Draining our streams of life

Outdoor Living

TIPPING THE BALANCE Otters grow fat gorging on a concentration of lake trout forced to vie over the meagre patches of gravel now available for spawning.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Rain turned rivulets into rivers and flooded low fields, preventing me from walking the banks of my local stream to look for spawning trout. I know they are there, it’s just impossible to see into the flood.
Nor is it I alone that has an interest. Above the bridge was an otter. It rolled in the water, long, sinuous and black, almost serpentine in appearance. The shine on its coat wasn’t due only to the wet.
‘A well fed animal,’ I said to myself.
Hunting is easy at present. Ever since drainage schemes dredged such streams as this, the amount of spawning territory has been limited.
Here and there a few barrowloads of gravel have been thrown back into the river to provide for the fish. It is completely insufficient. Now trout taken by the urge to breed are lined up, side by side, flank on flank, vying for space. When one lot of eggs are buried, another desperate fish moves in and digs them out in her efforts to excavate a nest for her own offspring.
And there is the otter, attracted by a concentration of prey. No more must he search over miles of water, for the fish he likes to eat are concentrated in just a few areas such as here at Towerhill.
Most of these fish have migrated from Lough Carra, just a mile or so downstream. There are likely a few river fish among them, but as a rule they are lake trout.
I have a suspicion that some are from further afield, from Lough Mask, that vast expanse of silver grey linked to Carra by the Keel River. Trout from Mask enter that river from the end of August on, again hoping to find gravel suitable for their purposes.
There is a little alright, though it is nowhere close to the amount formerly available. A good number of those Mask fish push right through into the upper lake and, finding the feeding very rich, choose to stay. It’s as well that they do, for if Carra was left to herself I think the stock of trout would be very poor indeed. As it is, 2022 will be remembered for the worst fishing on record, for me at least. The persistent absence of most other once-regular anglers is further evidence that something is severely amiss with this otherwise beautiful water.
The quality of fishing on offer is only one symptom of an ailing environment. Many who know and love the lake, both anglers and otherwise, are pinning their hopes on the EU funded LIFE project, which aims to partially restore Carra to something like it was before.
This long and arduous process must lay bare painful facts about intensive agriculture. It will take time. Many had hoped for significant progress already. Decades of harmful practice and damaging lack of foresight cannot be undone overnight.
We know that the very trout we see on the redds at Towerhill have had to run the gauntlet even before attempting to reproduce. Carra has a large population of pike, which follow and feed upon the migrating trout. Annies River is full of them, as are the reedy bays into which this and other feeder streams flow.
When the trout are through with spawning most of those spared by the otter will return to the lake, spent and quite exhausted, where predatory pike are waiting still.
This is a hot topic. Pike anglers are keen to protect their sport and claim that pike catch and eat only the weak and sick, which is patently not true. Whether pike are even native to Ireland or not is still the subject of fierce debate.
What we do know is that brown trout most certainly are native, and that on sensitive waters such as Carra the balance can easily be tipped, so that our precious natural heritage is in jeopardy. We don’t want to be the ones responsible for irreparably damaging such a valuable resource. Is it in the power of our hand to change just this one thing?
Other changes taking place on Carra can be seen year on year, by any who care to look. Inaction and the passing of time leave the road back longer and more difficult to negotiate.
Why is it so very difficult to provide a suitable spawning medium for trout? Let them spread out, over many miles of water. As fine as it is to see him, we should make the otter work for his food, rather than leave him free to slaughter just for fun. Baby steps, I know, but a start.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.