In my last blog I highlighted a letter in the Anglers Mail from Dave Tipping. Dave may be an accomplished angler but he refuses to recognise the threat posed by otters in particular, but also cormorants. It sparked quite a debate in the comments posted by readers.
To be fair the blog piece was a deliberate blue touch paper item written on my part with the intention of highlighting the issue of predation. At the time it wasn’t my intention to write an entire article on the subject but after 30 comments perhaps it’s time I did.
Those in denial that otters pose a threat to coarse fisheries need only look to history for evidence that they are blinded by romantic fantasy. But let’s not blame everything on otters, let’s look at 10 key issues that threaten angling, starting of course with the latest villain on the block…
It was back in 1779 that the poet Oliver Goldsmith published a work on Natural History that includes reference to otter training. He wrote, “I have seen one of these [trained otters] go into a gentleman’s pond at the word of command, drive up the fish into a corner, and seizing upon the largest of the whole, bring it off, in its mouth, to its master.”
Seizing upon the largest, eh? That in itself lends credence to the number of big barbel and carp carcasses that have been found by fisheries up and down the land.
Fluctuations in otter populations are not unknown. In 1861 a correspondent to The Field pointed out that the diminution in the number of otters in the steams of the North Riding of Yorkshire had resulted in fewer trout and more eels and coarse fish. Interesting that, eh, less otters, more coarse fish…
1873 In Britain, a correspondent to The Field wrote that “Some years ago a fishing club took a length of river. They ‘put on’ keepers who killed the otters…. In four years the river was full of pike and shoals of coarse fish might be seen on the gravel beds, feeding voraciously on the trout spawn.”
Wow, get this. Kill the otters and coarse fish numbers recover. Who’d have thought that?
By 1950 otter numbers had already begun the drastic decline that led to their extinction over much of the country by the 1970s, so much so that in 1978, under an extension of the 1975 Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act, it became illegal to catch or kill an otter, or attempt to do so.
The otter’s decline has been blamed on organochlorine pesticides that were used in the 1950’s although the population low point wasn’t reached until around 1980 it has improved almost everywhere since then.
Philip Wayre is regarded as the man without who’s vision most of lowland Britain would still be without otters. Or to put it another way, is singularly responsible for the demise of thousands of specimen coarse fish and the destruction of entire lakes and stretches of river. He was the man behind the release of 117 animals between 1983 and 1999 and as we know, the population is currently booming.
Conversely the otterhound is now a species under threat and considered to be the most endangered dog breed in Britain. Just 51 pups were born during 2006 and the species worldwide numbers only 1,000. Can you believe that otterhound puppies are now rarer than giant pandas?
Fish appear to be invisible on the naturalist’s radar. Anglers are a pest and many wildlife lovers, I’m sure, would gladly banish us from the countryside. Not only do we create litter (in their eyes), kill swans with our lead shot(!) and leave line and hooks that gets tangled up with birds, but we can be a nuisance, asking awkward questions.
What is an undeniable fact is that over the past 50 years the numbers of eel, shad, sea trout and salmon in UK freshwater fisheries has fallen significantly. These migratory species were the staple diet of many otters. It is criminal that not only have otters been introduced with no thought to what they will eat but nor has anyone considered what impact they will have on the riverine environment as a whole. Despite this, otter holts have been specifically created all over the place in the hope, or should I say the expectancy that they will eventually be occupied.
The otter has no predators. It is the apex predator of the waterways. It did not exist everywhere in the past and certainly shouldn’t do today.
Now let us consider these facts against some of the comments made beneath the blog:
Dave Tipping implies the king carp is not an indigenous species and is only widespread because they have been extensively stocked. He compares them with antelopes bred to be large, fat and slow and effectively says they deserve to die. Whether you believe that is up to you but carp have been present in the UK for almost a thousand years. Dave happily targets bream and tench in gravel pits and let’s be fair here, these are artificial waters that were extensively stocked. Where’s the difference?
He states that the Wensum stocks were not self-sustaining, ditto the Great Ouse, so it was a problem of the anglers’ own making. In other words, get over it folks. Unfortunately he overlooks the other contributing criteria which form part of this list.
He points out to Mike Townsend that cormorants are not an issue: ‘For the record, Mike, I still don’t have an issue with cormorants and I don’t give a monkeys what anybody else thinks! The angling press has been full of sensationalized reporting on predators but I prefer to make an objective judgement based on my own observations.’
How anyone can believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that cormorants are not a problem beggars belief and leaves me to question that person’s sanity. Cormorants are intelligent, work together in teams and have completely denuded some waters. The EA fisheries staff include all the evidence of this you’ll ever need in a slideshow they deliver to visitors.
