Death on the Wensum
Chris Turnbull issues a stark warning of the effects of the continued, seemingly unchecked, release of otters onto our already pressured waterways. Is your river the next in line for the attentions of the cuddly killers?
The controversial issue of otters returning to our fisheries and the trail of decimated fish stocks left in their wake is something with which angling is increasingly having to deal. With stillwaters, the obvious solution is to erect otter fencing, but for river fisheries (and big lakes) fencing is not a practical solution, so how are they to cope with the impact of otter predation?
Otters were reasonably common as recently as the 1950s, but became rare in many areas due to the use of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides and as a result of habitat loss and water pollution. There can be no doubt that otters are fabulous animals that enjoy huge popularity amongst conservationists and the public alike, and of course their demise was a great tragedy, so it is only right that efforts should be made to protect them, but how do we balance the interests of conservation and fisheries where otters are concerned? While the two interests usually have much in common, in situations like this we are poles apart! At the time of the otters’ demise coarse fishing was cheap and the rivers went largely unmanaged. Fishing clubs paid peppercorn rents or gave a bottle of whiskey at Christmas to riparian owners in exchange for the fishing and anglers paid a pittance for their membership. Back then the distribution of river fish species was somewhat different to today. While roach were common almost everywhere, barbel were limited to a number of easterly flowing rivers like the Thames and its tributaries, a number of rivers that drain into the Humber estuary such as the Yorkshire Ouse, Derwent, and Swale, along with the Trent and its tributaries. An introduction of barbel had also apparently gone into the Dorset Stour as early as 1896 before finding their own way into the Hampshire Avon, but any subsequent introductions of barbel into UK rivers did not take place until the 1950s, with the first barbel going into the Severn in 1956.
With barbel currently thriving in rivers throughout the country, fishing for them has become hugely popular. Good barbel fishing is becoming worth increasing amounts of money, to the extent that barbel fishing now has a substantial social/economic value. With the population of otters now established in numbers not seen for over 50 years, the harsh reality of having this apex predator preying on our valuable fish stocks is a matter of huge concern. The inevitable outcome is looking decidedly worrying for more than a few of English rivers!
Terror on the Thames Few informed anglers will not be aware of the recent plight of the upper Thames where the once substantial population of indigenous barbel has virtually disappeared due to otter predation. More recently the upper Great Ouse at Adams Mill also came to a nasty end with its nationally famous head of massive barbel ravaged by otters. Similar incidents are occurring throughout the country, the River Wensum in Norfolk also suffering a similar fate.
The contentious issue of otters killing barbel on the Wensum is of particular interest because, like the Hampshire Avon, the Wensum has a high conservation status as a SSSI, as well as being nationally famous for its big barbel. As a consequence, it represents a front line confrontation zone between angling interests and national conservation policies.There has been much debate as to whether barbel are actually indigenous to the Wensum. Alwyne Wheeler and David Jordan researched this question in 1990 and concluded that as the Wensum is an East Coast river, it could be presumed to have had a natural population of barbel. However, due to its physical characteristics of being a relatively small, slow flowing, lowland river good barbel habitat would have been limited and have resulted in small vulnerable populations. Similar reservations apply to larger rivers running through eastern lowland areas including the Great Ouse, Welland and Witham.
Despite Wheeler and Jordan’s theory, however, there is no evidence of any indigenous Wensum barbel still existing in the River prior to small numbers being stocked at Costessey in 1957, followed by a more substantial introduction into the same stretch in 1972. These fish grew to prestigious weights and eventually even broke the national record. Sadly this stretch of the River fell victim to the effects of a massive water abstraction pipeline constructed a mile or two upstream in 1986, and today only a handful of the progeny of those original fish remain. Being keen to maintain the Wensum as a barbel fishery, in 1989 the Norfolk Anglers’ Conservation Association embarked on their well-publicised Sayers Meadow Project several miles upstream of the abstraction point, beginning a series of ambitious habitat restoration works designed to repair the damage previously inflicted by dredgers along a mile-long stretch of the River. As a driver to this project, NACA also heavily stocked the stretch with one-year old barbel and eventually succeeded in creating one of the country’s finest specimen barbel fisheries.
