Death on the Wensum

Death on the Wensum

Death on the Wensum - introductionChris Turnbull issues a stark warning of the effects of the  continued, seemingly unchecked, release of otters onto our already pressured waterways. Is your river the next in line for the attentions of the cuddly killers?

The controversial issue of otters  returning to our fisheries and  the trail of decimated fish  stocks left in their wake is  something with which angling  is increasingly having to deal. With stillwaters, the obvious solution is to erect otter fencing, but for river fisheries (and big lakes) fencing is  not a practical solution, so how are  they to cope with the impact of otter predation?

Otters were reasonably common as recently as the 1950s, but became rare in many areas due to the use of  chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides  and as a result of habitat loss and  water pollution. There can be no  doubt that otters are fabulous animals  that enjoy huge popularity amongst conservationists and the public alike,  and of course their demise was a great  tragedy, so it is only right that efforts  should be made to protect them, but  how do we balance the interests of  conservation and fisheries where otters  are concerned? While the two interests  usually have much in common, in  situations like this we are poles apart! At the time of the otters’ demise coarse fishing was cheap and the rivers  went largely unmanaged. Fishing clubs paid peppercorn rents or gave a bottle of whiskey at Christmas to riparian owners in exchange for the fishing and anglers paid a pittance  for their membership. Back then  the distribution of river fish species  was somewhat different to today. While roach were common almost everywhere, barbel were limited to  a number of easterly flowing rivers like the Thames and its tributaries, a  number of rivers that drain into the  Humber estuary such as the Yorkshire  Ouse, Derwent, and Swale, along  with the Trent and its tributaries. An introduction of barbel had also apparently gone into the Dorset Stour as early as 1896 before finding their  own way into the Hampshire Avon, but any subsequent introductions of barbel into UK rivers did not take place until  the 1950s, with the first barbel going  into the Severn in 1956.

With barbel currently thriving in  rivers throughout the country, fishing  for them has become hugely popular. Good barbel fishing is becoming worth increasing amounts of money, to the  extent that barbel fishing now has  a substantial social/economic value.  With the population of otters now  established in numbers not seen for  over 50 years, the harsh reality of  having this apex predator preying on our valuable fish stocks is a matter of huge concern. The inevitable outcome  is looking decidedly worrying for more  than a few of English rivers!

Terror on the Thames  Few informed anglers will not be aware of the recent plight of the upper  Thames where the once substantial  population of indigenous barbel has  virtually disappeared due to otter  predation. More recently the upper Great Ouse at Adams Mill also came to  a nasty end with its nationally famous  head of massive barbel ravaged by otters. Similar incidents are occurring  throughout the country, the River Wensum in Norfolk also suffering a similar fate.

The contentious issue of otters killing barbel on the Wensum is of  particular interest because, like the  Hampshire Avon, the Wensum has a high conservation status as a SSSI, as well as being nationally famous for  its big barbel. As a consequence, it  represents a front line confrontation  zone between angling interests and  national conservation policies.There has been much debate as to whether  barbel are actually indigenous to the  Wensum. Alwyne Wheeler and David  Jordan researched this question in 1990 and concluded that as the  Wensum is an East Coast river, it could  be presumed to have had a natural  population of barbel. However, due to  its physical characteristics of being a  relatively small, slow flowing, lowland  river good barbel habitat would have  been limited and have resulted in  small vulnerable populations. Similar  reservations apply to larger rivers running through eastern lowland areas including the Great Ouse, Welland and  Witham.

No evidence

Despite Wheeler and Jordan’s theory,  however, there is no evidence of  any indigenous Wensum barbel still  existing in the River prior to small  numbers being stocked at Costessey in  1957, followed by a more substantial introduction into the same stretch in 1972. These fish grew to prestigious weights and eventually even broke the  national record. Sadly this stretch of  the River fell victim to the effects of  a massive water abstraction pipeline  constructed a mile or two upstream in  1986, and today only a handful of the  progeny of those original fish remain. Being keen to maintain the Wensum as a barbel fishery, in 1989 the Norfolk  Anglers’ Conservation Association  embarked on their well-publicised  Sayers Meadow Project several miles  upstream of the abstraction point,  beginning a series of ambitious habitat  restoration works designed to repair  the damage previously inflicted by  dredgers along a mile-long stretch of  the River. As a driver to this project,  NACA also heavily stocked the stretch  with one-year old barbel and eventually  succeeded in creating one of the  country’s finest specimen barbel  fisheries.

