Friday, 9 August 2013

Guest blog by Scottish Anglers for Change

Scottish land reformation is due for a radical change in the not too distant future.
The reform of the land ownership, tenant farming, land use, community ownership has been due for a very long time. Too long have these issues been ignored or shelved by those who had the clout to change our country for the better.
There are many articles on land reform. Andy Wightman's excellent blog informative, intelligent and hosts some cracking discussions.
Lesley Riddoch plus the 432:50 briefing paper written by Professor James Hunter, Andy Wightman, Peter Peacock and Michael Foxley. Please take time to read it.

I have, however, read very little indeed on reform for our rivers, burns, lochans and lochs so I hand you over to an article written by Scottish Anglers for Change, a group which is campaigning to bring about reform to what it sees as an exploitative, hierarchical and outdated system.

Growing up in Ayrshire, I fished. I fished in the sea, I fished in the rivers, the reservoirs, the flooded quarries, the lochs - I even fished for goldfish in the garden pond. Tales told by my paternal grandmother of her second husband's fishing skill, of Canadian aunties' cousins' trips to the wilderness for lake trout in waters that would swallow my whole country, of conger eels pulled from local harbours as thick as myself, drove me wild with excitement and wonder as to what I might catch.
There's something about fishing which is far more than the catching though: it's an attachment to the land and the wildlife, and perhaps the retaking of our place amongst nature itself, something often lost by those growing up in towns. For some folk the therapy comes in the cooking, for others it's in the growing, for me it was in the hunting, and still is more than ever.

Of course, at seven years old, we tend to follow the rules. In the sea, fishing was free, in freshwater, one paid for a permit - that's just how it was. That this was due to the lack of any meaningful reform to the elitist structure of recreational freshwater angling since 1868 (when Jesse James was at the height of his powers) probably wouldn't have bothered me when my local fishing was cheap enough and I'd enough trouble getting a lift to the local river never mind the Tay.

It is only in recent years that the difference between Scotland and the majority of the Commonwealth, the US and much of Europe has struck me. New Zealand's riparian strip system, ironically initiated by Queen Victoria, allows anglers access to all freshwater, and with it some of the finest trout fishing in the world, whether land is adjacent or not, for the price of around £80 a year. This would buy you a few hours on the Cargill beat of the Tay in September. Nova Scotia, to which the same species of salmon – Atlantic – migrate to spawn as come to our rivers, has similar rules regarding land access, with the permit around $35 a season, and free to under thirteens. Each US state, of course, has its rules and regulations, but for the most part, wonderful fishing is available very cheaply. The world's beacon of capitalist evils and whipping boy to champagne socialists the country-wide, it would seem, appear to view the right to fish through far more socialist eyes than Scotland.

Scotland, under the rule of supposed left wing governments since the first Scottish elections, sees fishing under the control of the Crown Estate, landed gentry, and new rich who move in, some of whom then decide that no fishing should be allowed, others that it should be let on a day-to-day basis, or syndicate, at ludicrous costs.
To be fair, it would be harsh to criticise any of the governments. Fishermen are hardly the most vocal in this country, despite angling being the nation's largest participation sport, probably as a result of the 'We cannae dae it, nuhin will ever chinge' attitude that permeates us. Calling round the various political parties last year, I was greeted with initial silence on the other end of the line when asking of their policy on freshwater angling, then, 'Well the government is in discussions with the Faroese over mackerel catches at the moment', or something similar. Quite simply, it's unlikely any young researcher with dreams of a future cabinet position has ever picked up a fishing rod – or kicked a football for that matter – in these days of the professional politician.

The most interesting response came from the Tories. 'Well we tend tend to side with the landowner', came the reply in a thick European accent. 'What's the fishing like in your country then, does it cost much?', I asked. 'Oh, of course we don't charge for fishing in my country. It's all free', came the reply, with a tone suggesting that such an idea would be utterly ludicrous.

For anglers desirous of reform, the main hope is that we can hang on to the coat-tails of the land reform movement, which has far more momentum and academic weight behind it. Strangely, from what I have noticed anyway, land reformers rarely seem to have an interest in fishing rights, and indeed in some community buy-outs, North Harris in particular, they were happily to allow salmon rights to stay under the ownership of the local landowner. 
If owning such vast swathes of land as is common in Scotland whilst growing rich on subsidies, rent from tenants etc is unfair, then the ownership of fishing rights, both those which can be held independently of the land (salmon and sea trout) or those tied to ownership the land (mainly brown trout, but essentially all other freshwater fish), is as equally out of place in a modern country. Similarly, anglers will feel very aggrieved should such communities then decide to keep the salmon fishing for themselves; it is as much the disadvantaged of our cities right to fish the River Lochy as anyone else's, and a small landowner charging a fortune is the same as a large one to us.

Scottish Anglers for Change is calling for the a complete review of angling from grassroots level. Primarily, a national body, controlled by the majority of association anglers, not the minority who own the fishing rights, should to be set up to which all anglers, whether resident or visiting, pay a national license. This funding would then allow a proposed national angling association to buy both salmon rights and riparian strips from estates and landowners if and when their salmon rights become available, and to allow members of angling associations the freedom to roam on all other association waters in what is simply an extension of the current, and rather outdated, exchange ticket system now in place.

Another aim would be the conservation of stocks. As it stands, some clubs, such as the River Kelvin Angling Association, have a tagging system in place similar to that in Nova Scotia. Five fish per year is the maximum to be killed. However, other associations don't, and it's all up to a local committee, many of whom lack the expertise to make such decisions, and others who simply don't want to stop taking as many salmon as they can.
The protection of pike and wild trout anglers from further commercialisation should also be a priority as it increases in popularity. The only reason this is as cheap as it is is that it was never a fashion in the 19thcentury. This will soon change if money can be made.

This country is blessed with thousands of miles of lochs and rivers and some wonderful wild trout fishing, some of which is never touched. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, however, suggests that wild trout lochs should be 'promoted, marketed, and policed' by district salmon fisheries boards, i.e. there should be a price put on fishing them in order landlords can grow richer on the back of fish they don't own. This must be stopped, and trout rights either separated from the land such as is the case with salmon, and the brown trout's genetically identical wandering friend, the sea trout, or a riparian strip system put in place.

This is only a very brief outline of Scottish Anglers for Change's aims, with a more detailed explanation found on our website. The first sallying-forth into the world of reform has brought with it an expected reaction – anti-Scottish racism, prejudice against 'Chimney sweep Bobs' who apparently don't belonging on the big rivers, and the cries of 'It'll never work' All a good sign, in my opinion, that something's been hit quite close to the mark.
All feedback is welcome from land reformers, anglers, and the prejudiced alike.

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