This is not the story of how we turned granny into a catwalk star, it’s a tale of a bit of a face lift for a beautiful upland river. But, before we apply the make-up, here’s a little history. For very nearly 130 years the Manchester Anglers’ Association has built up and cared for an extensive fly fishery on the headwaters of the River Ribble in North Yorkshire centred on the village of Horton in Ribblesdale. Founded in 1878 by a group of influential Manchester businessmen including the son of the leading Manchester Chartist, Abel Heywood, the Association progressively acquired the rights on about 12 miles of double bank fishing from the source of the Ribble to the hamlet of Helwith Bridge. They also bought a 4.5 acre hill tarn above the hamlet of Newhouses to provide stillwater fishing for when the river is unfriendly.
From the outset the Association was concerned to conserve the brown trout stock in the pristine spate river. In 1882 they set up an extensive trout hatchery at Horton which attracted widespread attention. The hatchery supplied about 25,000 fish annually to both the river and the Tarn. By the 1940′s attitudes and economics had changed and the Association closed its hatchery and began stocking from fish farmed at Loch Leven and elsewhere.
Roll forward 60 years and things have changed again. About three years ago we began to realise that our stocking policy was perhaps not in the best interests of either the health of the river and its wild trout population, or our member’s fishing ambitions. And so began a search for an approach to maintaining fish stocks, that would have minimal detrimental impact on both the wider environment and the ecology of the river.
In 2004 one of our members, who fishes the Derbyshire Wye, received a copy of the newsletter of the Haddon Hall Estate which included an article written by their Head River Keeper, Warren Slaney. This described the work that Warren was then doing to turn the Wye and Lathkill rivers into a wild trout and grayling fishery. A quick phone call and a visit to this fishery was arranged. This turned out to be a truly inspirational experience. Warren’s infectious enthusiasm for his habitat restoration work under the guidance of the Wild Trout Trust (WTT) sent us scurrying back to Yorkshire abuzz with plans and ideas.
We firstly set in place with the Environment Agency a voluntary plan to progressively reduce our stocking, moving to introduce smaller fish later in the season and only on the lower beats south of Horton which is 2 miles from the lower limit of our waters. We then began to think about how we could improve the quality of habitat along the river to encourage the increased presence of trout at all stages of their lifecycle.
So contact was made with the WTT and an advisory visit was arranged which would offer us some professional advice on what actions we should take to ensure that the river could carry its optimum population of wild trout. This visit was immensely useful in helping to shape our future plans. The main message from the WTT was that the lower beats were fine; simple maintenance of the existing stock fencing along the river margins coupled with some judicious tree planting and tidying to ensure that young trees were present to replace older trees as they died was all that was needed.
The upper nine miles or so were a different matter. Here the river is largely unfenced and flows through rough pasture and open moorland. As a result the margins are bereft of good cover, suffer from poaching by cattle and sheep and do little to contribute to a healthy fish population. There are exceptions. The mile or so around the hamlet of Selside is an oasis of sylvan splendour and a vital spawning area for both native brownies and migratory salmon. But even here there are stretches where modest improvements could have a tremendous beneficial impact on the river and its margins. The report recommended that we concentrate on protecting the margins from grazing by erecting bank side fencing and planting native trees to offer suitable cover in this open but hilly landscape.
The WTT report was wholeheartedly endorsed by members at the 2005 AGM, helped in no small part by an inspiring talk by Warren Slaney who got even the confirmed club cynics thinking afresh. I was sent away to put together a plan to progressively turn our waters into a wild trout fishery and to identify key projects that would deliver the actions recommended in the WTT report. This was not easy as the Association, for all its long history, has a relatively small membership and limited resources. However, as is often the case, it’s not what you know but who you know that’s important…
There is a young lad in the village called Steve, who often helps me with jobs around the fishery. Steve attends the land based studies unit of a local college one day a week and he told me that his tutors were desperate for practical fencing projects. A visit to the college and I had a free workforce of fit and enthusiastic youth. All I needed now was a suitable project and the money to complete it. I sat down to think my way along the river and soon realised that the best place to start was where we could get a quick win easily and make a significant impact. Just above Selside is a major confluence where Cam Beck, a tributary not much smaller than the main river, joins the Ribble. This whole area is over grazed along the margins and as a result the banks are heavily eroded. Add in the fact that this is adjacent to extensive spawning beds, and I had my trial project site. Knowing the farmer that owned the surrounding land was going to be important.
