This is very likely to be the last annual report on the project as we now have the BLOG, and much of what we are reporting here has either already been posted on it or is due to be.
The BLOG allows us to deliver a far more ‘of the moment’ set of updates to the project.
We hope you approve...
So, on with the report... And this one is a monster. It covers a complete ‘year in the life’.... Warts and all.
We are never quite sure whether we are at war with Mother Nature or in partnership..... And, Oh boy, does she keep us guessing? We are constantly wrong footed by her, and amazed at the diverse and extreme moods she shows us – from the most breathtaking beauty to the most overwhelming brutality.
This last year she has certainly drawn her skirt up, kicking and stamping, scratching and biting, and had the most outrageous tantrum; stomping all over us for the first part. She then calmed right down and gave us the most awesome show of cordiality and rewards imaginable..... What a summer?...... Possibly as an apology for the worst winter floods in living memory. Or are we anthropomorphising an entity that is far too potty to be anything like human? Take a look around you and decide for yourself.
Just prior to the wettest winter in living memory, we managed to excavate and prepare three more stews at Bickton to take the fish we had in the tanks.
The picture above is of the final stages of the excavation of what we now refer to as ‘Stew Zero’. We call it stew zero because we already had six stews excavated; now we were adding three more. This one is in the line before stew one. We excavated another between three and four, and this is known as ‘Stew Three and a Half.’ We have another just beyond stew six, which is obviously ‘Stew Seven,’ making it nine in total...... Don’t even try to understand...
Fortunately, we raise enough money at our annual fundraiser event to allow us to do this without a second thought. More on this later in the report.
The diggers came in and the stews were completed by the beginning of October, ready for us to post and net them to protect the fish from avian predation. The nine stews we now have at Bickton means we have all we’ll need to conduct the entire second stage of the project from here from now on.
We’ve always struggled to get a photograph that gives a true representation of scale and perspective of what we have at Bickton. We have hoisted the camera high and taken countless shots; we have taken pictures from all angles, but never quite managed it. We have always said what we need is an aerial shot. Now, courtesy of Google Earth, we have a shot from ‘space’ that really does give an idea of scale, and what a distance there now is from the original concept to the present day – from looking for something to put water in to grow roach, to something that can now be seen from heaven.
Stew zero is top right of the picture which was taken in mid April 2014 with four of our spawning boards clearly visible in it. This stew contains some of our adult roach and it is from these we collect spawn for relocation into the river for hatching. More on this later in the report.
It is the perfect site and set-up as the stews are all in one location; all are accessible to Budgie, all Avon fed and set out in such a way that they are easy to deliver our one year olds to and easy to net them and remove our roach at three years for release into the river. The site has gone from being the cash and energy sapping headache, that is trying to get it and keep it all up together, to a place that is perfectly suited to what we need it to do, and simply a great place for us to just potter and enjoy our roach..... Especially as we ensure the shed is always well (over) stocked with an assortment of chocolate biscuits.
Then came the rain, and for what seemed an eternity, the UK was battered senseless by epic storm after epic storm. We were dashing about trying to relieve the pressure at Bickton, but in the end had to simply step back and hope for the best. Mother Nature really can be a nasty, spiteful Bitch...
Fortunately, the way it is all laid out means that the water could lip the top of the stews, but not completely cover them and allow the roach to escape. Everything remained safe and sound. Stew zero is top right of the picture.
Unfortunately though, this wasn’t the case at Longford, where the stews we have there spent almost the entire middle winter under the flood water. Our roach all decided to make a dash for it. Fortunately, it was only half of our stock for that year, as the rest were safe and sound over at our other site at Verwood.
While it means that we didn’t get to stock them where we wanted, it did mean that they all got back into the river we intended them to end up in. It just means that we have stocked the river downstream of Downton, and with the number we are looking at here, this could make quite a difference, especially through the displacement of these adults along with the larval drift from their annual spawning.
It’s that Mother Nature Bitch getting her own way again...
Despite seeming that there would be no end to the relentless pounding we were getting due to the irksome jet stream having anchored itself right over our roof, we had to believe the batterings would cease, and we would need to be ready.
She then began really messing with our heads – the rain stopped, the sun came out and the river began dropping like a stone. It was like the fast forward button had been pressed.
