John Webster, lifelong angler turned conservationist, is one of the founder members of the Threemilewater Conservation & Angling Association. Now the Association’s president, as Chair from formation he was the driving force behind the group’s work on the river. Bringing his own brand of pertinacious management and community engagement to the table, he built what is now a successful and thriving angling club, operating a well-established, award-winning river conservation and enhancement project that is now in its 24th year. Being no stranger to interviews having appeared on TV, radio and in the press more times than he can shake his fly rod at, Peter Ross spoke with the man who was there on the ground from the very start.
PR: How long have you been fishing John?
JW: Over 70 years now. Like a lot of anglers, I first started out with a sprick net, catching spricks in the streams and dams around the edges. I then moved on to a willow stick with a length of line, hook and a worm. In those days there were a lot of tank aerials about. I managed to get one and I put eyes on it to make it into a fishing rod. After that I got my first proper rod.
PR: Where is your favourite place to fish?
JW: Strictly for the fishing it would be in Connemara. Lough Inagh for the sea trout. Cracker place, lovely scenery. Although having said that it would never take away from my local river, the Threemilewater River. It’ll always be number one to me, my home water.
PR: I know you have a particular love for sea trout. Where did that come from?
JW: I got my love for sea trout from fishing the River Dunn up the north coast of Antrim.
PR: What was the river like years ago, before the association was founded, before the work began?
JW: In the early days, every day you went down to the river it was running a different colour, all different colours coming from the mills upstream at Mossley. They dyed flax, linen and such there and through the process the dye used to escape into the river. When the mills closed in 1995 that all stopped thankfully. After that is when we started to take more of an interest in it. The river was very overgrown, when you eventually got into the water it was like standing looking upstream into a black tunnel, it was so bad. There was barely any life in it, dead and overgrown through years of neglect. Very hard to walk it.
PR: What made you want to start working on the river?
JW: Well, anglers are sometimes inclined to be takers. You know, you drive past a river and you see fish rising, you go back with your rod, you fish it, you take out from it. I suppose I wanted to start giving something back. That’s why Brian Crothers and I started working on our local river, it was a small conservation project of ours to give something back.
PR: The Threemilewater Conservation & Angling Association is 24 years old this year. How did it come to exist?
JW: Brian Crothers and myself, we were sitting one night discussing fishing as we normally did as angling neighbours. In talking we decided- ‘mon we go down and start cleaning the river out, maybe see if we can get some fish from somewhere to stock it. We managed to get a wee squad together to go down to the river and do a lot of cutting and to clear a lot of the rubbish out. It really did snowball because the local people started to take to it then. There was no intentions of setting up an angling club in those days, it was all for conservation. We then got fisheries consultant Dr Paul Johnston to come and advise us on the best way to go forward, to take things further. He told us that there was a possibility of establishing a small run of sea trout and salmon back into the river, so that’s when we decided to set up an angling club, to look after and protect the river.
PR: In the early days, what challenges did you and the other members face? What were the main things you came up against?
JW: The biggest problem was pollution. Pollution was a big thing. You were going to bed one night, getting up the next morning and wondering if there’d be a river there, or an open sewer when you went back down. Getting more help, starting to apply for grants to fund the work, things like that. Its only when we managed to get the grants, like from the Lottery Fund, that we could start the serious river work, like building the groins, creating the pools and clearing the river out. The work itself was hard. Before the grants and the diggers came, everything had to be done by hand. We built wee groins and made holding pools the best that we could. We filled gabion cages with stone by hand thinking ‘these will never move’, then after the next flood we found that they had actually been flushed away out into Belfast Lough! Another thing at the time was an awful lot of the local people were country people originally and some of them never seemed to think of the river, it was only when the townies came in and showed them how to go about clearing it out and improving the habitat that they caught on.
PR: Obviously the river has come a long way since you started, but what was your inspiration for the work? How did you know what to do in terms of creating fish habitat?
JW: I had no education in that. It just seemed to come to me, seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It seemed like common sense, what to do, where to place stones, where to deflect flows, create pools, where to leave trees and roots in order to provide shelter for fish. Working with the river, the river will always tell you what it wants. If it doesn’t like something you’ve done it won’t be long in letting you know.
