Sunday, 26 February 2012

Severn salmon runs in the 19th century

There is a myth that the Severn has always been primarily a spring river. The reality is that the balance between spring, summer, autumn and winter running fish has changed over time just as it has on other salmon rivers. In ‘Salmon Problems’ published in 1885 J.W.Willis Bund described what he saw as the main runs of fish entering the Severn during the late 19th century.

‘On the Severn there are at least eight distinct runs of fish:

1. In January, or just at the end of December, a run of spawning-fish, generally the largest run in the season ; these are usually fine fish, but not of any excessive size.

2. In the end of January or February, or even later, a run of spawning-fish ; these are much fewer in number, but are generally very large fish.

3. A run of clean fish in February ; these are all large fish, mostly Salmon, but towards the end of the month some gillings*.

4. The spring run of gillings, February and March;  these are very strong, active fish, and press up the river at once, those that get to the top form the early spawners for the next season.

5. A small run of grilse in April, or, rather, of small fish ; some of these are grilse, but many are small Salmon.

6. The great run of grilse in June and July.

7. The autumn run of fish ; these are locally spoken of as the Michaelmas gillings.

8. The great run of spawning-fish in October and November.

All these runs do not occur in every year; for instance, there may be no grilse or gillings, or but very few — in a good year they would all occur. They may be classed as three distinct runs of spawning fish, and five runs of clean fish, namely, — the spring and autumn run of clean fish, February and August ;  the spring and autumn run of gillings, and the run of grilse.’

* Willis Bund divided the Severn population in to three different age categories: Grilse or Botchers – up to 8lb, Gillings from 8lb – 15lb and Salmon. However, he also recognised that there were problems with this classification system. This is some of what he said about the types of salmon recognised by the Severn netsmen:

‘IF difficult questions arise as to grilse, still more difficult arise as to the Salmon in his next stage. On the Severn in this stage the fish is locally called a gilling, and I have retained the name for want of a better. The answer that would be locally given to the question, " What is a gilling ? " would be, a Salmon on his second return to the river from the sea." Roughly, a botcher, or grilse, would be a fish up to 8 lb., from that to 15 lb. would be a gilling, and this would include all fish of that size. But although perhaps, broadly speaking, the definition may be correct, there are certain difficulties it fails to clear up. It leaves out of account all the small Salmon mentioned in the last chapter, and it makes weight the only test by which the age of Salmon is known.
Doubtless weight is a valuable and important test, but it is not, and ought not to be, the only one. A fisherman will tell you that he always knows a gilling. If you ask him how, he will be rather puzzled to define it, yet there is no doubt if a botcher, a gilling, and a Salmon are all placed side by side, any person would observe that there was a distinction between them. It is not easy to be defined ; it is more in the shape and appearance of the fish. It would not be quite easy to say how you would define the difference between a boy of 17 and a man of 22, beyond saying that the one was immature, and the other more matured ; and it is this difference, that it is impossible to place into words, that one would feel existed between a Salmon and a gilling.’

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