One of our jobs we have every few years is to rebuild some of our spawning boards, as they are made from untreated scaffold boards, so have a relatively short life before this begins rotting and disintegrating; and hardly surprising given the way we treat them...
Each tress of netting has to be carefully removed, then reapplied to a freshly cut and drilled board.
It’s these chores that take the glamour of what we do to a new low. However, while it gives us something else to whinge about, once done it’s another job we can cross off the ‘to do’ list, or not get caught out by.
Once again, local builders merchants, Elliotts, were very obliging and kindly donated the scaffold boards to the project.
In early March 2014 the one year olds were moved to our newly excavated stews and the tanks were scrubbed and cleaned ready for the next lot, which seemed inconceivable given that we were still reeling from the wettest winter for a billion years. However, everything we do is governed by the seasons and conditions, and we need to be ever-ready for any eventuality and adapt to whatever is thrown at us – even if it is the contents of Mother Nature’s handbag.
Once again, the contents of the tanks are decanted into large poly bags, supplied by the EA, which are placed inside bins with aerators for the movement to the stews.
A bag of beauties, ready for the next stage of their young lives.
It is always a very satisfying moment for us, having hatched and grown them through the summer and autumn, then kept them safe through the winter, now emptying the bags of tiny fish into the stews and seeing them bombing off to explore their new home. It is still extraordinary, though, how tiny and vulnerable they are even after an entire year. Goodness knows how they would have fared in the worst floods in living memory.
A future Avon legend perhaps?.....No matter how many times we do it, every year we are astonished at the difference in some of the sizes of roach we get from the tanks. We know they are from the same spawning as each year the tanks are emptied, scrubbed and dried before refilling with water – so it’s not like a few can get left behind.
What we do know, as we have seen it so often, is that the very largest will eat the very smallest if they can, and that rich source of protein will help pack on the weight.
Because of the horrendous floods, we had in mind to postpone the annual restocking of our three year olds into the river until as late as we could before the water began to warm and be unsuitable for stressing and handling fish, which we thought would be May. However, we were able to bring this forward to the middle of April and before they were due to spawn themselves.
Once again, we were assisted by our great mates at the Environment Agency, who come along and virtually do it for us, supplying all the tanks and pipes and oxygen, transport and expertise; most of all, the eagerness to just get in and help.
In the picture here with Trevor is Andy Martin from the EA, and Dickie and Martin Howell – All Avon Roach Project Premier League players and top, top blokes.
A net of our sparkling, red finned, adult three year old Avon roach from one of our stews ready for delivering to the river. What a lovely sight.
Trev drops one of many net-fulls of our roach into the river just above the iconic Ibsley Bridge, once renowned for its roach; now sadly better known for their decline in the area.
It’s not just the immediate release locations that will benefit from the deposits of our roach, but through adult displacement and migration, as well as larval drift from the spawn of these adults, we will be ensuring we go some way to filling in the gaps between stockings and in areas we don’t have access to for whatever reason.
The poignancy of Trevor releasing these roach above Ibsley Bridge was revealed shortly after when he mentioned that it was from this very spot that he had caught his first ever two pounder; a cracker of two pounds eight ounces, many moons ago – so a nice link between the glorious past, the present and the hopeful future.
The Avon, this time below Ringwood, receives yet another helping of our roach, and Trev is helped by our great mate Jim Allan of the EA.
All in all, we released an impressive number of adult roach (some showing signs of maturity with spawning tubercles all over them) into four locations in the river.
In a break from our usual forward thinking and planning we had kept back just short of three hundred roach from the first spawn collection, some six years ago, to grow on in one of the tanks just to see if we could grow adults here at Project HQ. We didn’t really know where this might take us, and as the years passed they grew, but then began to stunt, so we split them over two tanks where they grew rapidly within the first summer. Not only did they grow nicely, but to our utter amazement, they actually spawned in the tank. Then we realised what future and even long-term part they could play in the project.
Having grown up in a tank, with the only competition regarding food being for the space it takes up, we felt that these fish wouldn’t be the most street-wise and probably wouldn’t really be suitable for release back into the river. Furthermore, we would have to have at least thirty of them health checked; and this, as we mentioned in one of our blogs, is not just a case of squeezing their private parts and asking them to cough, or asking them to wee in a pot. They would need to die and be tested. So, given that there were only a few hundred of them and they had all been lovingly cared for, for years, we decided that we would relocate them to one of our newly excavated stews for which we wouldn’t need a health check as they were travelling from Cefas registered fish farm (here) to Cefas registered fish farm (Bickton). We knew we could also use the same stew for our one year olds to grow them to three.