PR: Obviously what you did worked because there is now a population of spawning fish in the river.
JW: Oh yes, we have a head of wild trout in the river, they weren’t there before we started. Fish up to a pound weight, we have sea trout and salmon using the river to spawn.
PR: How did you engage with the public and get more people involved?
JW: It was all word of mouth. There was no advertising in papers, there were no websites then, no Facebook. We knew a lot of local anglers who wanted to do something and to get involved. We just met someone in the street and said “we’re doing a wee job at the river tomorrow, why don’t you come down and give us a hand” and that’s the way it went.
PR: The project was the first from the island of Ireland to win the Wild Trout Trust’s Conservation award. Can you tell me more about that?
JW: Well we had finished most of the initial in-river work by then, funded by a grant. Gary Crothers, our treasurer, told us he filled in a form and sent it away to nominate us, we didn’t really think much of it. The next thing we know, we were contacted by the Wild Trout Trust. They sent over three judges to have a look. We took them along the river to show them the work that we had done. They were highly impressed, but at the time they never said anything. We didn’t hear anything for a while until we were invited to Whitehall in London for the prize giving dinner. Stephen Kirk, the secretary and I went over. We were early so we went for a few pints beforehand and we then made our way to it. When we got there, they piped us in much to our surprise! To us it was funny, we didn’t think we had a chance of winning anything. It came to announcing the winners, they read out that some river in England was third, another in Scotland was second. Stephen turned to me and I said ‘they haven’t called us over here to tell us we have come fourth surely?!” The next thing was they read out the Threemilewater Conservation & Angling Association have won first place. Brilliant so it was!
PR: Do you see any threats to the Threemilewater River, or to the Association in general?
JW: The main threat that I see is the level of building going on around the river corridor. There has been a serious amount of building work that has taken place. Houses, and often the building work itself, has always been our biggest source of pollution, and that goes right back to when we started off. We’re always trying to protect what’s left of the river corridor but the place is under that much pressure. That’s my main concern. Keeping the corridor of the river open, and keeping it free from pollution.
PR: Obviously the Association are very successful and it’s now in its 24th year. What are our hopes for the association going forward, and how would you like to see it develop?
JW: At the minute it definitely is going the right way, no doubt about it but I would like to see us continue to keep on top of the pollution, keep on top of the building control. We need to keep on working to improve the habitat and forget about stocking the river. If you get the habitat right, the fish will come. I’m looking forward to getting more educated in as to what anglers should be doing, catch and release for one. That’s very important, especially on the river.
PR: It’s great that the Association has Mossley Dam in its repertoire
JW: Yes, it’s fantastic, it has taken angling pressure off the river so that we can focus on the conservation. We have two dams, Mossley Dam and the coarse fishery as well. It’s not too many clubs can say they have access to two dams and a river.
PR: If you could go back and do it all again, is there anything that you’d do differently?
JW: I think with Brian and I going down to the river to start cleaning it out, working on it to try and improve it- I wish I had started it twenty years before we did, wish I had have started it earlier when I was a younger man. As I said, anglers are sometimes inclined to always take, with my experience of now 70 years fishing, I should have starting putting something back a long time before I did.
PR: John, I don’t think you should worry or regret not ‘giving back’ sooner, because you’ve built a great club that clearly means a lot to many people, not to mention the good it has done for the river and local environment, the wildlife!
JW: Yes, our club would never turn any genuine person away, we’re all about including people, combating the isolation. You hear people’s personal stories, say a man’s wife dies, people get lonely. People need something in their lives, its things like this that can keep people going, it lifts them.
PR: John, it has been a pleasure speaking with you and as always, a bit of an education as well. My final question is what’s the best thing you’ve seen along the river?
JW: One of the best things I’ve seen while along the river was two big adult sea trout spawning. It hit home then that ‘we’ve got a fishery, we’ve done something worthwhile here’. Seeing the wildlife, the otters, the kingfishers, the herons, the ducks and their ducklings, the spawning fish, that’s the best thing. Great to see, it’s why we started all this in the first place.