 has been, in the opinion of all the experienced fly-fishers I have spoken to, the worst we can remember, including the hot and dry 1975 and 1976. But I had one good day last week on the upper Aire. I got there just before noon and at 12.45 the first of the autumn hatch of large dark olives appeared, wings held high. It vanished in a swirl, as did my Imperial a few seconds later. A brown trout in good nick swam off strongly after I had slipped out the barbless hook. Over the next couple of hours there was a steady trickle of olives and I managed to catch five grayling, three on the Imperial and two on Sturdy’s Fancy.

Now a question: have grayling and brown trout studied river ecology and followed an intensive course in the identification of aquatic invertebrates? Of course the answer is no. Which is why some of the day’s fish took a Kite’s Imperial, others Sturdy’s Fancy when they were eating large dark olives. Kite reckoned his Imperial matched the LDO, but does it? The LDO doesn’t have a bunch of feather fibres sticking out of the back, but two tails that are held off, not on, the water. The LDO has six legs, and wings that stick up and appear in the fishes’ ‘window’ before the rest of the insect. As for the Sturdy’s Fancy: it has a red wool tail, a dark peacock herl body and off white hackle that are miles off the structure and colour of the LDO.
When you think about it, fish can be downright silly when it comes to taking our artificial flies. I’ve known trout selectively eating pale watery duns, which have ignored my imitations, but which then fall for a Daddy-long-legs or a dry black Anything Fly. Which reminds me of John Dixon, a great catcher of fish. He had arrived at the river without his fly box so I said I’d give him some out of mine. What patterns would he like? “Anything,” he replied, “So long as they are black.”
So why have some of us gone to great lengths developing flies that take much time and effort and that really do look like what the fish are eating? The answer is that fly-fishing and fly-tying are hobbies, and in some cases, obsessions, and that we enjoy doing it.

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This morning, as I was slowly coming round in the warmth of the bed, I suddenly realized that I had started river fishing in 1958, sixty years ago. I was then 12 years old. Previously we had lived at the edge of the Lancashire market town of Kirkham and from being about eight I had fished the many farm dew ponds close to home with my pal Alan Storey, using a simple child’s rod and reel, float, hooks already tied to gut, with maggot or tiny worms as bait. Then we moved to the edge of Preston, a short bike ride from the Ribble.

The first Ribble day was memorable, in that I forgot my little box of eyed hooks. Another, older angler was fishing the same pool (Church Deeps) and he gave me a few hooks. But they had no eyes and I found it difficult to tie them to my nylon line. Soon after that I learned that the hooks were spade-end and I learned to tie the spade-end knot. I caught a chub. In those days the Ribble was stuffed with chub and dace and, having seen someone fly-fishing on the river close to where the M6 crosses it, I fell in love with fly-fishing and taught myself to fly-fish using a team of North Country spider wets. Chub and dace galore. A long while ago I described in FF&FT catching great bags of chub and a correspondent suggested I was exaggerating. Not long after I was talking with Ian Heaps, the great coarse match angler who in the 1960s and 1970s fished competitions on the beat opposite mine. “It took fifty pounds or more to be in the money!” said he.

Since then the Ribble has been the centre of my life, for I have studied they estuary’s bird populations and what they eat for over 55 years, and since I studied freshwater ecology as an undergraduate 51 years ago I have kept an eye on the invertebrate species living in the river since then. And there have been major changes that most folk would never notice, for the river still flows through a green landscape as it meanders down from Ribblehead, through Settle, Long Preston, Gisburn and Clitheroe to Ribchester and on to the head of the estuary at Preston. Let me take you back.

