There will not be anarchy

Charles Clover declares himself to be a canoeist, in addition to a keen angler, but in his comments in the Sunday Times on the same day of the concluding part of Griff Rhys Jones’s epic journey along the UK’s waterways, he shows his true colours.

What Charles seeks is to limit canoeing on our rivers, a situation helped by the current stranglehold which landowners, farmers and fishing organisations have been able to selfishly maintain over the last few hundred years.

His Times piece hints at such a desire, but in the follow-up interview on today’s Radio 4’s Today Programme he actually states it.

“The Canoeist is a splendid person as long as you don’t have too many of them, or too much canoeing.”

What a pitiful attitude to have, at a time when so many others are fighting to increase participation in sport. We have the Olympics coming to London in 2012, which offers a unique opportunity. We desperately need to increase the number of young people in particular who are engaged in sport, when societal trends and defective policy have resulted in years of decline in participation, if we are to avert a large-scale public health crisis in years to come.

As I’ve stated before, canoeing is not only a great form of exercise, but is relatively cheap to take part in (important in a recession) and gives paddlers a greater appreciation of the waterways and coastlines along which they paddle, and of the effects of human behaviour upon these natural ecosystems.

Far from damaging the environment, greater participation in canoe sport is beneficial to individuals, society and the environment itself. Confining paddlers to only a third of the navigable rivers in England and Wales not only limits participation, but also results in increased pressure on those rivers which do allow it. Griff sums this up well at the end of the Today piece, saying of canoeists,

“If they were spread more evenly around these miles and miles of river, then they would barely be seen at all”

Charles may well be a canoeist as well as an angler, but his views on canoeing echo his general sentiment on rivers – he wishes to keep it for himself rather than sharing it with others.

Canoeists deserve better

I’ve felt strongly about this topic for some time now, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve started trying to do something about it. Today, I came across the article in Countryfile magazine which kicked off the still ongoing argument between Griff Rhys Jones and various anglers, and felt I needed to write something to counter the vicious and selfish responses of some to that article.

My response is in the comments section of the article, or you can read it in full below.

As someone who has enjoyed canoeing since an early age I must say that I entirely agree with Griff Rhys Jones’s sentiments.

As Simon points out in his reply, there are no doubt a large number of anglers in the UK who are able to gain enjoyment from the many miles of inland rivers that we are blessed with. However, there are also a significant number of other river users – including canoeists – who today are denied access to over two thirds of those rivers.

Our rivers are a terribly undervalued resource. They are full of wildlife, fascinating places to unwind and a great educational resource for children. For others they provide a safe space for exercise and sport of all kinds, not just on the water, but also along their banks.

As Griff points out, they offer a fascinating glimpse back in time, a connection to our pre-industrial past that all too few people are able to appreciate. If we are to teach future generations about the importance of respecting our natural resources, we first need to give them access to experience those resources.

On the stretches of water I myself paddle on, I regularly come into contact with anglers and very rarely have I had any problems. A little consideration on both sides goes a long way to ensuring that we are all able to share and enjoy the use of those shared waterways.

Canoeists are not demanding unfettered access to all stretches of inland water in the country. We appreciate that in some circumstances on certain rivers it is not appropriate to use a canoe. What we seek is a reasonable code of access, laying down the terms under which access may be provided to us and to other river users. This may also define the penalties for any person who breaks those rules.

The current framework of voluntary agreements is not fit for purpose. There exists no obligation on the part of landowners to provide access, leading to one-sided arrangements whereby access is provided for one or two days of the year. This is unreasonable and not at all acceptable.

It is terribly unfair to imply that canoeists do not contribute to the upkeep of our rivers. I enjoy the right to paddle along many stretches of water including the River Thames and the 2000 miles of inland waterways maintained by British Waterways, through my membership of the British Canoe Union, who themselves have agreements with the Environment Agency and BW. Furthermore, the Environment Agency is a public body funded by the taxpayer as well as by anglers and canoeists individually.

I am terribly saddened by the selfish response of many anglers including Simon to Griff’s comments. Given the pleasure they quite rightly take from using our rivers, it is disappointing in the extreme that they wish to keep those rivers for themselves rather than sharing them with others.

As Simon states, we live in a terribly crowded country, but the solution to that is not to restrict access to the valuable natural resources which we posses to any particular group of individuals, it is to establish a common understanding and a set of rules – which may involve compromise – so that we may all enjoy their benefits.