ON Norfolk’s famous River Wensum, the glory days of big roach, chub and barbel can seem all too distant.
Once renowned for both the numbers and quality of its fish, it’s now three years since we last saw a Drennan Cup catch submitted from the waterway, let alone any bumper pleasure fishing nets.
“The decline of the river is a key reason I moved away,” renowned fishing author John Bailey told Angling Times.
“I fell in love with the Wensum under John Wilson’s guidance back in the 1970s, but it’s faded beyond recognition and the Environment Agency has comprehensively failed to save it.
“The Wensum is perfectly capable of healthy fish stocks,” he insisted, “but only if you protect them from huge cormorant numbers. There’s so much emphasis on endless monitoring and piecemeal habitat improvement, but so little on predation. John Wilson could see it 20 years ago, but he was scoffed at for stating the obvious.”
Fresh hope for the Wensum
A key challenge has been to formulate a joined-up response. “Much as we care, anglers won’t solve this alone,” insists the Angling Trust’s Kelvin Allen. “The only way forward is to bring everyone together.”
This is precisely the aim of the Wensum Catchment Partnership, which he set up, drawing everyone from anglers to twitchers and farmers into one team effort. In spite of 2019 being the toughest of years to launch, it’s a case of ‘so far, so encouraging’.
One huge factor working against fish recruitment is the blockage and neglect of the numerous channels and backwaters that feed the main river with juvenile fish. Last year alone, over 2km of these critical zones were restored – and this is just the start.
“If we can only connect these areas again and make the environment better on a major scale, we’ll see more fish in the river,” says Kelvin. “There’s no magic wand, but you have to start somewhere – and that has to be with better habitat for spawning fish.”
A further game-changer could be a giant leap in citizen-led science. “People are so hacked off with the state of our rivers that they’re taking it into their own hands,” Kelvin says. “We want to empower people to make the authorities listen.” New technology coupled with an old-fashioned hands-on attitude could have huge potential, he enthuses – 21st Century tools allow the layman to monitor everything from bug life to nitrate levels, far more powerful than anecdotal discontent.
Fellow Norfolk angling stalwart and chairman of the Wensum Anglers Conservation Association, Tim Ellis, says: “Given a significant recent upturn in some areas of roach catches, numbers of them pound-plus fish – along with more numerous dace and small chub – I’m cautiously optimistic, though we’ve seen false dawns before.
“The single biggest factor in the Wensum’s troubles is humans!” he adds. “Farms, roads, homes and water needs all have an impact, so it’s up to us to redress the balance. We’ve seen lows and highs, but never given up.”
The WACA and others have carried out improvements for many years using rod licence funds and other sources, including their own money. Could all these works be coming together? Tim reckons a more potent, holistic approach is needed.
“Everything is connected!” he says. “It’s tempting just to blame just one element, but you have to address the whole.”
The Environment Agency insists that long-term improvement work will continue. A spokesperson said: “We’re working to restore habitats on the Wensum for species such as chub and roach and have made improvements to 28km of river so far. We have plans to plant over 100 trees and install a new fish pass to improve access to food sources and breeding grounds.”
The Agency also told us that its priority was “restoring the river and improving the quality of habitats to support healthy fish populations,” rather than restocking per se. Experts tend to see stocking as a problematic, short-term fix, compared to creating fry refuges, flow deflectors and improvements to build a sustainable revival.
WENSUM WOES & COUNTERMEASURES MAJOR THREATS
Habitat deterioration: Pollution and run-off from farms, housing and industry are huge issues. Siltation clogs all-important spawning gravels, while fewer creatures like freshwater shrimps, caddis and zooplankton mean less food for fish of all sizes.
Abstraction and low flows: Climate change and increasing water consumption are both key factors. Low flows reduce oxygen levels and concentrate diffuse pollution, as well as exacerbating silt deposits and predation.
Predators and invasives: Cormorants have multiplied, as have egg-eating signal crayfish. As an SSSI site, measures like shooting and trapping are forbidden on the river.
River improvements: Ongoing efforts include better spawning areas and fry refuges, as well as the restoration and reconnection of vital side channels to the main river.
Responsible farming: Twenty nine farmers have already committed to water-sensitive management under the new partnership, helping combat pollution, siltation and other issues.
Hands-on monitoring and bright ideas: A growing band of trained volunteers now test water quality and bug life throughout the Wensum. Ideas are also shared from success stories such as the Avon Roach Project.
How can you help?
To find out more about restoration efforts and get involved yourself, visit https://basg.online/sign-up-to-the-basg/