As one of the most vocal current defenders of Britain’s rivers, Feargal Sharkey needs little introduction. The former Undertones singer has been tackling issues such as sewage and abstraction as passionately as he fought for the music industry. But what does he make of our current situation?
Far from defeatism after the debacle of MPs voting against sewage reform, he can sense new hope. “Right now there’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “Angling, swimming and paddling are valued more highly than ever, especially with the pandemic, and they’re all tied to the health of our rivers. The door is ajar now, and it wasn’t like that even two years ago. Let’s ram it firmly open!”
Even with the Government’s muddled, disappointing recent response, in fact, Feargal smells something far more hopeful than sewage.
“Four years ago, most MPs had no idea about sewage overflows or river pollution. Well, they do now!” he says. “And this is all because a group of people were prepared to say: ‘This isn’t good enough!’”
As for the Government’s response, he’s unsurprised about what he sees as a further muddying of the waters. “After rejecting the Lords’ amendment, we saw a cynical ploy to introduce a much weaker option,” he says. “There’s nothing resembling any detail.”
While he sees the “chaotic” Government and its response as “shameful guesswork and scare tactics”, however, the debate has progressed a long way. He’s adamant that the powers to protect rivers already exist – but the Government, siding with water companies, lacks the will to use them. “The Secretary of State could insist on proper enforcement at the stroke of a pen!” he says.
An age of empowerment?
In spite of all the difficulties, Feargal believes that change is possible if we want it badly enough. Interestingly, while some of us curse digital technology, he sees it as a key tool.
“I started with just a phone and a Twitter account,” he says. “I began with zero followers and a quote from a Seamus Heaney poem. Today, I have 70,000 followers, with national newspapers and TV programmers lifting quotes from my feed.”
Granted, not everyone has his profile, but Feargal insists that everyone should get involved. However, it’s vital to use the tools the right way. “You have to get armed with the right information,” he says, “and if you challenge people, do so politely.”
He includes MPs in this, applauding anglers for showering them with messages on the sewage issue. “Nothing will focus an MP better than an email that starts: ‘Dear Sir, I’m one of your constituents,’” he says.
Favourite fishing and future hopes
On the topic of angling itself, it’s clear that Feargal’s completely voluntary, unpaid campaigning is fuelled by his deep love of the sport. He looks back fondly on his childhood in Northern Ireland here, fishing the River Faughan. “As a 12-year-old kid in Derry, I could get on a bus and, 15 minutes later, have the chance of catching a salmon!” he remembers.
His first-ever catch was a brown trout, on a beginner’s kit which he describes as “the most miserable fly rod ever known to man!” Nevertheless, he “dropped a fly into an eddy, and a little brownie grabbed it.”
“Girls and rock ‘n’ roll got in the way for a bit,” he admits, but he was always destined to return. Angling later became vital as respite from a hectic career in the music industry, after a trip to the Cotswolds rekindled his passion.
Nor do the machinations of politics dim his hope for the future of rivers. As Chairman of Amwell Magna Fishery, the oldest club in the country, his first-hand experience at reviving the Upper Lea has been living evidence of this. With help from volunteers and Fish Legal, it’s gone from a state of eutrophication to having breeding, wild trout!
“Mother Nature is an extraordinarily powerful woman – all she needs is the basic tools,” says Feargal. “Everything is possible and anything is recoverable, and that should give us all huge optimism.”