Monday 16 January 2017


Dorset's gem - the little River Allen

                           CHALK STREAM GOLD

Award-winning wildlife film-maker Hugh Miles talks to Mat Manning, and explains why we should all be fighting to save the UK’s threatened chalk streams.

[Mat is a fishing pal of mine and shares a love of tench and roach. More importantly perhaps, he’s a top freelance professional journalist and past content editor of the much admired Blackmore Vale and Stour and Avon journals. We’d rather have been fishing together on the Stour but with time limited, he visited me at home to listen to me banging on about our beleaguered chalk streams and this is his admirable summary of my ramblings.]

“Although you may not be able to put a face to the name, anyone with more than a passing interest in fishing and wildlife will be familiar with the work of Hugh Miles.

getting up close and personal in Chile's Andes Mountains - our remote campsite is hidden just behind my head
The Dorset-based wildlife film maker set a new standard in fishing films when ‘A Passion for Angling’ first aired on BBC2 almost a quarter of a century ago. The six enchanting films threw away the “how-to” formula of tackle, bait and tactics, and replaced it with beautiful imagery, enchanting music and charming eccentricity. The series, based on the piscatorial adventures of angling author Chris Yates and his companion Bob James, is still hailed by many as the finest ever representation of the true allure of angling and the natural world.
Bob and Chris and a couple of near three pound roach - just two of ten caught and filmed that day

our star narrator Bernard Cribbins with a twenty+ pounder, one of many big fish he caught while filming with Martin Bowler
Ten years ago, Hugh embarked on an even more ambitious project, the aptly-named ‘Catching the Impossible’. With Hugh behind the camera and record-breaking angler Martin Bowler in front, the pair spent four years working tirelessly to capture hundreds of fishing hours, and some very impressive specimens.

Martin with a 44/4 common carp, caught while stalking with a float and pellet in the margins
a swagger of perch in the Hampshire Avon
‘Catching the Impossible’ took the viewer into the fish’s realm with breath-taking underwater sequences. Hugh was determined not to cheat by filming in aquariums, and instead spent many long hours wrestling with a waterproof camera on a long pole to capture the beauty of what he describes as “Britain’s most ignored natural environment.  

a beautiful mirror carp of twenty to thirty pounds

The aim was not simply to make a series of films about fishing but to create a visual celebration of angling, the great outdoors and the underwater environment for all to enjoy. The resulting series more than met that brief.

Hugh’s film-making credentials make for impressive reading. In 1973 he took a job with the RSPB and ran its film unit, making lots of films, most notably one on Ospreys that sold to over forty countries. It set him up for the risky life of the 'self-unemployed'. 

a classic nest-site in the Highlands of Scotland - from the book 'Catching the Impossible'
His first freelance job was on Sir David Attenborough’s epic ‘Life on Earth’. He wrote and produced ‘Searching for the Snow Leopard’, and worked on the BAFTA-winning ‘Life in the Freezer’, the David Attenborough special ‘Tiger’, and ‘Kingdom of the Ice Bear’, which was nominated for six BAFTAs. 

what wonderful, charasmatic animals they are
In total, Hugh has won three British Academy Awards, several Emmys and ten “green Oscars” at Wildscreen, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. His career has taken him all around the world, making more than 60 films – most of which stress the need to protect the world’s natural resources. Despite, in his words, “trying to retire”, Hugh has spent the last few years helping conservation organisations closer to home raise awareness of the importance and fragility of the chalk stream environment. To that end, he has made the films ‘Liquid Gold’ for Dorset Wildlife Trust and ‘Our Rivers in Crisis’ for Salmon and Trout Conservation UK.

 because of the governements lack of action protecting our rivers a comprehensive complaint was taken to the European Parliament
There are only around 160 chalk streams in the world – the habitat is rarer than Amazon rainforest – and about 80 per cent of them are in the UK. This unique ecosystem sustains rich aquatic plant life, which in turn supports the valuable insect populations for which chalk streams are renowned.
jewel of our chalk streams - photographed by John Slader
The plants and invertebrates of the chalk stream are at the foundation of an ecosystem that encompasses countless species of bird, mammal and fish. 

