Angling Trust Policy Chief Martin Salter has, once again, been at the centre of our campaign to keep us fishing during Lockdown. Here is the full story on how we once again got angling over line when other sports were shutdown together with some essential reading on how to stay the right side of a very confusing set of rules for the latest lockdown in England.
Happy New Year seems a rather inappropriate greeting to mark the beginning of 2021 but amidst all the grim news of packed hospital wards and record numbers of Covid deaths there have been some brighter spots – particularly if you happen to be an angler with access to some local fishing.
After a hectic ten days at the Angling Trust, which has seen the sport we all love banned then unbanned within the space of 24 hours, along with mass confusion over what is permitted activity during the current national lockdown, we thought it would be helpful to set out clearly where we are with fishing and how we got the ‘green light’ when so many other sports remain prohibited.
Covid is Real
Let’s start with what should be blindingly obvious – Covid is all too real and has caused an unprecedented and deadly global pandemic. We have said throughout that angling must be part of the solution and not a cause of problems or concern.
But as is sadly the case in the general population there is a small proportion of the angling community who have taken advantage of the platform provided by social media to display staggering levels of stupidity and ignorance. Last year is now confirmed as the deadliest in England and Wales since the height of the flu pandemic in 1918. More than 608,000 deaths were recorded, with 81,653 attributable to coronavirus, according to new figures released by the Office for National Statistics.
These grim numbers, coupled with sacrifices being made by our wonderful NHS staff, make the rantings the conspiracy theorists, coronavirus deniers and anti- vaxxers particularly hard to stomach. If smashing up 5G masts, or sending death threats to Bill Gates is your thing please don’t do it on anything associated with angling and preferably try and get some help!
Of equal concern are those anglers who bring our sport into disrepute by posting pictures of themselves on Facebook blatantly flouting the rules or inciting mass disobedience. I hope every angling club is taking note of the worst offenders and that a number of club memberships won’t be reissued next year. As one of our members wryly commented the other day – “It’s great that we now have a vaccine for Covid but a shame there isn’t one for ‘stupid!”
Was angling banned and why?
Some of the madder conspiracy theorists out there have even gone as far to suggest that far from working night and day to make the case for a limited form of socially distanced fishing to continue under lockdown, the Angling Trust simply invented the whole thing. Well, let’s deal with that piece of nonsense first.
The new Covid variant saw infections skyrocketing over the Xmas period and early in the New Year the Cabinet met to consider a Third National Lockdown. At this point, just as in previous crunch points last year, the Angling Trust team considered when and how we should engage with ministers. We wrote to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden – with copies to supportive MPs – ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement on January 4th. We also placed articles in the national media highlighting our position. As previously we pressed the case for angling and pointed out the following reasons for allowing us to continue in some form:
- Angling is a largely solitary sport where social distancing occurs naturally.
- Proven benefits for mental health and physical well-being
- Angling appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds and engages able-bodied and disabled participants alike.
- The majority of the population live within 5 miles of a waterway minimising the need for significant travel.
- Evidence that non-contact outdoor activities will not increase infection rates.
- A reduction in pressure on other public open spaces.
The full text of our letters to Ministers can be seen HERE
That night things didn’t look too good for angling and this was confirmed in both the government’s guidance and in the regulations published the next day which saw ‘outdoor recreation’ removed as a lawful reason to leave home. We double checked with Sport England and three separate government departments as to whether there were any plans to exempt angling or even to include us in a wider definition of ‘exercise’ and were told firmly that this would not be happening and we should inform the angling community accordingly. The Environment Agency received precisely the same advice and in all cases it was confirmed in writing.
With the regulations coming into force at midnight on January 5th we took the decision to advise anglers in England that despite our best efforts we would be included along with other outdoor sports in the new lockdown restrictions. The last thing we needed, after all the credibility our sport had built over the preceding nine months, was to have anglers caught flouting the new regulations because they didn’t understand them. That’s why Sport England requires all the sporting national governing bodies to issue their own guidelines in each area.
