NOW HERE’S A FEATURE YOU’RE EITHER GOING TO VEHEMENTLY AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH, OR SIMPLY NOT READ AT ALL! YEP, IT’S ANOTHER ONE ABOUT OTTERS… BUT WITH A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT TAKE ON THEM. OKAY, LOTS OF READERS WOULD RATHER NOT TAKE THEM – BUT WE’RE PROBABLY ALL AGREED THAT THEY ARE HERE TO STAY AS PART OF THE COUNTRYSIDE. ASH HUBBARD’S FEATURE LOOKS AT WHY HE BELIEVES WE, AS ANGLERS, ARE GOING TO HAVE TOLERATE THEIR PRESENCE, AND ALSO LISTS SOME OF THE MISCONCEPTIONS THAT SURROUND THEM
As a carp angler it’s almost impossible to not be aware of the subject of otter predation. The need to fence fisheries in order to protect our beloved quarry isn’t a new topic, nor one that has been reported on sparingly over the past few years in the many areas of angling and national media.
Otter predation is understandably a passionate topic that, as a result, generates a lot of frustration and anger from anglers and fishery owners alike – with both often feeling powerless to stop the effect of predation on their waters.
This frustration is often amplified within carp fishing compared to other forms of coarse fishing in the UK, particularly due to the known ‘character’ or named fish residing in many waters. The individuality and age of these fish often makes them irreplaceable. This is regardless of any knock-on financial damage for a predated fishery and Chinese whispers around the local angling community usually affect angling attendance. I’m sure we’ve all heard an angler describing a local water as “It’s been ottered!”
Through my own experience of otter predation at waters in the Nene Valley, I have been on what feels like a journey of discovery into some of the bureaucracy of how our countryside, outside of angling, is managed. I have also learnt much more about otters and their behaviour. Hopefully, within the following brief account, I can try to tell the story of my experiences and provide others facing a similar situation with some facts. There are two organisations that provide information that can help a fishery, but to coin a phrase they are on the ‘otter side of the fence’ – namely they are the Wild Otter Trust and Natural England.
My main hope from writing this piece is to try and remove some of the rumour and hearsay surrounding otter related predation issues in angling, whilst hopefully providing some insight into the otter and some options for protecting fisheries.
Firstly, to sum up where we are at the present time. After being aware of the growing threat of otter predation for a number of years now, I feel as though the seismic shift in angling thinking that really needs to happen is we have to start accepting that the reintroduction of otters into UK fresh waterways has, for the species itself, been an outstanding success, and won’t be reversed in the short term. This process of reintroduction has also, unfortunately, changed the landscape of angling and it isn’t something that can be changed back again overnight – if at all.
I feel that our main efforts now need to be focused proactively on what can be done to protect our fisheries, and educating as many anglers as possible with the correct information and on which groups can help and offer advice – instead of looking to point fingers of blame and expect the problem to be fixed by others outside of the angling community. I sometimes feel it’s as if some from within the angling community seem to believe ‘it is your fault/problem, you need to sort it out’.
One issue that strikes me from browsing social media and through word of mouth when performing my bailiff duties on the bank, is that there is still a large knowledge gap within angling surrounding the facts, and some of us anglers are potentially at times looking at the otter predation issue from the completely wrong angle if we want to make positive changes towards protecting our fish stocks.
There are also, occasionally, some dangerously incorrect statements being bandied around on social media. What we have to remember is that some of these statements really don’t help our cause at all with conservationists and supporters of the otter population. In a recent example of these outbursts, I have noted calls from some anglers to boycott the rod licence. A: That’s illegal with large penalty fines and B: the EA are funding predation defences via Angling Trust grant schemes. A lot of angling venues have benefitted from this vital cash injection in recent years and the £5k on offer can go a long way with materials to fence a venue.
Don’t get me wrong – there is no denying that it is absolutely devastating and heartbreaking to be walking around your lake and find a dead carp with its stomach ripped open or, worse still, a fish alive but with horrific wounds, needing to be euthanised. Unfortunately, I have been there myself. The feelings I felt were a mixture of both anger and helplessness, as I seemed powerless to get people listening or admitting there was an issue and, ultimately, prevent this predation.
