Nature-like Fishing Platforms

As a result of the habitat enhancement and bank reprofiling carried out earlier in the year, some areas of the new banks are slightly wetter than I would like them to be. The wet summer and the fact that this is only the first year of vegetation growth on them means that there isn’t a lot of support in the margins from the root structure.

This is good for the aquatic environment, as it provides that semi-wetland marginal habitat for reeds and marginal plants which in turn provide marginal cover for juvenile fish, invertebrates and small mammals (including, unfortunately, my nemesis – the mink!).

However, it does mean that the banks are starting to erode and become very boggy in areas where the rods like to fish from, which is only going to increase through the winter with the limited vegetation dying off and the expected higher water levels. So I came up with a solution – build some nature-like fishing platforms which would be in keeping with the natural banks whilst providing some firmer areas to fish from and prevent the boggy areas from getting worse. This method of building them works well on steeply or gently sloping banks, but on steep banks some digging will be needed to be able to key the sides of the platform back into the bank, whilst ensuring the actual platform is more or less horizontal and level.

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To do the work I needed the following:

10 x        6ft untreated pointed Chestnut stakes (half round / quarter round) 3-4”

1 x           Reel of 2mm galvanised fencing wire

1 x           Willow trunk approximately 8ft long by 2ft diameter

2 x           Willow trunk approximately 5ft long by 2ft diameter

2 x           8ft Hazel faggot bundles

Tools     Chainsaw, post rammer, post maul, claw hammer, 40mm fencing staples, shovel, large pry bar, fencing pliers, 150mm hex head decking screws, battery electric drill.

In addition to the above, a tractor with a front loader for moving the trunks and an excavator to level the bank slightly / dig the trunks in would have been helpful. I would normally have scraped out trenches for the trunks, but the ground was so wet I didn’t want to risk it! I have to say though, please don’t use any of the kit unless you are suitably experienced and trained and have the correct protection.

I started off by selecting a good site for the platform – in this case behind a hinged willow branch, where the ground is soft and immediately upstream of a nice gravel run alongside a reed bed that looks like an ideal glide for summer barbel. I knocked in three of the chestnut stakes to make the front edge of the platform (the stakes need to be spaced out to the length of the longest tree trunk you are going to use, in my case around 8ft long).

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I then scraped a shallow trench behind the stakes, wide enough to lay two 8ft long hazel faggots in. I used faggots rather than just placing the trunk in straight on the mud to prevent it sinking over time, and also allowing the vegetation to grow out through the faggots along the front of the platform next year.

I risked getting the tractor close enough to roll the main 8ft long trunk off the log grab and onto the top of the faggots, and squashed it down with the front loader before trimming the end to suit with the chainsaw.

A fourth post was added in the middle on the rear of the trunk (the inside of the platform) to allow it to be wired down (only in the middle, you’ll see why later) and then the middle posts knocked in some more to hold the trunk down to the ground and prevent movement. Tourniquet the wire up and then staple it to the posts as low down as possible. The posts can then be knocked in some more using the post maul to tighten the wire and pull the trunk down flush with the ground / faggot bundles underneath.

I also used a 150mm decking screw through each of the posts for added security before cutting the top of the posts off as low down as I could. In hindsight, with the wire I wish I had cut a small groove across the top of the trunk with the chainsaw to allow the wire to lie flush – I can see landing net mesh catching on it in the future!

The two sides of the platform were made up from the two remaining shorter (5ft) trunks set a right angles back from the main trunk, and I scraped out the area they would lie in by hand to make them lie more or less level. A stake at each end on the outside and one in the middle on the inside works pretty well. The stake on the inside won’t be seen or above the ground once the platform is infilled anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

I then wired across the trunks from end to middle to end on each one, knocked a fencing staple into each post to hold the wire and knocked the posts down some more with the post maul to secure them, before cutting the posts off as low as possible with the chainsaw.

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Essentially, the platform is more or less complete now – I tided the corners on mine up with the chainsaw because I was feeling pedantic. The platform can then be infilled with some decent firm material (Type 1 or scalpings will work well) which can be blended back into the natural bank, but will still ‘green up’ with vegetation. I shall probably use a layer of geotextile (coir matting) inside the platform as a retaining ‘bag’ to prevent the material from being washed out in the event of high flows over the winter. However, the infilling can wait until the ground is dry enough to back the tractor trailer down the bank without causing too much damage to the ground.