Many of the little stock fish introduced by NACA also spread downstream, seeding other stretches of the River, resulting in the Wensum becoming the barbel fishery it is today. In 2004 NACA undertook an even more ambitious restoration project on the once-famous barbel stretch at Costessey. For a number of years the future of Wensum barbel fishing looked decidedly rosy, though behind the catches of big barbel, the fish were struggling to achieve sufficient levels of fry-recruitement to ensure the continuance of future generations. Over the past few years large efforts have been made to improve the spawning sites by gravel dressing riffles and pressure jetting the known spawning areas to clear them of silt and sand. Unfortunately, otter predation is now resulting in such high numbers of adult barbel being lost that many of us increasingly fear that the collapse of the Wensum barbel fishery is inevitable unless further stocking takes place. Most anglers hold the idea that otters are released into the wild by ‘tree-hugging loonies’, but in fact these reintroductions have been officially supported by Natural England, so the problem actually lies directly at the feet of the UK Government and illconceived policies. The Otter Trust was set up in 1976 at Earsham on the Norfolk and Suffolk border in order to set about a captive breeding programme to reintroduce otters into the wild. Between 1983 and 1999 175 otters were released. As far as I can ascertain there are no ongoing introductions of otters taking place today, so any increase in their numbers is entirely down to successful breeding in the wild.
Gallery of the images used in the article shows below: Click on any image to open the gallery.
Spiral of decline
Before the Otter Trust ever thought of releasing otters into the wild, Norfolk’s upper river fisheries were all stuck in a spiral of decline that has largely continued to today. The catalyst for this decline was mainly the environmentally damaging programme of dredging wrought throughout the 50s,60s and 70’s to improve land drainage and aid flood-prevention.
These dredging programmes patently failed to prevent flooding, and in fact, probably only succeeded in making the problem worse. It had a severe impact on fish stocks by destroying most of the natural habitat they require throughout the various stages of their lives. On the Wensum and upper Bure this eventually led to the collapse of the once famous roach stocks, along with the native stocks of wild brown trout. The much-improved land drainage coupled with modern intensive agricultural practices later combined to create a massive problem of silt and sediment running off the land and into the rivers, smothering the river bed and compacting the gravel spawning sites. This problem was further compounded by reduced flow rates resulting from increased levels of water being abstracted from both from the rivers and the aquifers that feed them. The roach and dace populations eventually diminished to an all time low, with most of those left becoming fodder to the massively escalating numbers of cormorants. The situation was dire. More recently the once-prolific eel population has collapsed, and together these events have contributed to a massive loss of potential natural food sources for otters.
Given the gravity of this situation, it didn’t require a genius to realise that releasing otters into these failing river ecosystems was a potential recipe for disaster. However, it was some years before the full impact of otter predation began to be apparent. With the rich pickings to be had from the gravel pits excavated in the river valleys, it was some time before otters began to make any serious impact on river stocks, and even then, this generally only occurred when the stillwaters were frozen over. Nevertheless, eventually the problem started getting worse with one area or another being badly ‘ottered’. The bridge stretch at Lenwade was one of the first barbel stretches to be badly hit with a number of half eaten barbel to over 14lb being found on the banks. Anglian Water’s Taverham Mills was also hit particularly hard, resulting in a massive decline in its barbel fishery with chub numbers also being decimated. Last winter it was the turn of NACA’s Sayers Meadow to take a pasting with the loss of numerous chub and barbel including one massive known fish estimated at about 18lb. This is not the first time this fishery has lost fish to otters, and with the population of Sayer’s Meadow barbel now reduced to as few as 20 individual fish, any additional losses are a bitter blow. Three years ago there were as many as seven known 15lb-plus barbel in the fishery, but today, due to one reason or another, this number has been reduced to two, one of which is a potential next UK record if it can last long enough to make the weight.
