Rewild the River Ribble - one of nature's success stories

It once looked like they had gone for good but, a decade on from a controversial move to rewild the River Ribble, Tony Greenbank looks back on one of nature's success stories.

WATCHMAN: Ian Fleming, river keeper for the Manchester Anglers Association, which holds the fishing rights to the upper River Ribble and has been working to improve the number of brown trout and salmon in the river. PIC: Tony Johnson
WATCHMAN: Ian Fleming, river keeper for the Manchester Anglers Association, which holds the fishing rights to the upper River Ribble and has been working to improve the number of brown trout and salmon in the river. PIC: Tony Johnson

Arthur Ransome, the Headingley-born author of Swallows and Amazons once wrote: “Grab a chance and you won’t be sorry for a might-have-been.”

How true this has proved during the 11 or so years since 2006 when this famous author’s former fishing club, the Manchester Anglers’ Association, passed a contentious vote to rewild the upper reaches of the River Ribble.

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Sunlight bounces off the glass-like river, narrowing away between wooded banks as green as watercress, as I drive over New Inn bridge and into Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

Here I meet river keeper Ian Fleming in the Penyghent Cafe. He became “beck watcher” of the upper Ribble after he retired in 1997, to become partly instrumental in persuading the Ribble’s guardians to rewild.

“Who would have thought,” this former London civil servant ponders over his mug of coffee, “that this contentious method of conservation would be the answer?” He pauses. “And now there’s an abundance of wild brown trout thriving here after that long barren spell.

“Wild brown trout were not only disappearing from the upper Ribble but growing smaller too. It was deeply worrying for the Anglers, one of the oldest established game angling clubs in the north-west.”

But could, his reasoning goes, rewilding succeed on this volatile high-gradient spate river? “Gin-clear one hour; a raging beer-brown torrent the next.”

Seeing my look of utter bemusement, he zips through the history of fishing on this mint Dales fishing river. In 1882, four years after their formation, the Manchester Anglers acquired the fishing rights on the headwaters of the Ribble.

Money was no object, the membership of the Association included affluent mill owners, professionals and clergymen from Manchester – among them prominent figures like Arthur Ransome. The founding father was Abel Hayward Junior, whose father was Abel Hayward, the mayor of Manchester and a leading Chartist. His statue stands in the main square of Manchester today.

Members had looked at – but discounted – the River Wye, a beautiful watercourse starting near Buxton and flowing through Bakewell before eventually joining the River Derwent.

The River Dove was also considered, with its glistering waters breaking over little weirs and being well wooded with wildflowers growing to the water’s edge.

Associated with Izzak Walton, author of the 17th century classic The Compleat Angler, this must have seemed ideal. That too was set aside.

Why the Association chose the Ribble instead was two-fold, continues Ian. “First it was easy to reach by train. The now-famous Settle-Carlisle railway line had just opened and offered perfect access.

“When the anglers alighted at Horton they found the natives friendly. There were two hotels in the village that were also pubs.

“The only problem was that while recently building Ribblehead Viaduct and Blea Moor Tunnel nearby, the railway had employed thousands of navvies.

“This workforce had discovered that the river was a regular fishmonger’s slab.

“On Sundays they would walk along the Ribble with sledgehammers and dynamite, blasting the pools and hammering rocks. They collected the stunned trout that rose to the surface and returned home to Batty Moss shanty town with baskets full of trout.”

By 1878 the navvies had gone, but anglers found the trout had been decimated.

Hence the second reason Horton was an ideal anglers’ base, thanks once more to the Settle-Carlisle railway Part of the Association’s constitution promised to raise the stock of wild brown trout in the river. Fish eggs from Loch Leven near Fort William in the Highlands would arrive in milk churns at Horton station after a journey of only a few hours, train service being top-class then.

These were then fed into the hatchery the club had built on a tributary beck to be hatched into fish “fry”. As a result tiny fish were then bred in a succession of hatchery ponds, covered with netting, until three to four years later 10,000-20,000 fully-grown trout were fed into the beck, soon to enter the Ribble just downstream.

“It was from the 1920s that fishing on the upper Ribble was in full swing,” says Ian.

“In no small part this was due to the river keeper of that era, namely your grandad, Tony. Nathaniel Hunt, known as Nat.

‘He brought on so many young fish on in his meticulously-run hatchery with its five fish ponds so they could go on to became the kind of wild brown trout that anglers describe by extending their arms.”

The Manchester Anglers appointed him as river keeper in 1898, an incidental being that he also came from the fishing county of Derbyshire.

Taking over from Robert Walker, a giant ex-policeman, the first river keeper for this club in the wake of the Batty Moss “dynamiters”, “Nat” as he was called then continued in that role until he died in 1938.

Oh, the tales he had to tell. Despite the protective netting, Nathaniel found the trout fry disappearing from a hatchery pond. The culprit? A kingfisher was leaving with fish via the outlet pipe.

Would that happen again? I asked Ian. He shakes his head. “Not possible. Because of the rewilding being so successful, we no longer use the hatchery.”

Casting my mind back to when I was a kid, I recall a succession of anglers smelling of rubberised waders and tobacco as they sat and yarned on the bench in our backyard while grandad made them trout flies.

“These are called ‘North Country Spiders’,” Ian breaks in, adding “But they’ve have nothing to do with spiders.”

I also recall Ransome in his wire-framed specs sketching me fishing for minnows with a jamjar by the Ribble.

Grandad had been showing the famous author where best to fish as we walked along the river bank, buttercup pollen turning my shoe welts the colour of egg yolks.

Fast-forward to 2002 when Ian Fleming responded to the advert for a river keeper, just as Nathaniel Hunt had.

In similar vein when Ian arrived he found fish stocks depleted. The fish were also growing smaller.

For the past 60 years the river had been stocked with trout from fish farms elsewhere in Yorkshire that have since been found to have been elbowing out the native fish.

This was especially so as a crayfish plague 15 years ago killed off a crucial food source for the native wild trout.

A fish-marking scheme instigated by Neil Handy, local Environment Agency officer, then showed that the farmed trout themselves moved further downriver, some almost as soon as they were introduced into the tea-stained water.

Several tagged trout turned up at Clitheroe nearly 40 miles downriver.

This, Ian reasons, is possibly because the upland river waters were more hostile and turbulent.

“Wild brown trout,” Ian tells me, “hold their own to stay in place when not bothered by off-comers, tails flickering in the water under the riverbanks where they feel safe from predators.”

In the eleven years since the club voted to stop stocking the river and begin rewilding, Ian says: “Beautiful fish, the best being nine inches to 11 inches long are thriving here again, perfect golden-yellow-brown trout sporting black and red spots.

“We’ve also improved habitats, removing weirs and introducing fencing in partnership with the Ribble River’s Trust, a charitable organisation.

“Riverbank trees shielding the water from sunlight, as the native trout much prefer? We maintain these too.”

“The club forbids the use of barbed hooks.

“Also 99.9 per cent of wild brown trout caught are returned, as the club decrees. They’re kept immersed in the angler’s net then pointed upstream and allowed to catch their breath before release.

It’s the most compassionate way in an increasingly more humane sport.