Fred Bonney’s first retort was rather simplistic: ‘If there are no fish there will be no otters. The Teme has always had otters and you can still catch good fish…’
Afraid I have to take him to account on both points he raises. Firstly, otters do not just eat fish. They are omnivorous and will eat birds, their eggs, chicks and small mammals. Secondly, the Teme is but a shadow of the fishery it once was when I first fished there. Barbel numbers have declined dramatically in recent years.
Fred is adamant that there are lots of good fish to be caught from the Ouse around Adam’s Mill, a statement that will anger many who fished there a decade ago. He justifies this on the basis of reports that two chub and two perch appeared in the Angling Times, a comment that fired up Chris Ponsford who used to fish there but has since given up on the grounds it simply isn’t worth making the long trip. Indeed those he fished with on the Ouse now travel in his direction hoping to catch anything.
Chris Ponsford then challenges Fred to remove the rose tinted specs and go and catch some of these fish he says are still there to be caught from the Ouse. Good luck to him on that score. Somehow I think it’ll be one challenge he doesn’t accept at anytime in the near future. Of course, if he fancies an easier challenge, go and spend a week on the Teme, then come back and tell us what you’ve caught!
Siding with Tipping he writes: ‘I shall not be following this up, it’s the same old song and nobody who keeps shouting about it appears to want to deal with it!’
Oh yes he will… 😉
Well Fred, the trouble is, we as anglers only have one voice in Parliament and that’s the Angling Trust. I am a life member and have been since the day it was formed. I put my money where my mouth is so they might represent me. The Barbel Society sat on the fence for far too long and only very recently did it commit to supporting angling’s governing body. Shame on you!
As an individual I cannot change Government policy. None of us can. We can take direct action which is unlawful or we can highlight the issue and our feelings through debate and articles like this. It is an effective way to influence the wider majority in a call for change and one that the angling’s leaders are fully aware of as a result.
Terry Davison suggests: ‘We should petition Downing Street. Surely a minimum of 1 million anglers would make them sit up?’
Unfortunately it won’t when we have outspoken figures like Tipping and Bonney poo-pooing the situation on forums and in leading publications.
Maybe a bit of hysteria then crept in with claims that the, ‘Mill fish were fat and old,’ perhaps spurred on by Tipping’s antelope comparison. This was obviously refuted by those who were there rather than those who read about in the press and concluded it was easy.
Ray Wood was a regular Ouse visitor and well qualified to comment on the Adam’s Mill situation. He wrote: ‘I don’t think there can be any doubt that the barbel found up the bank were killed by otters. It could also be said that they were not over-fattened either. I am sure that the anglers who were fortunate enough to catch any of them would support that. Perhaps some of us over-fattened old humans should be looking out for tarka!!’
Ray goes on to reprimand me with: ‘I don’t think your own words helped in this blog – ‘so what realistic chance do we have when fools like Dave Tipping are writing in the Anglers Mail that otters are not a problem.’
It’s a fair comment, but that paragraph in the blog was written deliberately to spark debate and raise the profile of otter issues, which it has done.
I do think Fred spoiled his chances of being taken seriously with his comment: ‘Just because Bill’s mate’s, mate, his brother and the bloke down the roads cousin, claim that otter have killed all the fish doesn’t make it so. Nobody has seen the otter hoards actually decimating our rivers, and I’m sorry but carp puddles get what they deserve.’
I suggest that Fred doesn’t share those views with Kev Green, editor of Improve Your Coarse Fishing. He emailed me today to say his favourite, intimate little carp lake has received its first visit from an otter. Dozens of dead tench, pike and a smattering of fabulous carp. All with their throats ripped out and abandoned. If the killing continues and 20 or 30 carp are killed it will no longer survive as a fishery.
That is carnage. Wanton destruction. Fish that have taken 20, perhaps 30 years to grow to that size in crystal clear water. Not a muddy pool. Not an overstocked puddle. A gorgeous mature gravel pit now heading towards oblivion.
Did these fish get what they deserve, then?
And when the fish in this water have been wiped out, what then? Does the otter stay there, the king of its territory? Does it hell. It will move on to the next lake, and then the next one, slaughtering indiscriminately as it goes. Can someone tell me at what point we will recognize the otter is a problem?
One thing Fred validly points out is, when did any of us ever see an otter decimating our rivers? The plain fact is that the otter is pretty much a shy, retiring, silent assassin and the fact that fish don’t scream is conveniently ignored. Otters operate under cover of darkness much of the time. But what is more telling is this; most members of the public who would support the reintroduction of otters have never and will never see one in the flesh outside of a zoo or a movie.
