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Do anglers make good conservationists? An interview with Mark Lloyd of the Angling Trust

August 6, 2014
Salmon jumping Stainforth Force on the River Ribble, Yorkshire.  Image: Jonathan Bliss, Flickr

An Atlantic Salmon jumping Stainforth Force on the River Ribble, Yorkshire. Image: Jonathan Bliss, Flickr

“Anglers are the eyes and ears of the waterside.  They spot pollution and other problems before anyone else, and their knowledge of the water environment means that they can tell when something is wrong.”.  Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust is putting the case to me in favour of anglers as good conservationists of Britain’s freshwaters.

“Freshwater anglers have to buy a rod licence to fish legally, and the licence fees provide £23 million to the Environment Agency to look after rivers and lakes.  Angling is often the reason why new ponds and community facilities are built, often in conjunction with local authorities and environmental NGOs. Often this role has helped ‘reclaim’ former industrial landscapes, and contributed to urban regeneration.  The Trust’s non-profit legal arm – Fish Legal – takes legal action through the civil courts against polluters and others who damage the water environment on behalf of its member angling clubs and riparian owners who are directly affected.”

Do anglers make good conservationists, and does angling benefit conservation?  We’ve written on this subject before here, and many of the arguments in favour are strong.  Freshwater angling is a phenomenally popular pastime – in the U.K. alone over 1 million licences are sold by the Environment Agency each year.  This large, varied supporter base has the potential to create a large, vocal movement championing freshwater conservation issues, many of which are initiated through the Angling Trust.  As Lloyd explains: “In the 5 years since The Angling Trust has formed we have mounted major campaigns on diffuse agricultural pollution, sewage discharges, water abstraction, fracking, barriers to fish migration, invasive non-native species, challenging flawed initiatives to dredge rivers to stop them flooding and a host of other issues.” 

More widely, a 2012 report “Fishing for Answers” described a range of social and community benefits of angling observed over a three-year study carried out by British academics, describing the way that angling can encourage a deeper understanding and potential stewardship of the environment. Another high-profile example is that of Icelandic businessman and angler Orri Vigfusson, who won a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for his work in buying out commercial salmon nets through his North Atlantic Salmon Fund coalition, as a means of reducing barriers to salmon migration.

On a European scale, the European Angler’s Alliance brings together organisations like the Angling Trust with a mission to: “safeguard the fish stocks and fisheries of Europe and to protect the interests of all those who fish with rod and line for recreational purposes”.  A stated aim of the EAA is to promote sustainable recreational fishing which actively helps conserve or restore the health of the freshwater environment.  The size and structure of the EAA means that it has the leverage to effectively lobby European policy decisions on key freshwater conservation issues like the Water Framework Directive.

Although there is much to be said for angler-led conservation, there are times when the conservation priorities of anglers don’t align with those of other environmental groups.  Here, we might ask: does the conservation approach championed by anglers support only the species and habitats that they value for their sport?  What about species that potentially challenge this, like the otter?  The widespread reintroduction of otters to British freshwaters has not been met with universal support, with some anglers calling for culls to protect fish stocks in their (often artificially stocked) waters.  It’s interesting to note how in examples like this Daily Telegraph article from 2009 fish stocks are not valued for their intrinsic worth as animals, but instead as financial investments, with the editor of Angling Times bemoaning that “£20,000 of [fish] stock can disappear in a few days” due to otter predation.

For the Predation Action Group, patronised by a number of well-known anglers, the line is even stronger, with otters described as “a giant predatory, aquatic rats with Doberman-like teeth” which can “decimate well stocked carp waters where the investment could well top several hundred thousand ponds“. It’s clear here that despite the fact that in many cases conservation and angling interests align, some issues – such as otter reintroductions – are potentially complicated by financial, commercial and sporting priorities.

I ask Lloyd how the Angling Trust might define their broad approach to conservation, a question which – after a long pause – was met with pragmatism, “Idealistically it would be about restoring functionality and allowing natural processes to work, perhaps even bringing back top predators like bears and lynx.  But pragmatically, we live on an overcrowded island, with a managed environment where we need to make interventions.”  

Do the conservation priorities of anglers always tally with the priorities of other environmental groups? “On the vast majority of issues, the interests of anglers are precisely aligned with conservation groups.  There are a very few cases where they are not.  For example, the Angling Trust believes that – in the context of drastically degraded fish stocks – there is a good case to be made for more lethal control of cormorant numbers (many of which are from a non-native sub-species that was previously only found in Eastern Europe).  On this point we have held a different position to the RSPB, but have continued to work very closely with them on a wide range of other initiatives to protect, restore and improve the water environment.”

The discussion turns to a topic that has made headlines recently: what to do with the beaver populations found at the start of the year on the River Otter in Devon?  In a statement made in July, Lloyd and the Angling Trust strongly supported the UK Government’s decision to remove the beaver populations, stating that the animals are non-native to Britain and can carry disease, a decision which has met with criticism from both the public and the press, perhaps most notably from George Monbiot in The Guardian.

Lloyd unequivocally outlines the Angling Trust’s position, “Although beavers were native to some parts of the British Isles more than 500 years ago, our rivers have changed dramatically in the past five centuries and suffer from endemic pollution, over-abstraction of water and the presence of tens of thousands of man-made barriers to fish migration.  Nearly all fish species need to migrate up and down rivers in order to complete their life cycle and the addition of beaver dams would only increase the number of obstacles that fish have to overcome.” 

