THE late Edward Heath was one of the most reviled Prime Ministers of modern times (until today, that is). He got us into the Common Market, which millions still regret, and one of the prices he paid for entry was to sell out the British sea fishing fleet by opening our traditional fishing grounds to rapacious mainland competitors.
The result of that is that the North Sea is virtually fished out and cod is expensive as fillet steak. But this week, another set of fishermen had reason to be thankful for his efforts: the men and women who fish our rivers and lakes for leisure, all three million plus of them, the biggest single group who take an active part in sport in the UK.
It was Heath, you see, who back in the 1960s who ordered that Britain’s ravaged waterways, still suffering from massive pollution dating back to the Industrial Revolution, should be cleared up.
At that time, my local river was officially classed as totally dead – dead not just to fish but to shrimps and other marine creatures and even most types of water weed, thanks to nearly two centuries of effluent from dye-works, one of the worst killers from the cotton industry. Today, it boasts a small head of brown trout, not specimens by any means, but the mere fact that they are there at all is a tribute to Heath’s far-sightedness.
Fast forward to the early 1990s, and I was writing in the Daily Telegraph about a project launched on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Bolton Abbey to bring the salmon back to the upper reaches of the River Wharfe.
By this time, huge lengths of once dead waters in industrial Yorkshire, like the Aire from Keighley downwards, and the Don in South Yorkshire, had become good course fishing rivers with clean-water species like brown trout and grayling moving down river from more favourable locations.
The really good news in this was these most of these industrial rivers in Yorkshire eventually ended up in the Humber and that had become so polluted over the centuries that it had become was experts call a “choke” – water so bad that migratory fish could not longer pass through it.
Result: the salmon and sea trout which once thrived in virtually all Yorkshire Rivers died out in all but a handful of tributaries to the River Esk. If I have got this right – and I write from memory of a conversation in a Grassington pub 15 years ago – the last salmon to be caught in Upper Wharfedale was landed not long after the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
Now there are myriad fisherman’s tales like this (the “one that got away” tale is a genre in its own right) but at the time, it was reported that the Humber choke had finally been cleaned up and salmon were once again able to enter its many tributaries.
So officials at Bolton Abbey decided to put it to the test and released into the Wharfe hundreds of “smolts” – adolescent salmon – brought in from Scotland as fingerlings and grown on in the abbey’s own trout farm. The hope: that these smolt would adopt the Wharfe as their “home” river, make the long journey to the North Sea, and then return as adults.
To see them back leaping the falls in the Yorkshire Dales would be one of the greatest conservation stories
of the age
Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Salmon and sea trout are back in the River Swale in the Northern Dales, and have been reported by the Environment Agency in the mid-reaches of the Wharfe and the Aire. And here is why the subject became topical again this week.
As we reported on Tuesday (See news) Defra has just given the Environment Agency an extra £10million to improve our waterways, and part of that cash is to go to clearing away obstacles to the movement of migratory fish. This could include the building of fish ladders on various weirs, hopefully some of them in Yorkshire.
And of the many reports I have received over the past five years or so, quite a large number of mature salmon has been seen below various obstacles on the Wharfe, including the weir at Tadcaster. None have been legally caught to my knowledge – but there are persistent rumours about poaching.
This, of course, could be just another fishy tale. But the salmon, King of the Fishes as Isaac Walton called it, is a truly remarkable creature. The Romans, when they invaded Britain 2,000 years ago, were amazed at its abundance and dubbed it Salar, Latin for Leaper. To see them back leaping the falls in the Yorkshire Dales would be one of the greatest conservation stories of the age.
Feedback received on this subject:
The return of Salmon to the rivers of Yorkshire will happen.
I have fished all over the British Isles for Salmon over the last 50 years.I began fishing for trout in 1960 on the River Dove in Derbyshire. Salmom were never caught on the Dove since it ran into the Trent with all it's polluton. Years of environmental clean up by various agencies have seen a return of them to the Derbyshire rivers.
The Yorkshire rivers seem a natural habitat for their breeding. I recently had a walking holiday on the upper Swale and the river looks as fine a Salmon river as any I have seen.
Chris Bradshaw Gwernymynydd Wales
I was walking in Richmond on Sunday - it is as finer salmon River as the Border Esk, North and South Tyne or even looks like the Upper Spey. There is no reason to my knowledge why it couldnt support Salmon once again.
I would like to see if the EA would support a restocking program and encourage them to run the River once again - and I can fish for them!!!
Philip Ellis Northallerton