Here they could live out their lives just eating, drinking, swimming, sun bathing and procreating, which is where their valuable input into the project would continue. We could collect spawn from them each year on carefully placed spawning boards. These could then be lifted and moved and allowed to hatch directly into the Avon. They were very obliging this year and clogged four spawning boards with eggs.
These fish have, over the years, affectionately become known as our ‘Toddlers.’
Trev chases the last few Toddlers for relocation to stew zero, and a life of Reilly. If only they knew it...
The poly bags and bins do the job again.
The roach are carefully poured, a few at a time, into a net for releasing into the stew.
What an amazing net of roach, all courtesy of our original potty idea fuelled by dogged determination and a steadfast belief that we can make a difference.
This picture of some of our Toddlers and their offspring, taken from the tank shows that they will do what we need them to, if just given the chance.
We were a little wrong footed by the winter floods and the spring sneaking up on us as it did, but still managed to get the spawning boards in place ready for the roach in the river. And, with a shaky and sporadic start, eventually they went full bore.
We placed twice the number of spawning boards at a few of the locations we knew we had increased the local population through our stockings, but were blown away at one of the sites.
We spend hours just watching the roach spawning and still find it amazing how irresistible they find our spawning boards.
The camera shutter works overtime as we look on, awe-struck, just gazing at a spectacle it is impossible to describe the feeling of having helped to create; and from about a gazillion pictures we get a couple of dozen real jaw-droppers. The memory cards are bulging at the seams and groaning for mercy.
Our spawning boards attract every adult roach in the area for about a week, so not only are we treated to sights many will never see, we can also get a good idea of local population densities, and how and if we have increased numbers over the years. However, some that visit our boards are from before our time and are survivors from the remnant population of true Avon legends. Some are monsters. What this demonstrates is that the Avon is still doing what the Avon has always done; she is still making big roach. She just isn’t doing it on the same scale she used to, but through these remnant survivors from its glorious past and with our help, there is more than a glimmer of hope for the future.
We never really know what we are going to get until we get the pictures on the computer as the action is fast and furious, and over in the blink of an eye. We simply point the camera at the spawning boards and look through Polaroid glasses over the camera. As soon as roach come close and look like they are going to perform, the camera shutter is set clicking. If they do, there is a chance we will get a shot, but sometimes, and more often than not, they just come close then disappear again.
At a couple of spawning locations we are lucky enough to be able to get right over the spawning boards, and with a polarised lens we can get shots like these. Makes your heart flutter, doesn’t it?
This is the kind of image we could only get from being right over them as they hardly make a ripple, and are there for just a moment, then gone again. However, it is images like these that galvanize our spirit and remind us of just how privileged we are to have such a connection with these wonderful creatures. It’s almost like they are consciously and willingly accepting the help we are trying to give them.
Last one, then we’ll move on with the report.
The satisfaction we get from returning to the same spawning locations each year and seeing an increase in numbers of roach spawning on our boards, almost certainly through our deposits of fish to the area, is indescribable. Sometimes the satisfaction of seeing good numbers of fish of the size we have reintroduced matches the eye watering sight of that three pounder – and we always remember that the greater number we see, and the greater the increase in numbers, the greater chance of some of them achieving that legendary size. But.... the thing we have in the back of our minds is that on the way to attaining that huge size they will have contributed thousands upon thousands upon thousands of eggs each year to the river; and if we can be the catalyst for that, then every ounce of effort put in by us is worth it.
We aren’t the only ones who get off at watching roach bonking. One of the owners of the properties alongside the stream who give us consent to operate here described how she lay on the grass just watching them for hours. ‘There were hundreds and hundreds. I can’t believe what you have done for our stream. It’s wonderful.’ She said.
This is always a frantic time for us. However, all the worry and stress of having so many tiny lives dependent upon our attentiveness to get them through the most vulnerable period is rewarded in so many ways as they develop.
With the use of our little happy-snap underwater camera we can actually see the roach developing within the eggs – and in this picture we can even see the commencement of hatching.
It takes ten to twelve days for the eggs to hatch, depending on water temperature; and there is about a week between the first and last laid to emerge as this is the period the roach in the river took to lay them.