Another method of finishing the platform is to use some timber (old scaffold boards, decking boards or 12″ x 2″ boards) across the top to create a decking effect and screw each one down to the trunks with a void underneath. However, I shall infill this one as I would like it to look as unobtrusive and natural as possible.

I shall let you know how it fares!

ACC.

The First Leaves of Autumn…

As the daylight turns to starlight and the season turns to change,

I get the same old answers but the question still remains,

We shared a brief but magic song,

By the first leaves of autumn, you were gone.

So the leaves (and the reeds) have started to turn, and the estate is gradually turning from the green and pleasantly colourful place it is in the summer into the drab and misty place it becomes in the early hours of the day through the winter. I took to the saddle early one misty morning, and rode upstream of the river to the ridgeline near the next village, hopping a couple of hedges in the process. I’m glad I took the off-road route, as the mist enveloped me and the mount as we dropped into the dips alongside the river before climbing the ridge. I’m only sorry I didn’t take my trusty Nikon, as the photos would have been fantastic. There was also a purpose to this – seeing which of the hedges needed ‘topping out’ in readiness for the opening meet of the local hunt. I think the mount enjoyed his early ride, which may bode well for me borrowing him more often to ride to hounds in the season!

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Aside from that morning off, work on the estate has continued! I had the Environment Agency Biodiversity (formerly Conservation) Team along one morning to carry out an otter survey. I was almost one hundred percent certain that we do not have any resident (or transient) otters on either of the two river channels, and after their survey, they concur. However, it is unlikely to mean the EA will reconsider my most recent Flood Defence Consent application which was recently refused with a very brief (but very confusing) rejection. It did however; show up a large increase in the activity of the local Mink population. I shall set a few more traps on the river banks and perhaps ‘plot up’ with the .17 HMR for a few hours on a couple of evenings before it gets uncomfortably cold. On the other hand I could track down the local Mink Hounds!

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I shall be undertaking further tree works in the next two weeks, with two more of the ageing wild cherry trees in the weir pool paddock to be felled by myself, and a couple of tree climbers from my tame local tree company are going to reduce the size of the weeping willow overhanging the footpath, both to allow some light onto the footpath and also encourage the privet hedge bordering it to thicken. With the exception of the willow, which will be burnt, I should have another 10 – 12 cubic metre bags of firewood from the wild cherry trees to process. These cherries have never been managed, are rotting at the stumps and snapping out at the top. I would rather drop and fell them in a controlled manner than have to clear up the mess after a night of high winds! The mini-digger and log splitter (plus myself with a chainsaw) make quite an effective processing line, but it is back breaking! Currently I am stacking the cubic metre bags of logs three high in the barn to season, so feel free to contact me if you need firewood!

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My earlier mention of the reeds turning has reminded me – whilst the Sparganium erectum is starting to turn and die, the Schoenoplectus lacustris and Phragmities australis is still just about hanging on. The former (usually called Bur-reed) is the staple reed throughout most of the river on the estate, although interestingly it is well spread on one channel (downstream of the weir), and absent on the channel above before the weir splits the flow. It needs to be cut and removed as it dies off – generally because otherwise it all dislodges at once in high flows and block the road bridge at the downstream limit of our land. The latter two species (Club Rush and Common Reed) aren’t too much of a problem, but Common Reed has started spreading up the graded banks, and out competing some of the native river-side flowers I sowed, so it may be sprayed with Glyphosate early next year to reduce it.

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On the river banks, I have cut a chequer board pattern on the banks to the water’s edge with the tractor mounted flail, meaning there is 50m of vegetation topped to about 6 inches high, then 50m of vegetation left as is, to die off naturally over the winter, repeated down the lower channel. This should result in the ground covering vegetation on the topped areas coming back much quicker next year as the higher level plants quickly out competed them in the short time after I had completed the bank works. In leaving some areas to die off naturally, I have left cover for rods and wildlife alike through the autumn and winter. The river looks to promise some cracking winter sport for pike and chub, so we shall see how that fishes.

