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.
I was lucky enough to see a barn owl while undertaking a commission for Anthony Edwards to photograph his fishery on the Avon. When returning to their car one evening, one of the fishery syndicate members had mentioned he had seen an owl quartering a field next to the river. Last Monday by early evening I had completed my target images of the day, photographing Anthony's house from distant viewpoints, so decided to walk around the fishery hoping to see the owl. On a previous occasion I had spotted a Little owl on a post, but it was some distance away and the only photographs I could get were of the owl looking the other way before it noticed me and flew off. However, on this evening I saw a Barn owl quartering the field and managed a few distance shots in the failing light. Quick reactions and a long lens achieved a reasonable result but with many wasted shots as the auto focus struggled to focus on the fast moving bird rather than the dominant woodland background. This and another shot shows the owl in the context of its hunting territory. My other shot I might use for the book shows the bird more clearly against the background of the field but less of the face which is such a distinctive feature of the species.
Last week it was worth waiting for the evening hatch of Sedge on the Avon after a very hot sunny day, even though the fish did not seem to be at all interested - so no evening rise. The hatch was concentrated beside overhanging trees such as this willow, which I included in the shot to give context and scale. Tricky subjects to photograph. I ended up using a very long lens to get the desired photograph. This image is a substantial crop and required a very fast shutter speed of 1/1600 sec to partly freeze the movement of the flies. It was then possible to identify the characteristic long antennae of the Sedge which were near impossible to see with the naked eye.
Now that's what I like to see! This image of brown trout parr was shot last Monday (15/6/20) with a compact waterproof camera. I found a shoal of these 5cm long junior fish by the side of flowing ranunculus on a stretch of the Wylye. What an encouraging sight. It says something for the habitat restoration carried out on this part of the river. Nearby there was a similar grouping of minnows and in another channel, a shoal of tiny minnow fry. A quick kick sample from the gravel also resulted in hundreds of Gammarus (shrimp) in the net. Surely a sign of a healthy river?
The Avon covered with flowering ranunculus at the end of May 2020. Very pretty - but a problem and a keeper's nightmare. The restrictions created by COVID19 have prevented the weed cut on the Avon this Spring. Water is held back, encroaching onto the bank and potentially causing some flooding in the next few months if weed cutting continues not to be possible.
The shot above was taken by wading into the middle of the river and carefully holding the camera a few inches above the water. A bit ambitious for depth of focus, even using a wide angle lens, as the first flowers are extremely close which is why these buttercup sized flowers look so big in the image. The overall effect captures the beauty of a scene that I am unlikely to ever see again.