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Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust

December 8 2008

Brian Marshall is the Chairman - Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust The southern, lowland chalk streams of Wessex have a rich bio-diversity that has, for millennia, supported thriving populations of fish, flora, birds and invertebrates. Foremost among these is the famous River Hampshire Avon. Rising from the chalk aquifer of Salisbury Plain as the East and West Avon, it heads south for Salisbury where it is joined by the Rivers Bourne, Wylie, Nadder and Ebble, each offering individual characteristics and angling opportunities whilst hosting the catchment’s spawning salmon. These revered centres of trout fishing, and on the Nadder coarse angling as well, set the standard for the main river that runs from Britford through Hampshire to the sea at Christchurch in Dorset, briefly meeting with the River Stour, from the west. En route it is joined by the vigorous little New Forest streams where sea trout, of enormous proportions and healthy abundance, run up to breed on the late Autumn spates, overcoming trash dams and fords on the way. They have waited in the main river for the rain that will generate a sufficient flow in streams that in summer are a mere five or six feet wide at best, and sometimes have dry stretches. There can be no more exciting sight than to see these beautiful fish, sometimes double figure specimens, thrash across the forest fords. A trawl through angling literature of the region reveals the reason for the rivers reputation as a salmon fishery, frequented by such famous names as Gladstone, who caught a 48½ lb. fish near Ringwood in 1936, Neville Chamberlain, Almer Tryon, the Mills and Ferguson families, Ashley Cooper and many others; catching great salmon from the Royalty, Bisterne, Avon Tyrell, Ringwood and Somerley. Also as a coarse fishery, where Captain Parker and his renowned Bull at Downton’ and Bernard Venables added to the river’s reputation. Coach loads of anglers from London and the midlands arrived every weekend to tempt the enormous roach, perch, chub, barbel and magnificent bags of silver dace. The more solitary, specialist pike anglers also searched for specimen fish, knowing that the river had produced several records in it’s history. Whilst the beauty of the river and the rural idylls through which it flows remain, much else has changed since those memorable days. Demands for water are far greater with the resultant increased abstraction. Industrial processes are increasingly sophisticated, agriculture and aquaculture more intensive, populations have increased. During the late 1980’s and into the early 90’s the lowland rivers, in common with salmon rivers throughout Europe, suffered a catastrophic collapse in their salmon populations. There were many causes promoted for this decline; foremost among them the exploitation of the arctic feeding grounds. To this must be added, in the case of the southern, south west and Welsh rivers, the increasing capture of salmon by the Irish drift nets, both legal and illegal, killing hundreds of thousands of migrating salmon every year. Many of these fish originated in our rivers and tag returns revealed that up to 28% of the fish returning to the Avon, Test and Itchen were being intercepted during that period. At the same time coarse anglers were reporting a decline in cyprinid species throughout the rivers, with particular stretches causing serious concern. A public meeting was held between the authorities and concerned anglers, and in 1992 an association, determined to combat the decline in the rivers, and restore them to former abundance, was founded. That association, now The Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust; was the first river trust established in England. The trust focuses upon conservation and restoration of the lowland river’s whole environment. Additionally, specified objectives include education and research related to “fish populations and their habitats, ecology, water quality and environment”. A very large shopping basket to fill. An early objective was to reduce the exploitation of the remaining salmon population by both rods and the heritage draft netting in Mudeford Harbour, whilst recognising the importance of both activities environmentally, socially and economically. A catch and release protocol was designed. Clearly incentives were necessary if the 100% objective was to be achieved and sponsorship became an urgent priority. In 1994 the trust approached the largest fish retailer in the country; Tesco Stores Ltd, for help and met with a generous response. Tesco agreed to reward every Avon angler voluntarily returning a fish with one of their salmon. The ‘Tesco Swap a Salmon’ scheme was born. They also provided core funding which, with donations from members and some riparian owners, enabled Wessex Salmon to fund the purchase of the netted salmon for immediate live release. Today. ‘Tesco Swap a Salmon’ operates on all the southern and south west rivers from the Itchen to the Fowey. Net and release is now funded by The Avon and Stour Association. Some thousands of fish have survived as a result of these Wessex Salmon initiatives. The same core funding has enabled funding contributions to important research work by The Environment Agency, English Nature, and Southampton and Portsmouth Universities into the habitat and welfare of all species, under increasingly difficult water conditions. The Irish netting problem is the subject of proceedings by the European Commission against the Irish Government, resulting from a formal complaint lodged by Wessex Salmon. A part of the Trust’s education programme, which has included a number of talks to schools on the whole subject of river environment, is the 'Expanding Trout in Schools' programme. The Trust built a micro trout hatchery, working on re-cycled water, that fits into a corner of any school’s science laboratory. Using brown trout eggs donated by Trafalgar Fishery, science students of all ages study important aspects of reproduction, development and environment. The scheme fits the National Curriculum and Eco - Science A levels. There are five hatcheries running this year and, when the young trout are released, roach will be raised in the hatcheries. Many active committees and groups include the Trust or a trustee as members, including; Environment Agency Area Fisheries Forum, Regional Fisheries Ecology & Recreation Advisory Committee and stakeholder groups for Catchment Abstraction Management Strateg, Salmon Action plan, Weed Management Protocol, Avon Flood Management Committee, South West rivers Association Council and membership of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund’s International Coalition. And the River? In 2005 a 35lb salmon was caught and released south of Ringwood, several three pound roach were caught, (probably more than were reported), and lots of 2lb fish. The Avon barbel record was broken by a near16½ pounder with rumours of a 17 about, and scores of big doubles caught. Some 7lb chub were landed throughout the catchment. Lots of big sea trout seen but very shy. The Avon is still a prime angling venue. Brian Marshall Chairman - Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust