Turning a neglected lake into a beautiful focal point for the whole local community, Easington DAS are a brilliant example of what can be achieved when anglers work together. Winners of an Environment Award, their story is truly remarkable; and yet with their clever use of volunteer effort and help from the EA and Angling Trust among other sources, their success is one any angling club could learn from. Dom Garnett spoke to a key man in the transformation of Wellfield Lake, Steve Arnaud.
Looking at the idyllic site of Wellfield Lake today, you might never guess how grim things were not so long ago. Known in the 70s as a local jewel and noted crucian carp water, it had become a sad shadow of its former self. A site of litter-strewn scrubland whose main visitors were local drug users, it was about the last place you might take the kids to go fishing. But what on earth could be done?
Quite remarkably, it wasn’t the intervention of a moneyed investor that began the site’s rejuvenation, but a simple conversation between two friends.
“I would walk the dog there with a mate,” explains Steve Arnaud. “One day we were there chatting about what a mess it had become. We both agreed that we couldn’t let it get any worse, but what could we do? The paths were totally overgrown, as was the pond. You could virtually have walked across it on the weed, it was that choked.”
Steve’s suggestion that the two of them came back with a shovel and get to work clearing the old paths must have seemed blindly optimistic at first; but it was this initial spark that started something infinitely bigger.
“From just the two of us, we got more locals interested until three months in there were around twenty of us litter picking, weeding, the lot!” he recalls. “It was a start but we soon realised we’d need to reach out much further for help.”
From a spark to a blaze…
From an initial act of determination, the goodwill of those early volunteers steadily spread, bringing the whole community together and extending the agenda far beyond just fishing.
“Local generosity has been amazing- and the contributions just keep coming in” says Steve. “Most of it has been done on a shoestring- and in fact pretty much everything we do here we make ourselves. We have folks with engineering experience, guys who weed and remove litter, and even a gardener who helps out. How many fisheries have their own gardener?” he laughs. Not many, certainly among those that cost just £15 a year to be a member, you would guess!
Pretty soon, shrubs and materials were being left for the club to use, while volunteer efforts cleaned the whole site up. Nor was it just anglers who wanted to get involved, once it was so blindingly obvious that this could once again become a beautiful shared space for just about everyone who lived locally. Indeed, this sense of huge wider value to the community has been right at the heart of the project.
“Although we’re anglers, it’s about so much more than just fishing” says Steve. “You quickly realise that if you improve the habitat and the lake, the wildlife also benefits. As things improve, then people want to come back again, which in turn means that you get a different feel to the place and less antisocial behaviour.”
From clearing up old junk to planting over 400 trees, the Wellingfield Lake site has become a spectacular exercise in good old fashioned, hands-on people power. Unsurprisingly, the locals have returned, fish stocks are buoyant and the whole atmosphere has shifted.
Among other things, the project is also the result of a trusting, united effort, which tries to avoid arbitrary restrictions on helping out.
“Provided we’re all pulling the same way and getting on with things safely, we want people just to get on with it. That’s the attitude we try to encourage – after all, not everyone can make work parties on a Sunday, so it’s a case of doing what you can when you can. We’re all members at the end of the day, and we all have the same interest- so the message is, if you want to see positive change and improvement, just get together and let’s do it. “
Finding funds and winning friends
Although Steve and his volunteers are used to operating “on a shoestring” they have also made the most of the support available and been open to expert help at every step of the way. “Ultimately, we’re just local anglers and volunteers, not fishery experts, so getting support has been important. We’ve never been afraid to ask for some help; and the Environment Agency and Angling Trust have been excellent for us.”
The EA, in particular, have helped with practical advice on restoring the lake, from which plants to use to how to deal with the menace that is Canadian pondweed.
The club have also been Angling Trust members from the start, making the most of its free advice while also successfully gaining some helpful funds from rod licence money via the AIF (Angling Improvement Fund) and FIP (Fisheries Improvement Programme). The club didn’t succeed in its first application, but by persisting and showing the huge social value of what they were doing, they succeeded next time round- and Steve speaks highly of the Angling Trust’s Mark Wilton in helping them make a successful bid.
Other initiatives range from recognised sources such as National Lottery funds, to more leftfield places, including the local Greggs, which provided charitable funds to help Neil Arnaud build fantastic wind powered aerators for the lake! The nearest Fishing Republic store also showed great generosity in providing dozens of whips and starter kits for kids to try fishing.
The difference made from all of these pots making use of a varety of sources is plain to see, including excellent level paths and disabled-friendly pegs to allowing anglers of all abilities safe and accessible fishing. It’s a huge credit to all the volunteers. Meanwhile, there is also a tea cabin to provide shelter in bad weather and a space for visitors to share a cuppa.
