I cannot tell you the names of the rivers that I speak of. Their mussel beds are now so rare that few people beyond those that study them are permitted to know of their existence at all.
The freshwater pearl mussel has a life that is longer than our own. In Britain and Ireland they live up to 120 years; in latitudes closer to the Arctic, in Finland or in Norway, up to 300. Individual specimens have been around since the invention of the steam engine. One can count their growth lines, much like tree rings, beneath a microscope. They have been on this planet for 120 million years, and they came to British and Irish waters at the end of the last ice age. ‘You fall in love with them,’ Evelyn Moorkens, who has devoted decades to their research, confides in me. ‘I have given my life to them.’
Male mussels release sperm through their siphons. Female mussels inhale the sperm and retain the fertilised eggs within their bodies, incubating them, each female with up to 4 million larvae clinging to her gills. By late summer the female mussel can no longer breathe for offspring. She releases them through her own siphon into the river’s flow. But for a sedentary species to hold their position in a fast-flowing river demands a plan. If not, over the millennia they would ultimately be swept into the ocean, even if only by a few metres’ drift each generation. The plan they have is salmon.
Juvenile salmon, hatched in the same pools that the mussels inhabit, inhale the larvae as they pass. There they remain, encysted on the fishes’ gills until the end of the following spring. They do not harm the salmon. Some studies suggest that they confer a benefit, that the antibodies the salmon develop when the larvae attach protect them from the sea lice and other parasites that they may acquire during their lives. Before the salmon depart for the oceans, the mussels, now grown large enough, detach from their hosts and burrow down into the river’s bed. In five years they return to the surface, where they remain for the next century or so.
When they were abundant, pearl fishers would decimate mussel beds, ripping shells apart in search of the occasional gem. That has long since been made illegal, but agriculture, the draining of the bogs surrounding rivers and the silting up of riverbeds all continue to decimate stocks. Like salmon, mussels require their environment pristine. They filter their own water, but they cannot keep up with modern practices. Their young are dying, their populations ageing. They need only breed twice in a hundred years, but even that is a challenge these days.
And then there are the salmon, as integral to the mussels’ life cycle as the mussels are themselves. Wild salmon in Ireland are at their lowest levels since records began. Once, 30 per cent of adult salmon returned to the rivers of their birth to spawn; today it is more like 3 per cent. The story is the same in Scotland. That country’s last commercial operation, a single man netting on the River Esk, was shut down in 2018. Salmon runs in England and Wales hover on the verge of extinction. If the salmon go, so do the mussels.
For now, they cling on.
I hear of Nigel Mott on the news one morning. A fisherman, one of the last commercial fishermen of wild salmon on the River Severn, has won a landmark case against the Environment Agency (EA). For several years I have been travelling in Alaska, documenting the decline of salmon and Indigenous salmon fishing there, and there are strong echoes with the court cases I have been following on the Yukon River, 4,000 miles away. I give him a call.
Nigel collects me from the coach station in Bristol. His car is full of rope and bits of beehive. We leave the city, cross the Severn and drive up the north bank of the river towards Lydney. At the edge of town he pulls off the road and steps out to unlock a five-bar gate. Nigel is in his mid-seventies, his hair thin and grey, and he walks stiffly, bent forward at the waist, but he has a tough energy to him, thick arms, a life carved from hard work. We head across rutted fields, lurching, much faster than I would drive them, but this was Nigel’s commute for more than forty years, and besides, we are chasing the tide. We run parallel to an embankment, and then we crest the rise and plough through an ungrazed field and Nigel brings the car to a sudden stop.
We get out. The song of skylarks. And before us, stretching away, is the Severn. I am accustomed to seeing it from the bridge, but from here it is shocking and vast, at least a mile, maybe two, from bank to bank. In the near distance, the first of the bridges; behind it, further, the other. The sky is grey, the river brown, and flowing on the tide at quite a pace. The wind is cold. Across the water one of the world’s first commercial nuclear power stations, Berkeley, now decommissioned, sits solid in the gloom.