seriously cute but drastically declining water vole - photographed by Stewart Canham
another freshwater jewel
Kingfishers, water voles, brown trout and grayling are familiar chalk stream species. One that’s less well-known, and extremely vulnerable, is the white-clawed crayfish – our only native crayfish.

a little white-clawed crayfish
The white-clawed crayfish was once common in the rivers of England and Wales but numbers have declined rapidly over the last two decades; largely due to the rampage of the American signal crayfish. This invasive species escaped from farms where it was reared for the table and spread rapidly. Apart from being bigger and stronger than our little native crayfish, the signal crayfish carries an infectious water mould commonly referred to as crayfish plague – a disease which has had a devastating impact on the white-claw.
a deadly Signal crayfish, a colonist from the States

nice one! - and every little helps - photographed by Laurie Campbell

searching for an otter - a regular resident on the Allen
Hugh’s beloved River Allen, the Wimborne chalk stream that features in 'Liquid Gold', was home to a thriving population of white-clawed crayfish. While making the film, Hugh captured lots of footage of the endangered crustaceans, but just a couple of years later, in
the summer of 2015, he received a call from a friend whose daughter had found a dead crayfish in the river. It turned out to be yet another instance of crayfish plague, and the colony was wiped out. Undeniable proof of the fragility of the chalk stream environment.

labour MP Jon Crudass with a bonnie brownie from the Test on an S&TA Conservation day
Anyone who has ever had the fortune to cast a fly on a chalk stream will appreciate the beauty of these precious places, but Hugh is quick to point out that just because they can look near-perfect from above the surface, it’s often a very different story beneath.

ranunculus suffocated by algae
“Most chalk streams look wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that all is as it should be – the state of the wildlife can still be dire,” he explained.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a cliché, but in the case of our fish life it is alarmingly true. We can’t see them, know little about them and, as a result, don’t care. Education is long overdue, and showing adults and children is the key.”

several schools were invited to DWT showings of 'Liquid Gold', teaching dozens of children and staff the true value of rivers
Invasive species such as signal crayfish, Himalayan balsam and mink can all take their toll on chalk streams, as can cormorants, and pollution from roads, factories, sewage works and agriculture, but the single biggest threat is reduced water flow.

the source of the River Allen - crystal clear water bubbling up from the aquifers
Chalk streams spring from underground aquifers that fill up during the winter months. The filtration brought about from this process is what gives chalk streams their trademark crystal clarity, which allows life-giving sunlight to penetrate their depths. The natural filtration process also makes water from chalk aquifers extremely desirable to water companies; it’s a cheap option as it takes far less work and expense to prepare it for human consumption. Consequently, abstraction has a massive impact on chalk streams, many of which are now running lower than ever.

just one of many reports of environmental disasters due to lack of water
Water depletion doesn’t just affect the level of a river; it also affects the speed of the flow. Ranunculus, a key aquatic plant in the chalk stream ecosystem, thrives in swiftly-flowing water – take it away and you not only lose the plant but also the myriad invertebrates that feed on it and live amongst it. Reduced flow also results in a build-up of silt and other sediments that smother the rivers’ gravel bed and suffocate the eggs of fish.

a brownie looking for silt free gravel in which to lay her eggs
“More and more houses are being built but nobody ever seems to stop to ask where the water will come from,” Hugh added.

beautiful grayling are a common resident in chalk streams
“Chalk streams support some of the richest diversity of wildlife anywhere in Europe, yet we abstract the lifeblood out of them and kill the animals by the bucket load.”

roach, dace and chub thrive in the nutrient rich waters too
Although our chalk streams, and all waterways for that matter, need proper protection in the form of government policy and action, Hugh believes we can all help in our own small way. Little things like making sure the tap isn’t left running while you brush your teeth and thinking twice about watering the lawn or washing the car quite as often as usual start to make a big difference to water consumption when everyone makes the effort. Beyond that, Hugh suggests that we all lend our support to charities like ‘Salmon and Trout Conservation UK’, the 'Wessex Chalk Stream and Rivers Trust' and the ‘Dorset Wildlife Trust’, and do our bit to beat the drum for our local rivers and streams.

“Chalk streams really are liquid gold. We can live without gold – we die without water,” Hugh concluded.
you can see how choked the River Test ranunculus is in the background - the trout have to be stocked from fish-farms now