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Life is cheap when you’re a fish

I would like you to consider two stories. First, 100,000 litres of slurry leaks into a tributary stream of the River Coly in the Axe catchment which flows through Devon in the south west of England. That is one hundred tonnes of cow shit from the dairy farms which border the rivers in the region gone into the river.

Talking to Shaun Leonard, Director of river conservation charity the Wild Trout Trust, he tells me that slurry pretty much suffocates a river.

“It can happen incredibly quickly,” he says. 

“It moves as a slug. It will kill just about everything in the river. Not just fish, but everything which needs oxygen. So bugs, invertebrates, it will wipe all them out too. It can quite possibly do this overnight, it is a pretty instantaneous effect.”

The second story concerns the shooting of a Red Kite in North Yorkshire one month before. I chose this one but it could have been any of a number of killings of birds of prey over the years, from eagles in Scotland, to that lightning rod of raptor persecution the hen harrier in Lancashire or the Peak District.

Regarding the river, the Environment Agency says in a preliminary statement that “over 400 fish” were killed in this incident on the Axe that has affected 10km of river. In reality this figure will be far, far higher. As Shaun Leonard points out, the timing of this latest slurry spill was “incredibly unfortunate” as this year’s trout, still all but fry, will be barely an inch long and no one is going to count all the inch long dead fish. And that is just trout. 

Other fish that were killed include the endangered salmon fry, bullheads, minnows and lamprey. The final figure will be in the thousands. And that is before we talk about the loss of invertebrates.

The Axe Catchment is SSSI designated and also a Natura 2000 site, which is intended to protect some of Europe’s most threatened species and habitats. However, the river system is classified as being in an ‘unfavourable condition and declining’ largely due to the pollution of its waters by slurry and sediment following years of abuse by the dairy farming industry - so that, by the way, you and I can go into our local supermarket and buy a pint of milk for 29 pence or under.

The Red Kite meanwhile was found near to Leeds Bradford airport and a post-mortem found a dozen shotgun pellets in its body. A Yorkshire Police Force Wildlife Officer said: “People will be understandably appalled that someone has shot and killed one of these majestic birds that are such a welcome sight in our skies.” All of which is perfectly true. But it was one bird. One, solitary bird. 

The point is, which of these events receives the most media attention? The killing of a river? Or that of a single bird? 

Well the leaking of 100 tonnes of slurry into a river and wiping out a whole ecosystem, a tragedy which Shaun Leanord of the Wild Trout Trust says the river may take “years” to recover from, made barely a squeak. The Red Kite by contrast was all over the regional media.

Mid May this year (2020) the RSPB Investigations Unit reported a “surge” in reportings of illegally killed birds of prey since the coronavirus lockdown, and that “the majority of incidents have been on or close to sporting estates managed for game bird shooting.” This was pounced on by the national media.

The number of birds of prey illegally killed each year hovers around the 60 - 80 mark, and each one has at least a fighting chance of making the national news due to a small army of the conservation industry’s ‘communication officers’ packaging up the story and tossing it into a pool of receptive editors. 

But potentially thousands of fish are killed in a single entirely avoidable slurry ‘accident’ and their death and that of the river goes unnoticed, unmourned but for a mention in local news sites.

I am not defending the killing of birds of prey by the game shooting industry here - apart from anything else each bird killed is another shot in their own foot - I am just pointing out that life is cheap when you are a fish.

The birds of prey have a whole police force looking out for them - Operation Owl - run by the North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force and set up to stop the persecution of raptors by the game shooting industry. 

The Environment Agency by contrast, responsible for policing the nation’s rivers, cannot muster enough funds - or the will - or both - to bring one single prosecution against persistent polluters - despite an internal report produced towards the end of last year revealing that 95% of intensive dairy farms in the Axe Catchment were failing to meet regulatory requirements for storing slurry, and 49% of farms were polluting the river.