In the 1960s I fished a lot around Ribchester. In my summer holidays I would wade out into a favourite long riffle just below the village to the top of my thigh waders (very few then used chest waders). If I looked down I could see my feet clearly, standing on compacted clean gravel, and if I looked downstream I could see narrow beds of water buttercup breaking the surface, reminding me to give the fish some stick to prevent them getting into the weed. Even though the lower Ribble had an occasional pollution incident, brought in by a tributary (the Calder) that flows through Burnley, there were reasonable hatches including the large dark olive in spring and autumn and the blue-winged olive in summer and early autumn. Caddis flew beneath overhanging boughs and, given a strong wind, landbred flies fell on the water in numbers, bringing up the fish.

Come to the Ribble today in summer and wade in to thigh depth. Look down at your feet, or where your feet are. You cannot see the bottom, or your feet, for they are devoured in a dark green haze that is the alga blanketweed, and as you wade downstream the weight of blanketweed trapped around your feet increases. There are very, very few beds of water buttercup for the blanketweed suffocates them. And if you go in with your insect net, you will not find the numbers of clean water species that I found there half a century ago. And It is the same all along the river, from Long Preston at least. One stonefly comes to mind, the yellow sally. Forty years ago it was as common as muck between Long Preston and Clitheroe; not today.
Thirty years ago last February the BBC asked if they could film me fly-fishing on the Ribble so I told them to meet me at noon on Paythorne bridge. “Why noon?” they asked. I told them that, at about 1pm, a fly called the large dark olive would hatch in great numbers and that fish would rise to eat them. Then the olive hatch was very big, and it was common to see a big steady stream drifting down the main flow, with 30s and 40s on small back eddies and slack water close to the bank. That afternoon there was a huge hatch, I had no difficulty in catching some nice grayling for viewers of Look North West, and chatting about flies natural and artificial. The artificial: Kite’s Imperial which, for at least two decades was my mainstay dry fly.

Today hatches are a shadow of their former abundance and some, like the blue-winged olive, seem to have had population crashes. And it’s not just water-bred flies. Landbred populations have also collapsed. When I walked across pastures to the river at Ribchester at the end of April there would be clouds of a long-legged black fly that headed off to take nectar from the whitened hedgerow: hawthorn flies feeding on hawthorn. A nice breeze, and thousands would end up on the water surface and up would come the fish. I recall one other fly-fisher telling Geoff Haslam and me, during a massive fall of hawthorn flies o the Aire that he had never seen such a great hatch of black-and-peacock spiders!

Not today. Neither do the pastures hold big populations of moths and other flies that used to flee as one passed by. Why not?

A great change has occurred in dairy farming over the last quarter century. Before then the dairy farms had two types of field, pasture and meadow. Then, between spring and autumn the cows went out to feed in pastures and brought in twice daily to be milked. Meadows produced hay, which was fed to the cows between late autumn and mid spring when they were kept inside. But then farmers started to drain wet pastures, then plough and re-sow with high protein foreign strains of grass. Now the entire grassland is intensively grown grass and lacks wild flowers that attract a range of insects, and the grassland cannot now support masses of hawthorn fly larvae. Now cows are kept inside permanently in a factory state and never see daylight. Food comes in; slurry and milk comes out.

Blanketweed thrives when the nitrate and phosphate levels in a river greatly increase, through sewage works, from NPK fertilizers scattered on riverside fields by farmers, and from slurry spread on riverside fields, especially waterlogged, frozen or snow-covered fields. At night, in hot weather, blanketweed can render the water at and in the riverbed anaerobic, and the lack of oxygen results in the death of clean water creatures that cannot tolerate low oxygen levels: especially stoneflies and many mayfly species.

Thus, primarily because of bad farming practice, we have seen a great decline of both land- and water-bred insects. And it is not only around the Ribble, for similar declines have been reported across the UK.

Some readers will recall that, early this year, FF&FT published my open letter to Mr Gove, Minister of the Environment. I re-sent the letter. Twice Mr Gove has failed to respond. Could it be, as one retired civil servant and fly-fisher put it to me, “People want cheap milk and chicken, so farmers have to be so intensive and DEFRA must condone this pollution.”

After all, only fly-fishers notice the declines. For most folk, the river flows through nice green countryside.

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