Science & Environment

Why town dwellers can get hooked on urban fishing

Fishing is often viewed as a country sport, but a new book by a river restoration expert and fly-fisher has revealed 50 places in the UK where you can catch fish such as trout a short walk from a town or city centre High Street.

Theo Pike is chairman of the environmental charity the Wandle Trust and author of Trout in Dirty Places. He says he wrote the book to address the perception that urban rivers are drains and sources of contagion and disease.

With many people living in towns and cities, Pike says urban fishing requires little equipment and its proximity to houses and places of work provides many advantages to fishing in rural areas.

Image caption Chub, eel and trout can be found in the River Wandle

"There is nothing finer that getting into a river at the end of a long hard day at the office and if you can wade into your local stream a few minutes away from your desk and spend an evening fishing a dry fly; it's amazingly relaxing."

Pike's local river, the River Wandle in south London, is a tributary of the River Thames and has historically suffered from heavy pollution.

"Having gone through its industrial phase I guess through the 1700s onwards it got really, really bad through the 1950s to the 1970s when it was officially classified as an open sewer," says Pike.

But in 2010, the Environment Agency listed the Wandle as one of the 10 most improved rivers and it now has eel, chub, grayling and trout among the aquatic life in its waters.

"It's an amazing transformation. The Wandle in a lot of ways is an example of what's happened on urban rivers all over the rest of the country.

"It went through really dark times but it is now coming back in impressive ways," says Pike.

National fisheries manager for the Environment Agency Godfrey Williams agrees: "Our rivers are generally the healthiest they have been for over 20 years.

"We have not got just salmon and trout, but otters and other wildlife returning to these urban areas for the first time since the industrial revolution, but there is a considerable way to go," he adds.

Williams says there are several factors behind this improvement. Changes in industry, better regulation and working closely with the water companies to invest billions of pounds in England and Wales have driven the change.

He gives the example of the River Tyne which flows between Newcastle and Gateshead. Heavy industry and sewage problems left this stretch of the Tyne almost devoid of fish, but since the early 1980s things have changed.

"There has been a remarkable improvement in the quality of the River Tyne such that it is now produces the best salmon catches in England and Wales," he says.

Mr Williams also thinks changes in anglers' attitudes have also helped.

"There is a much greater move towards fishing for recreation and less for taking of fish. Most of our coarse fishermen these days are fishing to return the fish and many of our trout and salmon anglers are following that practice now as well.

"So we are getting the benefits of much improved fisheries and the enjoyment of going out to fish and angle for them and those fish are also then returned to the water and helped to sustain stocks."

Other wildlife is also returning to the urban riverside.

"Here on the River Irwell in the heart of Salford there have been sightings of otters," says Philip James, professor of ecology at the University of Salford.

"We have kingfishers in the heart of Manchester," he adds.

Image caption Cleaner urban rivers can provide a more welcoming space for recreation

But he says improvement in urban rivers also has important economic and social roles. He explains they can provide an attractive location for business to locate, help with community cohesion in the form of conservation groups and proving a place to exercise and help improve mental wellbeing.

"The urban environment is as much about people as it is about wildlife and it is as much about the values that we as people obtain from that environment as the wildlife which is living there."

But despite many severe problems being cleared up, Mr Williams says rivers still have subtle problems such as sedimentation, residual chemical problems and the structure - weirs or barriers - that still need to be addressed.

Prof James thinks improving urban rivers could be taken further if we switched from "hard engineering" - such as the use of concrete to control rivers - and allowed the river to meander and flow onto floodplains.

He says the difficulty occurs in large cities where housing and industry has been built on flood areas.

"Until those flood areas are made appropriate, ie there is no housing in there and there is no industry in there, you can't let the river run wild.

"You can't re-engineer it back, so there is the big conflict."

But in towns with smaller rivers he says that providing it is engineered to withstand flash flooding and the water is not high all the time you could use floodplains for recreation.

"You can do things with those areas which can green them, encourage people to go and sit,"

"You've got a much better environment," he adds.

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