Anglers all over the country are taking action against rubbish on our waterways this spring. Dom Garnett joined volunteers on his local River Exe and Exeter Canal, to witness the power of collective action.
Is there any group in the country that does so much for the environment with so little thanks as anglers? The vast majority of us care passionately about rivers, lakes and seas. We pour millions of pounds into habitat protection and restoration with our rod licences alone. And yet we’re still often blamed, fairly or otherwise, for the carelessness of a tiny minority.
This is why it’s great to see our sport mobilise more than ever on the issue of rubbish. By organising volunteers, working with others and raising awareness like never before with our Anglers Against Litter campaign, the hope is that we can not only make a big difference, but show the wider public that we are very much part of the solution to a cleaner, greener country.
The theory sounds great, then, but how does this work in practice? I recently attended a great example of this in Exeter, alongside keen local anglers from Trew Weir Fishery, Exeter and District Angling Association and Angling Trust Environment Manager, Dr. Emily Smith.
Wading into a huge issue!
On a breezy morning by the River Exe, we meet over a dozen anglers who are literally rolling their sleeves up to help their local fisheries. Donning waders and protective gloves, they’re already busy getting organised. With some restrictions still in place, it makes sense to work at different tasks in small groups.
In no time at all, Simon Cooper and Mark Walker, two Exe stalwarts, are already waist-deep in water. Also present to muck in and help direct the troops is Phil Hoult of the Voluntary Bailiff Service. Not content with just patrolling the banks round here, he’s now immersed in the water!
“These events really bring everyone together,” he tells me. “It’s amazing what can happen with a bit of organisation and shout-outs on social media. It also makes you realise what a wide range of expertise we have in the angling community, if we can just pull together and build a few bridges.”
He’s not wrong on that score. Besides waders, wetsuits, hi-vis vests and litter pickers, we have chains and winches. A qualified swimming instructor has also joined us, while there’s even a licensed chainsaw operative here, along with friend Danny Parkins, to cut troublesome timber into more manageable pieces for removal!
It helps that the river is low at present, allowing us to reach a startling assortment of scrap, from drowned bicycles to the obligatory shopping trollies, traffic cones and road signs. How half of it got here is anyone’s guess- but we’re going to get as much as we can out of harm’s way and properly disposed of.
Obviously, it’s important in any such effort to play it safe and be properly equipped. This is part of Emily’s brief as our expert on litter and invasive species, and she’s been encouraging good practice and collaboration with other community groups across the country. It’s great to see rod licence money helping these efforts- and besides collaborating closely with other organisations, she has also helped put together some really handy free downloads and resources that angling clubs and fisheries can use (see our further reading and links at the end of this blog post).
Expect the unexpected
One of the great things about mucking in with volunteer efforts is the sense of camaraderie, not to mention a sense of discovery. Far from being just a chore, it’s quite good fun and a great way of networking with others. And you never quite know what to expect.
For starters, I am staggered not just by the amount of waste plastic we grab, but the sheer number of trollies and bikes. These look simply horrible. Not only do they ooze with rust, but also trap other litter and waste. They also have a nasty habit of stealing my lures- and I want revenge!
The first supermarket stray I help to move takes some serious elbow grease to shift. It also holds quite a few caddis larvae, which we try and shake back into the river. The next trolley even has a bullhead lodged in one corner as we lift it clear! Disappointingly, the pound coin deposit is long gone.
Some of the larger, more troublesome rubbish items need a concerted effort. A winch from someone’s Land Rover is especially helpful here, as is our chainsaw guy to deal with some huge tree trunks that are stuck high and almost dry on top of the weir.
Moving onto the canal
Besides the River Exe, I’m also keen to see what we can remove from the Exeter Canal today. We’re joined by volunteers Adam Aplin, Dan Osmond and also Vince Thorne today, who is the water manager for Exeter DAA. He’s fished his local waters for many years and is known for giving short shrift to anyone who even thinks about leaving litter! Unsurprisingly, he’s especially keen to get anglers helping to clean up.
Our first big trouble spot comes with an unexpected illegal campsite. Revellers have not only left a large, collapsed and waterlogged tent, but all of their empties inside it! Pretty shocking- but it’s a good feeling to dispose of it all. Vince also appears to be one of those talented people who can actually pack away a tent in the pathetically small bag it came in!
With all sorts of rubbish in the tent, it emphasises the importance of having gloves and hand gel on these missions, as Emily is quick to point out. Some tougher waste bags also help to deal with the likes of broken glass or other more dangerous waste like rusty metal.
With it being a busy weekend in the city, the banks are busy with walkers and it’s fantastic to show the public that anglers care and are taking a hands-on approach. We lose count of the number of people who express their thanks or simply say that it’s great to see us out cleaning up. Of course, having some branded hi-vis Anglers Against Litter vests is also a good call to let everyone know that it’s the local fishing community who are rolling up their sleeves to make a difference.
Rounding up and signing off
By around midday, we have assembled quite a collection of waste, to put it mildly. The car parking areas on the canal have been especially messy after a Bank Holiday Weekend. It’s quite beyond us why so many of the public have to dump takeaway wrappers out of car windows, or simply leave it by already overflowing bins.
Statistics suggest that around one in ten Brits drop litter- clearly a small minority, but if the local takeaways serve several hundred people on a weekend, the maths quickly look quite ominous! It’s estimated that over two million bits of litter are dropped daily in the UK- and a fair bit of this ends up in our rivers, stillwaters and, ultimately, the sea.
By midday, we’re wrapping things up and a gang of black bin liners from the canal joins the waste from the river. The assembled heap is quite impressive in its own grubby way. Along with the other scraps, road signs and a few decidedly brown looking fashion accessories have been added- and even a block of cannabis resin!
It goes without saying that all this stuff will be pooled in one collection point and correctly disposed of at the end of our clean up. If the river and canal could talk, they would be saying a resounding “thanks a million!”. Speaking of thanks, our volunteers also wanted to express their gratitude to Exeter City Council- and Diana Moore in particular- for offering to collect and dispose our collection of assorted debris at the end of the session.
It only remains to say a huge thank you to everyone who attended on the day- and indeed anglers all over the country who do their bit for our fisheries. Looking at what perhaps fifteen of us have done today, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realise the huge positive impact the angling community can have on a hugely significant national issue.
In truth, a lot of us are already doing our bit, but we’re more determined than ever to go even further! Wouldn’t it be great to see anglers at the forefront of this fight, finally getting the credit they deserve for taking care of our freshwater habitats?
Further reading and FREE resources!
To find out more about our battle to combat, litter, plastic pollution and other issues facing our waterways, don’t forget to take a look at the “Get Involved” section on our main website. Here you’ll find all kinds of ways you can get involved, from joining our “Take Five” initiative, to using the brilliant Anglers’ National Line Recycling Scheme.
You can also download FREE campaign posters and read our letter to local councils HERE.
Finally, if you want to know more about how we are working with the Angling community and trade at combatting plastic pollution and waste, you might enjoy our recent “Anglers vs Litter and Landfill” blog post. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered about the stranger things found in our rivers and canals (below), our blog post on bizarre accidental discoveries has some real eye-openers!