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The Wilton Fly Fishing Club, River Wylye, Wiltshire

Wilton Fly Fishing Club, one of the world’s oldest angling clubs, is based in Great Wishford, Wiltshire. The club has around 40 members and about six miles of river leased from the Wilton Estate. The Club sees itself as a custodian for future generations. It goes to great efforts to maintain and improve the river and it hosts river visits for the Great Wishford First School to teach the children about the ecology of the Wylye.

The main targets for club members are brown trout and grayling. All are wild fish and, to preserve precious stocks, members carefully return virtually all of the fish they catch.

Both species will only live in clean water – and chalkstreams such as the Wylye can provide ideal habitat. But these are fairly unusual rivers. They originate from aquifers in the chalk landscape itself. The chalk collects rainwater as it soaks into the ground and slowly releases it to form streams. In global terms, chalkstreams are rare; that’s part of the reason for the whole Avon river system (including the Wylye) having the conservation status of both Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation.

However, the nature of chalk valleys is such that, left alone, they would be mainly large areas of swamp. They are natural flood plains. The Wylye as we see it today is the result of man reclaiming the flood plain to create power for flour milling, to create water meadows for grazing cattle and for agricultural use generally.  But, if the river were left to look after itself, it would soon revert to swamp.

 
Conservation takes elbow grease as well as dedication!
That’s why, as you walk the riverbank, you’ll notice many man-made adjustments: artificial banks, newly made islands and so on. Chalkstreams need to be managed if they are to stay as the beautiful rivers we have today.

The Wilton Club does immense work in this regard and has received two prestigious national conservation awards - from English Nature and from the Wild Trout Trust.

Over the years, abstraction has reduced the flow in the river – and two years of little rain has worsened the position. To combat this, the Club has done a great deal. A good example is the new island by Stoford Bridge. This stretch of water used to be blanketed with ranunculus weed, but for several seasons it has been virtually barren. Low flows have not helped the weed to grow – and have made it shallow enough for the swans to eat the weed faster than it could establish itself.

You may wonder why this is important. It’s simple. Insects live in water weed. No weed, no insects. Fish need insects to feed on. No insects, no fish! Others who benefit from the weed growth include little grebes, kingfishers, swallows and bats – in fact, the whole food chain. So the weed is vitally important to the overall health and biodiversity of the Wylye.

 
The new island, 7 months after its creation
The new island and many of the other recent habitat improvements were planned in consultation with, and part financed by The Wessex Chalkstream Project, a partnership of: English Nature, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency, Wiltshire Fishery Association and Wessex Water. The effect of the island is to hold back the water, giving slightly more depth upstream of the island, but mainly to narrow the channel, speeding up the flow and encouraging weed growth. We can already see it beginning to work.

Now, to return to the fish. There’s a lot more than just trout and grayling in the Wylye. There are eels – indeed, there was once a commercial eel trap near Manor Farm. There are perch and chubb in the slower flowing parts. And, of course, salmon use the river as a breeding ground. In the winter of 2004/5 there were 13 Salmon redds on the fishery.

 
A wild brown trout from the Wylye (returned to grow bigger and wiser!)
The river also holds many smaller fish, including minnows, stone loach, bullhead and the rare brook lamprey, plus a vast variety of insects. Most of us will have admired the dance of the large Mayfly over the field in late May and into June. We also have a healthy population of water voles and, in the last couple of seasons, the otter has returned for the first time in around 30 years.

If you’d like to learn more about the Club, email Mike, our Secretary, at miketebbs@btinternet.com

Tom Brannan

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