The ultimate win-win?
The more I ask about the the project, the more abundantly clear it becomes that its success is all about keeping the bigger picture in mind and thinking of the whole community. Perhaps too often, anglers are inward looking and miss the wider impact our sport can have? Not so at Easington, where there is no mentality of “us and them” but an angling club that is at the heart of the community.
“We need to get away from the idea that fishing waters are for anglers only” says Steve. “If you can involve everyone, it’s so much more likely to be a success.” He considers publically accessible waters to be of vital importance, especially in the current era when local resources risk being cut or neglected. After all, public lakes are where so many try fishing for the first time.
Wellfield is a point in case, because winning the hearts of locals has been absolutely key in recruiting new anglers. Working with the likes of Get Hooked on Fishing and thanks to countless hours of coaching input from Paul Colledge and others at the club, over 500 people have tried the sport in the past two years. Memberships have quadrupled from 30 to 120, with the junior section now buoyant.
“Kids’ parents actually come and knock on our door now,” says Steve. In some ways it’s like the good old days, he tells me, with the lake cleaner and safer than it’s been in ages. ”There’s a whole band of local kids who hop on their bikes after school and come fishing. It’s something we hadn’t seen in years and it’s great to see.”
Wider positives and future plans
Above all, the restoration of Wellfield Lake strikes you as a fantastic example of how an angling club can bring priceless wider benefits beyond just providing somewhere for people to fish. Walkers, twitchers and picnickers love the lake as much as the anglers, while other developments are fantastically far reaching.
One huge current issue for any community is the importance of mental and physical health, alongside spaces and activities to combat social isolation. In this respect the club’s Wellbeing Tuesdays have been a brilliant initiative to get people out together in the outdoors.
“The idea was a social isolation project aimed at getting people out of the house, to share a brew and socialise together in the outdoors” says Steve. “Since the start, we’ve had a real mix of people, up to those in their 80s and 90s. We’ve also welcomed kids with all kinds of special needs. It doesn’t matter if they’re 10 or 100, everyone is welcome. They can try fishing, or just come and socialise. It’s been fantastic- everyone feels better when they get outdoors in company and a fair few also then get fishing licences and go on to spend in our local tackle shops.”
It’s just another example of the positive “ripple effect” within the local community, which is now spreading even further. Whether it’s local college kids getting work experience by doing things on site, or the fact that a consistent friendly presence means that the fly tippers have mostly gone, it’s all moving in the right direction.
Not that Steve and his little army of local heroes are finished just yet, of course. The next plan on the go is creating a smaller pond, which will be a special crucian and tench lake. The thought of cracking genuine crucians completes the cycle of recovery in one sense, because it was several decades ago in the club’s infancy that the site was known for fantastic genuine crucians.
“It was a no brainer, really” says Steve. “My suggestion was to use little bit of existing wetland that was once be part of the pond. After all 50 years ago we were renowned as a crucian lake. I said ‘how about we do this again with a new pond?’ at a club meeting and every hand in the room shot up!”
Not only a very easy decision then, but fantastic news for crucian fans in the North East, a region where the species could certainly use a helping hand. It promises to be another great step; and it says it all that from a position of declining returns not so long ago, the club is now in a position where stocks are bouncing right back. Indeed, along with inspiration and practical advice to share with fellow North East fishing clubs, Easington DAA are also hoping to be able to offer top notch brood stock.
In spite of the huge improvements, however, the one thing Steve and the club won’t be doing soon is increasing the membership prices. At just £15 per full adult member and even less for juniors, it’s amazing value- but the club fully accept that times are hard and that affordability is a massive factor with local families.
“You can see the impact we’re having locally” says Steve. “We only started out wanting somewhere nice to go fishing every week, but it is so much more than that now. It’s given people a place to enjoy themselves and meet up; it’s something to to take pride in. It’s an endless thing now. There’s always something else to do, but it’s very rewarding.”
From the humble starting point of two guys with shovels and a willingness to roll their sleeves up, then, it’s truly mind-blowing what has happened at Wellfield Lake. The possibilities are endless and it really does demonstrate what can be achieved when we work together and bring angling into the community, where it so rightfully belongs.
Further info and useful links
For more details and the latest news from Easington DAC, which offers some of the best value coarse and carp in the North East, click here to visit the club’s Facebook page.
To find out more about the Angling Improvement Fund (AIF) and Fisheries Improvement Programme, and how your club could benefit from EA rod licence money, click here to see the dedicated section of our website.
Don’t forget to subscribe to “Lines on the Water” and check out our blog archives for more inspiring projects and ideas that could help your club or fishery!