Saturday 12 August 2023

Barbel, Roach, Tanks and Tats…


It’s been a strange year of wildly contrasting emotions without Budgie. Still, he continues to inspire and is in our hearts and thoughts, and our laughs and smiles, every single day as the Avon Roach Project legacy lives on. Our Avon roach continue to flourish with, not only eyewatering numbers and sizes but equally importantly, healthy numbers of little ‘uns showing throughout the river, meaning they are continuing to reproduce and survive in sufficient numbers and are naturally holding their own, which was the whole idea.

In addition to this we now also have the gathering interest and impact both here and on other rivers of our barbel gravel spawning substrate enhancement scheme which, despite being hampered by conditions, saw us out again earlier in the year.

And while the river continues its assisted recovery, so too does Project HQ as it slowly returns to being my garden with the removal of some of the tanks. 

The removal of the first five of the remaining nine tanks stimulated a morning of very poignant and strangely profound emotions. Apart from an obvious relief at finally getting a large lump of my garden back, there was a sense of closure, but balanced with an enormous sense of accomplishment these tanks had enabled by being home, every year for more than a decade, to literally tens of thousands of precious Avon Roach.

Unquestionably, the overriding emotion on the day was sadness at Budgie not being there conducting affairs. This was a significant ending and beginning of another chapter in the amazing Avon Roach Project story, and the first to be missed by Budgie who would have been wrapped, almost mummified, against the cold but been front and centre for every second. And, just as he offered to get in the river with us to rake the barbel gravels last year, but only up to his knees, he said, so I know he’d have jokingly offered to get a corner of each tank for loading onto the lorry. Although absent in body, he was with us in spirit and, I’m sure, taking the piss out of me… Bastard!

The tanks were taken to pastures new by the EA guys, on the biggest low-loader I’d ever seen… Two million tons and at least four miles long, I reckon. And, in my head, I could clearly hear Budgie say to the driver ‘Let’s have a drive of your lorry mate.’

Four of the five tanks had been situated right in the middle of the lower garden, as you can see in the pictures below, so rather than return it to lawn, as it had been, then resume bitching about having to mow it every few weeks, I decided that, in memory of Budg’ and the thousands of Avon roach that had occupied the space over the years, I’d sow wild flowers on the bare patches left by the tanks from the seed-mix Budgie had recommended and had grown in his own garden. The pictures below tell the story, with the final few images showing an additional shared and permanent symbolic nod to the great man.  

I’ve also included some memorable archive pictures that span the tanks entire life in our care as a reminder of what ended up far exceeding the original ‘roach in a bathtub’ concept.

So, to the latest Avon Roach Project activities, the ongoing barbel gravel spawning substrate enhancement scheme – we really need to come up with a shorter title; and this year, as last, we selected three more sites for our attentions.

The timing of this is critical and we have a small window of opportunity each year, partly to get the maximum benefit from the desilted gravel for the imminent spawners but also enough time for recolonisation of the vital invertebrate food source for the barbel larvae, particularly as they spend longer in the loosened gravel than other species, while considering any impact on the other things that might be affected by what we do and when. Despite a fair chance of favourable conditions at this time of year, we are still at the mercy of the weather and river.

The roach had started spawning right on time in a slightly high and coloured river at the end of April so we were hopeful.

However, it didn’t turn out as planned, in more ways than one.

First stop was to be a day at the famous Royalty fishery in Christchurch with new keeper, Dan; but the river remained just too high for safe access to the two spawning areas we’d planned on doing, so we reluctantly cancelled and have it at the top of the list for next year.

Next it was the area above the once prolific Severals, on Christchurch Angling Club controlled Ringwood fishery, which was pushing through, but did allow us to not only significantly desilt a vast area of gravels – the upper area of a known spawning site, but also take some very revealing before and after sediment samples, which we plan on doing periodically throughout the year, as well as linking in with some new and historical invertebrate sampling through the EA.

Many assume that just a bit of a flush naturally cleans the gravel, which it does at first glance but, unless thunderous, it simply brushes the organic dusty silt and algae from the surface, leaving the heavier compacted sediment where it is. You can see the differences in sediment weight and density in the closeup picture below… Sorry it’s not as interesting as our old roachy pictures.