With otter predation of fish stocks on the Wensum and its neighbouring Broadland rivers, the Yare and Bure, having reached a point where the situation has become unsustainable without intervention, the future is looking particularly bleak. Despite this, conservationists see the return of the otters as a great success story – the toll being extracted from our fisheries seemingly of little consequence. The upper Bure and Yare long ago ceased to be good roach fisheries, but with chub eventually filling much of the vacuum left by their demise, there was always something to fish for. Today, however, otters have left many stretches almost devoid of fish. Throughout this period chub stocks remained reasonably good in the Wensum, but now their numbers have also slumped considerably. The numerous scatterings of scales and fins along the banks telling the story.
About 10 years ago I was invited to a meeting at the Salmon & Trout Association’s Fishmongers Hall in London to discuss the issue of the impact of otters on fisheries. My involvement in this was as a representative of NACA invited by the Specialist Anglers’ Conservation Group (SACG). Also present were members of the ACA, the S&TA, the National Rivers Authority, the Wildlife Trusts and Philip Ware, director of the Earsham Otter Trust. The SACG’s Chris Burt had been tackling the thorny issue of otter predation of stillwater carp fisheries for some time and I was invited to voice concerns about the situation on river fisheries. I took with me a bundle of recent NRA fisheries surveys for the Wensum and upper Bure, all of which made very gloomy reading. After outlining the reports’s findings, I asked Philip Ware if he was aware of the declining state of Norfolk’s river fisheries, and if this situation had been considered before otters were released? I don’t suppose I should have been surprised that he wasn’t aware of the situation, or that he didn’t seem to grasp the implications of my question. It still astounds me that an alpha predator such as the otter had been reintroduced to these rivers with no regard for its impact on fish stocks that were to sustain it!
If a survey were conducted regarding anglers’ attitudes to otters, I suspect that it would find us largely in support of them, though obviously there would be some reservations. Many anglers might like to see the numbers managed, but in reality, it is illegal to even disturb otters, let alone manage them. Of course, there are a few extremists who would happily shoot anything capable of eating a fish or two, though larger numbers of us will view the mere suggestion of anglers managing otter numbers as being a potential own goal that would result in a major backlash of public opinion against angling. The fact is, however, that we are now in a no-win situation, but nothing can be gained by burying our heads in the sand.
The way forward
So what is the way forward on the Wensum and any other rivers that are failing to recruit sufficient numbers of fry to replace the adult fish that are being predated upon? Obviously, there are no easy answers. Steering group members of the EA’s Wensum Fishery Action Plan have spent the past five years telling the Agency and Natural England that a two-point action plan is required including massive habitat restoration programmes throughout the River coupled with rigorous restocking until such time as the River can be seen to be naturally recruiting fry again. Anglers have largely led the way here, having undertaken a small number of highly ambitious habitat restoration projects focused mainly on wild brown trout and barbel. Until fairly recently, the EA was so wrapped up in its flood-defence duties that it had been virtually paralysed when it came to carrying out any effective habitat restoration of its own, while also being unhelpful to the point of obstruction when consent was sought by groups like NACA engaged in their own projects. Thankfully, times change, and more recently the EA has made a number of very useful contributions of their own, this process now rolling on at a considerably faster rate following the introduction of recent Government directives.
Designated as an important example of an enriched chalk stream river, the Wensum has been given status as a both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) as defined in the European Commission Habitats Directive. Despite its high conservation status, however, the River is currently in an unfavourable condition and, therefore, failing the criterion for its SSSI status. In order to meet the 2010 PSA targets for SSSIs and the 2015 target for the Water Framework Directive, it is the responsibility of both the EA and Natural England to restore the River to a condition fitting its conservation designation. Natural England is therefore using the Wensum as a national pilot to demonstrate the actions needed to address adverse conditions of SSSI rivers relating to their geomorphological form and function. Basically, this means that they must restore the habitat and flow regimes as far as possible back to the natural condition of the River before it was segmented between mills, canalised by dredgers and overabstracted for water. To achieve this the River Wensum Restoration Strategy has been created, the aim of which is to restore a measure of hydrological functioning that can sustain wildlife and fisheries characteristic of an enriched chalkstream river.
