Tag: cormorants

The future of our Barbel

I always relish the Barbel Society get togethers and I always feel humbled when I am asked to speak at them. And intimidated to a degree. After all, what do I have to add to the body of barbel catching knowledge when faced by an audience bristling with barbel brilliance? Still, I fumbled through my speech and was overwhelmed by the response on the day and by the wonderful things said since on social media. To those of you who who have made such kind comments, yes, I AM passionate about the future of our rivers and the barbel stocks that are swimming in them..just!

Of course, it’s good to talk about how to catch barbel but only if there are barbel there to be caught. Sadly, it seems there are fewer and fewer fish present in so many of our rivers today, a downward trend we have seen increasingly over this century. I made the point that I am in general a fairly mellow sort of bloke and I try to see all sides of any argument but enough is enough and I feel the need to state the case as I see it whilst there is still time.

Habitat is not the issue!

I made the point at the conference that I only feel confident about talking about rivers I know inside out and in this instance I restricted my comments to my beloved river Wensum. Two summers ago, I watched numerous shoals of barbel between 4 and 12 ounces or so feeding happily on the river’s gravels. There were several hundreds of them in total and they were just the ones I saw myself remember. The presence of these young, home bred fish indicated to me that there is nothing amiss with the spawning beds. It said to me that the river has the food supplies to support seemingly healthy fast growing fish. Habitat therefore is NOT the issue as every fishery scientist would have us believe.
Today, two years down the line, those fish are gone. The hope they offered is gone with them. There is only one single explanation and that is predation.

Cormorants are the issue!

I know this because I have seen it with my own eyes. Over two winters, returning European cormorants have annihilated those young fish. An alien bird population has completely destroyed the river’s hopes for the future. The fact is that the more fishery experts we have, the fewer fish we have. I am done with the habitat mantra. We have the habitat today, we now need the protection that even a river strewn with woody debris cannot provide.

Who will act before it is too late?

This is a nettle that must be grasped. The media? Well the Angler’s Mail is intelligent and responsible and I have high hopes there. The Environment Agency? Despite charging us a licence to fish, forget it. The EA is mired in red tape and bureaucratic gobbledegook. The various river trusts and alliances that are paid to look after the Wensum, including Natural England? Forget them. Fishery scientists exist from one project to another and are dependent on so called river improvement schemes. If they admitted that cormorants are the root of the problem, they are effectively doing themselves out of work. The Angling Trust? Well the whole of the angling jury remains out on the Trust which still needs to show positive leadership if it is to win over hearts and minds.

I am told repeatedly there “is no silver bullet” solution to the problem of disappearing river fish of all species. The phrase is well chosen and spookily apt. Sadly, it is a licence to kill that will bring back life to our river systems. It is not too late but the proverbial clock is ticking loudly.



The angling week that left me with more questions than answers- part 2

The question  declining roach stocks has been a hot topic on Facebook with many passioned points of view, embellished by the wisdom and insight of Trevor Harrop who runs the Avon Roach Project.

The decline of roach

I’m fairly new to social media but when I posted a message saying I felt the major and central answer to the decline on the river Wensum was the presence of cormorants these last decades, my Facebook account went barmy. It is generally agreed that cormorants are a factor but getting rid of them would be no silver bullet, a phrase everyone likes to use these days.

All manner of reasons were put around why our Norfolk rivers, the Wensum principally, doesn’t seem to support big roach anymore. All sorts of solutions were offered, predictably alliance between individuals and statutory bodies, fundraising, projects, monitoring, data collection, meetings, committees, you name it. Pretty much everything but direct action.

The Snail?

One of the comments really struck me, though. It was suggested that roach grow slowly to about six years of age and then catapult forward in growth, largely because they change their diet to snails. Could it be that the Wensum doesn’t hold enough snails anymore to support big, fast-growing roach? I took this on board and was nearly convinced.

Then, I thought of the stretch of Wensum between Elsing and Lyng a few years back. At the time, it was heaving with good roach between a few ounces and a pound and a half. Over a couple of autumns and winters, I also either saw or caught plenty of fish between one pound fourteen ounces and two pounds nine ounces. Obviously, given a chance, the Wensum can still support big roach. The question is, with the amount of cormorants, do those roach ever seriously get the chance to live for 10 years or more. My gut feeling is a big no.

Cormorant population explosion

I’ve also been trying to find out why there has been such a massive increase in the growth of continental cormorants over the past 40 years or so. Their numbers have spiralled from virtually nothing to over one and a half million. Many of those have come to the UK because the continent has not been hospitable enough for them. What on earth caused this amazing increase in the first place?

Sometimes, it just seems so easy. I remember back 10 days or so, on the Island at Kingfisher Lake, when Enoka and dear friend Mick Munns just couldn’t go wrong. You walk off thinking you know all the answers and that you are really king of the lake.

