I sat quietly for several hours by the middle Itchen during one of my stake outs to capture an image of a Kingfisher. I had been waiting for a kingfisher to appear on the perch on the other side of the river. It was in a really good spot, immediately above an eddie on a bend and sure to be full of minnows and fry. This was not to be. The bird just flew by several times at high speed in an iridescent flash.
By early evening all was quiet and the fishermen had gone. Then it all came alive. A significant hatch of Blue Winged Olives (BWO). Spinners were swarming over the bankside reeds. A bit of quick work with my bug net and I bagged one for a photo session. The image above is, I believe, a male spinner. If only the fishermen had stayed, because the fish were rising all over the river!
The book describes and illustrates the source of our chalk streams and the different stages of the river course - from winterbournes and headwaters to meandering channels through wide flood plains. First though, an image of the chalk downs through which rain water permeates and replenishes the aquifers which in turn feed the springs. This shot was taken in the Wylye valley one morning in June after a 5.30 AM start from a local B&B. The task was to show the hills at their most colourful with the early sun. Worth getting up early for.
It was vital for the book to show the weed in the chalk streams which, apart from being an iconic feature of the habitat, is so essential for invertebrates and the food chain in general. I have photographed the weed such as Ranunculus (River Water Crowfoot) in a number of ways. Some images were achieved from the bank with a camera fitted with a polarising filter to reduce the inevitable reflections on the water. However, most photographs of weed were taken by wading into the river and using a camera that can be used underwater or, in the case of the above image of the bridge over the Itchen, with a standard camera but held perilously close to the surface of the water. Note that again I have used a bridge to give a focal point. This time, a typical fishing beat bridge made of wood with guide rail on one side. There are scores of these across the chalk streams.
Inevitably a book on chalk streams will feature many images of the rivers themselves as well as the intended record of the rich variety of flora and fauna they support. In the book there are many images of beautiful chalk streams but sometimes I needed more of a focal point. I frequently used bridges for this purpose. The bridge above on the upper Itchen has been used several times. It can be seen in photographs that capture views in different seasons and times of the day and has also been used to demonstrate that some sections of the protected chalk streams are accessible to all (this bridge is on the Itchen Way public footpath). It was even in the shot of me, taken by my wife Lynne, which will be be used in the bio for the book!
We think of chalk streams as flowing through beautiful open countryside, but there are chalk streams running through urban areas. The River Wandle is one such river and was once fished by Isaak Walton and Lord Nelson. The source is in the chalk of the North Downs and after meandering through the urban sprawl of south London, it joins the Thames in Wandsworth.
It has been restored in recent years and the shoal of chub in the image above was taken at Morden Hall Park which is run by the National Trust.
Continuing the background to the photographs of wild brown trout in the book. This one from the Wylye is looking quite calm in the image here, but when taking the photographs this was one of the very brief moments when the young trout was still. Thank goodness for digital photography where it doesn't matter how many shots you take/waste. More recently I have taken what I think are better shots of both trout and grayling by utilising the crystal clear water of the Itchen and more animated "poses" with interesting light on the swimming fish and surroundings.
My book is about the whole environment of the chalk streams with the rich variety of wildlife. It is not a fishing book, but should, of course, include images of one of the iconic species - wild brown trout. However, this has proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated as I wanted shots of them in their natural habitat, not in a net or handheld. Many attempts photographing them from the bank or bridges proved to be unsatisfactory because of reflections (although some can be eliminated by the use of a polarising filter) or the refraction of moving water giving a blurred and milky picture. It took a crystal clear stretch of the upper Itchen and bright sunshine at the right angle to get the image above which will probably appear in the book. I rather like all the colours and patterns created by the light on the clean gravel on the riverbed.
Some of the other images of fish I have shortlisted for the book were taken while wading with a waterproof compact camera. Again, it took the right weather, light and clarity of water to get acceptable outcomes - and the rejection of vast numbers of out of focus or badly composed efforts!
American signal crayfish are an invasive species introduced by the government in the 70's as a potential export to the Scandinavian market, but these crayfish are carriers of a plague that is thought to kill our native species - the White-clawed crayfish. They also tend to dominate the smaller native for food and river habitat. The native White-clawed crayfish is now an endangered and highly protected species. The American signal crayfish is found in huge numbers on some chalk streams with their burrowing riddling the banks to the point of making them unstable. Trying to eradicate the crayfish by licensed trapping works to a point. But if only the larger adults are removed then this method tends not to be successful as apparently the adults eat juveniles so the result is more juveniles survive thereby increasing the population yet further!
River keepers try to keep the numbers down and the large numbers trapped are popular with restaurants! Vicious things though with their claws. The creature in this image is clearly cross and would gladly have grabbed my finger and squeezed harder with its teeth lined claws.
Probably the most photographed scene of the River Test - the eel traps and fishing hut on a beat of the Leckford Estate. A view that has probably not changed in a hundred years. This evocative scene is visible to all from the public road.
The photograph will be in the book as part of the section on fishing beats.
Sadly, the image above was taken last Tuesday only 3 miles from the source of the Wylye. The river here should be crystal clear running over clean gravel, but instead the river bed is covered with this revolting algae and the sparse ranunculus is choked with sediment. The spot where this shot was taken with my underwater compact camera is only two hundred metres from a dairy farm beside the river and fifteen metres from the outlet from a cress farm.
My book is mainly a photographic record of and lay guide to our wonderful, rare and precious chalk streams and to highlight the rich variety of wildlife they support. My aim is to illustrate why they should be preserved. At the end of the book however, I have a section on the threats they face. This stark image demonstrates this all too well.