River Life

River Life – From a Water Bailiff’s Notebook.

The river is a very interesting study. First there are the fish. In the Itchen there are trout. Fishermen from all over the country come to try to catch them on dry fly, for the Itchen is a dry fly river. Then there are pike which eat the trout and have to be kept down by the riverkeeper. There are also minnows, sticklebacks and bull-heads which boys and girls love to catch with jam jars on the end of a piece of string.

There are several kinds of river weeds: water celery, water crowfoot and starwort. The water crowfoot and water celery are the two best weeds for trout and fly, they make good cover for trout and good feeding for the fly larvae. Starwort holds plenty of shrimp. Some of the fly on the Upper Itchen are olive, iron blue, sherry spinners, red sedge, silver sedge, alders and black gnat. The olive is the most common of these fly, and most trout are caught on them. The commonest of birds on the river are the moorhen, coot, dabchick, duck, water rail and heron. The coot is black with a white bill. It eats river weed and insects. It makes its nest out of dry reeds and lays eight or nine greyish eggs with black spots on them. The young ones have a white breast until they are full grown. The mother will fight to defend her young. They have a short length of the river, and if any other birds come onto it, the coot will drive them away. The coot is not a very good flier and only flies at mating time.

The dabchick is a dark grey bird with legs set well back. It cannot walk on land, but is a good swimmer, and can stay under water for a long time. If it is on the surface when it sees you, it will dive under and you may not see it again. It makes its nest of river weed. The nest looks like a small pile of weed, with most of it under water, and only a little above. It lays its eggs on top of the pile and when it hears you coming, it will cover its eggs and dive under the water. The eggs are white when laid, but in time they get stained by the weed and turn a dark grey. The dabchick will drive the coot away from its nest by attacking it from underwater.

The water rail is dark brown in colour. It is a very shy bird and not seen as often as other water birds. The water rail’s nest is made of dry reeds, and is not often found. It feeds on river insects. Its call is not unlike a rabbit when a stoat has caught it.

The otter is found living in the Itchen. It is brown with a few grey hairs around its throat and mouth. It has webbed feet, very short legs, a long body and tail. It lives on trout, eels, crayfish and any other kind of fish in the river. It is a shy animal in its wild state, and if it sees you it will not be seen again. It leaves a tiny row of bubbles in its wake when underwater. The otter always uses the same places for coming ashore. If you see a place where it crosses over from one stream to another, you have only to look each morning and you will be able to tell whether there is one about, because it leaves its footprints on the path.

….by Rodney Norgate, Class 2.

Published first in the Alresford County Secondary School (later to become Perin’s school) magazine, Volume 4, of 1955.

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