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Due to change in circumstances (shortly I am to become an uncle), I have also spent time installing all the temporary electric fencing on wooden posts throughout the lower paddocks to see us through the winter grazing, and am waiting on the fencing contractor to come and install the ‘horse rail’ along the field-side of the track along the lower river channel. The little 45hp compact tractor and post rammer have been worked hard, but my bracing and welding skills on the post rammer seem to have worked, as it is has rammed in all the posts (thus far) with no further issues since I welded the bending lift arm. Two horses will be residing on the estate earlier than planned due to the owner being pregnant with my nephew! The fields have been topped for the last time (hopefully) in the last of the sunny days, so they should provide some good winter grazing, even with the expected flooding of the lower paddocks.

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The temporary paddocks also needed water and electric running to them, so I have been on the mini-digger, trenching away to run blue water pipe and armoured cable to the old Nissen hut and existing stables. Due to the gravel substrate, a pipe ripper on the back of the tractor jams regularly, meaning it is quicker to dig trenches with the mini-digger. Our new stable complex, horse walker and barn look set to be a 2016 build due to planning permission issues and the local council planning department changing tunes like wind chimes in a force 8 gale.

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I finally got around to installing one (out of three) of the Little Owl nest boxes that were made on the estate by my father a few months ago. The only one installed to date resides in one of the semi-mature trees in the formal garden on the estate. At some point I probably should install the others before they end up housing something undesirable! The usual / regular jobs during the nicer weather, such as verge flailing, hedge cutting, paddock topping and track mowing should hopefully have been done for the last time by the time I write this. If by chance I have to cut them all one last time because the weather holds out, then so be it, but I shan’t worry if time does not allow it. With luck, I shall have an opportunity to dig the remaining tree stumps and miscellaneous bits of concrete out and then leave the weir pool paddock to it’s own devices over the winter.

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Jobs coming up will mainly be finishing off the last few bits of fencing, hanging a few gates, processing the timber from forestry and tree works into firewood and tucking away the hay and straw properly to ensure we have a usable supply through winter for the horses in the temporary stables. If anyone would like any logs in the Berkshire area, please drop me an email to ACountryChap@outlook.com.

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All the best,

ACC.

Having the Weather Gage…

…is an old naval expression, taken to mean that you have the wind and weather in your favour as you prepare to engage an enemy warship downwind of you (at least in times of sail power). It is slightly applicable to working in the countryside too – particularly as I don’t have it!

I have been caught stating for the past few weeks that the hay crop had been less than expected and the ground far too dry to harrow and roll the fields in preparation for use as paddocks and that a few days rain would be a good thing. Not only would the ground soften up, the fields be green rather than brown and the new hedges that had been planted have a fighting chance, but the river would also colour up slightly, giving the fish the confidence needed to venture through the shallower areas into the upper reaches on my estate, hopefully improving the dismal catches so far in the season. It would also make installing all the fencing, grading/levelling some of the bumpier bits easier. Unfortunately most of the sub-soil on the estate is gravel (hence the areas of fantastic spawning gravel in the river), which means that it needs riddling before spreading on the fields – or it has to used to fill in the larger holes and a layer of topsoil spread on the top to seed. This isn’t the nicest job to do in the pouring rain…

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Sadly, I asked for the rain too soon. The garage extension is half-built and the roof is being delayed due to the rain, the stack of cordwood and tree trunks is increasing as using a chainsaw and PTO log splitter on wet muddy ground in the rain is too risky, the compost heap is saturated and I haven’t been able to cut channels through the reed growth in the river due to the ground conditions. I hadn’t cut it earlier in the season as the reeds holding back water were the sole reason the river levels were still fishable higher up the channel. The old outbuildings are still standing, as I haven’t wished to demolish them too early on in the year prior to the stable yard and new barns being built. On the plus side, digging out a lot of the old tree stumps in and around the garden with the mini-digger is easier with softer ground, but only if you turn a blind eye to the mess created! I’m not too worried as half of the current lawn will end up as paddocks anyway, but still – I should have got around to this earlier!

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I definitely don’t have the weather gage, and it looks, sadly, as if the stable yard build shall be put off till next year due to the weather and the un-erring ability (or lack of it) of the planning department to know what each hand is doing at the same time.

All the best,

ACC.