Angling Trust CEO Jamie Cook then put his widely shared statement explaining the situation. He said:
“ With 60,000 new infections announced today the Government have taken the decision that leaving home for recreation or leisure, including all forms of recreational fishing, should be prohibited in England during this third national lockdown period.”
Now for those still unsure, bewildered or possibly too blinkered to believe the Angling Trust could do anything half right (you know who are) we’ve gone to the trouble of serving up a little humble pie by setting out the written communications to both ourselves and the EA confirming the government’s intention for angling to be banned within the lockdown rules. You can find chapter and verse HERE.
A Change of Heart
Wednesday saw MPs debating the new regulations and angling was raised by those concerned that the lockdown measures needed to be sensible and proportionate. There were also useful pieces in the Daily Telegraph and other national newspapers that are influential with the current government. Late that afternoon came the first of several communications from both DCMS and the Cabinet Office indicating a change of heart and that some water sports were being considered as legitimate forms of exercise. We went back to Sport England for formal confirmation which was eventually provided by both DCMS and DEFRA.
“fishing is allowed as exercise so long as participants adhere to the rules on staying local, gathering limits, social distancing and limiting the time spent outdoors”
[DCMS Sports Team]
“Cabinet Office have now officially confirmed that angling / fishing (incl. sea fishing off private boats, water sports) can be considered exercise and are hence permitted.”
[DEFRA – Freshwater Fisheries Senior Policy Advisor]
At that point we were able to break the news that local fishing, with one other not from your household or support bubble, was indeed to be considered a permissible form of daily exercise. Not surprisingly the vast majority of the angling community reacted with delight, so much so that our website crashed and we were inundated with applications for membership.
Obviously, those not wishing to fish at this time and those who believed that the government should have imposed a total lockdown were less thrilled and we absolutely respect these views. I felt particularly sorry for all those fishery managers who had dutifully closed their waters on Wednesday morning only to be told a few hours later that they could open them again. My own Reading & District AA being a case in point, but it least it bought a breathing space where clubs and fisheries could consider how to move forward in a very different angling landscape. New rules were needed and some waters, where anglers usually travelled from afar or where night fishing was the norm, would clearly not be reopening.
New rules for local fishing
Thursday was all about getting the message out there and responding to the mass of enquiries. Foremost of which was to define ‘local’ – not an easy task since the government had not done so in the regulations as the Police have been pointing out themselves. Our Facebook went into meltdown with posts hitting unprecedented reach figures of one million plus so Jamie and I decided to hold a Facebook Live session with Ali Hamidi of Korda/Guru to address as many of the key issues as we could.
We had to get across that it would not be fishing as we’ve ever known it before. Our key messages were and remain:
- This is a strictly limited resumption of LOCAL fishing and very different to how we have been allowed to operate since May.
- We are in a National Lockdown and this must be respected. The law requires a ‘reasonable excuse’ to leave your home or penalties will apply.
- Organised sporting gatherings are prohibited so no match fishing
- The exercise is limited to once a day so no overnight fishing whatsoever
- To remain within the law you should follow the travel guidance and only fish locally.
- We are once again able to enjoy the sport we love at a time when many others cannot and we must ensure that every angler adheres to the rules.
Download the Guidelines and FAQs
Friday saw us working up a full set of guidelines for angling under these new restrictions. Other sports were busy doing the same. These guidelines have served us well throughout the pandemic proving that anglers can fish safely and responsibly. In fact, senior officials at DEFRA believe they were an important factor in convincing ministers that angling should be allowed to continue.
I believe that the sensible advice AT provided to its members in May last year, combined with general high levels of compliance by anglers with the COVID rules has served recreational angling well, and has been a factor in allowing this activity to continue.
The full set of Angling Trust frequently asked questions (FAQs) have now been produced and include the latest advice from the police. They can be found HERE.
Please read them carefully and take a copy with you when fishing during lockdown or download them onto your phone.
