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Predation and Politics
(Adapted from Tim’s Carp Leader in the February issue of Carpworld)
Tim Paisley, Chairman of the Predation Action Group
I’m going to have to begin at the beginning on predation for the benefit any misguided carpers who are launching themselves on the predation issue half cock and potentially doing far more harm than good in an arena that needs addressing over the long term. Let us be absolutely clear on this: while predation clearly has implications for anyone connected with carp it has to be treated as a much bigger issue than a carp fishing one. To suggest that it is even an angling issue is to over-simplify things because predation is starting to impact on the whole ecology; nature, livelihoods, and angling, in that order. Just how seriously it impacts, and will impact, is a matter for debate and we are a long, long way from convincing the powers-that-be that they have to address the problem sooner rather than later. Of course carp fishing is important to those of us involved in the world of carp, but carp anglers are a small, largely unloved minority who only get involved in political issues when they are perceived to impact directly on their own waters and their own fishing. Carp anglers tend to be reactive: politicians have to be pro-active.
John Wilson first raised the predation issue with me about four years ago. I’m not sure I was listening. He raised it again three years ago, and this time he convinced me of the seriousness of the situation. It is a fact of life that the two areas to be hit hardest by otter predation are those closest to the initial Otter Trust otter release programmes, East Anglia and the West Country. The alarming predation tales have been coming out of Cornwall since the last century, and were reported, and commented on, in Carpworld at that time. No one was listening and I think that many people thought it was a localised storm in a tea cup which would blow over. It didn’t blow over… When John Wilson addressed the audience on the predation issue at Five Lakes three years ago at the end of his address he asked for a show of hands by people who had been affected by otter predation. Six hands went up. When he asked the same question at the end of his predation address last year half the members of the audience put their hands up. The seriousness of the situation is escalating, and escalating rapidly. If you study the EA Otter Survey of 2010 you begin to understand why.
John (Wilson) and his nephew Martin Bowler have been vociferous on predation issues for a number of years now and are very high profile on the subject. There have been angry confrontations at Angling Trust meetings, letters to individual MPs, and Martin has even managed a head-to-head with two different MPs, and has recently been seen confronting an EA representative on TV on the predation issue. But… I have been around carp and specialist world politics since the formation of the Carp Society in 1981 (when the NASG became NASA) and I know only too well that confrontation triggered by vociferous minorities, particularly those which only get vociferous when they feel they have something to shout about, cut no ice with those in authority. I became involved with the PAG on condition that unless it became absolutely essential confrontation would not be part of our remit. From the word go I was sitting round the table with angling politicians for whom I have every respect and who know what we are up against on the predation front, particularly when it comes to otters. To ignore their advice would be to suggest that I know better than them, which just isn’t the case. Some revolutions have to be achieved by stealth rather than open warfare!
For instance as far as the vast majority of anglers are concerned the case against cormorants was proven long ago; as long ago as the last century according to the surveys that were carried out and the reports that were published. Frustratingly it is still not proven as far as the powers-that-be are concerned and, more worryingly, the RSPB still does not have a bad word to say about these invasive birds! (That is not just worrying for anglers: there is a body of opinion which says that the combined actions of cormorants and otters are impacting on some of our better-loved water-dwelling species like kingfishers and herons.) What has that got to do with otters? Two things… One is that cormorants have helped exacerbate the otter problem. If our rivers were still full of prey fish to keep the otters happy then the problem would not be as acute as it is now in that otters would not have the pressing need they are now facing to supplement their diet from still-waters, bird sanctuaries, garden ponds and anywhere else they can find food. The second is that while most anglers agree about the seriousness of the cormorant threat – and I think the public is reasonably indifferent to their fate – the same cannot be said about otters. There is by no means universal condemnation of otters even by the world of angling, and the public perception of them is that they are adorable, cuddly and make wonderful pets – as Tarka did in the book and the film!
Otters and cormorants are protected by European Law. They are protected species. You can obtain a licence (of limited application) to shoot cormorants, but you have no defence against otters other than to protect your property from invasion by them, which is impossible in the case of all rivers and many carp waters. When John Wilson first went into print on the predation issue, as he has done on a number of occasions both in Carpworld and in the weekly press, he described otters as giant predatory rats which, like foxes, will kill wantonly and for fun. He commented that he knew what John Wayne would do about them. Unfortunately that is not a course of action we can openly recommend and still hope to get round the table for sensible discussions with those who make and enforce the laws!
