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Half a century on the riverbank

Friday 29 July 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard takes time off to go fishing in a quiet week and reflects on half a century on the river bank.

BEFORE the heavy rain struck on Thursday, the stretch of the River Aire I fish for trout and grayling was in a pretty sorry state. But it had been a quiet week in the office - the countryside news industry has its silly season too - so I decided to risk it anyway.

Like most fly fishermen, I usually concentrate on the fast, gliding runs over thousands of limestone pebbles worn flat by millennia of running water. But after weeks of drought, the flow had become a trickle and the pebbles were covered in a thick, malodorous layer of rotting weed.

A place for quiet reflection

So I headed for some of the deeper, darker pools where the odd trout might have retreated to drag some oxygen out of the stale, over-warm water. I didn't expect to catch anything but, as I have often told puzzled non-anglers, fishing is not about catching things.

For the true angler, the sport is about being out in the wild, with the time and the peace and the quiet to watch the birds and the bees and think the thoughts that modern life hasn't the time for. As Isaac Walton said in the Compleat Angler, after the bible the best selling book in English of all time, angling is "the contemplative man's sport."

I started fishing for sticklebacks with a jam jar on a string more than 50 years ago. And on this deep, sluggish pool barely a mile from the centre of Skipton, I once again marvelled at the electric blue brilliance of the damsel flies and tried to sooth a bad-tempered oyster catcher doing it's 'I'm injured act - come and get me' as it tried to lure me away from a nest which must have been quite close (could it contain the second clutch of the year?).

Then out of the pool just a couple of feet away popped a head which, for a split second, I thought was a discoloured fish, a chub perhaps. Then I realised it was a mink. It looked me straight in the eyes, it needle sharp fangs bared, and I don't know who was the most shocked, it or me.

It plunged again and, a few seconds later, I caught a glimpse of it snaking down the bank amongst the roots of a willow. Must report that, I thought, and my reveries turned sour. For a few minutes.

There were no mink on the bank when I began to fish. There were, however, hundreds of water voles - dear Ratty from the Wind in the Willows. Now the latter have gone, wiped out by the former, released from captivity by so called "animal rights" activists who unleashed a scourge on the British countryside which has sentenced millions of native mammals and birds to death.

Fortunately, the Environment Agency has launched a major campaign to restock our rivers with waterways with voles now that the mink has been largely eradicated in many areas, so at least the problem is being tackled (I hope the soon-to-be created Natural England will continue the good work).

It will take a long time, no doubt, but at least there is hope, an indication that, at long last, our wildlife is being acknowledged as important by politicians as well as conservationists who have been crying in the dark for decades.

As it was, I spent another hour or so dreaming about sticklebacks whilst the oystercatcher stopped scolding me and the swallows flashed within inches of my face as they snatched sedge flies from the surface of the pool.

Stress, they say, is one of modern life's great killers. Take up what Walton described as "the art of the angle" and you won't even get angry at a wild killer in your midst. With luck, you could still be out there amongst the swallows and the damsel flies 50 years hence. To used the angler's good-luck message, "Tight lines."

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