This is where I want to get onto the main message – one that I strongly believe in. We, as the angling community, can’t change things alone. And, when I say we, I really mean angling as a whole – the tackle trade, the angling press, fishery owners and anglers. Whilst for most of us, the stuffy halls of government in Westminster seem a million miles away from the typical carp angler’s world, we are facing central government on the issue of any change around such a heavily-protected species and are also in a time of imposed austerity where public sector budgets are already stretched to breaking point and beyond. Put it this way: there isn’t a plentiful pot of free money coming our way for otter fencing, and neither is there likely to be in the near future, or at worst, ever!
What we can do, however, is start to tackle these issues from a fact-based perspective and reach out to build wider relationships, where needed, in the hope of a united approach by helping to demonstrate the effect of otter predation on angling and how angling benefits its participants on the whole.
Compared to a ‘cute and fluffy’ otter, a scaly old carp doesn’t even come close in the eyes of the non-angling public. We have to be very aware of the perception of angling portrayed around this subject, or it could open further divisions within our own community, for groups that aren’t supportive of angling, to exploit. On the positive side of this, it can only help angling as a whole if better relationships are built at local grass roots levels between angling bodies and local government and other countryside and conservation-focused organisations.
The way I see it is that if boiled down to basic points, fishery owners and angling clubs are all naturalists and conservationists at heart. As anglers, I think it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of us care for the well-being of our fish, fisheries and wildlife, that is an essential part of the habitat we regularly visit – in a way very similar to any other conservation group dedicated to a specific species.
So, with this in mind, my approach was made up. Why can’t we build on this shared, conservationist-led passion for the benefit of all, which was the first point I needed to research on my journey.
For me, the first logical place to start from was to properly understand the otter as a species, and start to build a dialogue with those involved in otter conservation. This is where I knew I had to reach out to an expert, so I dropped an email to Dave Webb of the Wild Otter Trust. It’s important to note that Dave’s organisation is completely separate to the original Otter Trust who carried out the early reintroductions of otters into the UK, as Dave clarifies below. Dave has featured on the BBC’s Countryfile as well as making several other TV appearances – all regarding otters; and, as he notes, is also a lifelong angler.
Along with having a wealth of knowledge on otter behaviour, Dave is very pragmatic about the UK otter population, agreeing with many points raised by the angling community around the issue of fisheries affected by otter predation. Dave’s organisation successfully lobbied and pushed to become the first, and currently only, group granted the use of Natural England’s CL36 licence for the live trapping of otters from within an adequately-fenced fishery. So, let us try and answer some of the myths surrounding the otter population, their behaviour and their impact on angling as a whole.
A massive bridge was made when that licence was granted, for certain, and of course it was a much-needed boost to otter conservation in general. All of this work is free of charge to the fishery due to the ongoing support of Danny Fairbrass and the team within his Embryo project, who cover any associated costs to UKWOT for safely removing an otter from within a fenced fishery.
Thanks to this first meeting with Dave and his associates, I was confident that there are groups of people and organisations out there who shared my view of needing to work together on this topic and that we can achieve more together. My next steps were to start planning the requirements for our fence and looking to seek the correct permission. This involved some discussion between my fellow committee members of Wellingborough & District Nene Angling Club. Our club will be 150 years old in 2019 and many of our committee members are long-serving volunteers, remembering and wanting our fisheries to remain the green, open spaces so often found in the Nene Valley. I think some initially referred to the idea of the fence as making the water look like a ‘Stalag’ – the infamous German prisoner of war camps in World War II
I knew I had some work to do from that perspective. In addition, despite our club having owned the site since 1993, the land is part of a wider designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I had read and talked with fellow anglers, of which some reported trepidation in approaching the managing body of SSSI certification, Natural England. I knew this could scupper my plans for an otter fence at our site if I didn’t manage to engage with Natural England on the need for the fence at our site and the negative effect it could have on the several hundred members who visit the venue annually. I was also keen to make my own mind up on experiences in dealing with Natural England, which is key to making any relationship between organisations work. They have to be founded on fact.
