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Donkin on Fishing - Scotland


1996 - Fishing the River Tweed, Scotland

River Tweed, Scotland  

Idylls don't come much more idyllic than fishing the choicest pool on a prime stretch of the River Tweed. It was the Duke of Roxburghe's favourite spot on the Upper Floors beat and the grilse had started to run.

The weather was fresh with a mixture of sun and cloud. The pool had that perfect V-shape with a lively current - a four-poster bed among salmon lies in a river of unquestionable pedigree. This was where the ghillie told me to cast my fly. It could only be a matter of time before the reel began to sing.

Yet I felt uneasy. The problem with idylls is that they are, by nature, fragile. That the session would be ruined seemed certain. What would cause it? Leaking waders, a lost fish, a badly tied knot?

On my fifth back cast the rod snapped.

I trudged out of the stream and borrowed another rod but there would be no fish that day. The lie was so good the grilse had gone to sleep. Still, it was a fine place to be fishless.

The great Scottish beats, like the best of those on the Tweed, are revered, protected, cosseted, almost timeless in their traditions. The huts are kept in good repair, the lawns are mowed. The ghillies wear tweeds and breeches and the countryside is unsullied by fertiliser bags, ramblers, or hot air balloons.

How long can it continue? Its future would be guaranteed by a plentiful supply of fish, attracting a healthy demand for beats. But broken rods aside, the fishless day has become too common as spring salmon runs have declined. Demand for fishing has slackened as a result. Anything that can bring the salmon back in numbers would be welcome but too little is known about its habits.

A research programme on the Tweed is helping to unlock some of the salmon's closest secrets. Scientists studying the full 2,000-mile Tweed river system believe they can improve the spring runs but habitat improvements and further studies are costly. For the first time in its history the Tweed's governing body is considering corporate sponsorship as a potential solution.

It would seem unthinkable that the river would ever be linked overtly to the name of a sponsor. Anything so vulgar as "the Suntory Tweed" would be enough to choke a gentleman Scot on his Macallan.

But the Tweed Foundation, a charitable trust established by the Tweed Commissioners, the governing body for the river, believes that sponsorship could help secure the future prosperity of the fishings.

The foundation has engaged Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group to undertake a study of the economic benefits to the Scottish Borders region of fishing on the Tweed and its tributaries.
Early indications from the study suggest that fishing contributes well in excess of £10m and hundreds of jobs to the region.

The foundation, established in 1993 with an administrator and a full-time scientific staff, is responsible for pursuing a programme of research and habitat development. It hopes to use the findings of the study in fund-raising to help finance the programme, which has already begun to deliver results.

River surveys, for example, have found that sheep grazing to the edge of good spawning burns have been responsible for eroding banks and flattening stream profiles. During hot spells, with little water depth or shelter, fry can die from lack of oxygen. By persuading farmers to allow stretches of bank to be fenced off, the foundation is gradually restoring miles of burns.

With the addition of natural sedges and willow cuttings, the streams narrow and deepen, adopting their former profile and appearance that provides a perfect habitat for salmon parr.

In the meantime, the study team is tagging fish to determine their runs when they return from the sea. They have discovered that spring salmon are particularly choosy about which tributary they enter on their return.

Fish entering the system later in the year tend to run into the upper Tweed. The upper reachers are usually ignored by spring fish, half of which run up the Ettrick tributary while a quarter of them run straight up the comparatively short Whiteadder, which joins the river near its mouth at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The next stage of the research will attempt to discover the reason for these different runs. Do the Ettrick fish, for example, differ genetically? The team intends to find the answer by taking and comparing DNA "fingerprints" from parr in different sections of river. If there is such a fish as a "springer" that differs genetically from its autumn brethren it may be possible to determine the factors that have contributed to its decline.

Judith Nicol, director of the foundation, believes that the river is at the forefront of professional fisheries management. "DNA finger- printing and genetics, scale reading, fish counters, electric fishing and radio tracking will all be used to find out more about the resource we are trying to manage."

"We need new solutions to manage fishing and these will be based on science. These might even be as radical as changing the fishing season."

But if we knew everything about the salmon's behaviour we might lose that feeling of anticipation, optimism and expectation, the constant companions of the salmon fisher.

"However much we discover, I don't think we will ever remove all the mystery from the salmon. I wouldn't want that to happen," says Nicol.

© Financial Times

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