Friday 19 October 2018

Hot Summer - Cool Project

Well it’s certainly been a year of extremes; but then you don’t need me to tell you that (I’m going to anyway, though…). Even the England football team were popular for a while… Goodness, what is happening to this world??? Last time that happened, they won the world cup then went home and washed their cars and mowed their lawns – Oh how the world has changed…
Anyway, on to the roachy stuff…
Winter saw temperatures plunge to minus goodness knows with a double dumping of thick snow, setting heart rates fluttering with worry about how our little roach would handle it in the tanks and stews, then within a few weeks it was like it hadn’t happened as the roach spawning triggered throughout the river right on time and everything was reset to ‘normal’…
The tiny roach hatched nicely in the tanks and they were soon stuffing their faces with Brine Shrimps twice a day and growing like crazy.
Then, as you know, it all went off the other end of the scale as temperatures reached mid 30’s C and stayed there… Even at night, it felt like.
The same heart flutterings happened with the heat as with the ice, but with heat can come all kinds of additional waterborne nasties, especially in a heavily populated enclosed over-ground artificial environment like our tanks.
All in all, though, the roach did OK. The heat did trigger some ‘pea-soup’ algal blooms which enabled the most amazing daphnia explosions in all the tanks which as we have mentioned before we seed so they continue to feed our little roach with the live young they squirt out every couple of weeks. At one point the daphnia outnumbered the roach.
The enjoyment of the wonderful summer was punctuated by sessions wrestling our stream and stews back from Mother Nature who insists on filling them with vegetation, but with a little help we made short work of it all.
While the steaming hot conditions can have alarming disadvantages, we must remember that from a general riverine ecology perspective the warm water, low flows, prolific weed growth and abnormal abundance of bug life will mean that this will be one of the best summers for fry survival and recruitment for almost a generation… Not since 1976 have we experienced such extraordinary conditions. Couple this with the work we are doing, the habitat stuff we, and others, are involved in and the raft of other elements being dealt with, this will be a ‘fantastic’ year for the fishes in our river.
Yes, I know there is a whole world of other stuff we need to address, but it’s nice to pinch a moment to reflect with a glass half full, for a change.
Now, as the summer cools and softens into the nutty sweet scented, tawny glow of autumn it seemed really appropriate that I saw my last swallows on the day of our annual fundraiser event held on the 6th October.
Their spring arrival signifies the beginning of our frantic period and it’s fitting that their departure signifies its end.
It was once again an amazing doo. A great bunch of folks attended, we had an amazing array of auction lots on the evening – after one of the bestest ‘boys’ dinners ever… Steak and mushroom pie, vegetables and roast potatoes, followed by apple pie and custard… Proper grub…
We were delighted and again stunned by the amazing generosity of the folks in the room on the night and those who donate the auction lots. We have exclusive guided fishing days, rods, reels, pictures, books and a whole load of other stuff.
Once again, huge thanks go to Southern Fisheries for letting us have the Royalty Fishery, Christchurch Angling Club for letting us have upper and lower Winkton and Ringwood and District Anglers Association for letting us have upper and lower Severals for our friendly fishing match we held on the Saturday.
For the sixth consecutive year roach featured on the catch returns and this year, for the second time, the match was actually won with a roach.
This roach, however, was not one of ours as it will be older than our project. It was a whopper of three pounds two ounces and taken by fundraiser regular and no stranger to big roach, Mark Everard.
And, there’s more… Not only was the match won with a roach, but roach were caught throughout the river, which is now a common occurrence. One competitor sent a message afterwards telling of catching nine gorgeous roach to 1lb 6oz and said…’ I had to "take a moment" to compose myself: there was a moistening of the eyes and a few deep breaths. A previously rather barren stretch of river, now with a sustainable population of roach. What an achievement for the Avon Roach Project. The fellowship of roach anglers are forever in your debt. I can only add my humble gratitude to the many plaudits you've earned.’
As I stand there at the end of the evening giving my closing speech and thanks I get a wobble in my voice as I look around the room and tell of the roach now being caught and seen throughout the river, and I am transported back to the point Budgie and I sat face to face beside a river with a declining roach population estimated to be below critical mass and asked… ‘What can we do???’ – Well, we certainly answered that one.
What a journey, what an achievement and what an experience…
As well as continuing to grow roach, the investment in habitat improvement continues with possibly the largest and most effective excavation of a huge fry bay at Sopley on the lower part of the Avon; historically renowned for its roach, completed only a few weeks ago (end of September). This is the latest in a number initiated by the ARP over the years and a valuable accompaniment to the rest of our activities.
Off the back of our unprecedented achievements with roach (you can have a blow on this trumpet after me…) we are adding yet another string to our bow by spearheading an initiative to increase the effectiveness of vital gravel spawning sites in the Avon, improving egg and fry survival of species such as Barbel and chub, in partnership with the Environment Agency, using the same simple and pure techniques and holistic principles as we have done with the roach. Watch this space…
Thank you all once again for your fab support and encouragement – Now on to the pictures round…

