We are never going to write up a more fascinating My River than this one, for the simple reason that Mark has to be the most multilayered guy in fishing today. You don’t earn the epithet “Dr Roach” for nothing, but Mark is also a musician of note, a writer on every aquatic and environmental subject under the sun, as well as being a great friend and raconteur with a Falstaffian love of life, something we mean in the nicest of ways. Outside our narrow world of roach fishing, Mark is best known as a travelling environmental scientist, and had it not been for Covid, he would have been giving keynote speeches at gatherings in Australia, South Africa and India this spring. He is a consultant at the Environment Agency, but also Professor of Ecosystem Services at the University of the West of England. He might have written books on dace and gudgeon, but he is known world wide for titles such as Rebuilding The Earth: Regenerating Our Planet’s Life Support Systems, The Ecology Of Everyday Things, Water Meadows: Living Treasures in the English Landscape and even Wise Water Solutions In Rajasthan. Mark has long been at the heart of the cosmic plastic debate, and has worked with Jonathan Porritt on European sustainable development issues. So, starting with questions about Mark’s favourite roach baits seems a little limp perhaps?
MARK, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS ANGLER, OR ENVIRONMENTALIST, OR BOTH?
Very much both. My passion for rivers was what drew me to my environmental life in the first place. What I have had to learn is that my passion for watery stuff is very much small beer in the great scheme of things as we go into the future. We are never going to get any change if we simply plead for better treatment of individual species, like roach. Farming is the big issue on so many rivers, and we are never going to stop that. What we need to impress is the need for a wider ecosystem view that will improve water quality, reduce flooding, and be good for all our interests. For example, I am involved with an initiative to bring burbot back to the river Wissey, a fish we have lost in our lifetime. This may seem irrelevant, but it is not if we think of burbot as an indicator species whose demise points to deep-lying problems. If we can create multifunctional river systems, we might get burbot back but there will be other, indeed endless benefits for all of us. Let’s get to the heart of all this. After the Second World War, we destroyed the rivers of the UK in the name of food sufficiency, and in so doing have also dewatered the landscape. The way we are going to win, and see our fish back, is to naturalise our rivers again. This is a culminative process that will have all sorts of benefits, including economic, but it will also bring back our roach and burbot.
YOUR LOVE FOR RIVERS IS OBVIOUSLY INTENSE?
Speaking now as an angler, if water doesn’t move, it doesn’t stir my soul. I’m not one to set a trap for lake roach because bait and wait doesn’t resonate with me. I identify with a float and the lift method by a lily bed, but in essence I’m a stalker rather than a trapper. Rivers are a moving and a delicate environment which demands the active impatience that excites me. You ask about “My River” and for me that title has always been reserved for the river I live by. When I was a kid my river was the Medway, then it was the Hampshire Avon until 1991, and now it is the Bristol Avon. I might go to the Frome, the Thames or the Stour, but I want primarily to fish where I live, because that’s how you learn to understand a river. The Bristol Avon had no great reputation when I first moved there, but I began to apply myself and fish in different ways, and I started to find what actually exists here. I’m a believer in sharing information with buddies and working it all out together. This ups your luck quotient no end, and I have had two seasons which have seen me land over one hundred two pound roach, along with eleven over the “three”. The Bristol Avon, though, is not full of big fish and faces all the usual problems. Bad agriculture, poaching of banks, silt and soil run-off, chemicals, bad recruitment, predation have all played their part. I’m not bothered by otters especially, as they live by truffling for crayfish. In fact, I’ve got to know individual otters well, and I can now catch fish even when they turn up and sit watching me. Cormorants are a different matter, and when the Cotswold Water Park freezes the small rivers get a battering.
YOU ARE WELL KNOWN FOR YOUR PASSION FOR SPECIES GREAT AND SMALL
I see fish as wildlife and they all are fascinating. For example, we lost our barbel here on the Avon around 2010/2011 and 2011/2012, not because of Eastern Europeans or otters, but because they were old fish, getting stressed and dying naturally. These were also poor recruitment years for barbel, with cold winters and poor feeding. However, in these conditions, dace flourished. These are cold water spawners and the absence of competition suited them. All over the UK we began to see loads of dace and this winter alone I have had three pounders which, at ten years old, date back to those winters. You see how fish respond to environmental circumstances and that’s what I find so interesting, however big a fish might be. I’m not alone in this. I love gudgeon and I have just published “Gudgeon: The Angler’s Favourite Tiddler”. The first edition sold out in just two days and I have had wonderful feedback. There’s no ego attached to smaller fish, and that has refreshed me, especially after some comments on Facebook regarding more “important” species like roach.
FROM MINNOWS TO MONSTERS. TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH THE MAHSEER TRUST
The Mahseer Trust is in good hands with Adrian Pinder as Chairman. He’s a really good fishery scientist, he is ably supported by types like Steve Lockett and they are really doing stuff, not just talking. The Trust has gone a long way to untangling the complex taxonomy of mahseer, for example investigating the validity of the blue mahseer as a valid subspecies. The Trust has also managed to get the golden variety on the list of critical world species. But there are big problems out in India, as there are everywhere when it comes to fish conservation. Of course, one issue is that as game fishing for mahseer has disappeared, poaching has taken over. We have to demonstrate the wider economic values of mahseer fishing for the Indian communities. Abstraction of rivers like the Cauvery is a problem that increases annually, with little alleviating action taking place. The vagaries of Indian politics are against the Trust, and even the Wildlife Association of Southern India has tried recently to denigrate the work being done, so there is a bit of a split there. I can understand WASI being proprietorial about an Indian species, but the Trust is not some neo-Raj group of meddling white men. The Trust is very Indian and very international in make-up, but the problems are huge.
Mark Everard is an inspiration. He is a cracking river angler, from what we have seen, right up there with the greats. He understands rivers, both intuitively and scientifically, and has spent a majority of his life working for their improvement. He has broken new ground ecologically, but applauds physical, on-the-bank action. It is this combination that might just save our rivers into the future.