I spend more time by the water than most. I see lots of evidence that otters are around but I’ve only actually seen a handful in my entire life. Which leads me to three key issues. What purpose do they serve? What benefits do they offer? And how on earth do we address the fish loss issue?
And let’s be serious for a moment. If it isn’t otters that drag 30lb carp up the bank, rip out their throats and then leave them to rot, what is it?
The comparison between chicken in the coop and the fox, and why would an otter go chasing down a river for wild fish when you can get hold of pet fat fish trapped in a muddy puddle, beggars belief. It shows a total lack of understanding of commercial fisheries, presuming this is what the ‘muddy puddle’ jibe refers to. The highlighted problems so far have been mainly on large, clear waters where anglers find the fish are far from easy to catch. Assumptions that a 30lb carp is fat, a pet and easy to catch suggest the writer has no experience of catching or even attempting to catch these creatures at all.
Fred Bonney says the problem is recruitment. He goes on to say he certainly wouldn’t put money into research, asking, ‘Who do you think is going to take notice of a few blokes looking for easy fishing?’
Sorry Fred, the problem is bigger than that and your answer smacks of jealousy. But bear with me, I’m only at number one in my top ten list.
Number two in this week’s hit parade has to be predatory birds, in particular cormorants and goosander. There is still a huge misunderstanding of the cormorant issue with folk claiming it’s the fault of inshore trawling forcing seabirds inshore.
That is a complete and utter fallacy. The problem cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis) is in fact an entirely different species to the one we find around our coastline (Phalacrocorax carbo carbo). It is a fresh water bird that arrived in this country in great numbers from Eastern Europe after the EU mistakenly afforded Europe-wide protection to ALL cormorants. When the bill submitted was only meant to protect the pigmy cormorant.
One would have to have no sense of history, not have fished in the UK through the 60’s and 70’s, or be just plain stupid to imagine that cormorants haven’t wiped out entire populations of silver fish. The evidence is overwhelming. One cormorant eats up to a kilo of fish each day or something like 700lbs of fish each year. Multiply that by upwards of 30,000 birds and what do you get?
Cormorants don’t eat 14lb barbel, 20lb pike and big carp – they mainly target fish in the 3-12oz bracket. And guess what, the Ouse and Wensum didn’t have a self-sustaining barbel population! Well, one thing’s for sure, it doesn’t have a healthy roach and dace population any more either. Care to hazard a guess why?
Not surprisingly Mike Townsend, an absolute roach fanatic, mourns the demise of his favourite roach and dace waters – the Wear, Torne, Idle, Glaze, Ryton, Hampshire Avon. I equally miss the fantastic winter roach fishing the Tidal Trent used to offer. It was sensational in the 80’s. It is non-existent today.
Where Mike and Fred find common ground is with the cormorant and gooseander. Fred states, ‘There are licences to shoot cormorant available, not many taken up by fishery owners I seem to recall, from a report not too long ago.’
Well yes, there are. But it’s a minefield of paperwork and a license might only be for two birds per year. What use is that? Fishery owners find it much easier to take matters into their own hands. Thousands of cormorants have been shot illegally in the UK but it has had only a minor impact on numbers. Heaven only knows what the situation might be if these guerrillas hadn’t taken this action.
As much as I’ve enjoyed catching a few zander from the Trent lately it’s not good news. Today’s novelty is tomorrow’s nightmare. Just 97 zander were released into the Relief Channel in 1963, a chillingly similar number to that claimed for otters. These fish have been wantonly spread around the UK by anglers, let’s not forget, to a point where they’re pretty much everywhere or about to appear there sometime soon.
In ideal circumstances they’ll find a natural balance – after about 50 years! Unfortunately the prevailing circumstances are far from ideal and here we have a niche predator that pretty much targets those fish smaller than the ones a cormorant eats.
Presuming there are sufficient mature fish to breed in the first place, fingerlings now run the gauntlet of this alien predator in so many waters. If they reach their third or 4th year they are then attacked by cormorants and if by some miracle they reach full maturity the otter has them.
Not a great scenario, eh?
4. Signal Crayfish
Last week Stu Walker caught a great big signal crayfish from the River Swale in North Yorkshire whilst we were filming. It was as big as a small lobster! It’s the first I’ve seen or even heard of but their spread throughout the UK’s rivers is inexorable.
This is the nightmare scenario where the missing predator link puts all future angling under threat. This alien crayfish eats fish eggs and fry. Okay, you may say the otter isn’t an alien, although it is to many of the locations it is now found in. But at every other stage of a fishes life it is now under threat from an alien predator. What chance does the UK fish population stand?
We have cleaner rivers than ever before in our lifetimes. All that means is the predators have a field day. They can see their prey clearly.