A second helping of snow and sub-zero temperatures raised concerns for our little roach as it looked like winter would never end.
Dunno what all the fuss was about. The little roach didn’t even flinch… I must admit that our sighs of relief could probably be heard in the next county.
Then, as if Mother Nature had just remembered the time, Spring hurtled at us and everything was reset to ‘normal’ and the roach began spawning right on time.
Tanks full of free-swimming roach fry means panic, urgency and worry as the first few weeks are the most difficult to handle. There is literally no let-up.
Brine Shrimp Hatchery was quickly in full production for the little hatchlings. While this might be one of the most crucial elements in the lives of our little roach and the project, it really is indescribably tedious. Duller than watching paint dry or counting salt.
Satisfaction and fulfilment comes rapidly as the little roach grow before our very eyes as they gorge on protein rich shrimps, fed twice a day every day for the first two weeks.
Daphnia supply our roach with constant food between Brine Shrimp feeds in the form of their own live young. The adults, of course, are too big for our roach at this crucial time, but as they grow that changes.
As if this amateur fish farming malarkey isn’t stressful enough, summer temperatures then rocketed to the mid 90’s Fahrenheit – probably almost 100 degrees higher than just a few months earlier. This was even more of a concern than the snow and ice.
Again, dunno what all the fuss was about. The roach were all fine. We ensured good oxygenation, fairly frequent partial water changes and regular water tests for any nasties that can creep up on you almost overnight.
A lovely bonus brought on by the scorching heatwave was the stinging nettle bed in the field at the bottom of my garden died and was consumed by father and son Derek and Roger (I don’t think that’s their real names… Roger, the horse?). It meant they could come over for a scratch and a cuddle, a few mouthfuls of my hedge and of course a daily treat of carrots and apples. I love ‘em.
Despite the heat and the mozzies, work still needed to be taken care of in the form of clearing the thick rush-beds from our feeder stream and some of the marginal reeds and cress from some of the stews.
Help was on hand and we all made quick work of it. These days are always good fun and are punctuated with plenty of water for the heat and an over-abundance of jammy doughnuts and apple turnovers.
It was lovely to be able to show the guys the roach feeding in the stews, which of course are the ultimate fruits of all our labour, while we took a break and stuffed our faces.
Job Done… Well, almost. While it looks like we’ve just chucked it all in a heap on the immediate bank, after about a week of dry weather the whole lot will weigh a fraction of what it does when first removed so much easier to clear away.
I wanted a ‘group shot’ for here on the ARP web site, facebook posts and of course the ARP book, but had trouble with the remote thingy so had to rely instead on the timer thingy which gave me about three seconds to get from camera to line-up. And, despite a number of attempts, this picture is the best this doughnut-stuffed porker could manage.
Left to right – Dave Taylor, Steve Withers, Mick Leonard, Keith Gawler, Adrian Simmons and Geoff Chase.
Summer also sees me dashing about collecting auction lots for the annual fundraiser doo and every year I have a lovely afternoon with my great mate Chris Yates who always finds a few items for us. This year he gave us his actual typewriter.
We spend the afternoon drinking tea, laughing and telling our stories, as you can imagine.
This year he even let me have his secret blend of tea; a ‘cut’ of different loose-leaf teas that could only ever have been discovered by someone like Chris… And, I must say I have never tasted tea like it in my life… No more squashing a teabag against the side of a mug for me… Pure nectar.
The fundraiser was once again well attended with some regular old faces it’s always great to see (some haven’t missed a single event), and some new faces too, which is lovely.
The atmosphere, once again, was off the scale and simply impossible to describe; so, I won’t try – but it was absolutely fab.
As I mentioned in the main body copy to this blog, when I stand up in front of this room full of fantastic supporters to do my thank you’s, update and closing speech, for a moment there is a tightening of chest and throat and a wobble in my voice. The whole world just stops. There is a tremendous feeling of gratitude and almost disbelief as I’m transported back to the moment Budgie and I sat beside a once iconic river with a roach population estimated from the EA fish stock survey results as being below critical mass, so very unlikely to be able to recover unassisted in many areas of the middle reaches of the river, and we asked ourselves… ‘What can we do? There must be a way of arresting the decline. We have to do something... But what? If we try and fail, we must at least have a go’.
We still have to pinch ourselves sometimes.
A three pound two ounce roach is a very special creature, as is our Mark who despite being no stranger to big roach did what we all do in the presence of such an extraordinary critter – he just went to pieces.
