ISSUE 1 ARCHIVES - 'PASTURES NEW' Pt1
In the ten years since this was recorded, very little has changed at Dinton, other than the stock of immense, scaly carp getting bigger, and perhaps even more sought after than they already were. In a world where things seem to change at a head spinning pace that is hard to keep track of at times, it is nice to find some constants. Si Bartlam, and Dinton is one of those
Usual drill, fire up the kettle, kick back, and enjoy. We've also included some extra imagery that print space dictated was too tight for
My coffee cup was empty by then, but the drive through the wooded copse land between the M3 and Winnersh was beautiful; the trees adorned with a thick white layer of frost and the sky an unforgiving shade of grey; beautiful, but haunting and deeply cold. I wanted to stop to take a few pictures as it seems to happen all too rarely, but I had a time to keep, and for once I was actually ever so slightly ahead of schedule, instead of an hour behind and looking for an excuse to make. Forgetting that Dinton operated a pay and display car park had me digging into the depths of my door panels for crusty old five and ten pence pieces, fluffy and slightly sticky from something or other. Thankfully the parking is a sight cheaper than most, so I scurried together the few quid needed and headed off to find Simon and a much needed cup of tea. The Earl Grey was a nice touch, and seemed apt somehow.
Over the course of the next few hours I listened intently to Simon’s stories of Dinton carp, their incredible progress and flicked through albums full of what he has worked so hard to achieve, so humbly, at what can surely be classed of the finest waters in the UK. With a bit of good fortune, a lot of hard work, and a fantastic amount of foresight and belief Simon has created something very special at Dinton. Founded on growing on pretty and unique fish in rich, natural environments and staying some way from the madding crowd, whilst still being firmly installed right in the very middle of it, in a Council run country park.
Sub: When did you become involved at Dinton then Simon?
Si: I started work here in March 1989, but I actually came here as a student in ’88, and then got the full time post here in ’89.
Sub: What was your history prior to that?
Si: Before that I lived near Romsey, in Hampshire. I lived a fairly normal life, went to school, got my CSE’s, went to college, got a few O Levels, I then worked for a builder for a couple of years but I wanted to get into Forestry, I was a mad keen fisherman and had been since 7 years of age, fishing the River Test and local Canals and everything else but had never even considered working within the realms of angling, it was forestry I was interested in.
I had made myself unemployed purposely, so I could get a place on the MSE scheme, and I got a job with Hampshire County Council looking after all their parks and nature reserves. I was there for about two and a half years and then went to an agricultural college to do a ranger course. After four months there I had to do a placement, which rather fortuitously ended up being here at Dinton Pastures.
Sub: What are your roles here at Dinton?
Si: Roughly 10% is running the fisheries, and 90% is managing the country parks. I’m responsible for the conservation elements of the park, and I work with a lot of different specialist ornithological and entomological groups, so insects and birds, as well as the fish. We have lots of great-crested newts on the site, so we look after the concerns of those, and White Swan, as well as being our main angling lake, has one of the best populations of wintering bitterns in the whole country; we also have over 20 species of damsel and dragonfly here. There’s a lot going on here, as well as the carp getting big and doing well in these environments. You don’t have to compete and have one or the other; they very much work together.
The purists out there might well argue otherwise, and say it would be a better bird watching lake if there weren’t anglers plotted up around it, and it might be a better dragonfly habitat if there weren’t so many carp eating the nymphs, and it might be a better carp lake if there weren’t so many diving birds eating your bait… but because we are a country park, it is imperative that we provide diversity, and something for everyone. For me, that diversity makes the site what it is. Some people can’t handle the birdwatchers, and the dogs, and paths, but that is what makes Dinton.
'For me, that diversity makes the site what it is. Some people can’t handle the birdwatchers, and the dogs, and paths, but that is what makes Dinton'
'They can literally breathe the natural food in, they don’t even have to go looking for it.’
Sub: What is the history of the park itself?
Si: The lakes were dug in the late 60s as gravel extraction for building the 329 motorway. In the early 70s, Black Swan had a spell as a trout fishery but after the park was handed over to the council, that was turned into the sailing lake, and White Swan became the angling venue. Dinton opened officially as a country park in 1979, and there were some fish stocked in ’81, so it was still very early days for the fishery when I first started here. I remember that the lake record had just been broken in the November, by Bruno at 24lbs.
White Swan was the only angling lake at the time. The local authorities do their bit to provide for everyone and fulfil their obligations, so White Swan was the angling lake, and we had a lake for sailing, another for bird-watching, dog-walking paths, orienteering… so the boxes were being ticked as far as the council were concerned for providing recreational facilities. Other than that, at the time we were mainly focused on conservation and recreation. Twenty years later, we are a non-statutory body of the council, the onus being on becoming cost-neutral, and cost-effective, so there’s more fishing, sailing, car-park charges, and other things to make the park sustainable these days.
Sub: How was the fishing run originally, and do you know where the original stock of carp at Dinton originated from?
Si: I didn’t really know anything about it. It was a 20s water, and I suppose on a par with the Ringwood waters where I had come from. Back then, a ranger would come round three times a day and you could get your ticket off him, and there was a ‘specimen group’ for the night fishing. On a local-authority park, ‘syndicate’ sounds cliquey, hard to get on and exclusive, whereas ‘specimen group’ is a much more inclusive term, just about like-minded anglers that want to angle for large fish.