So let’s briefly look at what ‘getting round the table’ entails for those who would seek to make changes as a defence against predation. The world of angling has moved on from last century’s proliferation of divergent bodies, all of whom wanted a voice in the corridors of power. The SACG and, more recently ECHO, have, in their different ways, been marvellous for carp and specialist angling. ECHO still exists, which I’ll come back to, but the high-achieving SACG was swallowed up in the aftermath of the £1,000,000+ report by the Review Panel for the Sport of Angling which recommended the formation of the Angling Trust as the one body representing anglers and in a position to lobby the Government.
(What this enlightened Review Body didn’t make clear was just how the Angling Trust would be funded, which has caused major problems for the body. If it is intended to represent all anglers then it should be funded out of licence money, but it isn’t and has to spend far too much money recruiting its membership. The end result is that out of 1,400,000 or so angling licence holders we have fewer than 20,000 Angling Trust members. Does that mean that the Angling Trust represents all anglers? Judge for yourselves! That may seem irrelevant but it isn’t and the numbers game is a point I’m going to come back to.)
Of the specialist and carp scene politicians who have tried to look after our interests I would single out Chris Burt of the SACG, Ruth Lockwood of ECHO and beyond, and Mark Heylin of ECHO, the Angling Trust and the PAG as being the best-informed and possibly the most effective. Early last year, and on Ruth’s recommendation, early in its life the PAG affiliated to the Angling Trust, which, in theory, means we have a voice to the Government via the Angling Trust. Mark Lloyd of the Angling Trust came to a Predation Action Group meeting in the autumn when the subject of otters – as part of the predation issue – was raised. The Angling Trust is working on the signal crayfish and cormorant issues but won’t touch the otter issue at present because it is considered too emotive a topic.* Even within the PAG there isn’t unanimity as to how far we push the otter issue at this time. Perhaps I should qualify that. The private attitude of some members of the PAG body is different to the public face we want to show to the world. I have no doubt that will change. Over the last few months there has been a dramatic shift in opinion regarding predation, largely as a result of publicity generated by the PAG. We have received responsible and extensive coverage in all three weeklies, the Times, the Mail and Carp-Talk, and have given the subject massive coverage in Carpworld, including John Wilson’s heartbreaking ‘Rape of East Anglia’ coverage and Adam Roots’ equally disturbing coverage of the dreadful situation in the South West (which I solicited via Ken Townley). We are in the process of finalising the PAG website which should be up and running by the time this appears and which reflects the coverage I have outlined in this paragraph, and much more besides. Check out www.thepredationactiongroup.co.uk
So where is all this leading? We are working towards preparing a report for submission to the Angling Trust and, if necessary the Government, spelling out the impact of predation on waters, the ecology, livelihoods – and angling. We need to compile an unanswerable case before we can submit such a report. There is a notification form on the website via which anyone who has problems with predation, including otters, can report the facts to John Wilson. John set the ball rolling as far as the PAG is concerned and he has been an unwavering tower of strength throughout its formation and early life. You only need to look at the thoroughness of his website reports to see how much work he has put into highlighting the problems but from the start it was always going to take at least two years to compile the report we need. There are no short term easy-fix solutions here.
Three years ago four of us sat round a table at Five Lakes to discuss predation, the four being Ruth Lockwood, Ian Chillcott, John Wilson and me. I would have liked ECHO to take predation on board but that wasn’t feasible because predation is an angling world issue and by definition ECHO is a carp organisation. Yes, assembling a committed body of people to take the PAG workload and expense on board has been time consuming. Danny Fairbrass gives carp politics huge financial support but found committee work wasn’t to his liking. Our website is up and running and we are gathering information. We are fund raising because if, at the end of the day, we can’t persuade the Angling Trust to take the otter issue on board then we will have to lobby the Government direct. When I first heard the cost of a lobbyist I thought I’d misheard, but I hadn’t. £50,000 is the sum required.
I have been chairman of the PAG since April of last year (2011) and I’m reasonably comfortable with the progress the body has made in that time because I know we are working in a sensitive area and have to be in it for the long haul. At the PAG meetings I sit round the table with Keith Wesley, an experienced and successful fish farmer, John Slader of the Salmon &Trout Association, Mike Heylin of the AT, ECHO and the PAG, John Wilson MBE, the moving force behind the formation of the PAG, Tony Gibson, a very successful specimen angler and, more recently, and Ian Chillcott, Mark Holmes and Jerry Bridger, plus, on occasion, Hugh Miles and Mark Walsingham acting in consultative capacities. We need to have some impact but we need to retain credibility, and we need to raise funds. Hopefully in time the Angling Trust will accept that our case is strong enough for them to include otters in their predation lobby, but for the moment the PAG is the only body willing to address the issue. I’ll emphasise that as far as the Government is concerned the Angling Trust is the one angling organisation with a voice within its corridors.