Piles of discarded putcher baskets are abandoned on the bank like the remains of shopping trolleys, in the weeds of the shoreline and on the rocks that prop the shore up and which prevent the banks from sloughing away into the mud. Nigel built his putchers from stainless steel – once they were woven from two-year-old willow – and they won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Quite possibly they will outlast the salmon. Some of the fish weir remains as well, long timbers of larch stretching out from the bank, crosswise to the river’s flow, now slumped at angles and beyond any sense of repair. The putchers, each of them longer than a person, would have been stacked in the weir, four tiers of them, pushing out over a hundred metres into the river. Six-hundred-and-fifty baskets. Six-hundred welds on each one. There is evidence here of fishing weirs that goes back several centuries at least, though it is likely they have existed for millennia. The Severn has the third-highest tide in the world, at thirty-one and a half feet, and for sloshing salmon through baskets you could hope to find nowhere better; nowhere else caught fish like this. Sited in the swiftest channel, their wide mouths pointing upriver and funnelling to a point, the four ranks of baskets would be set on a low tide at the beginning of the season and entirely covered by the river on each high. The salmon would be caught on the ebb of the tide and trapped as they flowed downstream, unable to turn back against the force of the river. ‘Like a pig in a passage,’ Nigel says.
The season ran from 16 April to 16 August. He and his partner checked and cleaned the baskets twice a day, sharing the work two tides on, two tides off. Crows followed the ebb tide so you had to get to the fish quick, before they plucked the eyes out. There were perhaps ten operations on this stretch. Everyone knew everyone. Nigel had a twenty-year lease here, and a permit for 600 salmon in the season. That made £60,000 or so, shared between the two of them. But things had been getting tougher for some time.
‘The summer of 1990 was the best season we ever had,’ he says. ‘The river was absolutely stuffed with fish. And we haven’t had a decent season since.’ Numbers had been dwindling for years, but around 2000 they collapsed. In 2010, to protect the run on the Wye, the EA halted fishing. Nigel argued that the mouth to the Wye was downstream of their operation, and that a few small-time fishermen could not be responsible for the collapse of the Wye’s run. In 2012 the fishing was reopened and the EA issued them with new permits – for thirty salmon in a season. ‘I might have gone on in a minor capacity for quite a number of years,’ says Nigel. But with the catch limit set so low there was no living to be made, and no sense in carrying on.
A man passes us, walking his dog. They know each other, in the easy way that people out here do, no real surprise to find each other on a forgotten piece of riverbank. Nigel greets him, though not by name.
‘Does it bring back memories?’ the man asks, gesturing to the putchers.
Nigel waves the memories away. ‘Best not think about it,’ he says.
The man nods. He whistles his dog and walks on.
Nigel pulls two lave nets from out the boot of the car. If there was a method of fishing more ancient, more basic, than the putchers, then I am looking at it. Such nets do not come from tackle shops; Nigel makes them himself. Three poles of wood of similar length, each six feet long, one a handle, the other two hinging open into a V, held apart by a chock of wood, and a handmade net strung between them, so that the whole apparatus is like a vast shovel. The handle of Nigel’s net is ash, the rimes hazel, although black willow, he says, is best. The crosspiece is elm, a piece of wood which has still not settled and found its shape in the fifty years since he fitted it. In this it is like the river, with its sandbars skulking about beneath the surface, its banks forever on the move. Plenty of ships have run aground through here. It is a good net, it has served him well. But there’s no point in a good net, he mutters, if there are no fish to catch. Nigel’s £60 lave licence permits him to catch a single salmon in a season. One.
We pick our way down the sludge of the bank, leaning heavily on the nets. Lean forward, weight on the toes, keep moving, or the mud begins to suck you downward. At any moment I expect Nigel to tell me that all this is a joke, the very gullibility of what a city boy will believe of country life. But then we are in the shallows, the water up to our thighs, and with a warning not to drift too far downriver or I’ll be heading out to sea, Nigel sinks onto his front, his head directed downstream, and holding the net before him as a float he sculls out into the channel. I watch him go, and then I follow.
The water is warmer than I expected. We move along at quite a pace. I watch Nigel ahead of me, ferrying out into the middle of the river. It makes me think of otters. For a time I drift on my back and watch the sky. If I pull level with Nigel we can chat. Without him here this would feel insane. Plenty of folk have drowned in these waters, not least those who used to work the putchers. In his forty years of fishing Nigel has learned the Severn’s ways and moods, although he insists only across this stretch. Take him a few miles upriver, he says, and he’d be lost. We are nearing the bridge, angling directly for the middle of the estuary now, and up ahead the water has a subtly different quality to it, with small riffles upon its surface, and it is for here that Nigel points his net.
Suddenly he stands, and wades downstream, emerging from the river. By the time I reach him he is standing with the water around his thighs, his net unfurled, and I stand up beside him. The bridge, the older of the two, is almost directly above us. The tide whipping around its enormous stanchions. I can make out people in the cars, and from up there we must look biblical. Two miles of water, and two men with ancient instruments balanced in the centre upon its surface.
