A CRISIS IN OUR RIVERS – A BROKEN TRUST – Ian Blewett

There has been considerable coverage recently in the media regarding the dramatic decline in the health of the UK’s rivers and I have written several short articles on this here on North Devon Angling News. I asked Ian Blewett secretary of the River Taw Fisheries Association if he would write an article highlighting the issues we face here in North Devon as I believe that it is important to bring these issues to as wide an audience as possible. Sincere thank’s to Ian for producing a hard hitting and thought provoking feature.

A CRISIS IN OUR RIVERS – A BROKEN TRUST

In September this year, the government released a report that revealed something that many Anglers and Angling bodies had known for some while. The Environment Agency (EA) report showed for the first time ever that not one single river in the whole of England had achieved a good chemical status rating. Proving beyond doubt that pollution from sewage discharge, chemicals and agriculture is having a hugely detrimental impact on river quality right across the country. The contrast with the ratings of a previous survey in 2016 couldn’t be more stark – then 97% of rivers were judged to have good chemical status (albeit the standards are now tougher). Put simply it means that there is not a river system in England that isn’t already polluted and becoming more so. It proves that over the last decade that the water quality in all English rivers has rapidly declined and that the EA had failed in its statutory duty to protect and enhance. This is worrying situation if you are an angler or interested in the environment because it means that we are failing in our fight for clean water and have been badly let down by governments at all levels.

Despite North Devon being such a wondrous place – remember we are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with a uniquely important UNESCO biosphere slap in the middle of it, we don’t have a single river system or catchment that is not being routinely polluted and degraded as a fishery or wildlife habitat. Every catchment in N Devon is affected.  Every lake that collects water from the land, every stream that flows into a river, every river that has an estuary and every river estuary that flows out to sea across a beach. Anglers of all types are affected by this and given that fact, it means that anglers, wildlife enthusiasts and people who care must do more to protect our catchments. It means that those whose job it was to protect and enhance – the EA and other responsible bodies; DEFRA, the agricultural industry, local councils, planning authorities and of course the filthy, leaking, under- performing utility companies are routinely choosing to fail. The reality is that we put our trust in elected politicians and Govt institutions at National and local level and we have been badly let down. We must do better at holding the EA, local government and South West Water to account.

This EA diagram shows how well South West Water are doing in the under-achievers league:

Only Southern Water are worse. See Link below

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/921087/Water_and_sewerage_companies_in_England_environmental_performance_summary_graphic_for_2019.pdf

In N Devon river pollution comes from three major sources: Sewage pollution. Chemical Pollution and Agriculture.

Every house in every town and village is linked to a sewage works or treatment facility. Every rural house or cottage if not connected t mains sewers probably has some form of septic tank or ancient drain away. Every seaside town probably has some form of combined sewer outfall. They are all linked in one way or another to water courses and thus to rivers and the sea. Many of these treatment works or facilities are very old, some are crumbling and many lack capacity. All treatment works are designed to discharge “treated” wastewater into existing water courses (streams & rivers) and at times of high flows or extraordinary demand, untreated sewage is also routinely discharged directly into existing water courses. On the Taw system alone there are at least 32 sewage treatment works. The EA licences SWW to discharge within a given set of discharge criteria but then asks the utility company to self-monitor and report itself when it breaks the rules! Guess what? It is documented that Utility companies regularly break the discharge consents and somehow forget report themselves.

A lack of infrastructure and capacity is a widespread problem in N Devon. Let’s take just one example. The South Molton Town Plan sees an additional 2,240 homes built over the next 10 years or so, that represents a growth in population of probably nearly 20%. The town has a Victorian sewage works that has been upgraded but it is maxed out in terms of space. It also has a system that collects raw sewage from one side of the town and pumps it back to the current sewage works. Currently it lacks the capacity to contend with the growth. SWW say there are plans to upgrade it – but they won’t say how, with what or even when. Why then did the planners give consent for all those houses if SWW can’t deal with the domestic sewage waste? Last year, residents in the area reckoned that the sewage works discharged raw sewage into the Mole for months on end but because they are self-monitoring it is difficult to prove a case for it happening. This is a pattern that is likely repeated across N Devon. Sewage pollution routinely occurs in places like Ilfracombe and Combe Martin and it could be happening near you.