Many of the little stock fish  introduced by NACA also spread  downstream, seeding other stretches  of the River, resulting in the Wensum  becoming the barbel fishery it is today.  In 2004 NACA undertook an even  more ambitious restoration project  on the once-famous barbel stretch  at Costessey. For a number of years  the future of Wensum barbel fishing  looked decidedly rosy, though behind  the catches of big barbel, the fish  were struggling to achieve sufficient  levels of fry-recruitement to ensure  the continuance of future generations.  Over the past few years large efforts  have been made to improve the  spawning sites by gravel dressing  riffles and pressure jetting the known  spawning areas to clear them of silt and  sand. Unfortunately, otter predation is now resulting in such high numbers  of adult barbel being lost that many of us increasingly fear that the collapse of  the Wensum barbel fishery is inevitable  unless further stocking takes place.  Most anglers hold the idea that  otters are released into the wild by  ‘tree-hugging loonies’, but in fact these reintroductions have been officially supported by Natural England, so the  problem actually lies directly at the  feet of the UK Government and illconceived  policies. The Otter Trust  was set up in 1976 at Earsham on the Norfolk and Suffolk border in  order to set about a captive breeding  programme to reintroduce otters into the wild. Between 1983 and 1999  175 otters were released. As far as I can ascertain there are no ongoing  introductions of otters taking place today, so any increase  in their numbers is entirely down to successful breeding in the wild.

Gallery of the images used in the article shows below: Click on any image to open the gallery.

Spiral of decline

Before the Otter Trust ever thought  of releasing otters into the wild, Norfolk’s upper river fisheries were all stuck in a spiral of decline that has largely continued to today. The  catalyst for this decline was mainly the  environmentally damaging programme  of dredging wrought throughout the 50s,60s and 70’s to improve land  drainage and aid flood-prevention.

These dredging programmes patently  failed to prevent flooding, and in fact,  probably only succeeded in making  the problem worse. It had a severe  impact on fish stocks by destroying  most of the natural habitat they require  throughout the various stages of their  lives. On the Wensum and upper Bure this eventually led to the collapse of the  once famous roach stocks, along with  the native stocks of wild brown trout. The much-improved land drainage  coupled with modern intensive  agricultural practices later combined  to create a massive problem of silt and  sediment running off the land and into  the rivers, smothering the river bed and  compacting the gravel spawning sites.  This problem was further compounded  by reduced flow rates resulting  from increased levels of water being  abstracted from both from the rivers  and the aquifers that feed them. The  roach and dace populations eventually diminished to an all time low, with  most of those left becoming fodder to the massively escalating numbers of  cormorants. The situation was dire.  More recently the once-prolific eel  population has collapsed, and together these events have contributed to a  massive loss of potential natural food  sources for otters.

Given the gravity of this situation,  it didn’t require a genius to realise  that releasing otters into these failing  river ecosystems was a potential recipe  for disaster. However, it was some  years before the full impact of otter  predation began to be apparent. With  the rich pickings to be had from the  gravel pits excavated in the river valleys,  it was some time before otters began  to make any serious impact on river  stocks, and even then, this generally  only occurred when the stillwaters  were frozen over. Nevertheless,  eventually the problem started getting  worse with one area or another being  badly ‘ottered’. The bridge stretch at  Lenwade was one of the first barbel  stretches to be badly hit with a number  of half eaten barbel to over 14lb being  found on the banks. Anglian Water’s  Taverham Mills was also hit particularly  hard, resulting in a massive decline in  its barbel fishery with chub numbers  also being decimated. Last winter it  was the turn of NACA’s Sayers Meadow  to take a pasting with the loss of  numerous chub and barbel including  one massive known fish estimated at  about 18lb. This is not the first time  this fishery has lost fish to otters, and  with the population of Sayer’s Meadow  barbel now reduced to as few as 20  individual fish, any additional losses  are a bitter blow. Three years ago there  were as many as seven known 15lb-plus  barbel in the fishery, but today, due to  one reason or another, this number has  been reduced to two, one of which is  a potential next UK record if it can last  long enough to make the weight.