The way it works is this. We are on the outgoing tide, and salmon, guided by deep-flowing channels, will be pushed towards the sandbar we are walking. When they realise they are running out of river they will turn and swim back upstream, and where they force against the river’s flow their wake, or loom, will give them away. At that point we’ll hustle over and scoop them up. In comparison with the delicacy of fly fishing, this feels like the use of a blunt instrument. But it is effective. Not so long ago there was a six-man team operating lave nets out of Lydney, making a living. Those days are gone. Yet as we make our way upriver it is increasingly clear that the catching of the fish itself is not really the point. The point is to find a reason still to be here.
The Court of Appeal upheld the EA’s decision to curtail Nigel’s permit on grounds of sustainability. They found that the 10,000 to 15,000 salmon that enter the Wye each year needed all the help they could get. But the court also found that the EA had given no consideration to the impact on Nigel’s life and livelihood, and that his human rights had been breached. Nigel fought the case up to the Supreme Court, where the judge ordered the EA to pay him £187, 278 for loss of earnings for the years 2012–14. He is now chasing payment for lost earnings from 2015 up to the present day. So far, the proceedings have cost £400,000. It is, he says, a strain on the finances. But I can see that he gets a great satisfaction from taking on these powers.
‘What happened to the fish?’ I ask.
‘The salmon are in trouble in the whole North Atlantic,’ he says over the river and the outrushing tide. ‘Our rivers, on the whole, are cleaner than they’ve been in a long time. It’s very hard to understand why the salmon are in such decline if it’s not for something new, like salmon farming.’ There are no salmon farms this far south: most are concentrated off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Sea lice occur naturally in the wild, but in the confined spaces of a fish farm, where a single cage can house 70,000 salmon, they thrive. It does not take many lice to kill a young salmon. The detrimental impact caused by lice from these salmon farms, when they transfer to wild stocks leaving Scottish and Irish rivers, has been well documented, but Nigel believes that on their migration routes north the Severn’s salmon are also becoming infested.
‘I don’t resent the fact that they farm fish,’ says Nigel. ‘I don’t even resent that there’s side effects. What I really resent is that they won’t admit there’s side effects.’ A new business with better prices, pushing out an old business, he says, is simply the way of the world. But he believes the EA has unfairly targeted commercial fishermen for the declines, and has not been transparent about the damage done by salmon farms. ‘If other people suffer as a result, in a perfect world, you would pay compensation. You would use some of that success to compensate those who have suffered. And they have done exactly the opposite. They have persecuted us.’ Nigel trots to the far side of the shoal where a wake is breaking the surface, but it is only a submerged branch.
We walk for the rest of the afternoon, making our way along the sandbar. We see no salmon. It means, at least, that he can come back another day. After some hours we draw level with the car. Nigel shoulders his net. The sandbar is almost exposed now, the river round our ankles. There is one deep channel we must swim across to get back to the bank. I am beginning to wade in, balancing with my net, when Nigel pauses, looking back. ‘I can never resist turning round for one last look,’ he says. ‘In case one’s got stuck on the shoal.’
The following year, the lave net licence is reduced from a single fish to zero.
Alaska is one place that is still renowned for salmon. The grizzly standing in the torrent, plucking salmon from the flow. It supports a multimillion-dollar wild-fishing industry, is on every angler’s bucket list. Its Indigenous populations harvest salmon for their subsistence every summer, smoking and drying them in fish camps along the banks. The fish are said to run so thick up some rivers that those on the outside are forced onto the banks. Bristol Bay, on Alaska’s western coast, is home to the world’s largest salmon run and is its most important fishery, providing 75 per cent of local jobs and in 2019 generating over $300 million from salmon alone. But Alaska is iconic because it is the only place like this that’s left.Europe once had the greatest density of salmon rivers in the world. In Anglo-Saxon times, rent was sometimes paid in salmon. Daniel Defoe, on a walkabout of Scotland, wrote in 1724 of ‘salmon in such plenty as is scarce credible’. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the salmon sold in Billingsgate were taken in the Thames. Yet the last salmon in London was caught in 1833. Today it is extinct from most European rivers, including the River Salm in Germany, after which the salmon is said to be named.
