John Bailey: 'We should be ashamed we have let our river come to this'

John Bailey

How glorious is that...the fish of course! - Credit: John Bailey

Kelvin Allen has put together a video on the Broadland Angling Services Group (BASG) website that you ought to watch if you have any interest in the wider environment whatsoever.

You’ll find a link there to the film in question called Investigation Into Wensum Roach and it more than merits seven minutes of your time. In short, Nottingham University’s Callum Ramage has embarked on a survey of the health of Wensum roach, as the video title might suggest. Its conclusions are stark.

Upriver, Swanton Morley way, Callum, Kelvin and the team could barely find any roach to sample. Closer to Norwich, around Hellesdon, a small clutch of fish was electrofished and taken to the lab. I’ll précis the results and say that these roach were in lamentable condition. Their vital organs were shot and their livers, apparently, dropped to pieces on inspection.

The work so far indicates that these fish have simply been poisoned by a toxic combination of trace metals that have built up over the years and include elements of nasties like lead, zinc, iron and arsenic. Pesticides might well have played their part too, a sad indictment of agricultural and industrial influences over many years.

So what conclusions can we draw from this bleak tale? Upriver, the roach may be healthier but there are so few of them that successful recruitment may be nigh on impossible. Downriver, closer to the city, the water and the silt on the bed might be so seriously contaminated that roach cannot survive, never mind sustain their populations. Kelvin was kind enough to mention the days when I and John Wilson were making headlines with our roach catches from the river, but today’s evidence suggests that we’ll never see anything like those golden days again.

But let us put this research into a wider context than stick float fishing alone. For many years , the Wensum has been East Anglia’s flagship river. It has been an SSSI and an SAC. It was listed as one of the seven most important rivers in Europe at one stage. This is a rare chalk stream of outstanding significance, never mind the best roach river in recorded history. And within my lifetime, how low has it sunk, how appalling have been the abuses heaped upon it? We are an Attenborough-enchanted nation and we pride ourselves upon our ecological concerns. Really?

I have just read an article in The Guardian by an MP recognising the disaster all our rivers face, not just the Wensum, and calling for a super environment body to supervise a regeneration. Fine, but how many authorities do we actually want or need? Already we have the Environment Agency (who declined to contribute financially to Callum’s work, I’m told), Defra, Natural England and the River Trusts. I’d suggest that it is not another body we need, just a body with life in it.

Most Read

This piece, I hope you realise, is supremely well-timed by clever old me! Tomorrow is the opening of the river fishing season, though I suspect not many of you will be rushing off to the Wensum to celebrate.

How different it was in June 1974. That year, I had discovered fishing on the Wensum beneath the ruins of the pre-Norman cathedral at North Elmham. In the previous weeks, I had stalked the gin clear water and seen roach in numbers and sizes way beyond my previous experience. I had dashed into John Wilson’s Norwich Tackle Den and there by the counter, we had agreed an assault.

The decreed morning arrived. It was 4.30am and there was mist lying over the valley, but the hint of warmth had already drawn the first of the larks into the lightening sky. The cattle observed us with dozy eyes, but the river seethed with life. Everywhere roach were rolling in huge boils of crimson and gold. The water’s surface rocked with the activity that reached a crescendo as the sun began to rise. I remember we both used quill floats, alternating between worms and bread flake on the hook. I threw mashed bread into the top of my glide and it was torn to shreds by roach as voracious as piranhas.

My diary records that I caught some 30 fish that morning and three were two pounders. Wilson did even better. Of course. Our bag was 70 fish for a combined weight of 100lb-plus. That’s a larger mass of roach than exists today in the Wensum from its source to the city. We should be ashamed we have let our river come to this.