Keeper: The Dead Cow Department

KeeperTHE BANKS OF a Hampshire chalkstream are a great place to meet unusual and eccentric people from all walks of life. Over past few years I’ve had opportunity to fish with all manner of humankind: the rich and the famous, captains of industry, sportsmen, politicians, and plenty of so-called celebrities. The great majority of them were very nice; even some of the politicians.

The one thing that they usually have in common, aside from the politicians bumming change for a fiver, is their parting comment regarding their perception of my work:

I would love to do your job; you’re very lucky.

That may be true, but I wonder how many of them really appreciate or indeed understand exactly what my job is? For example, I am quite sure that most of my rods think that come the end of the fishing in September that I pack my bags and head off to the Seychelles, remembering to return just in time for the start of next season.

If only.

The most important part of any riverkeeper’s duties, without question, is the task of keeping the river within its banks. On my beats at Nursling I am constantly adjusting, opening, closing, and clearing the hatches and the water mill. The gin-clear gently flowing river that most fishermen see during the season can in the winter months become a muddy raging torrent, and being held responsible for damage downstream can be a heavy burden to bear.

Opening a main hatch six inches drops the level of the river by an inch and a half, but if that same hatch is blocked, the water will rise at an alarming rate. Maintaining a constant level is a continuous game of open this one, close that one, with the river levels changing all the while. It’s no so bad in fishing season, but during winter floods the hatches have to be monitored twenty-four hours a day. One pint of Guinness too many, forget to open a hatch and, oh bollocks, I’ve just flooded Romsey.

All sorts of rubbish and debris come down the river during flood and the hatches can block very quickly, and frequently do. I’ve had some strange things caught in the hatches and in the pools behind them. Telegraph poles are a favourite, as are life buoys, and the ever-present traffic cones. We get a seemingly endless supply of balls: footballs, tennis balls, beach balls, rugby balls and hockey balls—loads of balls. Lots of fly boxes come downstream along with hundreds of floatant bottles.

Occasionally, we get other less pleasant things—usually dead. I’ve fished cats, dogs, and sheep from the river, but they typically get through the hatches without problem. To date, the one farm animal that wasn’t so cooperative was a dead and bloated cow that was stuck fast like a thousand-pound drain plug in one of my hatches. To drown in the River Test was bad enough, but this cow was also going to cop the blame for flooding upstream of my beat.

I decided to phone the Environmental Agency and asked for their flood defence department. Flood risk, or not, they didn’t seem too interested in the removal of a dead cow and they passed me off with the usual, “Sorry, mate, not our department.”

When I pressed a bit further they finally gave me a number for the Ministry of Agriculture, saying that cows were more their line of work. I agreed, although I did point out that the majority of their cows probably spent their time stood upright in fields and other cow-like places, and not tits-up in a river.

Eventually a man from the Ministry of Agriculture did arrive at Nursling Mill to inspect the offending blockage. After agreeing that it was indeed a dead cow blocking the hatches (and that it was really an EA flood response job), he begrudgingly agreed to remove it. He was a very nice man, but quite small, and I was intrigued by his yet unseen plan for removing the massive beast. He didn’t have a big Land Rover with a winch; in fact he didn’t seem to have any pulling equipment at all.

I followed him back to his car where he opened the boot. He then very carefully tucked his trousers into his socks, slipped his tie into his shirt, and pulled on a pair of brilliant white overalls. After pulling on some big green boots, he unfolded another pair of large overalls that he stepped into and zipped up. From there he added a pair of thick rubber gloves and taped them around his wrists for an airtight seal. His final line of defence was a large white helmet with a sealed visor that he placed atop his noggin.

After about fifteen minutes of methodical preparation, the spaceman appeared ready for the job, but I still couldn’t work out how this little fellow was possibly going to remove half a ton of hideously bloated beef from one of my hatches.

Then he pulled out his chainsaw.

I don’t want to go in to too many details, but he did remove the cow, albeit in several pieces. As you can imagine, his methodical preparation had not been in vain, and had obviously been learnt from many years of experience. I couldn’t help thinking about that first unknowing apprentice from his department that was sent to do this same task.

Hey Joe, we need ya to pop down to the river and chainsaw a cow. Shouldn’t take more than five minutes—here’s a pair of gloves, you’ll be fine.

After he’d left, I washed down the hatches and tried to clear off the footbridge as best I could. The smell was unimaginable and there were bits and pieces of cow all over the place. As I walked off the bridge back towards our exclusive rental apartments in the Nursling Mill, I noticed a new shade of pinkish, rather unusual looking pebbledash covering the entire apartment facade, windows and all.

Well, honey, you wanted to live in the country…

Excerpted from Keeper: A Life Amongst Fishes and Those Who Catch Them, Departure Publishing, 2011.