Lloyd continues, “In a healthy natural ecosystem, beavers can actually be beneficial because they introduce woody debris to rivers and their dams can trap silt and create new habitats.  However, less than 25% of England and Wales’ rivers are in good ecological condition and the Angling Trust’s view is that it would be irresponsible even to consider re-introducing this species into the wild without first restoring our rivers to good health by tackling low flows, pollution and removing the vast majority of man-made barriers to fish migration.”  

Is there an argument that beavers don’t necessarily have to be the final piece in the river restoration ‘jigsaw’, instead central ‘ecosystem engineers‘ that might help create diverse, healthy ecosystems themselves?  Lloyd’s response is less firm than before, “I take and understand that point.  The Angling Trust has come out with a strong position on the release of captive beavers in Devon because their presence is unintended, and hasn’t been decided by public and political debate.  If there was a widespread democratic vote in favour of their return then so be it, if we had the ability to break down dams and control numbers without much paperwork.  What we can’t have is enthusiasts releasing caged animals.”

I ask a broader question: how do we decide the form and function that our freshwaters should take?  Is there a historical baseline we can look back to for ecological inspiration?  Again, a pragmatic and policy-aligned answer, “For Natural England the baseline for conservation seems to be a hypothetical post-glacial environment, but realistically you can’t turn back the clock. The agricultural and industrial revolutions have had such widespread impacts on our environments.  Instead, we would look to the Water Framework Directive’s aim for ‘good ecological status’, which obviously isn’t going to happen everywhere by 2015.  It’s about making compromises moving forward.”

I’m interested in this broader definition of what we might term ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ species in our freshwater environments.  If we’re talking about removing beavers from UK freshwaters because they were hunted to extinction 500 years ago – and are thus defined as ‘non-native’ and unwelcome – does this same argument apply to fish like the sturgeon and burbot which once lived in UK freshwaters?  Would The Angling Trust welcome their reintroductions?

“If habitats can be restored then we would support the carefully planned reintroduction of fish species such as sturgeon, burbot and indeed blue fin tuna which are now absent from UK waters.  However, we believe that reintroducing species without first restoring the environment is the wrong way round; we should rebuild ecosystems from the bottom up, not the top down.  We believe that there are very urgent priorities for the UK water environment that make such projects nice ideas for the future, but only once we have got the fundamental issues addressed: principally water quality, quantity, removal of barriers to migration, restoration of physical habitat (marine and freshwater).  There are numerous strands to each of these elements and it will require substantial investment.”  

Returning to the theme of anglers’ conservation priorities, I ask whether there is a contradiction in that some of the species widely targeted by British anglers occupy a grey area in terms of their ‘nativity’ to the UK.  Take the wels catfish, for example, a species native to eastern, southern and central Europe, which was introduced to Britain around the turn of the 20th century, and can grow to huge sizes.  Would the Angling Trust support anglers fishing for them?

Lloyd’s answer skirts any concrete definition of nativity, instead focusing on the Angling Trust’s role in representing their members’ interests, “We don’t support the presence of wels catfish in British waters.  On balance, I think there’s more anglers who don’t want to fish for catfish than do, and those who don’t would prefer not to see them in British waters.  We’re representing the view of the majority.  Sometimes we need to show strong leadership on issues such as this, for example in recommending the stocking of only infertile trout, in order to protect the genetic integrity of wild populations.”

Talking about what might be native and what is not, we return to the topic of beavers.  Lloyd thinks that the beaver’s attractive appearance is likely to complicate any management, “My concern with beavers is that their fluffiness and big eyes.  If they were to be reintroduced, their presence would require management, for example to break down dams where their presence was undesirable.  The Great British public is too sentimental about some wildlife, and management could prove difficult as a result if for example their presence proves undesirable, if dams mean that thousands of migratory fish can’t return to sea.  There’s an irrationality to public opinion on fluffy animals like the beaver.  How will riverside residents feel when the only tree in their garden is gnawed down overnight?  Or a beaver dam floods a housing estate that has never before flooded?  The problem with beavers is that they are very secretive and mainly nocturnal, and they don’t stay put, so they will spread from rural areas to villages and the edges of towns and cities.”

Lloyd is a persuasive interviewee whose answers show a clear desire to restore Britain’s freshwaters to a healthy state, yet also that any conservation or restoration management he advocates is likely to be shaped by the views of his constituents: Britain’s anglers. Broadly, anglers probably do make good conservationists – being immersed (hopefully not literally) in your environment can only help foster a positive environmental ethic.  The work of organisations like the Angling Trust, European Angler’s Alliance and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund in giving support to conservation initiatives is also to be acknowledged.

But, as ever with conservation, there are no simple solutions to complicated issues.  The support anglers give to conservation is always likely to be influenced by their own priorities, whether sporting (worries over whether beavers will block fish migrations of salmon and sea trout; introductions of non-native fish) or financial (the way in which the effect of otter predation is so often expressed in monetary terms for commercial, stocked fisheries).

Effective conservation is perhaps about trying to mediate these differences in opinion and aspiration for what form our natural environments should take, and how we can best manage them.  Whilst we may aspire for our freshwater environments to become healthier and more diverse, what is not often noted is that the return of previously endangered species such as the otter (and potentially the beaver) in recovering freshwater ecosystems has the potential to create a host of new conservation issues to be solved.

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