I made the most of the trophy presentation (as is the norm on these evenings), but having caught a three pound roach, Mark didn’t really care what was said and how much stick he got – and who would.
Plenty of roach now feature in our annual matches and here is an example. What a belter – which might even have been born in my back garden.
The Sopley fry bay started with me spotting a possibility a few years ago; then through support for what we have already achieved, we can go to land owners and suggest we tear up a section of one of their fields. It’s amazing how land owners throughout the valley have embraced and recognise the value of schemes like this
Christchurch Angling Club who have the fishing at Sopley and the land owner, David Benton-Jones, were very supportive and indeed it was the CAC rivers team that cleared the site ready for the diggers to get in. This was the same bunch of great guys who came and helped clear our stream and stews at Bickton earlier in the summer. They are also going to be sorting the bridge over the inlet and formulating an ongoing maintenance schedule to prolong the life and effectiveness of the excavation. A proper partnership and great team effort.
In late September the diggers got to work. We invited a local rivers trust, the WCSRT, to help with admin and assist with project management. So, it became a four-way partnership; the fourth being our ever-dependable Environment Agency who enable and encourage this kind of stuff.
In less than a week the area is unrecognisable as the vision now becomes a reality.
The moment of inundation as the digger breaches the bank between river and fry bay. I must admit, it was quite a ‘moment’ for me as I stood there melting with pride as I remembered the moment I stood on the high bank and looked into an overgrown boggy tangled darkness and thought… ‘I know; that’d make a fantastic fry bay’…
This picture gives a perspective on the size of the inlet connection to the river. And, it is worth considering that even a fry bay the size of just the inlet alone would be an amazing natural sanctuary for countless thousands of fry at certain times of year.
Job done. Possibly the most effective we have ever been involved in. Mother Nature will soon repair the bruising and scarring left by the diggers.
So, back to Bickton. The stews and surrounding area are cleared and ready for the coming winter. One more cut of grass maybe, then time to wind down and perhaps even get out for a bit of fishing myself (I really have got the bug back); that’s between getting battered senseless by discount furniture and Christmas ads on the telly-box, which have already started and nobody’s even lit the first firework yet.
The whole Bickton site has once again worked beautifully and while there is an ongoing battle to stop Mother Nature reclaiming it with weekly maintenance, and obvious regular trips to feed the fish, it really isn’t as hard as I make out. Just a matter of keeping on top of it. This year in particular, we could almost watch the roach growing before our eyes.
These roach, along with two other stew-fulls, will be released into the river next March. They are just starting to show redness in the fins which indicates maturity so, all being well, they’ll be contributing to the natural spawning in the river next April. Nice thought eh?
These are our escapees who are thriving in our feeder stream at Bickton. This is the result of just a few little tiddlers getting through gaps and rat holes into the stream where they have survived, grown on and now spawn each year. It just goes to show that if we give them a chance (which is the whole idea of the project) they will take it. Same applies to those we return to the river – hopefully, give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile. Unfortunately, it is more likely to work in reverse, but still worth every ounce of effort.
The Avon now has its healthiest number of dinky barbel and chublets for many years. This is likely due, at least in part, to the monster floods of 2012 which shifted and cleaned tonnes of gravel in the river, creating perfect spawning substrate. This has without doubt led to a significant increase in egg and fry, and subsequent juvenile survival, the immediate evidence of which is there to see throughout the river.
This shows that the river will sustain a revival of fish, be it our roach, barbel and chub; and, who knows, even salmon and trout too.
It makes a nonsense of the scaremongers, doom and gloom merchants and self-proclaimed experts telling us our rivers are finished as the otters are eating all the barbel and the cormorants are finishing off the rest… Glasses always half empty.
Our plan, in partnership with the Environment Agency, is to gravel jet known spawning sites on a rotational basis ensuring they remain at an optimal effectiveness for gravel spawners to assist the continuation of what appears to be a promising recovery.
Once again, it shows that a positive difference can be made with simple and basic intervention. Like we say, ‘give them a chance and they will take it’.
A nice reminder of where it all starts each year for us.
And a reminder of what they might grow into if given the chance and with a heap of good luck.