Sewage contains poo. It also contains all sorts of chemicals (washing powder – enzymes), pharmaceutical residue (drugs, hormones and anti-biotics) and micro plastics. Much of the solid waste and bacteria is filtered out by the treatment process but in higher flows the harmful chemicals (nitrates and phosphates) and drug residues (hormones and anti-biotics) all go down the overflow pipe and into the river and because the EA has ceased routinely monitoring the health of our rivers we don’t know what sort of effect this is having. Modern septic tanks tend to contain their contents but must be emptied regularly or they will overflow with similar results. They must by law only be emptied by licenced companies using licenced disposal facilities.

Farmers are of course the custodians of the countryside; we need them to produce our food, but in recent years farming has intensified and N Devon hasn’t escaped the effects of that intensification. The face of agriculture has changed, arguably not always for the better. There are now fewer Dairy farmers but the milking herds are much bigger. Cows are kept indoors and fed a mixed diet of feeds that includes silage and haylidge. Fields are cut often twice or even three times a year to provide the raw material. The waste (shite) is collected in vast lagoons and then applied as slurry to fields once cut as fertiliser. It is potent, powerful stuff and quite devastating and dangerous if it gets in a pond or watercourse. When using or applying slurry or digestates as fertilser Farmers are supposed to comply with DEFRA’s Rules for Water – but a surprising number have never heard of them. Remember, a modern dairy farm milking 300 head of cattle produces as much waste as a small city and uses a vast amount of water so they have a responsibility to abide by environmental regulations and dispose of their waste accordingly. If you witness anyone discharging farm waste directly into a watercourse or spreading slurry in the immediate (within 5m) vicinity of a watercourse you should report the incident to the EA who should investigate.

A combination of so-called green incentives and bigger and more powerful machinery has also seen the face of arable farming change in N Devon. Farmers are being incentivised to grow whole crops and winter maize to feed a demand from biodigesters and intensive farms. Winter Maize is being grown on a large scale. It is harvested in October and November, the wettest time of the year. During the harvest vast amounts of mud are generated from topsoils disturbed by heavy machinery and if the weather is bad then much of that topsoil is washed into our rivers as tons of silt. You see the mess on the roads. Not only does this clog the spawning gravels used by migratory fish, it reduces salmonid spawning success by as much as 90% (GWCT figures). Increased flows also wash this silt down into the estuary affecting water quality and clarity and it is deposited in vast, dirty shifting banks that encourage algal growth in the Summer. These intensive crops need fertilising and growers routinely use, commercial fertilisers, slurry and digestate which is 3 x more devasting than slurry if it gets in the river. Not only that but each maize crop is sprayed several times in a growing season with a powerful aphicide, the residues of which all end up in the water. It all has a cumulative and negative effect particularly in low flows.

It must be said that the majority of farmers are environmentally friendly by inclination and go to considerable lengths to negate the impacts of farming on our rivers and watercourses but there are those who are not and they can do a lot of damage.

What can you do to stop or lessen the effects of pollution on our rivers? I’d like to suggest that there are a few simple steps that we can all take right now and they are as follows:

–           Put this number 0800 80 70 60 in your mobile. Every angler should have it. Keep your eyes open. Report incidents of potential pollution to the EA. Do not just walk by. If you see damage being done to the environment, flooding, any form of pollution (including excessive silt run off or raw sewage flowing into the river or estuary), dead fish, illegal water abstraction or incidents or spillages at waste disposal sites, ring the number and report the incident. All incidents reported to this number are logged and treated in total confidence and must be addressed by the EA. If you see something that looks or smells like pollution then it probably is – take some photos and report it immediately.

–           If you see a planning application for a development that is troubling you, then think about putting a question to your Parish, Town or North Devon District Councillor or even your MP (who states on her website that she will fight for the environment). Don’t just think about it – make an objection. Inquire about the provision of suitable infrastructure and capacity and do not be fobbed off. Ask them why it is that they are not fulfilling their environmental obligations – every political party makes them. Ask them why they aren’t holding the EA and SWW to account. They are supposed to be your elected representatives – hold them to account as well.

–           Whatever sort of angler you are you should probably think about joining an Angling body or Environmental organisation like the Angling Trust or the Wildlife Trust. These organisations are actively fighting the anglers/wildlife lovers corner. Give them your backing, they have access to top quality legal representation and are influencers, get involved and have a say.

–           You might even like to support Surfers Against Sewage in their latest campaign to stop river pollution. Sign up here: https://www.sas.org.uk/endsewagepollution/

–           Maybe if you are a river angler you might think about joining the River Taw Fisheries Association (RTFA – website here: http://www.rivertawfisheries.co.uk/index.html ) or its equivalent on the Torridge. The RTFA has modernised in recent years, it raises thousands of pounds each year and works with Westcountry Rivers trust to fund the removal of weirs, conduct river improvement work and spawning gravel washing.

