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Fishing and Birds

As a kid I was brought up with a river and a beck to fish as part of the small estate me dad worked on as gardener. The river would often flood bringing water down from the Pennines leaving few places worth casting out into other than one eddy. The best place to go was the beck with the river backing up into it often leaving clear water to watch all the chub, dace and perch sheltering from the fierce force of the river. Sometimes you could watch a pike swim in looking for easy prey.

A lot of my early bird watching was done around these areas with Kingfisher always nesting in the beck and occasional Grey Wagtail and Dipper feeding here as well. One of the things I did in the beck was to build several dams [No Beavers to do it for me!]. Kids love making dams but I was getting into my teens and the stones I used were getting bigger and bigger helping to keep the dams for longer when a flood came down the beck. These dams had an amazing effect on the fish. Behind the dams were deeper water for many large chub while the water falls full of oxygen had a few Brown Trout. My companions while building the dams were often Brown Rat and Water Vole as rubbish always built up behind the dams like apples, potatoes and general waste.

Never did I feel that the fish were there for just me. Goosander was a new bird to the area and there was always Grey Herons and the Kingfishers. Some of my observations from the river included my first ever Hobby and a Great grey Shrike sitting on top of a giant hogweed. Common Sandpipers came in the spring along with the Sand Martins and there were always plenty of Yellow Wagtails and Turtle Doves. Those were the days!

Our house was never too far away from fishermen especially on a Sunday morning when the buses came out of Leeds and Bradford dropping them off ready for the ‘peg’ draw for other sections of the river. It was never a case of a ‘lie in’ as they made so much noise before heading off to the river. Fishing has changed. It used to be a natural sport for everyone now it is so commercial.

You can find brown trout lakes, rainbow trout lakes [fish from the USA] even tiger trout which are a sterile hybrid. There are lakes just for carp, tench and even pike. The owners are very protective of ‘their’ fish! But there is often a positive side to any water and that is the habitat around it. One example is the collective name of the ‘Longtown ponds’. These are former gravel workings for the construction of the M6 and M74. The Cumbrian Wildlife Trust tried to buy one area of the ponds but the local auction mart out bid them as they wanted the grazing not the ponds themselves.

Today most of them are used for course fishing with a mixed collection of water birds and warblers. Wigeon enjoy one pond so much that the Canadian pond weed acts as islands the plants are so thickly spread over the water. Even waders like Lapwing and Dunlin have been found roosting on these beds. Both Mute and Whooper Swans use the ponds along with many Goosander especially when the nearby River Esk is in flood.

In recent years Herons have used the ponds not only for feeding but nesting with up to 10 nests on one island on a fishery. These have now dwindled to none where on another fishery two nests in willows had the trees cut down. A staff member at one fishery told me that Herons were no threat to the fish that these anglers want to catch as large Carp were the main prey for the anglers so why have the herons gone!

Another example of a fishery is at the famous Rutland Water, home to the bird fair and Ospreys. Will Kirstein, centre manager, gave me lots of information on the management of Europe’s largest reservoir which caters for both birds and anglers. It was very interesting to compare the effect of both on the area so an estimated 1 million visitors come annually with 80,000 visiting the nature reserve with 30,000 permits sold. In the case of fishing 40,000 permits are sold each year to anglers for both boat fishing and bank fishing. Fish stocks are maintained with ‘large’ healthy fish introduced to the water to reduce the effect of disease and the potential conflict with Cormorants and even Ospreys. The anglers manage to take home good sized trout and catch a mixture of course fish which they put back in the water.

Both the nature reserve and fishing makes a profit for Anglia Water, the owners of the site even after paying staff and the money is ploughed back into the area to make it even better for the visitor. The potential damage to aquatic birds by discarded fishing tackle is lessoned by a regular litter picking session provided by the ‘Rutland Water Fly Fisheries’.

Fishing over the years has been the cause of many waters in Britain to be ‘cleaned up’. Rivers like the Tyne and Thames are now providing clean water for locals to be proud of and the fish have responded with the Tyne being one of the top autumn Salmon runs in Britain. Like game birds fish encourage predators from the massive White tailed Eagle in Scotland to the dainty Kingfisher in most of England.

The recent increase in the Cormorant especially inland has caused the Anglian organisations to call for a cull on what they call ‘the black death’. The main predator of the Cormorant is the White tailed Eagle but anglers did not join in with support for the reintroduction of this bird in East Anglia! In Scandinavia island colonise of Cormorants are often attacked by the eagle causing nest failure while numbers of native Cormorants nesting on the west coast of Scotland have declined with the increase of the eagle there.

Britain has seen continental Cormorants arrive here not just in winter but to actually breed and these are the birds anglers fear the most. It has been estimated to have any effect on these birds 60,000 each year would have to be killed! Anglers are so enraged that Cormorants even have their own web site! Methods to protect the fish also include bird scarers (mechanical or human) and fish refuges which means adding artificial rafts with netting to allow the fish in but not the predator.

These refuges are highly successful. So much so when angling matches take place those with ‘pegs’ close to the refuges have a better chance of winning due to fish around the refuges than those left with open water. The rafts themselves are often planted up so that anglers do not cast over them and loose their tackle. By planting them up even more wildlife can enjoy this part of the lake/Loch or river where the rafts have been placed.

Another fish eating bird established first in the North of Scotland and then expanding south to most parts of the UK is the Goosander. The first breeding record in the UK was in 1862 on North Uist and then spreading as far down as the River Annan which enters the Solway in 1926 and the River Tweed in 1930. This Tweed population has been monitored well and it was not until 1968 – 72 census that the birds had expanded into a larger area of the catchment. Cumbria’s first breeding record was 1950 which means it took nearly 25 years to cross over the Solway!

From then the Goosander has expanded to every county either as a winter bird or breeding following the footsteps of the Otter with clean water and plenty of fish. So far Otters have not had licenses to cull them where as Goosander has. These culls have taken place over a number of years in ‘game’ rivers to try and help Salmon stocks. After many years there is no evidence that such culls actually help salmon stocks and it seems to be more a ‘PR’ license! Even a license was granted for the River Derwent in Cumbria in 2013 to reduce Goosander even though Red breasted Mergansers may be mistaken for the commoner bird! Mergansers are licensed to be removed in the far north of Scotland. Like the Cormorant the main predator of the Goosander and the Red breasted Merganser is the White tailed Eagle!

Loch Garten, Loch of the Lowes, Bassenthwaite, Kielder and Rutland Water are famous for another fish eating bird, the Osprey. But who would think in the 21st century that such a bird could be illegally killed by someone trying to protect his fish! Even males have gone missing from Rutland and fish have had to be provided to support the female feeding the young. Ospreys are close on hitting 300 pairs mostly in Scotland with the first 4 young in a brood in 2013. Once extinct as a breeding bird due to it having a hooked beak and being shot out of existence surely we cannot return to the bad old days where our birds of prey are removed just for one man’s interest.

Most fishing sites in the UK can live in harmony with nature and many bird watchers spend a great deal of their time bird watching at them. So angling must look closer at the alternative methods of protecting the fish using refuges that benefit both the angler, the fish and the wider wildlife.

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