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The ‘Fourth Age’ of fly fishing

A little less time spent fishing allows a little more time to ponder the long term effects of avian predation


If we want thriving populations of fish, including salmon, sea trout, brown trout and grayling it may be essential to control –
If we want thriving populations of fish, including salmon, sea trout, brown trout and grayling it may be essential to control –

Some of you will recall that I had developed arthritis in every joint of my right forelimb and that over the last ten years it has got much worse. Ten years ago I could manage the best part of a thousand casts in a loch-fishing day, a five-hour night’s sea trouting, and a 9 o’clock to 6 o’clock day with the double-hander, though at the end of such sessions I was finding that I almost had to prize my fingers from around the rod handle. I went and had some X-rays taken about eight years ago and was asked to meet a joint specialist at Wrightington, premier joint clinic in the northwest. “A bad case of RSI!” said he. “What have you done to cause such damage?” I told him fly-fishing and went to get the trout rod that lives permanently in the back of the car, just in case. As I took him through the single-handed cast, he pointed on the X-rays the joints affected by every stage of the cast. “We can give you pain killers, but little else,” he concluded.

Today I could not spend a long session afloat on a loch, or in a sea trout pool or in a salmon river cast-cast-casting, hour after hour. If I visit a stillwater fishery a couple of hours with the dry fly that is as much as my finger, wrist and elbow joints can take; and if I hook and play three nice fit rainbow trout in quick succession, that is it. Even light dry fly on a stream is being hindered: the other day I visited the Aire and spent less than half an hour casting my dry Kite’s Imperials and Sturdy’s Fancies over a small group of grayling. That was it for the day.
It is in large part genetic. My grandfather suffered, my aged mother suffers, and so does my youngest brother Philip who is one of the top basket-weavers but has had to cut back on the number of baskets he makes.
So I have given my son Pete most of my salmon, loch and sea trout kit and fly-fishing for me now is a walk when I make a few dry fly casts for trout and grayling.
I yattered with Andrew Herd a few months ago and he suggested that I am now in the Fourth Age that an angler might pass: First Age, wanting to catch as many fish as possible; Second Age, wanting to catch as big a fish as possible; Third Age, wanting to catch difficult or particularly challenging fish; Fourth Age, reminiscing about fish caught in First, Second and Third Ages! [Some never proceed beyond Stages One and Two.] In my Fourth Age I can also give more thought and work for the two charity organisations I am involved with, The Wild Trout Trust (I am a vice president) and Grayling Research Trust (trustee), the latter being an arm of the Grayling Society.
You, dear reader, should be a member of both!

Something that I am very concerned about is the fairly recent arrival and great population increase of two avian predators, the cormorant and the goosander.
At this point I must stress that I am an ardent conservationist, but not an out and out protectionist when it comes to wildlife in general and birds and freshwater life in particular. My bird diaries go back to 1959, when I was 13 years old, my first article (on dippers) was published by the RSPB in 1963, my first book was on wildfowl, and my major research was carried out on the birds of the Ribble estuary that breed there or visit as they pass through on migration or that come there for the winter. 

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when I spent half my days on the estuary I rarely noted more than two or three cormorants in my diary, and in the days I went fishing and birding inland on the Ribble system I very rarely saw a single cormorant.

Today up to 1,500 occur on the Ribble estuary, with up to 2,000 on the nearby Mersey. Many roost inland of the estuaries, with well over 1,000 at two nature reserves. Further inland, the overall number roosting in the Hodder and Ribble valleys certainly exceeds 200. These latter will, of course, feed in the rivers and reservoirs, but what of the big numbers on or by the coast? No study has been made in this region (a study in the 1990s suggested that they will travel 70km from the roost sites), but I would bet that many of them also head inland, for it is quite a common occurrence to see ones and twos flighting inland throughout the region. Some radio-tagging would give us an answer. And what do they eat those cormorants that do feed away from the coast? One study (NRA) stated that, “On rivers, trout, salmon and grayling are the main prey [of cormorants]”, and that they devour 340-520 grams of fish per day. This is far from being an endangered species, and a small study might teach us a lot.
Goosanders were great rarities in both Lune and Ribble systems when I was a boy, so much so that I made a special trip by bus to see my first (a party that had arrived on the Lune). Go back a century and more and goosanders were fairly rare in the British Isles: they first bred in Scotland in 1871 (Perthshire), in England in 1941 (Northumberland), and on the Lune in about 1970 and Ribble system in about 1973. Today the middle and upper reaches of the Lune and Ribble and their tributaries are simply chains of goosander territories and, once the young have hatches and left their nests, a walk along a couple of miles of river will usually be rewarded by a brood or two. The impact of this great increase is indicated by the following: along the upper seven miles of the Lune, between Tebay and Sedbergh, in the last month there have been 30 goosanders in residence.

From previous studies it is known that one goosander eats at least 240 grams of fish per day, the prey being in the range 50-110mm in length. That would be equivalent to eating between 10 and 20 salmonid parr per day. We know that in the upper Lune parr are a prime prey, so that 30 birds may well take at least 300 parr per day and, through the month of August 2017, they may have taken getting on for 10,000 parr.
Our countryside is almost entirely a result of human management or mismanagement and to get a great diversity of wildlife species the countryside must be specially managed for that wildlife. The classic example of this is the heather-bilberry-cottongrass moor. These peat bogs must be protected to continue to produce the mosaic of moorland vegetation. Then there can be great nesting populations of things like snipe, curlew, golden plover and dunlin, ring ouzel and meadow pipit, merlin and short-eared owls, red grouse and hen harriers (alas there are not enough of the latter). However to get that great diversity it is necessary to control the populations of some very common predators, such as carrion crows.
It is the same in our rivers. If we want thriving populations of fish, including salmon, sea trout, brown trout and grayling it may be essential to control – control, not exterminate – the populations of cormorants and goosanders. That control is part of wildlife conservation.

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