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Battle to save salmon undermined by cutbacks

The battle to save the salmon, one of the world's most threatened fish, is at risk by swingeing cutbacks in Government funding personally ordered by the Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, the Environment Agency believes.

The battle to save the salmon, one of the world's most threatened fish, is at risk by swingeing cutbacks in Government funding personally ordered by the Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, the Environment Agency believes.

Mr Brown is slashing by a full third the money available next year for the agency's salmon conservation effort in England, from £4.6m to £3.1m. As a result, anti-poacher patrols on England's salmon rivers are to be cut by half, water bailiffs and scientists will be transferred to other jobs, and a whole raft of salmon conservation measures will have to be abandoned.

Mr Brown has told Parliament he was imposing the cut because of the costs of the Pet Passport scheme and the BSE enquiry, and because the agriculture ministry had failed to sell a surplus building in London. But senior sources in the fishing world are convinced the real reason is Mr Brown's well-known and frequently-expressed hostility to all field sports.

The cut has caused consternation in the Environment Agency, from the chairman, Sir John Harman, down, and so drastic are the effects expected to be that this week the agency is preparing to ask the Government to be relieved of its statutory duty to prepare Salmon Action Plans for England's 40-odd salmon rivers.

Sir John, former Labour leader of Kirklees council in West Yorkshire, said yesterday: "The effect of the cut will be to severely affect the agency's ability to protect salmon and maintain their numbers at a time when stocks are already under severe pressure. It is very difficult to understand the rationale behind it."

Britain's salmon stocks are in fact at a historic low point, with catches on a prime river such as the Wye having fallen by 75 per cent in ten years. The reason is poorly understood, but thought to be connected with changes to the salmon's distant ocean feeding grounds off Greenland being brought about by global warming. Certainly. fewer adult salmon are returning from the sea than ever before, and 73 per cent of salmon rivers in England now have stocks that are too low to maintain themselves on a stable basis.

On Wednesday the agency's board will be presented with a paper formally setting out the effects of the cuts. They include a big reduction in staffing levels, big reductions in river and coastal enforcement patrols, decreased fish monitoring, a virtual end to capital expenditure, and the likely sale of the agency's fishery enforcement vessel Northumbria Rivers The areas affected most will be Cumbria, Northumbria and the West Country.

Chris Poupard, director of the Salmon and Trout Association hit out at Mr Brown's action.

"In terms of total Government expenditure, £1.5m is just petty cash," he said. "But in terms of salmon conservation in England it represents a huge sum.

"The cut is a disgrace. It's diabolical."

The agency is now further worried that it may face further cuts from Mr Brown in future years. For fishery officer Mike Maslin the drop in funding will bring to a premature end the work he and his colleagues have been doing to turn Devon streams into ideal nurseries for baby salmon.

Mr Maslin, 42, has been recently working on a tributary to the Devon Avon, a small river running off Dartmoor, much less well known than its Hampshire or Warwickshire namesakes, but one that nevertheless has a respectable salmon run.

The Bickham brook is a stream that salmon swim up from the Avon to spawn in. "It's a very good stream for juvenile fish," Mr Maslin said. "It's got nursery areas, meanders, which create undercuts in the bank for the fish to hide in and a few deep pools. It's got the right diversity of habitat."

Mr Maslin and a colleague have been trying to make it even better by loosening the gravel on the stream bed to make it easier for salmon to cut their redds, or egg laying sites, which they do by swishing their bellies from side to side.

They have also been cutting back overhanging trees to allow more light onto the water, which promotes weed growth, which in turn promotes the insect life the young fish need for food.

Mr Maslin said: "Out of about 5,000 eggs a fish lays, only one per cent will survive to be two years old. If we can give them a helping hand it can make a real difference."