At the confluence is a deep pool known locally as Nanny Carr’s (I asked the farmer why. He looked at me disparagingly and said “‘cos Nanny Carr fell in it”. Enough said). For about 500 meters on the east bank of this stretch, the fences and walls are either missing or broken. The plan became one of re-fencing and planting within a buffer strip we planned to create. I negotiated a pretty generous strip some 20 meters wide in places (“You’ll have me farming on a pocket handkerchief, Fleming.”) and set about finding the money.
I needed enough to cover the purchase of materials and trees, as well as purchase the tools necessary to maintain the fencing we put in, and to assist with future projects. Here in the Dales we are blessed with a funding body whose application process is a model of simplicity. The Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust were enthusiastic and quickly responded with an offer of £2000 – enough to get the job started. I then had one of those totally unexpected emails. The WTT wrote and asked if I had any projects, either under way or in planning, that they might support. Do trout like mayflies? The upshot of this was an offer of another £1000 to pay for professional advice, the tools, and a training course for members. The training would allow us to confidently undertake a baseline habitat and species survey to determine just what we had living in and on the river. This is vital as we need some way of monitoring whether our work achieves the improvements we want.
By early February this year all was in place and on Wednesday 7 February we drove home the first post. Working on each successive Wednesday, groups of students from the college completed over 500 meters of both post & rail and wire fence. Their persistence was remarkable. Whilst the weather was unusually kind this spring, we had a very wet winter and in some places the glacial clay was pretty wet. In early March I watched as a group struggled to get the fence through an area that resembled Ypres after a particularly heavy shelling. The mud was at least 3 feet deep, but the fence is now in, it’s straight and it’s tight.
We have planted over 200 trees along the banks using a mix of locally grown natives such as sessile oak, crack willow, rowan, bird cherry, alder, ash and hawthorn. We have tried to follow the natural contours of the land planting in random groups rather than regimented blocks. The effect both visually and on wildlife should be impressive as the trees mature. A water gate has been installed across the beck to secure the area from livestock and we can only wait and see how well this withstands winter spates which can be severe on this river.
So there you have it, a tale of one fishing Association that in its own quiet way is trying to ensure that our wild trout have a future and that there will be native fish aplenty to be sought by future generations of anglers. There will be just a few more sand eels for the puffins of the north as well since these make up the bulk of pellets fed to farmed trout.
The success of the project so far is a real tribute to the hard work of the students and their tutors. You so often read of the trouble that young people get into but all too rarely about those who are making a real contribution to their community.
The funding bodies deserve unreserved thanks. The YDMT are a joy to work with and if you don’t already belong to the WTT, join it now and ensure that our wild trout have a guaranteed future.
What next? Monitoring over time to see if all our hard work results in more wild fish. A chance to re-gather energies and then to start planning the next project using all the knowledge and experience that Nanny has taught us. You can keep up to date with our progress via our website or my daily blog.
1. The Environment Agency are keen to encourage all angling clubs to reduce the number and size of brown trout re-stocked into open waters where these fish should thrive naturally. There are a number of reasons for this, but principally research has shown that large stock fish have a detrimental impact on the ability of natives to hold their territory within the river, feed and reproduce at a level necessary for effective recruitment. Also it is now well established that these stock fish rarely survive the privations of winter so necessitating a cycle of constant restocking if satisfactory catches are to be ensured.
Experience has shown that a reduction or complete cessation of restocking combined with bank-side and in-stream habitat conservation and improvement can have a dramatic effect on increasing both the number of wild trout and their ability to recruit naturally.
Additionally, it is not widely known that sand eels form the bulk of feed that is used in growing on farmed fish for restocking. The harvesting of these sand eels is one of the principal reasons for the dramatic decline in the numbers of breeding sea birds, especially puffins, in northern waters so any reduction in the demand for this feed is likely to have some benefit for sea bird colonies.
2. There are very simple and effective ways of raising the potential of any river to hold wild trout. The first is to protect the vital river margins from grazing livestock. This ensures that the banks remain stable and free from trampling (poaching) and allows the natural vegetation to re-establish to provide cover for fish and the riverflies that they feed on. This is done by erecting fencing allowing a generous six meter margin on both banks. These buffer strips also provide cover for other native species such as the endangered water vole. It’s often helpful to give nature a lift by planting trees that will occur naturally in the landscape as these will have been grazed out. Secondly, trout need places to feel secure and to breed so ensuring that large woody debris and boulders are present to provide adult fish with a home is vital as is the availability of plenty of clean gravel in which they can build redds.
3. The key with any restoration project is being able to tell if all your hard work has been worthwhile so it’s necessary to understand exactly what does live and should live in your river. One of the key measures is to identify the number and mix of riverflies and monitor changes in their presence over time. The other is a systematic survey of the fish population by number and age and how this changes once the work is complete.