After a week or so of making contact via the www.gov.uk website, I had arranged a meeting at our site with our lead advisor from Natural England. I noted this team covered a huge area of the country: Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. After initially meeting at our fishery and having some discussion around wildlife on the whole at our site, and the time of year we planned to carry out any work, the documentation referred to as a ‘consent document’ was issued without any problems. I am happy to say we have continued to build a great relationship with the Natural England team, which has already started to help at other waters we run in the Nene Valley area on SSSI designated land. A very positive experience all round!
I have asked Ross Holdgate from Natural England a few top-level points about the process in applying to fence a water within land designated with SSSI status and how angling can play a part in the wider management of the countryside.
It can be difficult to know who you need to speak to about a particular issue. If in doubt, I would encourage anyone to contact Natural England or other public bodies such as the Environment Agency or local authorities. We are well-versed in talking things through and getting people the right point of contact.
Thanks to being able to build relationships with Dave and Ross, after some discussion and all of the required consent being in place, my fellow committee members agreed we would use club income, built up over many years, towards the installation of an otter fence. Our 2.5km fence built to the CL36 specification was in place by August 2017. The cost of our materials came to around £20,000 and then we paid a fencing contractor to install the fencing for us, which was completed in about 2½ weeks. I won’t go into detail on this point for the purposes of this article, as I want to keep the focus on sharing information to potentially help others.
Hopefully within these short, few thousand words, you can start to see how there are different organisations with different goals and aims – all involved with the same areas of land that as anglers, we can’t ignore. These few examples obviously don’t cover all of the challenges or scenarios involved in preventing otter predation on every carp fishery, but hopefully it has helped provide some food for thought on what can be achieved and has added some clarity on the processes and history of the otter re-introduction to the UK.
There are organisations within angling that are willing to help, such as Danny Fairbrass’ aforementioned Embryo Angling fencing services. Dave mentioned the fantastic financial commitment Embryo have made in covering the costs of live otter trapping from appropriately fenced waters, and the Embryo teams are facing huge demand for their fencing work. Their service really can make a difference.
We also have to start picking up the phone or reaching out to groups like The Angling Trust or Sport England for their grant funding schemes when they become available. There are also lots of other regional grants around the country that are available to angling organisations, that sometimes don’t come from the obvious places you might expect.
It is about thinking outside the box and going back to grass roots. For example, it can make a very compelling case for grant funding when you consider the physical and mental health benefits that many anglers get from angling. Can looking at the wider health benefits, or your footprint on the countryside where your fishery is located, make your angling organisation viable for grant funding? We focused on the shared benefit of flood protection of our stock offered the fencing, when talking to non-angling groups, as a wider benefit to fencing being in place. Luckily this was tested this spring with some of our access tracks being over two feet deep in River Nene floodwater at various points!
My advice is to start reaching out to organisations that may be able to help. It is hard work to gain funding, particularly when you’re having sleepless nights worrying if some of your carp will be found the next morning with no stomach. You need to be prepared to think logically about these processes. Angry and emotive rants, with no real fact or thought behind them, will be quickly and easily dismissed. Try to think of how many people from both angling and the general public, use your site for dog walking, bird watching, etc. If the general public don’t use the site, then think about allowing some use as it might help your case for funding. How about teaching underprivileged kids to fish – big bonus points for grant application!
Once you can quantify the usage of your site and passionately demonstrate the potential effect otter predation can cause, then you start to really build a compelling case, with a good news outcome that other organisations might want to get involved with.
You may have to make a few compromises along the way, but to achieve any kind of successful outcome, when is this not the case? Everything worth working for takes time and effort, but the rewards are there and who knows what opportunities might crop up following discussions with other groups. If you can spare a few hours a week to help your local angling club or syndicate, where you know otter predation is taking place, then why not see where that might lead…