With otter predation of fish stocks  on the Wensum and its neighbouring  Broadland rivers, the Yare and Bure,  having reached a point where the  situation has become unsustainable  without intervention, the future is  looking particularly bleak. Despite this,  conservationists see the return of the  otters as a great success story – the  toll being extracted from our fisheries  seemingly of little consequence. The  upper Bure and Yare long ago ceased to  be good roach fisheries, but with chub  eventually filling much of the vacuum  left by their demise, there was always  something to fish for. Today, however,  otters have left many stretches almost  devoid of fish. Throughout this period  chub stocks remained reasonably good  in the Wensum, but now their numbers  have also slumped considerably. The  numerous scatterings of scales and fins  along the banks telling the story.

About 10 years ago I was invited  to a meeting at the Salmon & Trout  Association’s Fishmongers Hall  in London to discuss the issue of  the impact of otters on fisheries.  My involvement in this was as a  representative of NACA invited by the  Specialist Anglers’ Conservation Group  (SACG). Also present were members  of the ACA, the S&TA, the National  Rivers Authority, the Wildlife Trusts and  Philip Ware, director of the Earsham  Otter Trust. The SACG’s Chris Burt had  been tackling the thorny issue of otter  predation of stillwater carp fisheries  for some time and I was invited to  voice concerns about the situation  on river fisheries. I took with me a  bundle of recent NRA fisheries surveys  for the Wensum and upper Bure, all  of which made very gloomy reading.  After outlining the reports’s findings,  I asked Philip Ware if he was aware of  the declining state of Norfolk’s river  fisheries, and if this situation had been  considered before otters were released?  I don’t suppose I should have been  surprised that he wasn’t aware of the  situation, or that he didn’t seem to  grasp the implications of my question.  It still astounds me that an alpha  predator such as the otter had been  reintroduced to these rivers with no  regard for its impact on fish stocks that  were to sustain it!

If a survey were conducted  regarding anglers’ attitudes to otters,  I suspect that it would find us largely  in support of them, though obviously  there would be some reservations.  Many anglers might like to see the  numbers managed, but in reality, it is  illegal to even disturb otters, let alone  manage them. Of course, there are  a few extremists who would happily  shoot anything capable of eating a  fish or two, though larger numbers of  us will view the mere suggestion of  anglers managing otter numbers as  being a potential own goal that would  result in a major backlash of public  opinion against angling. The fact is,  however, that we are now in a no-win  situation, but nothing can be gained by  burying our heads in the sand.

The way forward

So what is the way forward on the  Wensum and any other rivers that are  failing to recruit sufficient numbers  of fry to replace the adult fish that are  being predated upon? Obviously, there  are no easy answers. Steering group  members of the EA’s Wensum Fishery  Action Plan have spent the past five  years telling the Agency and Natural  England that a two-point action plan  is required including massive habitat  restoration programmes throughout  the River coupled with rigorous  restocking until such time as the River  can be seen to be naturally recruiting  fry again. Anglers have largely led the  way here, having undertaken a small  number of highly ambitious habitat  restoration projects focused mainly  on wild brown trout and barbel. Until  fairly recently, the EA was so wrapped  up in its flood-defence duties that it  had been virtually paralysed when  it came to carrying out any effective  habitat restoration of its own, while  also being unhelpful to the point of  obstruction when consent was sought  by groups like NACA engaged in their  own projects. Thankfully, times change,  and more recently the EA has made a  number of very useful contributions of  their own, this process now rolling on  at a considerably faster rate following  the introduction of recent Government  directives.

Designated as an important  example of an enriched chalk stream  river, the Wensum has been given status  as a both a Site of Special Scientific  Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of  Conservation (SAC) as defined in  the European Commission Habitats  Directive. Despite its high conservation  status, however, the River is currently  in an unfavourable condition and,  therefore, failing the criterion for  its SSSI status. In order to meet the  2010 PSA targets for SSSIs and the  2015 target for the Water Framework  Directive, it is the responsibility of  both the EA and Natural England to  restore the River to a condition fitting  its conservation designation. Natural  England is therefore using the Wensum  as a national pilot to demonstrate the  actions needed to address adverse  conditions of SSSI rivers relating to  their geomorphological form and  function. Basically, this means that  they must restore the habitat and  flow regimes as far as possible back  to the natural condition of the River  before it was segmented between  mills, canalised by dredgers and overabstracted  for water. To achieve this  the River Wensum Restoration Strategy  has been created, the aim of which is  to restore a measure of hydrological  functioning that can sustain wildlife  and fisheries characteristic of an  enriched chalkstream river.

