In one of the many remarkable poems to which Ted Hughes brought his passion for the salmon and the water they swim in, he noted how ‘the Gulf Stream weather / Cooled in the Cairngorms’, and ‘the snowmelt speechless water spilling / Off the island’s / Highest, holiest hill’. Though he discovered Scottish salmon rivers relatively late in life, and in the most privileged of company — this poem was a Laureate’s birthday gift for the Queen Mother who was, in 1990, as old as the century — Hughes recognised something timeless in the movement of that cold water, the life it contained. It was, he said,
None has revised
Since it rehearsed
The first scene first:
Then Hughes described an older, younger, mother by far: the nameless salmon river herself, who took strength from her tributaries and the weather that fed them:
A mother of heather,
Her gravelly burns,
Her ballad of weather,
Her cradle where turns
A salmon beneath
A breathing shawl
But however simply beautiful, natural this scene, Hughes knew all too well that its essential elements were not invulnerable, and that he was living through times that made him raise his voice in their defence. Six years later, in evidence he submitted for a public inquiry into the damage estuarine drift netting which was inflicting wild salmon runs on his own beloved Devon rivers, hundreds of miles to the south, he wrote about the damage already done by another human factor, high up on Dartmoor, on the headwaters of the Taw. Its spongy bogs and wetlands had once held rain and released it in floods that lasted long enough for salmon to find their way even over the many weirs of the lower river. But a misconceived plan in the 1960s to drain Taw Marsh for drinking water had, with decades of subsequent agricultural abstraction, combined at once to reduce the flow of the Taw and to make spates, when they came, rushing down the lower river, all too short.
Taw March, and the ribbon of the upper Taw running through it, August 2019
One of the drainage system access points
I thought of Ted Hughes and his defence, over twenty years ago, of speechless water with the horrifying news, this last week, from the United States, and the Trump administration’s decision to defy the advice even of its own Environmental Protection Agency and undo much of the legislation put in place to protect wetlands and streams from agricultural and industrial pollution wrought by the farmers and businesses who own the land through which these waterways pass. You can read the New York Times story here. It’s not just salmon which will be affected, of course: whole riverine ecosystems and all the biodiversity they support are at new risk.
A shawl of bubbles, and a lambswool coat — the Taw below Steeperton Tor
Hughes’s lines about that Cairngorm burn, oxygenated bubbles nurturing the wildest of fish, also called to mind what our friends at Salmon & Trout Conservation call nature’s hatchery. At our Cambridge conference in December, Kyle Young spoke very powerfully of the unintended consequences of well-meant but obstinate decades of devotion to hatchery use in North America. So I hope that Kyle and others will be called on to contribute to the review of stocking policy in Scotland’s rivers for which a petition has been running this past month. I’m delighted to announce that Kyle is among the first of the conference speakers whose talks and presentations are now available on the updated blog ‘The Cambridge conference’ which you can find by clicking here or on the sidebar to the right. Also there is Steven MacKenzie, whose management of the Lower Oykel has found a way of practising the most sophisticated methods of releasing salmon, promoting the fish’s welfare to the local community, and continuing to welcome visiting fishermen. Among many wonders Steven shared is this video, not of salmon, but of a journey up river even more ingeniously determined to conquer all obstacles:
Also now up on the conference post is Jamie Stevens’s fascinating presentation on the genetic distinctness and species plasticity of our chalk stream salmon, and their own dependence on and adaptation to the quality — long prized, famed, but again by no means either to be taken for granted or surrendered, as Salmon & Trout Conservation’s recent campaign to counter chemical pollution by watercress and salad packing plants on the Itchen has proved. Jamie’s work has started us thinking about another Cambridge gathering on chalkstream ecology. Watch this space.
But for now, I want to relay news of the conquest of another space, which a number of Cambridge contributors, including Ken Whelan, whose fascinating presentation is also now available to listen to, shared with me. As Ken put it, 7 January was an important day for everyone involved in the conservation of Scottish salmon. For that day, the Scottish government, at a day long meeting at the Holyrood Parliament, finally acknowledged what many have long known: that wild Atlantic salmon are in crisis. With it came the recognition that continued and further action is needed, and on the same day the Scottish Government announced that they had agreed to funding of £750,000 for a major tracking study along the west coast, to be conducted by the Atlantic Salmon Trust and Fisheries Management Scotland. The aim is to identify the migration routes and distribution patterns of salmon smolts as they head northwards to their feeding grounds. Read the Press & Journal story here.
And then read, and watch, this: the hugely powerful report that suggests everything else we need to do as consumers, and supermarkets need to do as sellers of the meat we have assumed is sustainable, healthy. Salmon & Trout Conservation and OneKind’s report asks, simply, ‘Responsibly Sourced?’ It presents data about sea-lice concentrations, mortality rates and damage to marine ecosystems in the vicinity of Scottish open cage salmon farms, and some horrifying images besides. Watch this short film:
And then download the report in full — which marries that data to the packets of supermarket salmon too many of us think is sustainable.
There are other ways of acting, positively, to celebrate the wildness of the salmon and the beauty of its waters. Back in the darkness of December, on the eve of the General Election, Folk singer and song collector Sam Lee charmed and moved our Cambridge gathering by sharing a salmon song he’d first heard in a village on the Norfolk coast, then told us of the four-day salmon pilgrimage he leads, through the Cairngorms, from the Feshie to the Dee, at mid-summer. It sounded implausibly wonderful at the time, but it’s real enough, this pilgrimage. The Nest Collective website has just advertised it for June 2020. Read about it here. If the wild salmon and the cold pure water they need are still speechless, we needn’t be.