Our little camera helps keep us abreast of the hatching rate as without it, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious as the hatchlings simply stick themselves to the nearest inanimate object, usually the netting and underside of the spawning board, with an adhesive gland on their head and hang there for days to absorb their yolk sac.
This picture shows them popping out all over the place.
Tiny little splinters of life, just minutes old. This calm, protected and safe environment is left completely undisturbed by us for the entire duration of the hatching. Little do they know that outside we are dashing about like headless chickens trying to ensure that everything is in place to satisfy their every need.
Yolk sac taken up and they are off in search of food, and it is up to us to supply it; firstly with the algae in the water then with brine shrimps. We have also seeded each tank with adult daphnia that we try to cultivate here at Project HQ in all kinds of bins, tanks and barrels. These little critters also live on the algae, but most significantly for our roach give birth to live young every week or so. So, our babies get to eat their babies, until big enough; then the adults also disappear.
The Brine Shrimp Hatchery, formerly known as Trevor’s conservatory, is once again dragged out of the garage, dusted off and set up. In full swing, we’ll have twenty eight bubbling bottles of shrimps at different stages of development. This is all set to coincide with the young roach hatching and absorbing their yolk sac and needing feeding. The live shrimps are not only the perfect protein packed mouthful for the hatchling roach, but also stimulate their hunting instinct – something it is quite difficult to associate with a creature so tiny, fragile and vulnerable. As you can see from the above pictures, the tiny, transparent little eyelash of life, being of eyes on the side of an undeveloped pin of a body with microscopic intake and outlet points, and almost nothing in between, hardly constitutes the need to hone, or trigger, a ‘hunting instinct,’ but this is where Mother Nature shows the subtle intricacies of life and survival.
We siphon the live brine shrimps off and feed a bottle per tank twice a day. The amount of shrimps hatched in each bottle is increased as the roach grow over the first few weeks of their lives. They will get these for between four to six weeks (we have done it for longer in the past, but have found there is no need), when they then go on to a specially formulated powdered cyprinid fish food.
The sight of our roach just a few days old stirs a real sense of responsibility within us. We have the summer and autumn to get them as big and healthy as we can, and this starts with us getting their first helping of brine shrimps into them.
One week old and bulging with brine shrimps. How satisfying do you imagine that is?
At six weeks old our anxiety begins to subside slightly as the roach show good growth and move onto the powdered feed. While it is always a pleasure rigging the Brine Shrimp Hatchery up, as this means we have tanks full of hatching roach, it is always even more pleasurable stacking it all back in the garage, as the weeks of relentless droning of the bubblers agitating the shrimp eggs in the bottles, the hour and a half every morning and every evening siphoning, feeding and washing it all up every time tends to fray the nerves and shorten fuses.
While our roach enjoy the protection of our tanks and stews until they reach adulthood, those hatching outside our project don’t, including the second generations born each year through the wild breeding of our own adult releases.
So, we are delighted to be able to boast our involvement, contribution and partnership in some much needed habitat reinstatement initiatives on the Avon, such as these fry bays.
These sanctuary areas of slack, warm, shallow water give tiny fish of all species a fantastic sheltered start in life with vital protection from the potential brutality of the main river channel. The more the merrier, as we believe it is the degradation and loss of this kind of habitat along the river that has, among other things, led to the decline in roach in the first place.
September 27th 2014 saw the sixth running of our annual fundraising event, and while this is always a worrying time for us – not to mention the bloody hard work; this year it was compounded by a few changes in format. Firstly, the Barbel Society, with whom we have always done the event and shared the proceeds in the past, decided to terminate the partnership and no longer do the event with us, but concentrate on their own fundraising activities. Secondly, we lost Somerley as our match venue. Finally, and as it turned out, the most significant element, we had to bring the date of the doo forward one week, as we couldn’t have the dining room at the Tyrrells Ford Hotel on our usual first Saturday in October.
We can all get a little blinkered and stuck in a rut from time to time, and sometimes only when forced to take stock and appraise the true worth, significance and merit of certain elements does their true level of value reveal itself.
It seemed that as one door was slammed shut in our faces, nearly every other door in the valley fell off its hinges for us.
We are choosing to view it all as a providential dose of ‘Natural Selection.’