Rivers Week – Day One with Volunteers

Carrying on from my previous blog entry: Improving the River – Introduction…

The first of the volunteer days arrived, but fortunately, on that first grim and gloomy March morning, the familiar figures of Andy Thomas and Mike Blackmore from the Wild Trout Trust also arrived on cue to put some semblance of order into the day (just as I put the coffee on – I guessed the wind was in the right direction!) Following the obligatory briefing over coffee, three groups were formed from the score of volunteers to undertake the varied tasks of gravel cleaning with the EA Fisheries Team’s venturi cleaners, building faggots from the number of willow trees I had felled the day before, and installing the chestnut stakes to hold the faggots in the channel to provide the new bank edge. This meant retrieving all the equipment from the back of my mobile storage shed (which it seemed my trusty Land Rover had been relegated to!)

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                The existing gravel riffle at the tail end of the weir pool had been compacted over the last 40 years, resulting in a shallow, fast flowing area devoid of submerged macrophyte growth. The existing concreted gravel was also mixed with fine sediment, meaning that any spawning carried out was unlikely to result in the eggs hatching. This is mainly due to the build up of fine sediment in the gravel, resulting in a lack of oxygenated water passing over the eggs. Under the competent gaze of Dr. Karen Twine (or alternatively ‘The Barbel Lady’), two venturi water pumps were fired up and the gravel cleaning commenced. A steady stream of fine silt poured to my position downstream where I was demonstrating the noble art of using a handheld post rammer without causing yourself (or anyone else) any serious injury to my group of volunteers.

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Concreted gravel being notably harder to drive 4” stakes into than silt meant out of the three groups, I was the one flagging! Ade Bicknell from the EA Fisheries Team took charge of another group of volunteers, and under his expert tuition, the volunteers quickly worked their way through the piles of Willow brash I’d chopped up to make some very large faggots to be installed behind my posts on the stretch of highest bank. That quickly in fact, that someone was sent to purchase some more binding twine, and another Willow tree was pollarded to generate some more brash.

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These bulky Willow faggots would be wedged in behind the stakes I was installing with some larger woody debris and wired tightly to pull them down to the bed. This would allow me to push the existing high bank edge down on top and behind them with the excavator, creating a narrowed, faster flowing channel with shallow marginal habitat, woody debris to provide some scour and a site for the introduction of some of the fifteen cubic metres of gravel currently sat in the dumper on the bank, which would increase the spawning potential of the reach.

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After a lunch and a large volume of coffee had been consumed in the sun, the faggots and woody debris items were swiftly lowered down the bank behind the stakes, wherein commenced the comical spectacle of myself jumping up and down on them to wedge them in whilst doing my utmost to remain upright. Then came the time consuming job of securing them! In the afternoon sun, fencing wire, fencing staples and hammers were liberally distributed to the volunteers, and the faggots were swiftly wired in and the stakes slowly but surely knocked down to pull the faggots tight to the river bed.

Day One complete! I am greatly indebted to the volunteers from the local village, the local angling club, Angling Trust, Environment Agency, Flood Resilience Group, Clearwater Photography and the Wild Trout Trust for their help and enthusiasm.

Some more images from Loddon Rivers Week 2015. Copyright – Clearwater Photography.

I shall be writing up Day Two shortly!

ACC.

Preparing for Rivers Week 2015

Carrying on from the previous blog, I had a little bit (lots) of preparatory work to carry out on the weekend before Rivers Week 2015 to make the site safe for when the volunteers arrived on the Tuesday – (bear in mind some of these volunteers had never worked in a river before). First off, there was an area of hard standing (road planings) with a concrete pad built on top, which had once been a muck heap. Why by all that is Holy, the previous owners of the estate had thought the eroding river bank would be an ideal place to build a muck heap is beyond me, so one of the first tasks with the excavator was to break it up and scrape out the road planings. (During the course of this I also discovered a buried and long forgotten lawn roller which will be cleaned up and probably either be pressed into service or painted and used as a garden decoration). Around 25% of this concrete pad was sat on thin air as a result of erosion by the river over time, which meant keeping well away from river bank with the machine until I was certain which bits were capable of supporting 13 tons! It had to come out as I didn’t fancy someone innocently walking over it, only to disappear vertically in cartoon fashion with a wild yell and a cloud of dust!

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Secondly, there was a rather large and rather dangerous windblown Willow tree which had cracked, fallen over and been hung up on a neighbouring Willow tree (which also happened to be dead) on the edge of the Willow stand at the bottom of the fields. I am a fairly experienced tree climber / tree surgeon and common sense dictates that the only two things required to spike up these particular trees were a donor card and a suicide note. Much as I wished for the tree to come down to the ground in a timely fashion, I had no particular interest in riding it on it’s way there. Working on my own for most of the time means I readily develop innovative ways of working to keep myself safe (rather than Health and safety, read self preservation). In this case, it meant using the pulling power of the excavator and some long winching straps to make the tree drop where I wanted it to whilst working from the ground with a chainsaw.

