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ANGLERS ARE NATURALISTS R . B . RICKARDS

The title which I inherited from that star of TV, John Wilson, was actually 'Anglers and naturalists'. I changed it immediately, though leaving it on the conference programme, because it seems to me that anglers are naturalists. At the bottom line they have little choice: you cannot catch your supper if you do not understand its natural history. All fishing tackle and techniques are devised to exploit the mode of life of the quarry. Understanding its mode of life means understanding also its interactions with other creatures in the natural environment. Why am I making such a song and dance about this? Simply to remind you that nature does include fish. You wouldn't think so if you read the nature notes in newspapers, or the numerous natural history partworks or columns run by Sunday newspapers and the like, or the many television programmes. In the media as a whole 'naturalists' study a) birds; b) mammals with nice faces and fur; c) amphibians sometimes; d) plants sometimes; e) reptiles and invertebrates rarely; and, lastly, fish (hardly ever). There is, of course, a clear biological classification involved here, as well as the cuddly factor: birds and mammals are higher (and later) forms of life than amphibians, reptiles and fish, the last going back to over 500 million years, and invertebrates rather longer. But there is something else too: fish are far less easy to observe than creatures that live on or above the land surface. The interface between air and water is much more of a mirror than a window. Every angler knows just how difficult it is to point out to a non-angler the fish that swims just below the surface, let alone at any depth. Angling is, in fact, one of the most efficient ways of studying the wet medium, even if your object happens to be fried trout rather than the strictly scientific. This last approach is, of course, only largely true of game fishermen and sea fishermen; coarse fishermen - a misnomer if ever there was one - are genuinely interested in what 'appens down there. It is, perhaps, salutary to reflect upon how one major facet of coarse fishing - match angling - actually began. Charabanc loads of working class men left the main towns on one weekend day, usually Sunday, to indulge in angling. For convenience they fished together in rows, and competition between them sprang u p quite naturally. Despite the economic rigours of the time, their catches of small roach or dace were not needed as food: but their capture opened up a whole new, beautiful world nature to these industry-hardened men. They made it a principle to return the fish to the water, after appreciating them for what they were, as well as the environment in which they lived and the countryside around them - a contrast to their place of work and their homes. 'Catch and release' as it is now known world-wide, is catching on in many other countries. Yet it began in the industrial revolution, in working class Britain. Well over three million anglers are now involved in this country; many are still, broadly speaking, working class. It is this body of people who will be most seriously affected if some of the more lunatic of

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European policies catch on over here, namely the killing of all fish caught (because of the philosophically unsound claim that the only justification for catching fish at all is to eat them). This leads me now to describe something of just how much of a naturalist an angler is. I myself began bird watching at the age of five, and angling at round about twelve. I've been doing both ever since. I'm referring to bird watching, not twitching. Angling has been said to be the contemplative man's recreation, and it is certainly true that melting into the scenery as one can as, indeed, one often does - it is easy to observe nature. Fish apart, it is not necessary to 'chase' nature. It comes to you. I've never in my life gone twitching after the Great Northern Diver, but more than once I've had them diving in the swim I was fishing, between my float and the bank where I sat! This has been in the Lea Valley, on the gravel pits, during December dawns: half an hour before lunch the twitchers arrived, replete with enormous telescopes (necessary, now, as the G N D ' s had retreated as far offshore as they possibly could); and then departed again in time for lunch at the nearby hostelry. I often think that whoever devised the word 'twitcher' should be given a medal, for it is a most precise title. It is not my intention here to belittle any one section of the naturalist fraternity. I'm sure the twitcher has his place and his rights, as much as the very casual, infrequent, or holiday angler has his. I want, rather to restrict the rest of this article to a consideration of the keen angler, perforce a naturalist, and naturalists in the restricted sense implied by the original title. And then I want to relate these to the conservationist movement, the Green movement, the anti-pollution lobby, and to the natural world in which we live in ever more crowded fashion. The keen angler spends a great deal of time in the countryside, by the waterside, and it gives him a unique view of that countryside. How many hours a week? Ten, twenty? Often much more than that. I doubt if any professional naturalists (in the restricted sense), or even amateurs, spend as much time as the angler sitting there watching, appraising, adding up enjoying. Very few biologists of my experience spend as much as an hour a week in the field; a keen amateur naturalist perhaps three to six hours a week. What happens by the water, and more especially in the water is quite fundamental to the wildlife in this country. The importance of fish and invertebrates is in inverse proportion to the attention lavished upon them by the media. As I have said before, no swan would drift on a foetid, foul and smelling pool: the Anglers' Cooperative Association fought almost alone for half a century to resist the spread of foul pollutants bringing almost 2000 cases successfully to court, aided, of course, by angling clubs the length and breadth of the land. I'd like to change tack now and look at the water of this island, how it arrives on our doorsteps - literally sometimes - and how it is used and abused. Most of the rain arrives from the west, and falls in the west, on the Pennines for example. Of the water that falls some evaporates, some soaks into the ground, and some forms run-off and quickly finds its way into the streams and rivers. Of that which evaporates, some comes down again as rain

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further eastwards, although always in much lesser amounts that in the west. But the crucial water in the long term is that which soaks in. In the good old days it used to soak into the peat bogs and marshy uplands, slowly getting into the water table which is the sponge responsible for good natural - and variable - flows in the river systems. With upland drainage carried to now ludicrous extremes that water cannot soak in slowly any more. It runs off. Fast. It adds to the natural run off. Water is now run off almost all the upland regions of this country four times as fast as it used to do thirty years ago. The result is depletion of the water table, and floods downstream. It's because the middle reaches of many rivers have been straightened, and water meadows removed, that the results of such rapid run-offs can be calamitous - as in the Selby floods of a few years ago. The cause of the water table depletion and flooding can be laid firmly at the doors of those responsible for drainage of the nation. With the loss of bogs and water meadows we lost many plants. In consequence we lost many birds which enjoyed those habitats - and invertebrates, and mammals, and fish. In fact, I ascribe the loss of the burbot in this country to destructive drainage practices. There is a world of difference between lowland drainage, as in the Fens, and the kind of drainage I have briefly described. The former can be justified on many grounds. Even here, however, one sees many examples of unthinking behaviour by drainage engineers, although their effects are usually of local import only. It is my view that bad drainage policies in this nation have been, and are, the single greatest threat to wildlife habitats, greater than pollution itself. This is a conference about water wilderness. But there are hardly any natural wildernesses left in this land, only mis-managed, manwrought wildernesses: and that is to abuse the meaning of the word because barren waste would be a better term. Thus it seems to me that none of those at the Water Wilderness conference in Ipswich, whether naturalists in the restricted sense, or anglers, have benefitted from past water policies enacted by the Water Authorities. We have, to date, been fighting a losing battle, trying to enjoy an increasingly restricted natural environment, and one with a rapidly decreasing diversity of creatures. What is more such creatures live in an environment where they face increasing competition amongst themselves. So how does angling interact with nature - as I said earlier, I'm talking about proper angling. In the first place let's get one point absolutely clear: anglers are not opposed to creatures that eat fish. By and large they have the sense to realise that interactions between fish and things that eat them have been going on for a lot longer than man has been around - in the case of pike and cyprinids that's about 80M years - ditto with fish-eating birds. The loss of otters had been an enormous loss to everyone, anglers included. Most anglers appreciated, in any case, that the favourite fishy food of otters was the eel - not too many of them around at present incidently, yet another case of human overkill. So whether it is the otter or the grebe or the kingfisher, anglers love them as they love the countryside as a whole. If I have any reservations at all, it is as a result of the imbalances caused by man with respect to cormorants and seals; and with respect to mink. On my waters mink are - I hesitate a little to say this - a danger to the ecology as a whole: birds eggs are devoured as readily as fish. And let us recall in this

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respect those extremist louts in Norfolk who released 10,000 minks to the wild because they purport to love animals. 10,000 mink on the loose would kill 50,000 wild creatures a week, just in order to stay alive! Cormorants and seals are in a different category. There can be no doubt in my mind, after some 40 years of observation, that both have vastly increased their attentions to inland fresh waters. The fundamental cause is overfishing of the North Sea by humans, removel of the food source of both creatures and, in both cases, the cessation of culling. We all abhore the way that culling was done, but there is now little doubt that until the recent seal illness there were far too many seals around. Seals are a basic destroyer of the ecology when they are as far upstream on the Great Ouse as Earith. Unlike the cormorant the freshwater fish diet does not seem to do seals much long term good, and within months they develop skin ulcers. Cormorants we can put up with, even in large quantities - at least, in the large quantities seen at present. But they do seriously affect the fish biomass in some of the gravel pits close to where they roost. By and large, however, although we must keep an eye on man-made imbalances, the angler and other predators should have little to fear from each other. What about the anglers' input to the natural environment? Do we only take out fish to eat, or do we put back, preserve and conserve? I'll consider this question in three phases: a) at national level; b) at club level and; c) at individual level. The input of the National Federation of Anglers, I think it would be widely conceded, has been excellent. Not only do they liase actively with all the conservation bodies, but they produce guidelines to all their member clubs on how to act in the countryside, both with respect to fish and other creatures. They produce keepnet codes, guides on tackle handling, arrange for nature reserves and so on. What is true of the NFA is also true of other bodies such as the National Association of Specialist Anglers (NASA). Some national bodies do not yet do enough but their contribution is improving - I personally worry about the NFSA, although some areas, for example, the SW region of NFSA are doing a great deal in consultation with the NCC Perhaps I'm wrong to worry. I do hope so. And these national bodies, headed up by the National Anglers' Council about which I have very serious reservations - will help prevent the spread of undesirable practices in fishing from abroad. I once assisted in the deportation of some Frenchmen from Ireland - they were shooting songbirds by the hundred, and believe me, the record of French and German anglers with respect to fish in Ireland is equally abysmal. We shall also oppose some of the more extremist viewpoints such as that which, in Germany, dictates that all fish caught shall be killed. There are good philosophical and empirical scientific arguments against such ludicrous laws. At present in this country there is plenty of effective cooperation between anglers and, especially, Friends of the Earth (e.g. the pollution reporting scheme launched by Jonathon Porritt, David Bellamy and myself) but if any organisation adopts the dafter European ideas on conservation, then we shall oppose them vigorously. The European philosophies stem from the viewpoint that stick-