Those of you who keep abreast of developments within the world of angling will perhaps be aware that Labour’s former angling MP Martin Salter has recently returned from a sabbatical at the other side of the world and has taken up a position with the Angling Trust. From our point of view that is hugely encouraging. Before he went away on his year’s leave Martin gave an interview to Angler’s Mail in which he made his feelings regarding predation, including cormorants and otters, strongly known. How big an impact on Angling Trust policy his personal feelings about predation will have remains to be seen, but the encouraging thing here is that both Mike Heylin and Martin Salter are anglers who understand the extent of the predation problem and work within the Trust. Yes, we can all relate to the syndrome of having to toe the party line, which Martin will understand better than most of us, and policies will not be changed overnight, but to have the right voices working on our behalf in the corridors of power is a starting point which we have to build on. We build on that by treating this as an angling issue, rather than a carp one, and a predation issue, rather than an otter one. To mention culls, or even controls, where otters are concerned is a sure way to strengthen angling body and public opinion against our situation. In the first instance we have to convince people that there is a problem and then try to negotiate a solution. If I thought for one moment there was a quick fix solution then I would grab it. I run two meres which are under threat from otters and the thought of what the balance of this winter might bring alarms me. Carp are most at risk from otters during the winter months when they are at their most languid and least able to escape the attentions of our furry friends.
My difference of opinion with some of my PAG and Angling Trust colleagues over the otter issue is that we have to take it on board from the start and try to win over public opinion. The angling world appears to be more or less united over cormorants and we may make progress on this front. But I think it is a mistake to ‘win’ the cormorant issue and then address the otter one at a later date. It is taking for ever to even find a partial solution to cormorants. To start from scratch with otters two or three years down the line is to invite an ecological disaster. Don’t misunderstand me; I know how serious the otter situation is and, according to reliable sources, otters are still being raised in captivity and released into the wild. This is no longer Natural England’s policy, but it is not illegal, either. Many areas are reaching saturation point on otters, and I’ll stick my neck out and make the point that there are now far more otters within these shores than at any time in the past.
I can’t emphasise strongly enough how important credibility is in terms of the people we need to talk to on the predation issue. Impatience will cost us credibility and could undermine all our efforts. Carp anglers are not highly regarded in the upper echelons of angling, and chat room entries effing and blinding about the predation issues will do our cause and our image no good whatever. We can perhaps be accused of not making enough information about our efforts available to the public – and an active website will hopefully take care of that – but on the media coverage front I would comment that it is difficult to know where to draw the line. I have already devoted a number of Carp Leaders to the subject which have included some very emotive material from both John Wilson and Adam Roots, and we have received a fair hearing in the weeklies. But at what point does predation coverage become informative and meaningful and still fall short of ‘Oh no, not again’ over-exposure? On the other hand working quietly behind the scenes doesn’t seem to work either if it inflames the forums!
I mentioned ECHO earlier and I can’t really elaborate on the subject until after the pending AGM, which I think is scheduled for the weekend of the Big One Angling Show. (The date and venue for the AGM haven’t been fixed so keep an eye on Carp-Talk and the websites for further details.) What I will say is that it was agreed at a committee meeting in the autumn that there were two problems with the ECHO working model. One was that Ruth Lockwood had taken too much work on board; last summer that caught up with her and she cried ‘Enough!’ The second problem with the working model was a membership one. Membership costs £20 per year, but for that amount of money most members want more than simply knowing that they are supporting an essential cause. I lived through the situation with the Carp Society in the 80s when it was be coming too big to be run on a voluntary basis and eventually had to take the plunge and employ someone to take control. ECHO reached the point where it was getting too big to be run voluntarily, but would never have enough members at a high enough subscription to pay for a full time administrator. I’ve spoken to Chilly and he is comfortable with where ECHO is at, but recognises that a future structure has to be agreed at the AGM: ‘We have to regroup,’ were his actual words. He feels that ECHO has achieved what it set out to achieve but has to recognise that there is still a membership to be taken into consideration and that it would make sense to keep the body in existence in case it needs to become active again at some future date. I can’t really say more than that until the situation has been resolved at the AGM. If you want to have your say in that then please come along to that meeting. Incidentally Mark Holmes got in touch with Ruth Lockwood on the subject of otter predation and, in the strongest possible terms, she strongly advised Mark against any unilateral initiative on the subject. I’m tempted to comment further there, but I won’t. ‘Res ipsa loquitor’ is a legal tenet which means ‘let the facts speak for themselves’.