The angling Trust have launched a campaign that anglers can join to fight against pollution. See link below.

Anglers Against Pollution

Now is the time to get involved. We cannot keep treating our waterways and rivers like open sewers – this is the 21st century and we deserve to have clean water. Our rivers, lakes, estuaries and beaches are incredibly important wildlife habitats and provide us as Anglers with opportunities to enjoy countless hours of fun. Get involved and throw your weight behind the wheel because many voices are better than one and we have to make the EA, our local representatives and SWW do better.

Perfect Conditions on Rivers

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Recent heavy rainfall has resulted in perfect conditions leading into the last month of the salmon fishing season. Paul Carter kindly allowed me to use this stunning image of the River Torridge at Beam Weir.

I look forward to reporting on catches from both the Taw and Torridge. Day Tickets are available for the Taw at Weir Marsh and Brightly via Chris Steer on 07761285169. Day Tickets for the Torridge can be obtained from the Half Moon Inn at Sheepash or at Little Warham Fishery. The West Country Passport Scheme also gives access to many excellent beats.

REPORTING POLLUTION INCIDENTS TO THE EA – 0800 807060

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REPORTING POLLUTION INCIDENTS TO THE EA
Our rivers are in my view the arteries of the land and it is our responsibility to do all that we can to safeguard them. As anglers we spend many hours both beside and in the water and have the opportunity to spot signs of pollution or activities that could have a negative impact. The Environment Agency are the main body responsible for dealing with issues and it is to them that we must report our concerns. The more we report the more chance of issues being addressed. I have heard comment from some that there is no point reporting things as nothing gets done. This attitude has no benefit for it just reinforces the belief. Speak up raise awareness of issues and then if its not dealt with raise the fact with your local MP or other body. We have a voice they are our rivers and deserve to be cherished.
Anglers are reminded that reporting incidents to the EA is an individual responsibility. It is particularly important in times of drought or low flows.
If you come across an incident that includes any of the following:
  • damage or danger to the natural environment
  • pollution to water or land
  • poaching or illegal fishing
  • dead fish or fish gasping for air
  • main rivers blocked by a vehicle or fallen tree causing risk of flooding
  • flooding from any river, stream, canal, natural spring or the sea
  • illegal removals from watercourses
  • unusual changes in river flow
  • collapsed or badly damaged river or canal banks
 
You should call the EA Incident Hotline on: 0800 807060 – without delay. Time may be of the essence. 
 
Your report will be made in complete confidence. Save the number into your mobile phone and pass it on to others.
 
If you make a call to this number it is recorded and the EA are duty bound to act on it. Do not hesitate or prevaricate.

Drought Hit North Devon

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The River Taw showing its bones a couple of weeks ago. (photo Dr Mike George)

Whilst this long hot summer has its delights it also has a serious downside in that many of our local rivers are at all time low levels. In the short term this results in a catastrophic season for salmon and sea trout fishing and related businesses. It can result in fish kills when any pollution enters the watercourse, as there is minimal dilution. It also causes serious problems for fish farmers who often suffer heavy casualty’s as oxygen levels plummet in the high temperatures. Lakes are also prone to serious issues with oxygenating equipment sometimes required to maintain a healthy environment. If you have concerns about fish stocks or water quality ring the Environment Agency’s Hotline 0800 807060.

Local Reservoirs like Wistlandpound are also showing signs of a dry summer and this can be an advantage to anglers if they take time to look at the features that are uncovered as these can prove valuable at a later date when water levels return to normal. The same applies to rivers where depressions in the riverbed or location of boulders can be an indication of a place where salmon or sea trout could lie up when the river is at normal height,

Wistlandpound Reservoir view from top water level.

Riverfly monitoring

The River Fly Partnership

 

“Riverfly Partnership tutors deliver one-day workshops to fishing clubs and other organisations committed to establishing a group to monitor the biological water quality of their local waters.

Anglers are natural guardians of the river environment, and are in an ideal position to monitor the health of the watercourses they fish, by using the riverflies they aim to imitate with their artificial flies. Many angling and other interested groups expressed an interest to be able to carry out health checks on their waters. The Riverfly Partnership spearheads an initiative to allow interested groups to take action that  will help conserve the river environment. This initiative provides a simple monitoring technique which groups can use to detect any severe perturbations in river water quality and puts them in direct communication with the local Ecological Contact of the Environment Agency (EA) / Scottish Environment Protection Agency – participating areas (SEPA) / National Resources Wales (NRW) / Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). “

            I joined a group of enthusiastic volunteers for a days training on the River Fly Initiative at The Fox and Hounds Country Hotel near Eggesford. The course was run in conjunction with the North Devon Biosphere and our tutor’s for the day were Matthew Edworthy from the North Devon Biospere and Izzy Moser from the Devon Wildlife Trust.