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ing a hook in a fish is cruel (i.e. it inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering) unless the fish is to be eaten as food. Whilst I wouldn't argue against the validity of catching and cooking your catch, I have argued strongly, and in detail, against their primary premise, as in my book 'Angling: fundamental principles'. In brief, fish could not feed if they suffered unduly or felt pain from the hook, simply because the food items they eat are often much sharper than a hook, and their mouths are lacerated daily, as they feed quite naturally. There is strong evidence that fish tissue is designed to heal rapidly, much more so than in most higher forms of life. Nor can fish be suffering from shock if they feed readily, within minutes of being placed in a keepnet: to argue the opposite would be quite unreasonable. This is empirical observation, not pure scientific discovery, but it is valid argument nonetheless. Only last year I witnessed what one might term a rather extreme instance of this kind. I returned to the water, at my feet, a pike of 6 lbs which I had just caught on a six-inch long spoon. The spoon itself hung in the water, from the rod tip, about eight feet from the bank. As I lowered the pike gently into the water it righted itself, saw the spoon, and immediately attacked it with gusto, completely engulfing it. That pike was not in pain, had not been in pain, was not in shock, and never would be in shock from angling. As with all other species of fish it could not survive on a day to day basis if it was constrained by the nervous system evolved by mammals for the protection of mammals. These are some of the reasons why I feel the Medway Report went wrong when it gave the benefit of the doubt, re pain, to the fish. It matters not where the hook is stuck in a fish, mouth or elsewhere, it is as nothing, a temporary encumbrance, to them. It is at club level where one sees the tremendous input of anglers to the environment. A club I am involved with has recently created a beautiful environment near Cambridge, where we have a great diversity of plants and animals around our lake, a true wilderness where natural growth, grazing and predation take place. The local bird watchers use our facilities (we don't restrict them to bird reserves only!) as do local naturalist groups. What is true of this club is true of literally hundreds of other clubs up and down the nation. Only occasionally does the management go wrong in practice, although those risks are declining with the growth of the Institute of Fisheries Management, the growing expertise of the (now) N R A ' s and the considerable increase in the number of good management consultants. We have a long way to go, but it is surely a road paved with success already. The kind of cooperation I have referred to above could be expanded considerably. And it could work both ways. For example, when nature/bird reserves are established on waters, then bird watchers should be kept out of them as well as anglers! And the bird watchers' dogs, and the general public. It should also be remembered that the creation of no-go areas for anglers seriously affects the anglers' legitimate sport, and in such compromise arrangements he might reasonably expect some form of compensation. It is also true that on reservoirs, especially , the angler is demoted to the status of second class citizen. For example, he is often forbidden from taking his dog. The public is not. The angler pays not to take his dog. The public (and often birdwatchers) do not pay to take their dog. The angler is often restricted to

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parking his car in certain areas. The public is allowed to park wherever the law of the land allows him. And so on and so forth. In the running of our socalled wilderness areas the compromises reached have to be fair and just for all. The last category - the individual - is where angling is at its weakest. And this brings me full circle in my essay. It is here that the improper anglers are found. True, many individuals are bound up in clubs, work at local and national level, and so on. But many do not. Of the many that do not, plenty are perfectly good, sensible, rule-abiding anglers or even angler-cumnaturalists. But many are not: there are plenty who are ignorant and ill-read; they never pick up a journal, an angling newspaper, and they never read their club card or turn u p at a meeting. They will not have attended the Ipswich Water Wilderness conference. This is the category where you will find the litter louts. (I do not think that anglers leave more litter than the general public. On the contrary; but that which they leave is identifiably left by anglers, unlike that left by any other section of the community.) It is my view, and that of others, that the individual angler should be licensed, not his tackle. That would give those in authority a much better fix on those that indulge in malpractices, and correct those that are ignorant. In converting the vast majority of the 4 million individuals to better ways we have a long battle ahead. Because anglers are principally naturalists too even if, sometimes, they are unaware of this - I'm sure we shall succeed in the end. The N F A and other responsible bodies are making great strides in the right direction. It is my hope that other naturalists, and the public at large, will be tolerant of the odd hiccough here and there whilst we move towards that goal. One of those hiccoughs will be Europe: others we may not be able to predict. Anglers have a history of putting their house in order, hence the general acceptance of anglers as a harmless bunch, despite the bad press of recent years. They are more than a harmless bunch. They have been protecting the environment for a hundred years. Dr Barrie Rickards, National Federation of Anglers, Eastern Region, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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Anglers are naturalists  

Barrie Rickards

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