Without doubt this is really exciting  stuff, having the potential to reverse  hundreds of years of degradation  of the River, starting right back in  the middle ages when the first mills  were constructed and altered its  flows. A restoration programme of  this magnitude, however, cannot be  completed overnight, but by taking it  forward and restoring one stretch at a  time, it has the potential to overcome  many of the problems afflicting the  Wensum today. The Wensum Fishery  Action Plan Group is in full support of  this restoration strategy. As one might  expect, though, the groundwork for  these plans is moving forward at the  snail’s pace only Government bodies  can achieve. Meanwhile, outside their  cosy offices, the harsh reality is that  time is running out if many fisheries  are to survive the carnage of otters.  In order to achieve their targets the  EA and NE need to form restoration  partnerships with stakeholder groups  including the riparian owners and  angling organisations. Of course, the  NACA is keen to take a lead here and  has a number of ambitious projects  already in the pipeline. This is exactly  what the authorities need if they  are to have a hope of fulfilling their  duties and meeting their targets.  However, within all this conservation  management, there are some major  stumbling blocks for fisheries including  some heavy restraints on future  stocking. Space prevents me from  covering this in depth, but whereas  previously it had been possible to  gain consent to put stock fish into  the River, it has now become heavily  regulated. Rather than restocking, the  EA’s emphasis is now very much on  encouraging natural fry-recruitment  through habitat restoration. While  NACA and the Wensum FAP Group  fully support any action undertaken to  improve natural fry-recruitment, habitat  restoration is not an exact science that  can produce results to a deadline, and the reality of  otter predation has created an urgent  situation and it’s now only a matter  of time before our barbel fisheries  collapse. It is now a necessity that we  support our fish stocks by restocking as  soon as possible.


With regard to restocking barbel,  despite Wheeler and Jordan’s findings  that barbel were native to the Wensum,  the EA now says that, as there no hard  evidence to support this, its national  guidance is to consider barbel as nonindigenous.  The implications of this  are that it will no longer give consent  to restock barbel, unless there are  compelling mitigating social/economic  circumstances. Proving the social/  economic case for restocking is not  difficult, but getting the authorities to  accept the urgency of the situation and  change their position on restocking is  a problem of nightmare proportions.  Last year after a long, hard battle with  the Agency, the NACA eventually won  consent to stock 250 second year class  barbel at Costessey, but was told in no  uncertain terms that it was a one-off  concession that will not be repeated  – the battle lines are now drawn.  If I have seemingly focused  disproportionately on barbel  compared with the plight of other  species, it is not without reason.  Obviously, we all want the Wensum  to be a healthy mixed fishery, but  the fact is that trout and barbel are  the only two species that can give  fisheries sufficient social/economic  value to drive forward the extensive  restoration projects that are needed to  save the River. Should the Wensum’s  barbel fishery collapse, it is likely  that anglers will largely forsake the  River altogether. As for the ethics and  expense of restocking fish that will  largely end up as otter fodder – while  it is a high price to pay, the prospect  of watching our fisheries go under is  almost inevitable without restocking.  In the final analysis, the future of  the Wensum’s fisheries is firmly in  the hands of the Environment Agency  and Natural England. They must not  be allowed to stand by with their  hands tied by red tape following their  ‘national guidelines’ while watching  erstwhile successful fisheries go to the  wall, without quickly accepting the  urgency of the situation and restocking  the River at a sufficiently high level  to mitigate against the carnage of  otter predation. If the few worthwhile  fisheries left on the Wensum finally  come to a grizzly end at the teeth and  claws of otters, it will be a disastrous  scenario resulting directly from the  authorities being blinkered by their  conservation directives. The inevitable  result will be that they will almost  certainly fail to build the precious  stakeholder partnerships they so badly  need if they are to succeed in meeting  this Government’s conservation  directives!

“the groundwork for these plans is moving forward at  the snail’s pace only Government bodies can achieve

NB:This article was originally published in Coarse Angling Today, NACA are grateful for their support in reproducing it here.