There is a simple reason for this - we just don’t like fish very much. They lack the cuteness factor. We say things like ‘a bit of a cold fish’ to describe an unattractive character. We prefer our animals to have fur or feathers, and preferably a pair of big, doe-y eyes that we can gaze into adoringly. They are our babies.

Or others, like the birds of prey, are majestic hunters, masters and mistresses of the air. We admire their noble ruthlessness. We abhor those that kill them to protect their own, ‘privileged, so-called sport’.

The red kite photographed lying belly-up on its mortuary slab has two calls on our sympathy, and so on its own newsworthiness: first the heinous crime of bringing to a premature close such a beautiful life. Second, as it lies there with its wings splayed, we now project onto that still breast the febrile heart of a society’s rage against class, privilege, and entitlement, and the toff’s arrogance towards the workings of the natural world. 

This prejudice is all very well but can lead to a rather ‘speciesist’ view of a world that doesn’t usually much care for its ‘-ists’. But this is how the game is played and clever conservationists know it. That is why we have books written about the plight of the curlew (that plaintive call, so haunting across the moors, it’s practically Heathcliff) the bumble bee (it’s big and round and so furry it is really quite cuddly look) and the butterfly (awww, ain’t they purdie?).

But relatively little, for instance, about the situation we have inflicted upon the poor salmon. Salmon hatch in our rivers, then migrate out to sea, then return to the rivers of their birth, to that very same spot, to spawn itself and then often to die. It is a story every bit as heroic, as tragic, as balletic, as you will find anywhere in nature. But it is beneath water and so largely unseen so we don’t much care. Except maybe once in autumn when they leap into our world and newspaper editors may be interested if they get a good photo, a silver streak of charisma in which we can invest some fleeting romance.

The salmon is an endangered species and threatened with local extinction on some rivers. The number of salmon that make it back to their birth rivers has fallen from over 20% in the 1970s to under 5% now - often well under. In England, the Environment Agency estimates that the salmon population is either ‘at risk’ or ‘probably at risk’ in 85% of rivers. In Wales this rises to 95%.

There are many reasons for the salmon’s decline and a significant one is avian predation - birds are eating the young fish as they set out on their journey from river to sea. The culprits are usually cormorant and goosander and the situation is so serious in Wales that the Government has set up a review to look into the problem. One cormorant can eat over half a kilogram of fish per day - that is an awful lot of small fish that will never get to make big fish and come back to spawn.

It is a tricky one because it is a face-off between two protected species: the birds and the salmon. But in the charisma beauty stakes there is only going to be one winner. Dare to touch a feather on a bird’s head and the armchair conservationists will be stirred into action, shaking their fist and no doubt raging at the few people left standing in the fish’s corner, many of whom will be anglers. They probably as good as shoot grouse as well dammit. But the fish? Well that’s just bird food innit, birds doing what birds do, it’s just how nature is.

Does it matter that we indulge in this charismatic beauty charade? Yes it does, and all serious conservationists know that it does. To try to manage an environment for a single species is putting the cart before the horse - it is the health of the system as a whole, the ecosystem, that should concern us.

The condition of a river betrays the way we treat the land through which it flows. And there is no better barometer of a river’s health than the populations of its salmonids - that is trout and salmon - that live in its waters.

So when people like Shaun Leonard fret about the state of trout in the Axe Catchment we should listen, because it is telling us that we are doing something very wrong on the land - in this case the unsustainable demands intensive dairy farming and our desire for cheap milk is making on the environment.

As that bastion of privilege and tradition The Fly Fishers Club have it in their motto: ‘Piscator non solum piscatur’.  Crudely translated by an oik like me, that means: ‘It’s about more than the fish, stupid.’



  1. The fines for polluters are ridiculous, pennies, when you consider the destruction caused. Cormorants also should never have been given protected status they decimate fisheries of all types , inland lakes pits rivers canals already have a huge problem with other predators too otters, mink, crayfish. Human polluters too who live on canals that are basically barge parks ,with no room anymore for Angling from Tottenham to broxbourne .


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