The original carp that went in here came from Burton Bradstock, which I’m pretty sure was the same farm that stocked Frensham, which of course led to problems later on, sadly, and the fish kills. We never suffered any problems here at all in that respect, so either it was something viral that had come on to their farm later or something else. From recollection, I think it was ’85 when there were the first SVC outbreaks, but back then no one really knew anything much about it, they called it Spring Mortality Syndrome because the fish died in the spring! Since then, things have moved on a lot further and we know much more about the viruses, how they’re transmitted and what we can do to protect ourselves from that.
Sub: Do you know exactly how many were stocked?
Si: I’m not sure exactly. I think it was probably in the region of 400, from talking to the ranger at the time. California Country Park was the other Council-run angling venue then, and I think 70-80 of those went over there as well; but that was it, just one stocking into White Swan, in ’81.
'California Country Park was the other Council-run angling venue back then’
Sub: So when did you start to have any kind of active breeding and stocking programme at Dinton?
Si: To start with, I was just working on the conservation and environmental side of things here. My first recollection of doing anything stock-related was when one of our smaller ponds was starting to dry up one summer. It was filled with small, wildie-type commons, all between 1½and 3lbs - horrid little sea serpent things! (laughing). I suppose that was when I started to become involved because the park’s initial response was, ‘Well, they’re carp. People want to catch carp so we’ll put them in White Swan’. I stepped in, and explained that these weren’t the type of carp people wanted to catch, so the little commons ended up in one of the other non-fishing lakes and we then had the opportunity to buy some new fish in.
The irony was that the Council had a budget for fish each year, and it was looked upon that there were more than enough in White Swan already, so the budget wasn’t being spent, it was just being reabsorbed every year - and that had already happened for eight years. My idea was that we could use that budget to put fish into the big lake so they could grow on and get big, unfished for, and I wanted to try to get some bigger, and better fish on to the complex, so in 1990 I got the first new ones in.
‘At that time, there was no possibility at all that there would ever be angling allowed on there
'History in the making, off to Taplow..'
The old management had been doing horrendous things with the weed control as well, spending £2000 on it just to make maybe £2500 on fishing fees. The fish hadn’t really done much either in terms of weight gain when I started. They’d only gone from 8lbs to 24lbs, at best, in ten years from the initial Bradstock stocking, and I think that was partly due to the excessive weed control as well.
I was being pressed by the Council to make more money from the facilities. The Specimen Group ticket was £60 and they were considering doubling that cost. I suggested that we could use some of the other lakes to grow-on and sell fish; a 10lb fish could make £80, at the time, so if I could put 200 fish in, after five years a hundred of them might be worth 80 quid each. To the Council, that was a lot of money and one of the reasons they agreed to let me use that money to grow fish on. Of course, I had to be careful because I didn’t want to end up in the situation where I had to hit bigger and bigger targets each year, and the best fish we were growing-on wouldn’t be re-invested into our lakes here.
Sub: Do you actually breed any fish on site?
Si: Not as such, but they do spawn successfully in a few of our lakes, so I’ll hand-select the ones I want to grow-on, and they’ll get transferred to some smaller ponds that are specifically for that purpose. They have a couple of years in there and when they get to about 3lbs, they’ll get moved into one of the Nature Reserve lakes to grow-on further in peace.
Each year, I end up with thousands of fry, even in Black Swan in the early days I could run a net through and end up with about 5000 fry, at four or five inches. I could then wade through and easily cherry pick 800 to 1000 that I liked, or had promise, that I wanted to grow on. I look for length, scale patterns, making sure that they are individuals… even ensuring that there is a nice balance of commons to mirrors. I try to work to a ratio of 80% mirrors to 20% commons, as a rule of thumb.
'In Black Swan in the early days I could run a net through and end up with about 5000 fry, at four or five inches. I could then wade through and easily cherry pick 800 to 1000 that I liked, or had promise, that I wanted to grow on'
Sub: I suppose you have quite a unique set-up here insomuch as you have access to a variety of other ponds, smaller lakes and reserves with no angling pressure? It’s an ideal scenario for breeding and growing-on, isn’t it
Si: We are very fortunate. We have the two larger pits of 20 and 90 acres, smaller lakes of 2-4 acres, and then other ponds which are just a third of an acre, shallow, reedy, and perfect for over-wintering. I do have to take some predation losses on the chin; there are a few grebes, and there are kingfishers and herons, so we always lose a few, but it’s great to have those birds around. They come along and do their thing and that just adds to the overall environment; that is nature.
Sub: All that just adds to the history and heritage of the ones that do make it, though, doesn’t it? If they avoid all that predation and live through the dry summers and harsh winters, then they become the survivors, don’t they? It makes them that bit more special, I think.
Si: Oh, absolutely! They’re the survivors, all right. They’ve lived through a lot by the time they reach big weights.
'They’re the survivors, all right. They’ve lived through a lot by the time they reach big weights'
Sub: When did you first put any stockies into Black Swan?
Si: It was the 26th October 1990. At that time, there was no possibility at all that there would ever be angling allowed on there. It was our busiest lake with the sailing, canoeing and walks, so the fish went in with the sole purpose of being allowed to grow-on and be used to supply the Council with quality, home-grown fish for White Swan, and the other waters that they ran. They were also regarded as the potential to sell some fish, as a means of generating an extra income for the authority. It has always been a balance between ensuring that I hit my quotas with the council, and that I had enough for White Swan.
Stay posted for Part 2 where Simon discusses the finer details of the Dinton stocking policies, the idea of 'retiring' older ones, where he gets his fulfilment as fisheries manager, a dislike for fish getting caught too frequently and other such topics less discussed