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.