Chilly is now full weight behind the PAG. Like the rest of us he recognises that the huge difference between the PAG and ECHO is that ECHO was dealing with a carp issue (as the name confirms), while the PAG is dealing with an angling one. (As far as I’m concerned it is an ecological one, but time will be the arbiter of that!) The structure of the PAG recognises the problems encountered by other minority angling organisations in that it is not seeking members. We are told that there are of the order of 1,400,000 angling licence holders. Licences are issued by the Environment Agency, which can therefore claim that it represents that many members. The Angling Trust claims up to 20,000 members. I don’t know the figures but I would guess that the Carp Society, the BCSG and ECHO between them can claim of the order of 2,500 members, top whack, and with some overlap. In most quarters carp anglers are ‘misunderstood’, so the fact that they aren’t over-popular and in such a minority makes angling-world initiatives ‘on behalf of carp anglers’ largely unworkable. The Angling Trust was set up to represent all anglers and if the Trust is seen not to be working on our behalf where otters are concerned then we have to set about changing that situation through making an unanswerable case and then negotiating. The PAG is side-stepping the membership issue and modelling itself as a ‘research and report’ organ. That way we can claim to represent as many anglers as we choose at any given time because we feel we are working in the interests of all anglers, and the many people associated with angling. Research what? Well until you actually become involved with the professionals you just have no idea how many papers have been published devoted to the subject of predation and its attendant topics, some of which are actually arguing the case on our behalf!
On a personal basis I would argue that where carp are part of your livelihood, and on fish farms, syndicate and day ticket waters which are dependent on an income for their existence, it is a breach of human rights to deny owners the right to protect their property. The law on protecting your personal property from humans (in the form of burglars) is being eased and you can use reasonable force. A farmer can shoot a dog worrying a £30 sheep. Do I think for one moment that the owner of a water protecting big carp which, individually, can be worth as much as £5,000, from an otter attack would be fined or sent to prison? No I don’t. The Natural England (formerly English Nature) programme for rearing and releasing otters into the wild ceased in 1999. The EA tries to tell us that there have been no otters released since that time. The private information we are receiving doesn’t agree with that, nor does the information on at least one Otter Trust website.
There are strong rumours that otters are still being reared and released into the wild. If that is the case then it is scandalous. If anyone has any solid information in connection with otter releases then we would love to hear from them, in the strictest confidence. No rumours, please, just solid facts. Similarly if your water(s) or livelihood has been affected in any way by predation – not just by otters – then get in touch with us. Again we need as much information as possible to publish our report on the realities of predation and its impact. That is what the PAG is working towards, but we know that we will not achieve anything overnight and that we need as much input as possible from all areas of the angling world to make the outcome of our efforts meaningful. But please, carp anglers, accept that you are part of a much bigger picture here and that we need angling-world unity on predation or we will still be arguing the case ten years from now. Minorities can achieve change, but only through negotiation, not through confrontation.
It is because of the numbers game that I don’t think a petition with a limited number of signatures on it is meaningful, particularly when the wording of the petition is changed halfway through its life (as happened with a recent carp scene intiative. Hugh Miles and his friends have just presented a 16,000 signature petition to the Government on the subject of cormorant predation in the Avon Valley. How impactful a petition with that many signatories is I’m not sure but I would think it is a minimum number to have any impact at all, bearing in mind the number of angling licence holders. We have to build an irrefutable case against the burgeoning otter situation to make any progress here. Those in power and in control of our angling destinies are in denial over predation, and will be for some time to come. Pardon me for appearing cynical but they are conditioned to receiving (and ignoring) petitions from ‘persecuted’ minorities. It is an aspect of ‘progress’ they have to live with, as the reaction to the HS2 and every motorway and airport that was ever built will bear witness to! For them carp anglers screaming about otter predation is small beer compared to all that, I’m afraid.
I’ll make one further point. I’ve got two hats on when I write this material, my PAG one and my carp magazine editor one. Publication-wise this is not merely a Carpworld issue: this material will appear on the PAG website and the content is available to anyone who wishes to use it. There can be no inter-publication or publishing house rivalry where an issue as important as this is concerned. What is important is that the world of carp fishing gets its act together over predation and understands the need for angling-world unity if we are to make any progress at all on this contentious issue.
Since writing this and it appearing in print there have been two developments. The first is that Mark Holmes has attended a PAG meeting, understands what we are trying to achieve, and has become an important part of the PAG movement. The second point is that it has been brought to our attention that the Angling Trust website confirms that the Trust is looking into the whole predation picture, including otters. To this end the Trust’s head man Mark Lloyd is attending a site meeting with a number of angling and carp world figures in Shropshire in early March to see for himself the extent of the predation issues in that part of the world. Our report on that important meeting will be made available to the media.