How quickly you can be brought back to earth.

John Bailey

The decline of river roach

I guess it’s fairly true to say that one of the most sought after fish amongst anglers in 2018 would be a true river two pound roach. Once upon a time, in my lifetime come to that, two pound river roach were not too uncommon, even though they were always highly regarded. Here i look into some of the reasons why?

The history of river roach

If we go back to the 1970s, all the East Anglian rivers held two pound roach along with those in what we anglers call Wessex as well. Going back to the 1960s, just to show you how good things were, a great friend of mine caught twenty-two roach over two pounds in a single February afternoon session. Knowing Jack, he liked a long lunch so he probably didn’t get to the water until two p.m. and, as he was trotting, he probably had to give up at four. You can work out the maths yourself.

So, going back forty or fifty years, there were endless rivers in England that could produce two pound roach and, vitally, a whole raft of fish beneath that magic mark. In fact, in 1975, I can remember catching two hundred roach in a morning from two ounces to two pounds ten ounces with virtually every age group being represented. Rivers were simply teeming with redfins.

The recent decline

So, the decline is apparent and appalling. Over the last twenty years, if we take the East Anglian rivers which I know best, there have been endless false dawns. Over and over, I have seen promising signs in the shape of large shoals, no congregations more like, of decent roach in the four to fourteen ounce class. They look young, fit and healthy but, a year or two later, just when you’d expect big fish, they appear to have vanished. This is not an isolated occurrence. It has happened to me on scores of occasions, to the point where I am wearied of it all. My recent road trip around Wessex taught me alot about the current roach demise which i discuss here . 

The ‘habitat’ red herring

The tragedy is that we are told by the Environment Agency that it is all a matter of habitat. It’s not. My East Anglian rivers at least have never looked better. The deep dredging, the curse of the 1960s and ‘70s, has all but ceased now and the rivers meander in their old, voluptuous curves. Moreover, marginal weed growth is now luxuriant and everywhere you look, there is the so-called woody debris that is so important for river health. Yet, despite seemingly perfect habitat, there are no big roach, or hardly any anyway.

The Environment Agency will also try to say that it is down to food stocks. Just the other day, I chanced upon some of the members of a trout fishing syndicate who were busy sampling the invertebrate life on one of the upper rivers. They were kick sampling, disturbing the silt and seeing what invertebrates hit the waiting net beneath. According to them, the river was fabulously rich in olive nymphs, in particular, but also in most forms of invertebrate life. They have been doing this task for seven years and they have noticed no diminution in the number of invertebrates. According to them, there is food aplenty. Yet there are absolutely no roach in the stretch, a stretch where there used to be tens of thousands.

Why is the decline happening?

So, if the river is healthy and the habitat is fine, what is happening to these promising shoals of roach that flourish for a year or two and come to nothing? To me, you and virtually all anglers the answer is blaringly obvious. They are somehow disappearing but not into thin air as if some river magician has waved a wand.

The scourge of Cormorants

To anybody out on the river, any amount of time during the year, the answer is simply cormorants. It’s nothing more and it’s nothing less. In the 1970s, the number of cormorants was comparatively minimal. The growth in number has been twenty-fold during this period and those birds have to be fed. Unlike otters which can roam widely for food, eating lots of rabbits and wildfowl, for example, cormorants are stuck with fish. My fish. Your fish. And roach feature heavily.

Yet, though I’ve tried, getting the Environment Agency to admit this is an absolute impossibility. Fishery teams seem to want to look anywhere for an alternative reason. It beggars belief. If anglers everywhere can see this blatant truth, then why is it not admitted to by the Agency itself?

A few years ago, a local trout fishing club decided it wanted to get rid of many of the big roach that occupied its water. After at least two years haggling with the Environment Agency, they were allowed to move around four hundred decent roach from the pit into the adjoining River Wensum. For five or six years after that, the roach fishing along the stretch was almost back to how it had been in the 1970s. The answer was so obvious. It’s all about stocking with decent-sized roach and then looking after them. It’s worth pointing out that the trout fishery has a cormorant culling licence and employs a man to do this very task. As a result, the stretch of river where these roach were introduced was jealously guarded and protected. It’s all about stocking and protecting the stock that is introduced. Simple as that.

Not just roach

Of course, I have highlighted roach in this piece but I could just as easily have talked about dace. Or, come to that, I could have included chub and barbel. The fact is that along many, if not most of our rivers, juvenile chub and barbel have an impossible time of it, just like roach and dace do. Back in the summer of 2016, I watched a shoal of two hundred or so juvenile barbel in the River Wensum. They have completely disappeared, completely been wiped out by cormorants working the stretch.

This situation is a calamity. It is appalling that we are allowing this to happen. That our statutory bodies are turning a blind eye. All of us who love our river roach must come together to pressurise the EA into action before it really is too late!