The initial disappointment of the fishing venue was countered by Christchurch Angling Club, Ringwood and District Anglers Association and Southern Fisheries. They all rallied round and gave us permission to fish Upper and Lower Severals, Avon Castle, Bickerley Mill Stream, Upper and Lower Winkton and The Royalty Fishery...... WOW!
Attendance this year was down on last years’ all time best by only six, and this seems to be due to the change in date – we had no idea of the significance of keeping the exact same weekend for the doo.
The picture above of us two shows a couple of very, very happy and relieved boys. However, our view was always ‘The show must go on.’...... and always will...
Us two happy and contented boys again, with our table guests from left to right - Jimbo, Richard, JimBob and Peter; beyond and all around, a dining room full of fantastic supporters. We needn’t have worried a jot... The evening was once again a roaring success, with probably the most popular meal we have ever had, followed by the auction of an eclectic array of almost seventy lots going under the hammer, from guided fishing days to original artwork, books, rods, reels, handmade floats and more.
It is impossible to describe the atmosphere on the day and in particular the evening. The ‘feel-good’ factor is off the scale. And, as people return each year friendships are formed and reinforced; newcomers are warmly welcomed and just fit right in, and the general buzz of the whole affair is utterly priceless.
All in all, and including the auction, raffle, donations etc. the event raised a staggering £6,000 for the Avon Roach Project.
It is the generosity shown at these annual fundraising events that helps remove the financial burden of running The Avon Roach Project. Not only are we able to run the project day to day financially unencumbered, but have been able to excavate all the stews the project will need, which we reported earlier, and are able to take a lead role or participating contributory role in the much needed habitat reinstatement and restoration initiatives on the river, vital for the ongoing success of our roach.
Our auctioneer on the evening and project supporter for the start Roy gets the auction going, and we hold our breath.
Trev helped with the auction and the high spirited banter was delightful, especially when he was trying to flog something with him in it like the ‘Angling Artists’ book. He took it well though.
The fundraiser fishing match held in the day, as you can see from this picture, is a less than serious affair, with much nattering and tea drinking. The atmosphere is truly awesome.
For the second year running and only the second time in the event’s history, roach featured in the catch returns – some of which were taken from stretches we have stocked..... Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?
We are currently enjoying one of the best years ever, with huge numbers of tiddlers in our tanks along with great numbers of two and a half year olds in four of our stews. These will be approaching sexual maturity by the time we release them this coming spring 2015. This will be the biggest deposit we have made so far, and we are really looking forward to it. We’ll be sure to get a few pictures to show you all on this site...... Keep an eye on our BLOG..... Best start getting those batteries charged up and that sack of 9,000-GIG memory cards ready...
We have also enjoyed our best year for press and media coverage (though this is something we don’t necessarily court, but we feel is a part of telling the story and helps gather vital support), not in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality. We had a lovely article written in The Times and have had the project featured on SKY and BBC TV, and we were delighted at the gentle accurate way we have been portrayed by all of them.
We are very protective of the purity of what we do and never want it overdramatised or sensationalised, as has happened in the past. And while we may have come a long way from the initial concept and are now having our efforts replicated on other British rivers, the foundation remains as being a couple of nutcases with a potty idea simply having a go...
The links to the films are below:-
SKY TV ‘Tight Lines’
BBC South Today.
These are some of our ‘Toddlers’ in stew zero at Bickton that were mentioned earlier in this report; some are now eight or nine inches long.
We collected four spawn-clogged boards from them this spring which enabled us to transfer thousands and thousands of eggs to the river to hatch. We’ll be doing this year on year from now on.
And this is what it’s all about. The iconic Hampshire Avon and the iconic Hampshire Avon Roach; an Avon without a roach and a roach without an Avon is unthinkable.
The roach has a special place in almost all our hearts. It is the favourite coarse fish species in the country, and is often the first fish we catch as children. The red fringed perfect bar of silver that illuminates the excited, smiling face of a child, condemning him to the ‘life sentence’ that is angling... So we have a debt to the humble roach and a duty to ensure the next generation can be bitten by the same angling bug we were.
Often the standards upon which we judge the present are those of the past; and while the Avon is a pitiful shadow of its former glorious self, unless we continue the investment in its recovery, future generations might not have the privilege of being touched by this glory as we have.
As we say in our film ‘without roach, the Avon has lost some of its soul.’