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Forget the bad news: Salar is back

Friday 21 March 2008

Searching desperately for good news to heighten the Easter break, our countryside commentator John Sheard receives a flash of delight: the North Sea salmon is back in Yorkshire waters.

THERE is a long tradition in journalism that however gloomy the news in general, come a holiday weekend we hacks must search for something light and optimistic to give the readers a well deserved break. That tradition has rarely had more justification than this weekend.

So we forget about banks going bust, taxes, food prices and household bills soaring, and concentrate on a piece of news which has a silver suiting (as opposed to a silver lining): Salar the Salmon is back in Yorkshire’s east coast rivers. And that’s official.

salar leaping
Back after 150 years

To explain, salar is Latin for “The Leaper,” the name Roman legionnaires gave to the great silver fish they saw in their millions leaping waterfalls on virtually every river in the land before many were dammed or “canalised” to make way for river boat traffic.

From salar comes our word salmon and the Romans loved it: in the Roman walls of York, there are still deep pits where they stored winter ice from the River Ouse and there were hundreds like them across Europe all the way to Rome. Reason: to keep English salmon fresh on the way to the dining tables of the Roman aristocracy.

Shamefully, our Industrial Revolution forebears thought little of the King of Fishes: it was so numerous that servants had it written into their job descriptions that they could only be fed salmon so many times a week. A week!

That didn’t last long because the mill and mine owners of the Industrial Revolution quickly wiped out the migratory fish which came up the Humber. Polluting, and sometimes even damming rivers that fed into the Humber created a “choke-point”, miles of toxic pollution which killed off not only fish but most insect and plant life too.

Amazing though it seems, that choke point existed as recently as 25 years ago and no salmon – or sea trout, another member of the salmonid family – passed into East Yorkshire rivers for almost a century and a half, although west-flowing rivers like the Ribble survived – just about – as salmon spawning habitats.

I have been told by local experts that the last salmon caught on the Wharfe was “grassed” in the late 1890s. That may be just another fisherman’s tale but we had to wait until the 1970s when the much derided Prime Minister Edward Heath launched a campaign to rescue England’s rivers from generations of industrial pollution.

That work is only now beginning to bear fruit. Staff at the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Abbey estate released hundreds of salmon “smolt” – immature salmon bred in cages on the estate – some 15 years ago and enthusiasts like me have been waiting for their return ever since.

So far as I am aware, there has never been a confirmed salmon landed in the upper reaches of the Wharfe since then – but that may mean little. I have been hearing constant rumours that they have been landed further down stream for several years now – but none has been reported officially.

The fact that Salar is back in most of Yorkshire after more than 150 years is a matter of joy

There could be a simple reason for that: it is illegal to angle for salmon without a £68 licence issued by the Environment Agency, almost three times the £25 course fishing licence. And anyone who catches and kills a salmon when, say, spinning for could be charged with poaching and face a heavy fine. So the temptation to keep mum is huge.

But the Environment Agency has just let the cat out of the bag. This week, I received a press release from them warning that salmon were back in the Ouse and the Ure and that anyone fishing for them needed a salmon licence.

Along with this official confirmation that Salar is back, I have also been told that they have been seen in the Wharfe below the weir at Tadcaster and even downstream in the Aire.

Now whatever people feel about killing salmon – and there are some very strong safeguards – the fact remains that it is largely thanks to pressure from anglers that the species has recovered from near extinction.

The fact that Salar is back in most of Yorkshire after more than 150 years is a matter of joy for anyone who loves our countryside. This magnificent fish will only spawn and return to pollution free rivers - and those are one of the jewels in our rural crown. Ted Heath might have been one of the most maligned Prime Ministers of the 20th Century but in this at least he deserves posthumous thanks.

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