5. Zebra Mussels
And while we’re talking of clarity, what about the zebra mussel? Brought over in ship’s ballast and discharged in our river estuaries and harbours. It is spreading rapidly, aggressively invading new areas and reproducing at an alarming rate. A single female zebra mussel can produce upwards of one million eggs per year. Zebra mussels attach to native mussels and crayfish making it hard for them to survive.
Further to this they threaten native fish and wildlife by reducing species of algae and microscopic aquatic animals that are important for the food chain. In other words, there is nothing for fry to feed on, and we wonder about poor recruitment.
Zebra mussels turn previously coloured lakes and rivers into crystal clear, practically sanitised environments where prey fish have little protection from predators.
Abstraction, be that for drinking water or crop irrigation, is impacting heavily on our waterways. Ground water levels have fallen to such an extent that many lakes and streams have all-but dried up. There’s a sluice on the River Dearne just down the lane from me. Twenty years ago the normal river level lapped over the concrete sill. Today it’s a good foot below that level.
The stream where I grew up and caught stickleback galore was deep enough to swim in. Today you could walk across it and barely get your shins wet.
It’s a similar picture right across the country. Flow rates have reduced. We have very few water meadows any more. It has had a widespread impact on the areas where fish once spawned, the clean gravel beds are no more in so many places.
The UK is full. The population has grown 40% in my lifetime alone and we still rely on a Victorian sewerage system. The biggest polluters in the UK are the privatised water companies and that’s a scandal. Pollution is out of the hands of individual anglers but every single fishing club that has fishing rights on a water should be a member of the Angling Trust and at least have the insurance and experience that Fish Legal brings them.
We need to punish ALL polluters and we need to address the rectification of the damage. It’s not just fish that die.
8. Flood Defence Works
The UK has a paranoia about flooding. Water has to be dispersed from the point where it falls to the sea in the shortest possible time. This has led to the creation of a new definition. Rivers are now fluid relief channels.
The perfect solution is a trapezoidal channel, shouldered by flood banks set back an appropriate distance to accommodate the highest expected rise in water levels. All obstructions, trees, weeds, removed. Bends straightened, depth constant. No nooks, no crannies. Pumps installed where appropriate to regulate levels. Carnage.
It’s an ecological catastrophy. Engineering madness, paid for by you and I and carried out in our name. Habitat destruction is widespread and it has completely ruined may fine fisheries. Fry are swept away by floods, providing that is their parents can find anywhere to spawn in the first place.
The EA was charged with an adopt, adapt, improve policy. Can it honestly say this has been achieved?
9. Fish Thefts
The volume of cases brought before the courts already proves conclusively that our Eastern European neighbours have been plundering waterways and taking whatever fish they can catch net or trap for the table or to be sold on. Our waterways cannot sustain this.
Education is one thing but we need to see severe sentences used as a deterrent. Unfortunately it seems that many of those caught never see justice. They vanish before the case ever gets to court.
I’ve little doubt that the biggest threat to angling in the UK is not the anti-brigade. It’s apathy. Anglers are lazy. Anglers are stupid. They won’t even join the Trust. They like to moan on forums and generally make a nuisance of themselves on the internet but they actually do bugger all!
Anglers leave litter, we shrug our shoulders. Anglers break rules, we turn a blind eye. Anglers have their heads in the sand. Worse still, they are blinkered.
Apathy rules. We are our own worst enemy and should anyone actually try to do anything he will be shot down from within our own ranks. How helpful is that?
I’ll wrap up by returning to the subject that sparked this essay .
Fred states that any discussion on otters is tinged with hysteria. He tells us to get some facts, put our money where our mouths are and support proper research into the subject.
Well, if freshly killed carcasses aren’t facts, what are? Do we have to be there to witness the actual moment of death? Folk like me who paid up to become life members of the Trust have put our money up front. But as for proper research, what exactly does this entail?
I well remember being told to be patient over the cormorant issue 20 years ago. The Government had commissioned a 2-year research programme into the problem. Two years and many months later the scientists released a report that concluded cormorants didn’t actually eat fish. Yes, they had witnessed them diving, but not once did a cormorant return to the surface with a fish in its mouth. It wasn’t until someone pointed out that cormorants swallow fish underwater that the scientists findings were even questioned.
Scientists they may be, but can their research be relied upon to come up with accurate and useful conclusions?
We have otters in places they never existed before. They are continuing to spread and what we see today is only the start of a huge problem that is not going to go away. Holts are being constructed on every brook and stream, dyke and canal, river and estuary with missionary zeal.
It can only end in tears and I’d be foolish to suspect any other outcome.