The sediment samples are all taken from a litre of water taken from a critically controlled volume of disturbed gravel, also seen in the pictures below. The difference was quite remarkable and even from a single activity like our raking, it was very clear we were having a significant impact. We pondered the huge volume of silt we’d disturbed equating to the space now available to be filled with barbel eggs. No brainer, really.

Then on to a middle river spot pinpointed by a keen supporter within the bankside Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust just north of Fordingbridge controlled by Salisbury and District AC.

Unfortunately, very likely caused by the same erosion and run-off, plus the cattle poaching we highlighted in our original blog post when we started this initiative, responsible for years of buildup of fine sandy substrate and organic deposits, the gravel refused the attentions of our raking, no matter how much shoulder-power was used. It sounded like the rakes were being dragged across concrete. Although glowing golden yellow after the high water, it was impermeable and pavement hard.

Unfortunately, this, just as some other areas we have assessed have already shown they are in need of far more robust attention. We have decided the only way to achieve what we need here is to do it with pumped water through powerful jets; an old method historically used for salmon and trout redds, and one we have in our own armoury.

Another, more substantial and permanent option here would be to hinge and stake a nearby willow (which will remain living) across the upper area to create a flush of water to scour and oxygenate the spawning gravels; another tried and trusted undertaking in general river improvements in specific cases and something we’ll be looking into with the EA guys who, once again, with everything we’ve done this year, have been brill…

We want to avoid unnecessary silt displacement and do just
enough to enhance the pinpoint specific spawning areas. And, as previously mentioned, we have plans, when conditions are more friendly, to work on part of an easily observable spawning area to try to establish if the percolation of water on the underside of the fish stimulates a preference for the cleaned gravel as we know it does in trout – this may never be established, but worth a try (bit like our views on roach, which led to some astonishing discoveries)… Conditions this year made it difficult to spot spawning barbel but a few were definitely seen over some of the areas we worked on last year.

All our stomping about in a SSSI is, of course, subject to us obtaining relevant consents, but we managed it with the roach project, so don’t see a problem, other than the project now lacking Budgie’s ‘charm’…

Just like the old principles of the ARP, we want to work as sensitively and holistically as we can to simply improve the odds in the critical natural numbers game by increasing egg survival and fry recruitment while retaining the existing genetics, something we have always been extremely vehement about.

It is hoped that in time, there can be an almost river-wide coordinated annual undertaking, with the right consents and guidance, by those keepers and angling clubs wishing to take part in helping improve the river – a bit of ‘citizen science’.

So, over and out for now, and hope you enjoy this update.

Hopefully the pictures below are good enough to illustrate our efforts.

Sediment sampling was a little tricky in the fast flow, but the EA guys were up to it.

It entails a barrel, like a bottomless dustbin, being lowered and pushed into the riverbed where the inner gravel is violently agitated releasing the sediment into the water column within the barrel where one litre is collected and poured into a settlement tube for measuring meaning the amount of gravel disturbed is constant as is the volume of water sampled.

Several different spots were sampled, from close to the bank to almost mid-river, and the EA guys supplied all the equipment and expertise.

This image shows quite clearly, not only the worrying volume of silt from just one jug of water, but also the different weight and densities of sediment causing the problem in the spawning gravels; also, that even the flush of water from a high, weed-free winter river will have little impact other than to just buff up the very surface of the gravels a bit.

Samples taken and recorded and we went in with the rakes. We systematically work our way across the patch we had chosen. Our own ‘Riverdance.’ 

Even in the shallows you can see the volume of water coming past us. A bit disorientating if you don’t keep your eye in – especially being as clumsy as me.

The volume of silt we were dislodging was astonishing. However, we knew that when we were done, at least the upper part of this known spawning area would be far more friendly to barbel eggs and fry survival than before we gave it our attention. And we really did give it some attention.

Unfortunately, the main spawning area below the bridge will have to remain concreted and packed solid with silt as we have been denied permission by the controlling angling club to do this work on any of their stretches of river. Shame that unnecessary egotistical point scoring, even on this level, can deny club members and some once prolific barbel stretches of a free, no-brainer of a positive river improvement scheme. Hopefully, this might change one day.

