Roger Beck: Rivers teeming with life while we moan about the weather

What we have experienced is a normal winter, a return to normality, says Roger Beck. Picture: Tom Collins
What we have experienced is a normal winter, a return to normality, says Roger Beck. Picture: Tom Collins
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I received some comments on last month’s column from a gentleman who works at Askham Bryan College. He suggested that I might have ended last month’s piece with a rant.

Well, Brian, this month, in the interests of balance, I’m starting with one.

A Mayfly nymph, dressed by Stephen Cheetham.

A Mayfly nymph, dressed by Stephen Cheetham.

Please will you all stop whinging on about this being a ‘bad’ winter? We live in the northern hemisphere, on the same latitude as Hudson Bay and the Labrador Sea. This means that winters in Yorkshire are likely to be cold. I do not need dire warnings to life and limb because “up to ten centimetres of snow could fall.” By my calculations, that’s about four inches in old money.

OK, I know I’m getting on a bit, but I can recall consecutive winters with several feet of snow lying in the village street and the bin lorry disappearing in a snow drift. Lately we have experienced freak winters that have been wet and relatively warm. This is as a consequence of climate change resulting from the greed and selfishness of humans.

What we have experienced is a normal winter so we need to hope for a return to normality.

You might be forgiven for expressing a feeling of mild discomfort if you had passed the winter submerged in water; the Caribbean or the Andaman Sea might be fine but a Yorkshire river is a different kettle of fish and even brief partial immersion without thermals is unimaginable; believe me, I know!

Yet, huddled in various locations within a stream or river, lie indescribable numbers of creatures great and small, between 5mm and 25mm long. One square yard of the bed of a clean river can house, amongst other species, thousands of the aquatic nymph stage of flying insects; fish food.

They are often classified by describing what they do; so, we have agile darters, stone clingers and bottom burrowers for example. Next time that you are walking by flowing water, upturn a few stones and have a look at their undersides.

The numbers and diversity of the creatures you find will be a measure of the cleanliness of the stream. If you find something up to 15mm long and looking like an alien, you have encountered Heptagenia that will probably hatch into a beautiful sulphur yellow fly during the summer, known to anglers as the yellow May Dun.

Some people erroneously suggest fish don’t eat them because they taste bad. Fish certainly do eat them. Believe it or not, I have seen young people completely spellbound in a search for sub-surface alien monsters. Please return to the water anything that you find.

If you want to know more, Field Studies Council sells some marvellous fold-out charts for £3. Find them at


One of the most iconic of the river dwellers is the nymph of the mayfly, Ephemera Danica. In late May and early June, watch out for it hatching into a 45mm long cream coloured fly.

None of this splendour will survive if we continue to show scant regard for water quality. The greatest danger to this comes from politicians who may be tempted to interfere with countryside activities.