Without doubt this is really exciting stuff, having the potential to reverse hundreds of years of degradation of the River, starting right back in the middle ages when the first mills were constructed and altered its flows. A restoration programme of this magnitude, however, cannot be completed overnight, but by taking it forward and restoring one stretch at a time, it has the potential to overcome many of the problems afflicting the Wensum today. The Wensum Fishery Action Plan Group is in full support of this restoration strategy. As one might expect, though, the groundwork for these plans is moving forward at the snail’s pace only Government bodies can achieve. Meanwhile, outside their cosy offices, the harsh reality is that time is running out if many fisheries are to survive the carnage of otters. In order to achieve their targets the EA and NE need to form restoration partnerships with stakeholder groups including the riparian owners and angling organisations. Of course, the NACA is keen to take a lead here and has a number of ambitious projects already in the pipeline. This is exactly what the authorities need if they are to have a hope of fulfilling their duties and meeting their targets. However, within all this conservation management, there are some major stumbling blocks for fisheries including some heavy restraints on future stocking. Space prevents me from covering this in depth, but whereas previously it had been possible to gain consent to put stock fish into the River, it has now become heavily regulated. Rather than restocking, the EA’s emphasis is now very much on encouraging natural fry-recruitment through habitat restoration. While NACA and the Wensum FAP Group fully support any action undertaken to improve natural fry-recruitment, habitat restoration is not an exact science that can produce results to a deadline, and the reality of otter predation has created an urgent situation and it’s now only a matter of time before our barbel fisheries collapse. It is now a necessity that we support our fish stocks by restocking as soon as possible.
With regard to restocking barbel, despite Wheeler and Jordan’s findings that barbel were native to the Wensum, the EA now says that, as there no hard evidence to support this, its national guidance is to consider barbel as nonindigenous. The implications of this are that it will no longer give consent to restock barbel, unless there are compelling mitigating social/economic circumstances. Proving the social/ economic case for restocking is not difficult, but getting the authorities to accept the urgency of the situation and change their position on restocking is a problem of nightmare proportions. Last year after a long, hard battle with the Agency, the NACA eventually won consent to stock 250 second year class barbel at Costessey, but was told in no uncertain terms that it was a one-off concession that will not be repeated – the battle lines are now drawn. If I have seemingly focused disproportionately on barbel compared with the plight of other species, it is not without reason. Obviously, we all want the Wensum to be a healthy mixed fishery, but the fact is that trout and barbel are the only two species that can give fisheries sufficient social/economic value to drive forward the extensive restoration projects that are needed to save the River. Should the Wensum’s barbel fishery collapse, it is likely that anglers will largely forsake the River altogether. As for the ethics and expense of restocking fish that will largely end up as otter fodder – while it is a high price to pay, the prospect of watching our fisheries go under is almost inevitable without restocking. In the final analysis, the future of the Wensum’s fisheries is firmly in the hands of the Environment Agency and Natural England. They must not be allowed to stand by with their hands tied by red tape following their ‘national guidelines’ while watching erstwhile successful fisheries go to the wall, without quickly accepting the urgency of the situation and restocking the River at a sufficiently high level to mitigate against the carnage of otter predation. If the few worthwhile fisheries left on the Wensum finally come to a grizzly end at the teeth and claws of otters, it will be a disastrous scenario resulting directly from the authorities being blinkered by their conservation directives. The inevitable result will be that they will almost certainly fail to build the precious stakeholder partnerships they so badly need if they are to succeed in meeting this Government’s conservation directives!
“the groundwork for these plans is moving forward at the snail’s pace only Government bodies can achieve
NB:This article was originally published in Coarse Angling Today, NACA are grateful for their support in reproducing it here. www.totalcoarsefishing.com