In 2013, I began travelling in Alaska, researching the sudden decline of king salmon on the Yukon. I wanted to see how the collapse was altering the lives of the many people, and the ecosystems, that depend on them for survival. A fish with such an extravagant life cycle, one that bridges the river and the ocean, that migrates many thousands of miles both inland and at sea, and that has done so for 20 million years, has become entangled in many lives, both human and non-human. I was unprepared for how tangled it would become in my own.
I am drawn to such places as Alaska; I think many of us are. Places hanging in the balance, where we can still conjure a notion of an idealised wilderness without too much of a mental leap. Since I began writing about salmon, I have started to meet people like Nigel much closer to home whose lives and passions are equally wrapped up in a fish that few of us even consider any more. It took documenting an unfolding story on the Yukon for me to understand that a similar story has already unfolded here. Where the ecosystems have been hollowed out for centuries, the trees so long gone that we romanticise denuded landscapes. Where the culture of salmon is no longer upheld by tribes fighting for their identity, but only by isolated and ageing individuals. Where the battle to save the fish is no longer a rallying cry but a weary shrug, a fight for compensation for a vanished way of life. What did we lose as these myriad, entangled connections were replaced by something thin and simple?
When Edwin Third began work at the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board in Scotland twenty years ago, you could drive for hours along the catchment of the Dee and never see a tree. In the past five years the Board have planted 250,000 on its upper stretches, and they are planning for another million within the next fifteen years. Edwin looks at them sometimes on Google Earth, a haze that once was barren, and the sight gives him great satisfaction. Whatever problems salmon are facing today, and there are many, he thinks that their mighty runs collapsed centuries ago. ‘There’s a missing story,’ he says to me down the phone. ‘That the huge declines in salmon happened long before living memory. I strongly believe we had a big reduction in salmon abundance when we cleared the forests.’ Scotland’s degraded habitat simply cannot support salmon in the numbers it once did. Trees encourage the insects that the salmon feed on. Fallen leaves increase the nutrients in the water. Logjams – ‘one of the rarest habitats we have in Scotland’ – slow the water’s flow, forming the pools that the salmon need to spawn and hatch. Now the climate is changing and many of the upland streams are already so warm that without the shade from trees they will not survive at all. Historically, the estates have kept their lands bare, the preferred habitat for hunting grouse and for stalking deer. But fly fishing is also a large chunk of their income and their identity. Minds are changing, and trees are being planted.
It was in Alaska that I saw how conjoined the lives of trees and salmon are. Not only in how trees nourished the salmon, but in how the salmon nourished the trees. Biologists can gauge the state of a salmon run by observing how well the trees are growing along the banks. The half-eaten, spawned-out carcasses of the fish break down into the earth, and the minerals harvested from the oceans during their adult lives leach out into the soil, so that the concentrations of carbon and nitrogen and phosphorus in the surrounding land can be higher than that of commercial-grade fertiliser. Trees draw up these nutrients; the years when runs are bad are echoed in their tree rings. Up to 70 per cent of the nitrogen in these riparian forests has its origin in the sea. Imagine, if you like, the salmon swimming up the capillaries of the spruce and birch; this is not so far from the truth. Fallen leaves make the waters more acidic, which drives the growth of plankton in the oceans. More leaves, more plankton, more salmon, and the cycle turns again. Salmon in great numbers are so long since gone from Britain, and so long since forgotten, that it is hard to know just how impoverished the land is for their lack. But in Alaska trees can grow up to three times faster along rich salmon streams, and over fifty different mammals take nourishment from them, as well as raptors and other birds, amphibians and insects. Kneeling angelica coincides its flowering to align with the salmon runs, dependent on the blowflies that come in to feast on the salmon carcasses to act as their pollinators, their maggots breaking the salmon down into the soil. Just how significant are the missing salmon to the barren landscapes and the poor soils of the Highlands? A 2016 paper estimated that the vast and global declines in anadromous fish (those fish that migrate up rivers from the sea to spawn) had led to 96 per cent less phosphorus being transferred between the oceans and the land in this way.
There are other signs in Scotland that landscapes can be restored. Forty miles to the south of the Dee, on the River Tay, the beaver, hunted to extinction in the sixteenth century, has returned. Their provenance is unknown – some say escaped, some say illegally reintroduced – but wherever they have come from, they are here to stay. By the time the Scottish government agreed not to remove them they had become so well established – around 550 at last count – that getting rid of them entirely would have been far from simple. Most of the evidence suggests that beavers produce ideal habitat for salmon by felling trees and forming the deep cool pools they thrive in, and that their dams create nurseries for juvenile salmon and hold back the silt that otherwise clogs the gravel beds that the salmon need to spawn. When the new trees along the banks of the Dee reach maturity, they may lure the beavers northwards.