Wednesday 9 May 2018

2018 Awesome Spawning and Hatching.

Annual spawning board placement usually takes place in the first week in April just in case of an early warm spell which has once before triggered early spawning. However, all Roach Project aficionados will by now know that unless something very unusual happens (Floods, Ice Age, Heatwave), spawning takes place on or around the 25th, so with the river still full of snowmelt water and not even the remotest glimmer of Spring in the air, there was no urgency.

Then to add to the feeling of ‘how much longer is this bloody winter going on for’ some ridiculously heavy ‘April Showers’ sent the river up and into the fields… Eeeeehh, you couldn’t write this stuff.
Suddenly, it seemed Spring remembered the time and got a grip. The river began dropping, swallows started arriving, brimstones and bees joined us and a Grannom hatch exploded as the temperature climbed and the river warmed and cleared – once again hitting the ARP ‘Panic Button’…
By the third week in April all the spawning boards were in the usual locations – plus one new one noticed and tried for the first time last year, and we were ready to go.
Off the back of the most successful one year old yield and the second highest number of three year olds ever returned in the few months earlier, it was unlikely that we would score a hat trick with regard spawning action, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to happen…. Oops! I’ve given the game away again, haven’t I?
There are only a few spawning locations which allow decent pictures to be taken, and even at these it’s a case of being there at the right time and spending hours clicking away in the hope of a few jaw-droppers. And, over the years we have always felt that the previous years pictures will never be equalled, let alone bettered.
Well, this year simply blew my little mind.
I received a call saying the roach were splashing so popped along with the camera to see. They were splashing but it would be a couple of days before full-on spawning action would be happening. The first day is usually the males all establishing territory at the spawning boards and chasing each other around, which is what was happening.
I’ll not dwell on it here as most of you have probably already scrolled past this to see the most amazing spawning pictures ever.
I stood in perfect light with perfect river conditions and in a couple of hours took 959 pictures of the most amazing Avon Roach spawning spectacle I have ever experienced. The roach were thrashing around all over, even skidding across the tops of the spawning boards which they’d partially covered with eggs.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of individuals, large (huge) and small – the smaller ones very likely being some of those we stocked downstream last year. Then there was the welcome return of what we refer to as the ‘big girls’ – two roach we estimate to be well in excess of three pounds. In addition to these beauties we were blown away by the sizes of some of the huge males, which you’ll see in the pictures below.
The number and size of the roach, and given that they spawn exclusively on our spawning boards in preference over any of the natural substrate in the area, meant that careful management was essential as they’d covered the netting with spawn within a couple of days – so the spawning boards were collected and replaced with fresh for the roach to continue without any risk of over clogging what had already been deposited.
It’s always a little unnerving, but the roach are on the replacements and spawning like fury within minutes. I have even had roach spawning on a board as I’m pulling the rope to retrieve it – a truly awesome experience.
Safely back in the tanks, the eggs began to develop nicely over the coming week, slowed slightly by a drop in temperature – the main downside to this being my hands aching up to my armpits when taking the underwater pictures. – but just twelve days later and hatching commenced. That was it; I felt like I’d been fired from a cannon as I assembled and filled the Brine Shrimp Hatchery in readiness for the roach needing this crucial feed.
Getting the roach hatched and starting to feed and grow on the Brine Shrimp in the first few days is always a real buzz as thousands of tiny new lives begin. I must admit that the novelty wears off within about twelve seconds though as it is very time consuming and particularly dull – that said, it is probably one of the most critical and important stages… That won’t stop me bitching about it though.
This year there was yet another rather pleasant occurrence and feather in our cap as we saw roach spawning on the stanchions of Ibsley Bridge, once famous for its roach, but like much of the rest of the river suffered the same level of decline. These were very likely either some of the fish we stocked just above the bridge, a while back, or the progeny of stockings further upstream at North End which are known to have flourished as they now seem to be doing throughout the river.
Back in the day we placed our spawning boards at Ibsley over a number of years in our attempts at finding roach spawning sites, unfortunately without success. And, with roach finding our spawning boards irresistible if placed in the right place it proved to us that there were sadly no roach left at Ibsley. Not so now.
I’ll leave the words there and let the pictures and captions tell the rest of the story.
Once again, I’d like to thank everyone for the continued support and encouragement.

Outstandingly satisfying to see great numbers of roach at the spawning boards yet again, which increases each year. At this location it was doubly satisfying as the smaller ones are very likely to be those we stocked downstream last year. In fact, most of them are probably something to do with us over the years.

Initially, there is a lot of male territorial jostling. Again, great to see such healthy numbers.

