IIf you go down to the quiet banks of a river in the UK at the right time of year, you’re likely to find people peacefully poised with a stick, staring out at the glistening, steady stream, hoping for a bite.
Anglers, numbering at least 2 million in England, descend on their precious waterways whenever they can to tend them, cut down vegetation, create wetland spawning habitats and even painstakingly clear the gravel. It sounds like a pretty peaceful pursuit, but when the Guardian went to visit some members of the Angling Trust at their clubs around Reading, there was clear anger in the air.
That’s because water companies dump waste into many of these areas, destroying the hard work, money and hours of time fishermen put into keeping the rivers healthy. Now, they are fighting back against determined anglers who are testing rivers across the country for pollution using kits provided by the Angling Trust. Often no one else will – reduced testing by the Environment Agency means that many sites are not regularly tested and it is impossible to know the true state of sewage pollution in England.
So far, 150 volunteers have joined the sampling scheme, covering 50 rivers across 18 catchments across England, with more clubs signing up every day. Their results so far have been pretty dismal – half of all samples exceeded the upper limit for phosphate and 60% for nitrate. These are levels that can seriously harm rivers because they encourage algae growth and harm fish health. High phosphate and nitrate levels are a sign of a potential sewage spill.
“It’s sad that anglers have to do this, but it’s necessary,” says former Reading MP Martin Salter, now head of policy at the Angling Trust, as he gazes ruefully across the River Loddon. This chalk stream has been found by fishermen to have higher than average levels of phosphates and nitrates.
“This is evidence that operator self-policing has been a colossal failure, as evidenced by South Water’s falsification of its own results,” Salter said. “We are determined to ensure that this type of behavior is not tolerated and will use our findings to call them out.” We will use this scheme to find the truth, and then bring it to the attention of both the government and the public.”
The Guardian, along with Richard Maude of Twyford and District Angling Club, tested the Loddon chalk stream and dropped a small white plastic bucket to collect a sample for testing. Their stretch of river is next to a wild-looking footpath; a secluded, quiet oasis relatively close to the urban area.
Maude has been fishing there for the past few years after moving to the area, but has been fishing since she was a child. “Typical, like most working-class guys, I guess; It was my dad or grandma who taught me how to fish and it stuck with me,” he says.
The people he fishes with near Reading have also been into the hobby since childhood and are “in love” with the river. “Many people of a certain age fish this river now – some have been fishing for 50 years. Everyone is just in love with Loddon.
“The pollution that’s been put into the river has been pretty well documented for a while, so we all want to do whatever we can to help the situation, to help, and if that means coming down here to collect a sample, then we’ll do it,” adds Maude.
Anyone from the club would do well to spot a pollution incident – they spend more time watching the river than any other user of our waterways.
“We’ve seen areas of the river that look different,” Maude says, “When it happens here, it looks to me like you put red dye in the water; you can see it’s kind of brown and horrible. It doesn’t look right. Perhaps it is instinctive for people who are used to looking at the river.”
Standing on the bank with Maude, the river looks magnificent; you can almost see the bottom. It has just rained, the lush vegetation is greener, and the river bank is lined with ripe blackberries, wild hops and plump slopes.
“Right now it looks like what the river should look like,” he says, “But sometimes bits of it look like old paintbrush water. That’s how you know something’s wrong. Now we’re hoping we can get the data to back it up.”
Our next stop is Swallowfield Angling Club. Members have leased their own plot of land near their prized waterway, which has a wooden gate with an elegant sign proudly emblazoned with the club’s name. They have access to both the Loddon and the Blackwater and you can see how much effort the members put into helping the fish numbers there. They created a spawning ground in a little swamp and tended the river bank so that it was rich in plants but not overgrown.
Painter-decorator Russ Hatchett is experimenting here. “I’ve been fishing all my life,” he says. “I’ve certainly noticed a slow decline in fish in these parts over the last few years. “We’ve been reporting on fish caught by fishermen for the past seven years, and of course there’s been a noticeable decline.”
The water here is fast flowing, so you don’t see the blue-green algae blooms that are a sign of sewage. But sometimes Hatchett is shocked to see normally clear waters marked with brown spots. For someone who spends hours and hours tending to tea, it stays in the hole.
“We see that the water is teal, which is not correct. We are very concerned, so we have teamed up with the Angling Trust and have taken samples and hope to get someone to task with this.
There is real anger among anglers about water companies, who can undo years of careful conservation work with just one spill.
“They shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” he says, “It’s not right. I think they all would if you asked them. Especially when we pay them as members of the public for their services.”
Christian Kent of the Angling Trust has a warning for water companies. “We won’t go,” he says. “Citizen science is the reality of the world in the future, so they can’t just sweep it under the rug. If it was just one community group on the river, it’s easy to ignore. But now, with 150 in most river basins in England, plus many more in the future, it’s hard to ignore.”