John Bailey Meets…
I’m excited to be talking to Rob Jones. He’s an environment officer for the central Devon district and that means he covers just about all my favourite rivers in the British Isles, the Exe, the Barle and the Lyn. From the mid-1970s, I’ve enjoyed some of my happiest times down there with wild browns and, especially, fabulously sporting summer salmon. However, stocks have waned since my early days and I’m eager to ask Rob to what extent poaching is one of the root causes of all this. But I quickly sense that he wants to talk first about the bigger picture.
“I know you want the drama, John, all journalists do,” Rob begins. “But you’ve got to realise that we Environment Officers have got several roles and we’re about a lot of things rather than just protection. Of course, enforcement is important and I know we’ll come to that but I’m not going to emphasise the gung-ho side of the job. I’d much rather at least begin with the whole subject of habitat improvement which is central to the day-to-day work that we all carry out.”
Like what? I sense Rob is a determined man with a serious message to get across. You’ve got to give somebody like this his head and a big measure of respect. “Okay, examples, then,” Rob continues. “Let’s look at gravel clearing. One of the big problems that many returning salmon face is that the gravel-spawning beds just aren’t up to the job of receiving their eggs. They’ve perhaps become compacted so no water or oxygen can work through them. Or, even more likely, they’ve become covered in silt. Neither scenario helps the eggs, so we’ve got to get in there no matter how cold or wet it is and do something about it. Often we’ll be using hand pumps to jet the gravel and get rid of the rubbish. Sometimes, we’ll actually put a chisel plough behind a tractor and dive in there to break up gravel that’s become closer to cement. We tend to concentrate on this type of work in the early autumn so the beds are pristine when the salmon arrive. It might not sound glamorous work but it’s essential.
“Hand in hand with this we are constantly creating buffer strips to stop cattle and, especially, sheep in our area encroaching on the riverbanks. The trouble is they break down the margins and send mud and silt downstream, which, naturally, settles on those spawning beds again. Silt in suspension is one of our real headaches and we’ve got to cut down on the amount of erosion. This job isn’t simply hard work it also involves a measure of tact and diplomacy when you’re negotiating with farmers.”
Okay, I get the picture but are there actually enough salmon going up the rivers to keep populations vibrant? “Good point,” Rob admits. “You’re probably aware as you know the area, the Axe has been totally depleted for some time. Let’s take this river as an example of what we’re doing. We are taking ova from the Exe and transporting them to hatcheries in Wales. We will then take the fingerlings back to holding pools that are actually fed directly from the Axe. That way the smolt are imprinted with Axe water so they will come back to the Axe and not travel up the Exe. It’s complicated, fraught with difficulties but a real step forward to river rejuvenation. And if those fish do come back to the Axe or to any of the rivers in our area, we’ve got to make sure that they’ve got easy access to the upper reaches. That’s why we’re constantly working on fish passes and screening off fish farms both to keep wild fish out and artificially reared fish in. See what I mean? Poaching is an issue but it’s all part of a much wider picture.”
I see my chance and I’m in there quick. So poaching is a problem then? A sigh. “To an extent,” Rob says. “Of course as Environment Officers we’ve always got to be on our guard because there’s always the potential for a poaching situation. That’s why we carry out patrols throughout the year day and night. This is a constant series of random checks and poachers can never know when they might be disturbed. But, again, I’m not going to let you get carried away on all this. We’re not back in the 1970s when the rivers were plagued by the big, ruthless gangs from the cities who netted rivers on a huge, organised, commercial scale. To a large degree, farmed salmon have knocked the bottom out of the prices and it’s no longer commercially feasible for these gangs to operate. That doesn’t mean, though, that a lot of damage can’t be done with nets especially. One of the problems is that flow rates have been low over recent years and if there are salmon up, marooned and vulnerable there’s a jungle telegraph and the word gets round like lightning. This is especially so after a localised downpour which can raise a river briefly and entice fish in only to be then trapped in small pools.”
A memory comes back to my mind – The Lyn in July. The storm out at sea, some heavy rain on the moor and grilse flocked up only to be locked in the small, difficult pools within 48 hours. A party of anglers descended and wreaked absolute havoc. They fished those pools as a team with devastating efficiency. Each and every salmon was cracked on the head and bunged in the car boot with chilling competence. I didn’t like what I saw that day nor did the other anglers around me. “Yes,” rob agrees. “Anglers do have their part to play. Of course, it’s catch and release until June 16th and even if fish can be retained after that we like to see them go back. And this is where anglers can play a part by making sure that their fish handling is rigorously salmon friendly. You want to get those fish back with as little stress as possible. Keep the fish in the water. Use barbless hooks. Play them firmly and let them go swiftly.”
I sense we’re getting back onto the environment and conservation again. So who are the poachers? Surely there is danger? “Forget that romantic image of a local out to get a salmon for the pot,” Rob says. “The modern-day poacher is more calculating than that and he knows there’s likely to be a commercial outlet somewhere for a wild fish in good condition. And of course, you’re right, we obviously do face danger walking around the banks at night. But we are well-equipped. We have a full range of communication devices like radios and telephones. We are also provided with the best night-vision equipment. We have powers of arrest under certain situations. And above all, we set out to collect as much information as possible about any operation we get wind of. If a situation looks potentially serious, we’ll have officers assembled in sufficient numbers. We might even call in the police who are always helpful at these times. That’s why Environment Officers like to stay in one area for a reasonable length of time. They get to know the farmers, the policemen and even the potential troublemakers. It’s very much a question of knowing your patch.”
I can’t help wondering if the penalties for poaching are stiff enough? “Well, the maximum fine is £2,500 though this is rarely imposed on rod and line wrongdoers. Nets are viewed much more seriously and the costs for anyone convicted of poaching with nets can also rise steeply. Netting is at its worst right at the end of the season. You can imagine the scenario. The fish are a long way from the sea and right up close to their distant spawning beds in water that is very shallow indeed. Skilful netting can wipe out a huge percentage of fish preparing to spawn and guarantee the river’s future.”
I bet you hate characters that are so calculating and so uncaring? “Well, this sort of activity is going directly against all that Environment Officers are working towards,” Rob stresses. “We’re all in this job for the satisfaction of seeing the rivers improve and salmon numbers increase. I’ve got a family and I work very hard so my fishing time now is really restricted. But I’m not really bothered. It’s seeing fish in the rivers that I really enjoy these days. We get a lot of help from local anglers because they realise what we are trying to do and how seriously we take our work.”
I’m pleased about that because in my travels I realise the Environment Agency fishery work isn’t always appreciated the way it should be. So I suggest you read this interview carefully and take in what Rob has got to say. And tonight, when you’re safely tucked up in that cosy, warm bed of yours, perhaps you’ll think of Rob out in the dark, perhaps in the rain, protecting our salmon. I’m not suggesting you say a prayer but a warm wish for his health wouldn’t come amiss!