We did, however, ensure our upstream improvements were done on a line and distance not to adversely affect the lower part of the spawning area, as best we could.

Phil finished off out in mid-river while I got some pictures showing the difference in the raked and unraked areas. It was also very noticeable when walking on it just how crumbly the raked areas felt underfoot compared to the solid non-raked.

We took sediment samples after we’d raked for comparison and this picture shows the effectiveness of our efforts. 

Dry suited up, Steve Trevett of Salisbury and District AC joined us and went in with Phil Rudd of the EA at the Fordingbridge location. But after a good period and expansive effort they conceded as the compaction of gravel over the whole area was just too much. They could make no impression at all. The rakes across the riverbed sounded like a muffled old harpsichord.  

In the picture it appears that there are ‘golden gravels’ above them but even here it was solid as a pavement.

It also appears that Steve is in a much deeper part of the river, but it’s worth noting that Phil is twelve feet tall.

So, to the tank removal, and the first five to go to their new custodians were these. Freestanding and easy to re-site. And, although pleased to see the back of ‘em, it was quite a moment.

Perfect fit on that giant truck, and another soppy moment as I am right where Budgie would have positioned himself for the picture and had his hand resting right where mine is.

Half my garden back and I can hardly remember it being that big. No wonder I used to bitch about how much lawn I had to mow.

So, just a bit of scratching and levelling and there are the perfect patches for some commemorative wild flowers.

Now a few archive pictures as a reminder of the amazing recent life on this little patch of ground and the miracles it enabled and memories it has bestowed.

Firstly, the moment the final lot of tanks arrived for us to place, sending Avon Roach Project and Project HQ to beyond bursting point with, of course, the clerk of the works, Budgie, in the left of the picture directing proceedings.

Remember, I was clueless about levelling and footings and anything other than drawing and printing and tripping over things so I was literally ‘voice activated’ when it came to all this stuff. Budgie, of course, was in his element – even more so knowing I was so far out of my depth… Bastard.

Project HQ at full capacity. Lids on for shade and protection from airborne predation, pumped and filtered water and home to unimaginable numbers of Avon Roach. Bloody hard work, but what a trip…

Clouds of ‘days old’ tiny vulnerable little roach born into a system that would enable a first year survival of tens of thousands against less than a handful in the wild from the same spawn volume. 

Healthy, strong, plump one year old Avon roach, pictured as they were being evicted from the tanks and taken to our stew ponds, and still only part of the way through their time in our care.

The ultimate reward as three different locations each year have thousands of adult Avon Roach returned. These moments, not only with the roach, but also with Budgie were very special… Two very proud boys. 

Then in July, two more of the final four tanks were collected and taken to pastures new. Incredible to think of the tens of thousands of precious little lives those grubby, ordinary looking tanks had been home to over the years.

Once beyond imagination: now an example of what can be achieved; even by a couple of clueless crackpots, if we put our minds to something with a little vision and determination.

So, I raked and levelled the patches where the tanks had been, scattered the seeds, gave ‘em a little swish and a shimmy with the rake and then this happened…The garden was literally buzzing with bees and all kinds of other pollinating insects. I could hear them half way down the garden. I have never seen a greater concentration of assorted pollinators in my entire life. 

And now, as I sit of an evening watching the sunset, I raise a beer to Budg’ and the thousands of roach and the life that now continues in the space they have left. 

A beautiful idea of Budgie’s daughter, Georgie, and wife Rose, was to have tattoos of the little kingfisher illustration I did for the Avon Roach Project book, which was used on the cover of the order of service for Budgie’s funeral, seen here. Other family members and friends, including me, also enrolled, and it now adorns necks, thighs, arms and legs as a permanent and proudly emblazoned emblem of a true legend.

While pondering where mine should be, I could hear Budgie in my head telling me… ‘Only one place for it, mate… It has to be on your arse.’ However, I decided my arm would be slightly easier for showing folks in the pub and on the riverbank…

Me being a brave boy and laughing in the face of my excruciating fear of needles… Never had any desire to have a tattoo in my life but didn’t hesitate for a moment when this was suggested.

And so finally, to Budgie, once again I say ‘see you tomorrow, mate.’