            The group of volunteers was a mix of anglers and members of the community with a passion for Devon’s wildlife. All understood the importance of a healthy river and how the river fly population can act as a natural barometer to its health. Fly Fishers of course have a long established link to a rivers fly life as it is these creatures that the anglers mimic when trying to tempt the trout that live within the river.

            It was observations by anglers that had helped to establish the vital link between the abundance of fly life and the richness of the river habitat. Observations over many decades revealed an alarming decline in fly populations. It was this that had lead to the River Fly Initiative.

            The sampling of a section of river and careful gathering of data relating to fly life populations is a proven way of detecting any decline in the river health. This can show up problems long before any fish kill or visible signs of an issue.

            The first part of the day was spent in the classroom where we were given a thought provoking briefing on health and safety and the risks we may encounter at the waters edge including the ever-present threat of Leptospirosis/Weils disease and lyme disease. We were then briefed on the identification of the fly groups we would be looking for within the river.

Caddisfly (sedge) larvae – Cased Caddis Caseless caddis

Up-wing fly larvae – Mayfly Ephemeridae  , Blue-winged olive, Flat-bodied Heptageniidae, olive Baetidae

Stonefly Larvae Stone Flies

Freshwater Shrimp Gammarus

 

The life cycle of these river dwellers proved to be a fascinating insight into the rich variety of the life within our rivers and as an angler for close to fifty years I was somewhat dismayed at my lack of knowledge. Though this was one of the reasons I had enrolled on the course as knowledge of the river life enhances each day spent by the waters edge fishing.

The previous night had seen heavy rain fall over much of North Devon resulting in a brown and swollen River Taw. It seemed that our all-important practical session would be impacted upon but fortunately one of our party owned a delightful property with a small stream running through its meadow. After lunch we all tramped down to the river with our nets and buckets. Along the way we were delighted to see numerous rare snakehead fritillary flowers in the meadow.

It was refreshing to share in the joy of messing around in the river with a group of like-minded people. Whilst the exercise had a valuable purpose I could not help but remember childhood days spent exploring a babbling brook. My angling life began with this fascination for rivers and the life within.

Izzy Moser, Devon Wildlife Trust and Matt Edworthy

The sampling method involves 3 minutes of intense riverbed kicking and a minute of rock turning. This resulted in several buckets full of river life and detritus to take away and analyze.

To our delight it soon became apparent that we had struck upon  a rich vein of river life with all our target species present in good numbers. Sorting the fly larvae into their respective groups proved a fascinating exercise and there were plenty of enthusiastic exclamations as various larvae were revealed.

We returned to the Fox and Hounds for a briefing on logging our data and how this vital information would be used by the Environment Agency to monitor river health. There is of course a political background to this citizen science for a significant reduction in funding means that those that care about the environment have to get out there and work for the protection of the riverside habitat. It is my belief that the rivers are the arteries of our green and pleasant land. As an angler I of course have an additional link to the river in that I cast my line into it in the hope of connecting with its fish.

 

http://www.riverflies.org/rp-riverfly-monitoring-initiative

 

           

 

Trout Fishing starts on local rivers

March 15th sees the start of the trout fishing season on running water and we are fortunate to have miles of wild brown trout fishing here in North Devon. What these trout lack in size they make up for in their beauty and tenacity giving a spirited fight on light tackle. Perhaps the real joy of wild trout fishing is the being beside our rivers as spring unwinds all around with wild flowers and birdsong reverberating through the air.

I could not resist a few casts today and tempted a beautifully marked brown trout with a just a few flicks into the fast flowing river. A small gold headed nymph will generally work well at this time with sparsely tied spider patterns also productive.

It’s Raining!

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Its raining and whilst that’s bad for the visitors it’s good news for salmon and sea trout anglers. There have been a few salmon and sea trout trickling into the Taw with peel now throughout the Mole. Chris Steer landed an 8lb salmon from the Weir Marsh and Brightly beats of the Taw; a day ticket water available by contacting Ivan Huxtable on 01769540835.

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Alternatively contact the Rising Sun at Umberleigh where day tickets are also available. The steady rain that is falling now should offer every prospect of sport on all three of our main North Devon Rivers the Taw, Torridge and Lyn.

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River Lyn in spate – A few years ago!