The failure of the government to define ‘local’ has generated the most confusion. It clearly makes no sense to confine activities like canoeing, cycling and fishing to a village boundary and the Angling Trust guidelines reflect this. Take my own situation as a case in point. I live a few hundred yards from the boundary between Reading and West Berkshire. I could drive 6.1 miles to the east across town and fish the junction of the Kennet and the Thames or I could, more sensibly, travel 2 miles west to my local stretch of the Thames in the neighbouring council area. This is precisely what I did earlier this week for a very welcome bit of chub fishing and will be doing so again. As we say it’s all about finding the nearest available waters that can be safely fished. This will inevitably vary from place to place.
However, as has been pointed out, how is it that people fully understand the concept of a local school, the local shop or popping down to their ‘local’ for a pint yet us anglers struggle with deciding what constitutes a local water? Of course the majority of enquiries we received were from genuine people who wanted to do the right thing but a fair few were from chancers wanting to get ‘permission’ from a third party to give them an excuse to keep traveling 50 miles or more to their favourite venues. Sorry guys, it is what it is and we don’t make the rules, which is why we have made the following point abundantly clear in our own guidelines.
If you have no local fishing available then you will have to take your daily exercise in other ways.
The overarching message from the government is to stay at home apart from essential journeys and daily exercise. Whilst we can drive to access open space your exercise is to be taken as close to home as possible. With the majority of the population living within five miles of a waterway most people can find somewhere to fish. And it can be fun rediscovering those overlooked waters close to home. They might not be where you’d normally prefer to fish but at least you can fish. And if that’s not enough then I’m sorry, we’ve done our best and a quick glance on the England Golf Facebook page will show you how lucky others consider us anglers to be.
Boys in Blue
I don’t envy any police officer having to deal with enforcing the ever growing amount of Covid Regulations. Busting those two women for going for a walk armed with a cup of coffee was clearly absurd and it’s good that the Derbyshire force has backed down and issued an apology. And there’s no way either the Met will take action against the Prime Minister for his seven mile cycle jaunt through several London Boroughs because, Boris Johnson aside, people out exercising in a responsible manner is not the issue. The police have told us their priority is mass gatherings, house parties, raves, gambling and drinking dens, gyms and other establishments that shouldn’t be open. These are the super spreaders that have to be tackled, not people out cycling, paddling or fishing in the fresh air, especially if it’s close to home.
So you can now find some helpful advice in our updated FAQs on what to do should you be approached by a police officer when fishing. The feedback we’ve had so far has been very positive so please do have a read.
The key things you must demonstrate is that you are acting reasonably, you have a lawful excuse to be outside your home and that you have travelled there in accordance with established guidelines and are maintaining social distancing.
- Angling is a ‘reasonable excuse’ recognised by Government as evidenced by Sport England HERE.
- You should be able to show that your travel to go fishing is in accordance with the government’s instruction to stay local and you are following the Angling Trust’s travel guidelines.
This should resolve most situations but should a police officer decide to issue you with a direction order or fixed penalty notice you should accept it and pack up immediately and return home if so instructed. You can be given a Fixed Penalty Notice of £200 for the first offence, doubling for further offences up to a maximum of £6,400. These can be challenged later at a magistrates court if necessary. Police officers and PCSOs have the ‘power of direction’ and the power of arrest for failing to comply or to provide a name and address. However, the clear national guidance issued to all forces, known as the ‘4 Es’ is to engage, explain and encourage before enforcement is even considered as an option. Common sense and judgement on both sides should avoid any problems between anglers and the police.
Enjoy your fishing and stay safe
It shouldn’t need saying but we really must avoid fishing in crowded places where social distancing could be difficult and might give rise to concerns over public health. We can hardly maintain the argument that allowing us to fish relieves pressure on public open spaces if we are demonstrably adding to the problem. If your favourite local stretch of river or canal has a narrow towpath and is crammed with people then go somewhere else or return home. The spotlight is on us like never before and we must all conduct ourselves responsibly and fish safely. Please remember we are extremely fortunate to be able to fish at all and we must all act as ambassadors for our sport.
A big thank you must go to every Angling Trust member whose support has been crucial in enabling us to make a professional and ultimately successful case for fishing. Over 2,000 anglers have joined us in the last week and we hope many more will do so soon. By working together we are so much stronger.
Stay Safe and if you do decide to fish locally, Tight Lines!