The twaite shad and its close cousin, allis, are both members of the herring family. Like the salmon, they spend the majority of their time living at sea but return to freshwater to breed in the spring.
Until the industrial revolution large populations of shad would probably have been present on many if not most of our major rivers. However, if industrial pollution hadn't already wiped them out then obstructions to their spawning migration, in the form of weirs built to improve rivers for navigation and industrial purposes, most certainly did.
The judges leaping scores are in
Putting it mildly, shad are pretty useless when it comes to leaping over weirs and other obstructions. Whilst the salmon may well get a ten from Len, Craig Revel Horwood would definitely have awarded the shad a zero. For breeding shad populations the construction of weirs certainly was disastrous. They could no longer reach their spawning grounds and therefore populations crashed almost immediately.
Blood, Fish and Bone
Horticulturalists amongst you will know that the most commonly used organic fertiliser is known as blood, fish and bone. It is recorded that shad were so abundant in the Severn that many tonnes were used each year to fertilise farmers' fields.
How things have changed. Today, there are only four spawning twaite shad populations left in the UK and arguably the most important of these is the population associated with the River Severn. Due to favourable tidal conditions, at certain times migrating twaite shad are still able to make it over the weirs at Llanthony, Maisemore and Upper Lode in sufficient numbers to have kept a small population extant.
Luckily, there is enough in situ spawning habitat for shad in the Severn and Teme below Diglis (Worcester) for the species to have just about hung on until the present day.
Some while ago, the Severn Estuary SAC (Special Area of Conservation) Shad Project group was set up. The partners in this ambitious scheme are the Environment Agency, Natural England, Severn Rivers Trust and of course Canal & River Trust.
To cut a long story short, we have all worked together to submit a LIFE Nature bid to the European Commission and a Heritage grant bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Project bids of this nature are by their very nature complex beasts. The range of professions involved in the wider team makes quite an impressive list, engineers, fisheries scientists, ecologists, environmental scientists, fundraising & bid-writing experts, community engagement experts and planners, to name just a few.
Opening up the route to the historic spawning grounds
The first impassable barrier for shad on route to their former spawning habitat is the weir at Diglis. The next three weirs upstream on the Severn at Bevere, Holt and Lincombe are also unpassable too.
So the dream, as and when we are successful with the funding applications, is to install suitable fish passes at all of these weirs. This would then re-establish around 190 km of historic spawning habitat in the middle and upper Severn catchment. Incidentally, proposals to open up over 60km of spawning habitat on the River Teme are also an integral part of this project.
An important part of our proposals includes actively involving the community in our proposed work. We plan to roll out a programme of activities aimed at raising public awareness of not just the iconic shad, but of the wider aquatic environment and the other species that depend upon it.
There are more than 200 schools within the project area and we would like to engage with as many of them as possible. We also aim to organise an annual Severn shad festival as part of world fish migration day.
Meeting old friends
It might come as something of a shock to those who know me to learn that I was almost a serious academic scholar once upon a time. As an ‘unkind' Angling Advisory Group member recently quipped, ‘John, I reckon you are actually a bit smarter than you look', a statement which I will leave my readership to draw their own conclusions about.
However, back in the early 1980s when I was young and still full of energy, I worked as a researcher in the Liverpool University freshwater fisheries department. It was generally considered at that time to be the top academic institute for freshwater fisheries research in the UK.
My boss back then was Dr Miran Aprahamain. I worked with Miran on the study of eel populations in the Severn catchment and would have weighed, sexed and aged more eels in a week than I have seen in the past five years, such has been the decline of Anguilla Anguilla in recent times.
Miran went on to join the National Rivers Authority and was for many years the Environment Agency's national technical expert for fish species such as eels and shad. It was good to catch up with him as part of the day job and to later meet up with his wife Christine, who I had not seen since university days. Which remind me, it's my turn to buy dinner next time.