If, as the cliché goes, a week is a long time in mainstream politics, then in the governance of fishing, four months is an eternity.
Back in June the Angling Trust stood on the brink of financial ruin, its brief existence almost over before it really started. Individual membership had stalled at a frankly pathetic 9,500 and a series of poor decisions, over-ambitious estimates and general mismanagement left several staff without a job and the chief executive offering his own head on a plate. The sport’s governing body was on the brink.
Now, though, it breathes new life. Granted, not the kind of life that enables it to survive unaided, but enough, at least, to carry on. The last-ditch resuscitation worked. It had to. Make no mistake about it, without intervention the Trust would be dead, another in a long line of casualties to suffer from inept guidance, angler apathy or both.
You would have needed to spend the last few months on Mars not to know at least the outline of the story of how ¬ and who ¬ came to the rescue. But if that is the case, here’s a very brief potted history.
The Angling Trust, a representative body of all the sport’s disciplines, launched in January 2009 with the CEO, Mark Lloyd, promising to deliver 20,000 individual members in year one, 100,000 by year three. He failed.
Unable to engage anglers and unwilling to tackle the contentious issues affecting the sport, numbers failed to reach 10,000. Amid rumours of ruin, redundancies were made in a bid to stem further financial haemorrhaging and just as the Trust teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, so the cavalry arrived. A collection of fishing celebrities and campaigners formed what was dubbed the ‘Magnificent Seven’ and, suddenly, new impetus was found where none existed. Wheels that had ground to a halt began to turn again. The Trust, as I’ve said, was given new life.
Now let’s get one thing straight before we go any further. So far, over and above merely stabilising the ship and helping secure the appointment of a more coarse fishing-friendly chairman, this group of individuals have achieved precisely nothing. Angling still remains vulnerable to attack from better organised and more powerful bodies whose aims conflict with ours.
Angling still, given its numbers, is woefully toothless at decision-making level. Angling is still at the mercy of the Environment Agency, an organisation that is struggling to police and protect our increasingly fragile waterways. And, undoubtedly, angling is still the poor relation of the countryside.
But the battles to rectify those problems lie in the future. Right now, the wind of change has blown and, for the first time in a generation, it carries with it a genuine feeling of optimism. Hope and expectation have replaced weariness and scepticism, mistrust and doubt swept away by a sense of real purpose.
It feels, at last, as if angling has a body that speaks for anglers.
If all this sounds like it’s been mixed with a dose of hyperbole, I make no apology. After more than a decade of observing, reporting and, ultimately, despairing of those put in charge of running this sport of ours, I am used to writing about failure. For too long the men whose job it has been to safeguard fishing’s future have been faceless, dislocated, self-serving and almost universally inept. Despair has joined despondency at every turn.
Now we have real anglers, successful anglers, media-savvy anglers to pin our hopes on. The likes of Wilson, Nudd, Arthur, Yates, Fairbrass, Pickering and Church, to name but a few, have joined the fight, lending not just their years of experience but, more importantly, their public profile too.
Finally, anglers have faces they can identify with and voices they respect.
Men whose contribution to fishing exceeds merely being willing to nod, agree and remain quiet while the sport’s rights have been eroded.
There are two names, though, that have so far escaped mention. One you will recognise, one you may not. But despite the disparity in profile, Martin Bowler, AT’s resident big-fish expert, and Ruth Lockwood, owner of Yateley Angling Centre and chairman of the English Carp Heritage Organisation, deserve credit in entirely equal measure.
Every good idea, every plan, every initiative starts somewhere. And the formation of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ (latterly the Advisory Panel that now essentially makes the Angling Trust’s decisions) didn’t just happen by chance. It happened because those two individuals made it so.
Exasperated at the demise of the sport’s latest governing body, the pair, who met at a fundraising event, began to discuss what they could do to help.
From that initial conversation dialogue continued and momentum grew as they called in reinforcements, hand-picking other anglers for their experience, business nous, campaigning ability and profile.
Within weeks the two had become seven...all, it should be said, willing to contribute their expertise for nothing. A meeting with the ailing Trust hierarchy ensued and a framework for survival was drawn up. Fanciful claims about membership, cosy deals with opposing organisations and errant financial decisions were replaced by straight talking and transparency.
Without wishing to overstate their input or, worse still, embarrass either, none of this would have taken place ¬ and certainly without as much haste ¬ had it not been for the intervention of those two individuals.
Bowler, you could argue if you really wanted to, did it as much for his own profile as for the good of the sport. Headlines, generally, are always welcome when you make your living through the media, and while I don’t believe that claim for one minute, I accept some may see it so. But Lockwood? Her contribution to angling, not just in this case but through her work with ECHO, is as valuable as it is underestimated. Anyone who has ever met, listened or watched this woman in action will understand just what a deep-seated passion she has for a sport in which she rarely, if ever, even participates. Her efforts are, and I use this word in its literal meaning, remarkable.
So, where’s this goodwill left us?
Well, this, as I see it, is the bottom line. Before the formation of the Magnificent Seven, the Angling Trust was a dead duck, destined to end like all its predecessors. For all its CEO’s efforts in unifying such a disparate sport, his lack of understanding of the core coarse market had left it like a ship with no sail. The only direction it was headed was the rocks. Now, though, it is something anglers can believe in. So much so that I have decided to put my money where my mouth is and join up. After 11 years as a fishing journalist, and a lifetime as an angler, it will be the first time I’ve ever pledged financial support to a governing body and despite being a vehement critic during the Trust’s infancy, I feel no sense of contradiction in making that decision ¬ and urging you to do the same.
Look, we really are in last chance saloon here. If this incarnation, having been given the backing of so many high-profile and knowledgeable names, doesn’t work, then frankly it never will. Angling, as it enters an era when increasing pressure will be exerted upon its existence, simply cannot afford to stagger on, taking the blows, without any firepower in its corner. And guns come no bigger than Wilson, Nudd, Arthur et al.
These people have been prepared to put their reputations on the line for no other reason than the long-term good of fishing, and that alone deserves our support.
I appreciate £20 is not an insignificant sum and, as yet, the new-look Trust, for all its promises about otter predation, fish theft and smuggling, is without a tangible result. But if this fails, these names will go back to doing what they’ve always done, unlikely to return as individuals and never as a collective. If that happens, I believe fishing will be left to die by a thousand cuts.
It leaves me to conclude that it’s no longer about whether I can afford to pay the £20 joining fee. It’s about knowing I can’t afford not to.