‘We’re looking at landscape-scale change,’ says Edwin. ‘That’s what you need to save a species. If the salmon are good and healthy, the whole catchment is good and healthy, including all the other wildlife, and the people that live in that catchment. The salmon is a proxy for everything.’
Several hours south and west of Dublin, about as far as you can drive, is the home and work of Sally Barnes. I find Woodcock Smokery in the fading afternoon, a couple miles outside the small village of Castletownshend, off a lane, up a track churned by the cattle of the dairy farm next door. A sheepdog runs in circles, snapping at the wheels as I park. On the ridge above, where an ancient ring fort sits, you can look out over West Cork’s frayed edge at the wild Atlantic Ocean, glinting and swelling in the February chill.
I find Sally in the smokery, pulling fillets of mackerel from a brine in one of the stainless-steel sinks and arranging them on racks. She hugs me, her hands red with cold. She is dressed in a white coat with layers beneath and a thick felt hat holding her white hair in, and her breath comes out in puffs. The air smells of fish and beechwood. Mounted on the wall are wooden chopping boards, concave with age, and fillet knives on a magnetic strip, half the width they once were from several decades of sharpening.
In 2006, the year before drift netting for salmon was banned at sea, Sally won Supreme Champion at the Great Taste Awards, one of the highest accolades in the food world, for her wild, cold-smoked Atlantic salmon. That salmon is still the mainstay of her business, the pinnacle of her craft. Smoked fish is a synthesis of flavours that speaks to both need and craft: a need for food to last the winter and a craft so ancient it has been refined to perfection. A harmony of smoke and salt and fish unique to each smoker, but all intended to preserve that annual glut of protein that came flooding up a river, at once the most joyful, nutritious and essential of foods. But unlike the native families that I met on the Yukon, Sally does not stand at the end of a long line of smokers. She stumbled into it quite by accident.
She spent her early twenties at a teacher training college in London, but she didn’t like London, and she didn’t like an educational style that to her felt dictatorial. She fled to West Cork and married a fisherman. Having learned to quash her Scottish accent when she moved to a well-to-do English secondary school, she now had to rough up its edges again. But the place suited her. Land was cheap, people were moving in from all over and the scenery was stunning. The fishing was good, too.
The best year they ever had was 1979. In one day they took 249 salmon. The fishing was so good that the men would sleep aboard in harbour, no time to squander on the journey home. ‘I’d go down in the evenings with Holly in the car seat,’ Sally tells me as she moves the racks of mackerel across to the ancient smoker that takes up one wall, its metal scrubbed to a sheen. ‘Take the car down this very steep slip to the harbour, supper in the back, and bring these salmon back up this impossible incline in the back of our Renault 4. My foot nearly pushing through the floor, and there’s me and the baby and the baby in my belly, and I’m just thinking what if it all goes pear-shaped and we slide back down into the tide?’ Yet their buyer never paid up. More than a year later he gave them a smoker to clear some of the debt, but Sally refused to let her husband sell it. ‘ “I’d quite like to play with it,” I said to him. “I’m stuck at home. I could do this at home. Mind the kids, school, look after you, the boat.” And so I taught myself how to use it.’
For forty years she has been refining her work. Forty years working with salmon, building relationships with fishermen, building relationships with fish. She buys now from boats on the Blackwater, which meets the sea at Youghal, east of Cork, some eighty miles away, and many years it can be hard to get enough. Fish are frozen within three hours of being caught. At the smokery they are filleted, the scales scraped, the blood massaged through them from the tail to the head. Salted. Washed. Smoked. Sally has grown a deep instinct for the humidity in the room, for the particularities of each fish, their fat content, the weight of them, the pressure in the air outside, which all go to determine the length and the heat of the smoke, the balance of fish and salt. It is an instinct poorly replicated by dials and instruments. She closes the door on the mackerel and packs beechwood chippings into the tray, damping them down and then firing them up with a blowtorch aimed through the inspection hole.
‘Perhaps I’m a bit nuts,’ she says. ‘But the physical contact with these creatures is really fundamental. You think about its life and where it’s been. That it’s made this incredible journey.’
Her fish have migrated several thousand miles before arriving in this room. Sally believes herself to be the last smoker of wild salmon left in Ireland, and she refuses to touch anything farmed. Farmed fish are flaccid and fatty from confinement; they are prone to heart disease. Their flesh is dyed red with canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, because otherwise they would be an unpalatable grey. Often the smoked salmon in the supermarkets is not smoked at all, but injected with brine and sprayed with liquid smoke like a fake tan. For Sally it is not an inferior product but an entirely different species, so distant has it become from its wild twin.