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The windblown tree was much easier to deal with than I was expecting with some nifty cutting from both sides and the use of some high lift wedges to make it fall back on itself and fold up, and then extracted both halves of it with the excavator. It was later used to generate some of the T-Bar woody debris items which would be installed in the river channel later that week!

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In the pouring rain, and alternating between on the chainsaw and on the excavator, I also felled and extracted around another 12 Willow trees from the Willow stand halfway along the reach, both to generate woody debris to install in the channel, and also to allow some sunlight into the area, hopefully to transform the bare earth in the stand of trees into a natural woodland, with low level ground vegetation, making for an increase in habitat for native species. This area will also have the banks re-profiled, but later in the year with a smaller excavator as the 13t is slightly unwieldy to use in confined spaces. Working in the rain is never an attractive prospect, and in full chainsaw equipment (including a climbing harness), I admitted defeat at 1400, going in search of the woodburner, fresh coffee, dry clothes and some soothing cream for some hideous chafe marks!

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However, the majority of the materials needed for the volunteers were on site – brash was stacked up to start the bank repairs and channel narrowing, large woody debris items were laid out to be wired together and the pallet of chestnut stakes was left on the river ban over night. Despite the rain, the site was ready. I just hoped the rain would stop to allow work to be carried out on the Tuesday without the river rising to prevent anyone from working in the channel.

To be continued, yet again…

ACC.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land…

…You will find something that spoils it. In this case, fly tipping.

As some of my Twitter followers would no doubt be aware, a couple of weeks ago I was having a slight rant about fly tipping and certain individuals propensity to use some part of England’s green and pleasant land as a means to dispose of their unwanted filth. This was chiefly because I had my weekend interrupted by a phone call to say what looked like a tied up bed sheet bulging with something was floating in the river at the estate. Either I’m particularly cynical of the human race or just have a vivid imagination, either way the first thought that sprung into my head was why did someone have to choose my patch to dispose of a dismembered corpse on a sunny weekend. On first inspection from the bank it did indeed appear to be a large white bed sheet wrapped around something vaguely body shaped and knotted up. I eliminated the obvious – checking with the lady of the estate that a similar bed sheet hadn’t been adorning the outside washing line for drying that morning and seeking advice from a tame Coroner’s Officer (don’t ask), but it needed removing anyway. I’m (usually) courteous to our neighbouring land owners and giving it a judicious poke with a long stick to send it on its way downstream to another estate isn’t sporting so with a suitable verbal expression of annoyance (‘Oh bother’) I went in search of the tractor, a dry suit and some rope.

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Having negotiated the steep drop into the water (I hadn’t yet got this far downstream with the river restoration) and waded over to it, the smell did indeed suggest that of something dying (in hindsight it may have just been the smell of a human body enclosed in a dry suit in 20 degree heat). Objects are surprisingly light in the water, so moving it across the channel was fine. There was, however, no chance of me lifting that up the bank from underneath – and as I hadn’t yet explored the contents of the bag I had no wish to receive said unknown contents in the face.

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Using mechanical advantage (thats the noisy blue thing) and support from someone (between painting her nails and offering useful advice and I shall leave you to imagine the advice) resulted in finally getting back on terra firma with said object. In the end, it turned out to be a double duvet cover filled with old tins, cardboard, dirty nappies, boxes, household waste and empty bottles. The only access to that bank where it had to have been thrown in the river is a mile across open fields with no vehicle access. It would have taken less effort to physically drag it to the household waste recycling centre 5 miles away than grapple with it over a fence and then manhandle it across a field in the dark. In the dark it must have been as those fields are easily seen from mine.

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I shall now have to pay to have the whole lot disposed of, not to mention having to spend half my weekend clearing it up! To save what? If it was domestic waste the local household waste recycling centre doesn’t charge anyway! I should of course, count myself lucky that the duvet cover remained intact instead of liberally distributing it’s contents along the downstream reach of river. That says something for the tensile strength of Asda’s finest. Something perhaps to bear in mind when I run out of ton bags for log deliveries…

ACC.