Scotland’s angling is one of our greatest natural assets. To those who own it, it also provides a nice little earner. A heritable property, the right to fish for salmon and sea trout can even be owned independently from the land, meaning someone living in Dubai, Chelsea or Monaco can own and let fishing rights for hundreds of pounds a day on a beat they’ve never seen, effectively debarring locals from their own river in the process.
Many of the owners’ names are cut from the oldest of cloth – Dukes of Atholl, Buccleuch, of Roxburgh, and smaller owners such as Munro of Novar on the river Alness. Many are newer, smaller scale, many are cheaper and many more accessible. And of course not every owner is out to exploit; often a local farmer is more than happy to lease to angling clubs for a bottle of whisky, while others don’t want anyone disturbing their kye, and keep everyone off (though if they don’t own the salmon fishing rights, they can’t).
By and large, though, the big rivers are no go unless top dollar is paid, particularly at peak times. The owners and their hangers-on, meanwhile, are quick to predict impending disaster should Jock progress from tugging his forelock to actually running affairs himself. Thousands of ill-equipped, uncouth southerners in Rangers tracksuits will swamp the rivers, a Gadarene rush of Bearsden housewives, midweek knitting societies, and depressed suburban swingers, suddenly filled with the urge to go fishing, will arm themselves with the nearest thing to a rod they can find, storm the Duke of Roxburghe’s Junction Pool on the Tweed, and decimate stocks in a matter of days. This lot have no place on the great rivers of their own country, back to the schemes with them!
The conservation card is, in this most disingenuous of manners, frequently played. The ludicrous price tags on the Shin and the Helmsdale are not in place to fill the pockets of the lairds, but an altruistic measure designed to preserve the environment from the unlearned Scot’s bumbling idiocy, they expect us to believe. Although many estates are forward thinking on conservation, particularly with regards to spring salmon, many are not, and there is no national catch limit on any individual angler over the whole year. Needless to say, a catch and release policy which increases the number of fish returning, and thus caught, benefits the owners, who in turn adjust their prices upwards. It has been suggested by some anglers, even, that some beats massage their catch returns with this in mind.
Over in the New World, fishing is managed in a far more equitable manner. New Zealand’s trout fishing paradise has a publicly owned riparian strip on all waterways, ironically created by Queen Victoria, which provides access to fishermen regardless of adjacent property under a national license costing just over one hundred dollars. Norway’s great salmon rivers have set periods for Norwegians, albeit its now forty year old angling laws favour the wealthy, and even the US has thousands of miles of pristine river and lake open to public access, again under state license.
Perhaps the most pertinent examples are the Atlantic salmon rivers of Nova Scotia. In a province around a third the size of Scotland and home to just under a million people, there is not one inch of private game fishing, a system perhaps created in reaction to the oppression of na h-uachdaran mòra from which Scots fled in the first place. The $27 license allows anglers to kill five fish per year maximum, a conservation policy which must be introduced this side of the Atlantic. Most importantly, there are no landlords keeping watchful eyes over the locals – fishing is for everyone and for all.
Most prominent Scottish land reformers seem to agree community control of local assets is the way ahead, something which seems a fair shout. However, handing ownership and profits from one huge landowner to a community who live there does the children of Easterhouse no good. Equally, owning the right to cast an artificial fly across a river, without actually owning the fish, the water, or (sometimes) the land through which it flows is as ludicrous and abstract a concept as Glaswegians owning the right to shop in Buchanan Street and chinning people for permits in the House of Fraser.
To those involved in angling in the south, where many local communities already control their fishing, be it let from an estate over generations or donated in philanthropic gesture, the current zeitgeist amongst the middle classes for local control rings alarm bells. It is not, however much they would like to believe, ideal. Local associations, frequently divided town-to-town, can have one man in charge for decades, banning people he takes a dislike to, bullying children, and generally playing a small-town dictator.
Furthermore, there’s nothing to stop one association outbidding a neighbouring town for rental of their salmon rights, then charging its residents double the price, as ‘outsiders’, to fish. Unbelievably, this happens. Two clubs on the same river, both charging around fifty pounds a year, can be the worst of enemies, refusing to cooperate on conservation or poaching due to a fallout between the presidents’ fathers in the sixties. To the average angler with no interest in running a club, this means buying an extra permit to fish the neighbouring water, when allowing freedom to roam would be far more equitable to man and beast. Many small clubs also have very poor catch and release policies which, without legal authority, are very hard to implement.
The Scottish Government must create a national angling body for management of the sport, and introduce a sate license. Arab millionaires and London bankers – the same way they would were they fishing Alaska or Montana – would then contribute the upkeep of small associations, not just another rich man’s estate. From monies raised, the permits of disadvantaged children, of pensioners, (who should be exempt from any license fee, though subject to application) could be paid on their local association waters.
Relevant organisations, such as the Ayrshire Rivers Trust, must become statutory on all rivers, and paid to conduct biological surveys, control invasive species such as Himalayan balsam, giant hogweed, and North American mink, and monitor the stocking of rivers with trout, which is very often detrimental. The current voluntary donations such bodies receive is not enough when the environment is at stake.
Most importantly, funds must be used to purchase salmon rights and riparian strips around lochs which come up for sale, thus breaking the oligarchy and bringing, step by step, Scotland’s angling into the hands of the people who live in and love their country and community. Take away a six thousand pound rental from a local laird and cooperate with surrounding clubs, and an angling association is also a good way to affording a full time bailiff on the river – again a necessity for conservation against those netting and snigging salmon for the sheer badness.
If there’s a nicer character in politics than Paul Wheelhouse, I’ll be very surprised. At the moment, though, both himself and Andrew Thin, chair of the current Wild Fisheries Review group, are stuck in a three way jam between the naysaying conservatism of working class Scotland, a rampant capitalism which would see even Alabama Republicans load their six shooters, and anglers who call for simple parity with other nations.
Of course, everyone has their own priorities, their own loyalties, their own political views. The review group, however, must be very careful in its conclusions, for there now exist those who are not only acutely aware of the historical injustices which created this outrageous system, but who will sacrifice everything to change it. In a nation upon which the dead hand of feudalism and Victorian exploitation still rests heavily, it is even more pertinent that the legal mechanisms are provided to bring about change in a progressive manner. The dukes can rest easily in their tweeds, though; it will be many a generation before Scotland achieves parity with Nova Scotia, if ever. But in the meantime, they must be made to give a little back.