That night we sit in the kitchen, the Aga pumping out heat. Dinner is mash from the garden, sea spinach picked this morning at the beach, some piece of sheep roughly carved off a much larger piece of sheep, given to her by a neighbour. The kitchen is ramshackle with the legacy of Sally’s life, chaotic strata of honeys and oils, pickles and spices and salts, many of them gifts from visitors who have travelled across the world to learn from her. There are tapestries of fish, paintings of fish, photographs of fishermen. While the lamb roasts, Sally slices a piece of a cold-smoked salmon and drizzles it with honey. It is incomparable, so juicy, so rich and meaty, so red. Its crisp membrane, the pellicle, where the smoke has been on it, the succulent, delicate inside, its oils forming a sheen on the inside of the mouth. The taste is, instantaneously, the most direct connection I have made between the salmon on these islands and my time spent on the Yukon.
‘I’d just be so thrilled if I thought my neighbours would be able to have their feed of wild salmon again and not think about how it’s half a year’s income,’ Sally says to me over her shoulder from the stove.
When her kids went off to secondary she enrolled in the Open University – first Food Production Systems, then Oceanography. She had been noticing changes in the salmon for some time, hearing the anecdotes from fishermen of low runs and starving fish. She would find undigested food in their bellies when she sliced them open, something unusual and deeply wrong. As her knowledge grew, her interest grew and she became, she says, somewhat politicised. She went to conferences, sat on panels investigating safety in the fishing industry. She formed ties with the Slow Food movement, promoting local, traditional food over agribusiness and mass production. It was fifteen years ago, at the Slow Fish conference, held biennially in Genoa, that she found herself at dinner with salmon fishermen from Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East. ‘One of the men said to me: “Are your fish running late?” ’ she says. ‘And oh, my blood stopped coursing. It just went totally cold. I thought Christ, if they’re running late on the other side of the planet, in the Pacific, then this is not a local problem. This is a global change.’
When a fish straddles worlds and travels oceans, it is easy to be persuaded that when things go wrong it is someone else’s fault. Is the problem with salmon happening out at sea, in the coastal waters or in the rivers? Is it a result of run-off from crop spraying or a lack of food in the oceans? Is it the anglers, the commercial fishermen or the salmon farms? Is it by-catch on ocean trawlers or poachers working the rivers? Is it warming waters, or disease, or a lack of food, or habitat destruction? There is no smoking gun. And there is a lot of money riding on the industries involved, which only obfuscates the issue further. Researching the lives of fish that travel thousands of miles is difficult and expensive. And reform can always be deferred when ‘more research is needed’.
After dinner we carry the wine through to the lounge. I stoke the wood stove, she rolls a cigarette. The wind outside is wild, a winter storm passing through.
Sally tells me that she needs 500 fish a year to pay the bills, to get by for the next twelve months. I ask her why not take more, be a little more comfortable?
‘Maybe I’m lacking something in my greed,’ she says. ‘I’m prepared to do the salmon thing, and struggle against the prevailing currents, because it’s such a precious creature. What is enough for a human being? For me, enough is a roof, a dry bed, food in my belly, clean water, good company. When I finish my day’s work, I walk up to the ring fort and it just blows my mind every time.’
Sally thinks that the people who live in these remote communities should be allowed to make their living on their doorsteps. These places have been decimated as fishing collapsed: people forced out to find work; the arrival of Airbnb. ‘Then you get the tourists coming in and buying their properties and coming for two weeks, two or three times a year. That’s devastating for these areas. There’s no restaurants any more, your post office is closed. Social infrastructure collapses.’ Seen this way, the salmon is integral not just to natural ecosystems, but to the very existence of human communities. These wild animals that enable human lives. My thoughts turn back, as they often do, to the mussels.
‘Do you think you’ll see a day when you won’t get your five hundred fish?’
Sally puffs on her fag. The fire crackles. ‘I don’t like to think that that day will come in my lifetime,’ she says. ‘But I don’t know what it’s going to take to change it. Salmon are the ultimate survivor. They’ve survived ice ages and cataclysms. But are they going to survive humans? It’s dubious, isn’t it?’
Photograph © Chris Chapman, Nigel Mott passing up the salmon putchers, Lydney, the Severn Estuary, 2002