Some of the males were huge. Just take a look at this fellow. It is worth remembering that the board is one metre long and nine inches wide and the fish you are seeing is eighteen inches below the surface.

Here one of the ‘big girls’ is attracting the attention of some of the boys.

As they come together the action starts to intensify.

Then away they go… Just what is it about these spawning boards???

A large female deposits her eggs surrounded by attentive males which rub their tubercle-covered bodies against her to induce egg release.
I think that’s a smaller female on the top which seems to have been buffeted clear of the water.
Once they started, the action was full-on and there were clusters of writhing roach all over the four spawning boards at this location.

Within a matter of just a few seconds it’s over so I had to just keep the camera shutter clicking away at every movement.

The light was just right and the roach continued to oblige.

Wonderful moments captured by a very lucky me behind the camera.

Simultaneous action on both edges of the same spawning board, and the shot clearly shows the depositing of the contribution to the next generation.

And a swimmers roll to exit.

More action on the same section of spawning board.

This shot clearly shows the size difference in the spawners this year.

Then it seemed like every roach in the river converged at the spawning board at exactly the same time. There were red fins everywhere.
This shot also shows the spawn on the top of the board where they off-load as they actually leave the water and skid over the top in the excitement.

One of the ‘big girls’ passing on her priceless genes. It’s lovely to know that through the way we do things this genetic purity is retained.

It seemed that for the whole time I was there, there was no let-up in intensity of spawning. I think I was lucky to have caught it at its peak.

It was very clear that the roach were very quickly covering the netting with eggs as the action was unrelenting.

Not a very sharp picture, but worth including it as it shows an explosion of roach.

One of the ‘big girls’ with a tubercle-covered male caressing her under the chin.

Some pictures just don’t need captions…

This shot also shows not only the males and females enjoying a group hug, but also again shows the varying sizes of the spawners – possibly between four and fifteen years of age.

Some of these pictures might suggest the roach preferred particular areas of the spawning boards, but in fact this wasn’t the case as they were all very evenly covered with eggs.

Last one of the spawning – and one that shows how the eggs are deposited on the top of the boards.

Our little happy-snap underwater camera did the trick again this year and here the eggs are well on the way and developing nicely. The little roach are clearly visible.

As it gets to twelve days they are almost ready to hatch. The roach fill the egg and begin to distort the shape from round to elliptical as they straighten to break free.

Then the first hatchling is photographed. The elliptical shaped eggs are very noticeable here indicating that hatching is about to start.

Hatching gathers pace as these tiny, transparent splinters of life emerge in greater numbers.

And, yes, as we try to do each year – here is a picture of roach actually hatching.

The newly hatched roach will stick themselves to the nearest inanimate object (usually the underside of the spawning board) with an adhesive gland on their heads where they’ll spend two or three days taking up their yolk sac before swimming free in search of food, which I must ensure is there for them. It is images like this that tell me that the Brine Shrimp Hatchery needs filling and firing up, as the rate of hatching is not obvious without far too much disturbance to the spawning boards which is to be avoided when the little critters are hanging there like this.

Tiny little roach possibly less than a few minutes old – sons and daughters of the ‘big girls’ maybe.

You’ve seen it before, I know, but just for the sympathy, I thought I’d include a Brine Shrimp Hatchery picture again – and remind you that this is my conservatory.

Before you know it, the tanks are teeming with tiny roach looking to be fed. We try, with varying degrees of success, to ensure healthy algal blooms in the tanks which we start the moment they are filled following the evacuation of last years roach. They are also seeded with live daphnia which thrive on the algae and give birth to live young every few weeks so both the live daphnia young and the algae and little microscopic critters living in it will be food for our tiny roach allowing them to graze as they’d hopefully do naturally.

I probably feed the first lot of brine shrimps before they have fully taken up their yolk sac, but I’d rather they have it and leave it than need it and not get it. However, you can see that many of these pink-bellied three day olds have appreciated the first feed.

These pictures slightly betray the truth when it comes to understanding just how fragile and vulnerable these tiny little splinters of life are – especially in such a fickle and unforgiving environment like a river.

Awesome!… Isn’t Nature wonderful??? Many of us would be completely oblivious that this microscopic scramble for life is happening all around us with all kinds of different creatures – until some saddo like me starts taking pictures of it…

One of our deposits of roach above the once famous Ibsley Bridge a few years ago. Isn’t it satisfying to know that roach are once again holding their own in this historically iconic roach stronghold and actually spawning on the bridge stanchions?
Through adult migration, displacement and, more significantly, larval drift from the hatchlings of these spawners the immediate area and the river above and below will naturally benefit from our efforts.