Sitting beside a chalk stream as the crystal clear water babbles by, it can seem that all is right with the world. But sadly, though they are every fly-fisher’s dream, little has been right with England’s chalk streams for a long time.
Lower water levels due to extraction, and more pollution from urban areas, salad-washing plants, intensive farming and septic tanks are taking their toll and many conservation organisations are calling for this precious habitat to have special targets under the Water Framework Directive.
Some landowners are already taking action to improve their sections of these beautiful and crucial waterways. For example, the Middleton Estate in Hampshire has decided to stop stocking its stretch of the River Test with trout and to let fish numbers return to their natural levels.
This will mean fewer and smaller fish for anglers. The new syndicate is half the size of the original, halving the beat’s income, and, although there is no longer the expense of stocking, revenue is nonetheless down. Instead it is the natural environment that profits. In the longer term, it’s hoped the more authentic experience will attract a premium.
Elsewhere on the Test, the Bossington Estate has six fishing beats and two years ago, to improve the speed of flow along two of them, estate managers decided to take out a large weir that effectively created a slow-flowing and silty lake upstream.
With a grant from the Environment Agency, work was carried out to return the river to its natural flow. Gravel was used to create a variety of depths along the river bed and larger pockets were dug so that the bigger fish, which attracted a sizeable proportion of the estate’s anglers, could still find the conditions they needed.
The riverbank has flourished and what used to be an artificial, muddy, canal-like reach is now a natural-looking, free-flowing river. Salmon have been seen spawning here for the first time in many years.