Iain Clark, Clerk to the River Doon District Salmon Fishery Board, talks to AM
I’d never heard of ‘putty’ before, not in this particular context, anyway. It refers to illegal bait sold on the black market to anglers who use salmon eggs to fish for trout and grayling. Iain Clark, Clerk to the River Doon District Salmon Fishery Board, tells me more.
“When the salmon come back to spawn, they’re vulnerable. They spawn in water called redds which are often in shallow parts of the river where it’s not flowing as fast. The people who do this either net the fish or they wade out into the river and catch them. They kill the female fish and strip them of their eggs.”
Apparently, this form of poaching has existed for decades and still happens in certain pockets of the River Doon. Iain describes the practice as ‘absolutely abhorrent’.
“It’s a criminal offence. We’re trying to stamp it out… as well as target those who are fishing without a permit.”
In order to fish in Scotland, you must have permission from the landowner or the tenant and you can only fish six days of the week. You cannot fish for salmon on a Sunday in Scotland and you cannot fish during the closed season. Fishing outside of these parameters is illegal.
A keen angler himself, Iain was asked to take on the role of Clerk to the River Doon District Salmon Fishery Board by Alan Macdonald, Chair of the Doonside Estate. He was more than happy to become involved and to assist with the Board’s main objectives: to manage, protect, enhance and conserve the Atlantic salmon and sea trout stocks in the River Doon.
“It’s a statutory role,” he tells me. “Over the last ten years or so, the River Doon DSFB has put a lot of work into conservation on the river and that work is now showing dividends. The river is cleaner, it’s better. The wild brown trout have increased substantially… and salmon stocks have also improved.”
It’s positive news with most anglers now complying with the practice of ‘catch and release’, allowing the fish to return to the water unharmed and to continue their existence in their natural environment, going on to spawn and produce more fish. But the future of wild Atlantic salmon in Scotland is precarious, and the threat of poaching (and other illicit wildlife crime) remains a concern.
“The River Doon DSFB and Police Scotland have combined efforts to set up a new initiative,” Iain informs me. “The primary approach is to look after the vulnerable salmon stocks but also to look out for any suspicious activity and wildlife crime in the area.”
That’s quite an undertaking when you consider the catchment area of the River Doon stretches from the north edge of the Galloway Forest Park to the Firth of Clyde just south of Ayr. That’s over 63 kilometres long and covers an area of 324 square kilometres.
“We’ve set up a River Watch scheme,” Iain continues. “Everyone has a right to enjoy the landscape and the river but that comes with a responsibility to look after the river. If there’s wildlife crime happening… we’re encouraging people to report any suspicious activity.”
There’s a hotline for this purpose (07469 819 345) or an email address (RiverDoon.RiverWatch@gmail.com) if preferred. Alternatively, call Police Scotland directly on 101.
“We’ve appointed a River Watch coordinator and a River Patrol coordinator. They will coordinate with all relevant authorities including Police Scotland and myself as Clerk to the Board.”
In turn, they will then coordinate with other stakeholders including:
Riparian owners – those who own the rights to fish the river for their piece of land.
Tenants – those who lease the rights from the land owner.
Clubs and associations – those who allow their members to fish the river.
“We try to encourage everyone in the local community to be a River Watcher,” says Iain. “Ultimately, the idea is to have a more responsive service for the public. We’ve had a lot of interest from clubs, associations, owners and tenants who are delighted the Board is taking these steps.”
I can’t help but think that the River Doon District Salmon Fishery Board are very lucky to have Iain on their side. Not only is he an enthusiastic angler, he has great passion for the environment and the river. He’s also a Solicitor Advocate for Gilson Gray LLP, something which I’m sure comes in very handy.
“This River Watch scheme has been applauded by everybody in the community,” he says, the conversation flowing naturally back to the river. “And the clubs are only going to have members if there’s a chance to catch a salmon.”
One of the benefits of a healthy river with bountiful fish stocks is that it encourages people to participate in outdoor pursuits, to get outdoors and enjoy their environment. It’s good for both physical and mental health and improves wellbeing. Iain believes this will only happen if all of the relevant conservation steps are taken to encourage salmon to be in the river. Simply put, it’s about protecting the world’s Atlantic salmon population.
“The four main rivers in Ayrshire,” he goes on, “are the River Ayr, the River Doon, the River Girvan and the River Stinchar. The Ayrshire Rivers Trust do a lot of scientific work for all of these rivers. They’ve got some wonderful footage of salmon spawning in the rivers this year. For anyone interested in conservation, this is what you dream about, this is what you want to see.”
The Trust has also carried out conservation work to encourage Atlantic salmon back to the rivers and assist with their mammoth journey back to their spawning grounds. This includes work to improve the ‘redds’, the nests built by trout and salmon to lay their eggs in the riverbed.
“Also, in the past, a lot of weirs were put in the rivers. Weirs are an obstacle for the salmon… so they’ve but notches in them and put fish passes in so the salmon can get up the river to spawn.”
Iain is encouraged by the ongoing commitment to improve and maintain the quality of the rivers and to stamp out illicit wildlife crime. It is, however, very much a team effort and he’s keen to encourage the public to get involved.
“It’s about conservation, preserving our environment for the future and engaging with the pubic. We’re putting a call out to everyone in the River Doon catchment area to support this and to become a River Watcher. If you see anything suspicious, phone the hotline or send an email and we’ll take action.”