Michael McCarthy: How French fishermen furthered my river fetish

  • @mjpmccarthy

I cannot see a river, any river, without a quickening of the spirit, and this is such an automatic reaction I sometimes wonder if it is hardwired into the genes, from our previous existence as hunter-gatherers. If I cross a river on any journey I want to know its name, and if at all possible, stop on the bridge and gaze into its currents.

I could not say I have a favourite river because so many give life to their landscapes, from the Hodder enriching that green pastoral part of Lancashire north of the moors, which people forget about, to the Frome watering the lushest, creamiest part of Hardy's Dorset.

In fact, I love any river, anywhere, and so it was with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation from three French fishermen last weekend, to look at theirs. It was the Huisne in southern Normandy, which is 100 miles long and eventually joins a larger river, the Sarthe, at Le Mans (which in turn flows into the Loire). Hervé, André and Emmanuel look after the headwaters, that is, the top 14 miles of the Huisne through their fishing club, which, France being the bureaucrat's paradise that it is, is not just a club, but an AAPPMA: an Agreed Association for Fishing and for the Protection of the Aquatic Environment.

Virtually every stretch of French river is looked after by an AAPPMA; there are 4,000 of them. Each has a double purpose, for fishing, and environmental protection, and it was the latter aspect that Hervé, André and Emmanuel wanted to show me, as well as the Huisne's own natural beauty. For the young, narrow stream is very vulnerable to the intensive livestock raising which dominates its landscape and in many places cattle have trampled the banks in coming down to drink. The trampling releases large amounts of silt which covers the gravelly bottoms in which trout lay their eggs. To keep the river healthy, the banks have to be fenced, and fenced-off watering-places for cattle constructed.

The farmers aren't going to do this; and the state hasn't got the money; so it is left to the fishermen to organise and supervise and maintain. You can say that they're acting out of self-interest, and so they are; but they did it, that's the point. Up and down the infant Huisne they had fenced the banks and improved the flow, so now it ran clear through the cow-covered fields.

That's what made it such a pleasure to see: it was not just a river, it was not just a lovely river, with the grayling rising to the small mayflies hatching in the sunshine of a golden October afternoon, it was a river that had been mended.