COUNTRY PURSUITS

A day in the life of Ray Dobbins, water bailiff on the Wye

"I love my job. I've lived on the Wye all my life - I was born in Monmouth, but moved to Rhayader when I was two. It's not regular work: it all depends on the fish. At spawning - autumn - we're out every night around here. We might start at six and not get back until seven the next morning. Often we stake out a ford, then at least you know you're protecting something, even if no poachers come along. Otherwise, we walk up a brook - that's the only way to find out if there's anything going on. Although I have two reserve bailiffs - part-timers who help out as and when needed - we've got a huge area to cover: about 150 miles of river in all.

"From February to October we're looking for netters near Monmouth - outside our patch. That can mean a long night (I've done 18 hours on the trot there), especially when we've caught someone and they have to be charged.

"We also do shifts around Leominster, usually at weekends. That means starting at 2.30pm to catch night fishermen using worms to catch trout. It's illegal and I don't know why they do it - there's no money in it - they're poachers at heart.

"There's been a huge shift in poaching. When I began in 1979 everyone was at it and it got a bit nasty. Once I found a dozen salmon heads on my car bonnet and another time it was sprayed with paint. My two reserves were very badly beaten up and a look-out was shot at till he quit.

"Then the magistrates fined someone pounds 946 in Rhayader court and for two years we never saw a light on the river. Today we're left with a handful of middle-aged poachers, but there's none of the young lads coming in. Now we probably only catch a couple of local guys each winter. Last year we surprised two poachers and one decided to hide in the river. Luckily he was in shallow water and we found him before he got too cold. Near Monmouth poachers have been drowned netting. That guy was fined about pounds 250.

"Although the enforcement is the most important part of the job, I prefer monitoring. In early spring we plant boxes in the river with 100 fertile salmon eggs in each. We lift them about March to see what progress they've made and carry on checking through the summer.

"When it gets a bit warmer we go electro-fishing. We stretch two nets across the river about 30 metres apart and walk slowly between them with an electrode. This stuns the fish, which we measure and weigh. If any look out of condition, we take scale samples for analysis.

"At the moment we're three years into a project to put up nest boxes for barn owls and we're helping the fishery owners to remove silt from spawning beds that aren't doing so well. It seems to be working, too - last year was the best spawning on the Wye since 1988, but that might just be the hot weather.

"One of the best things about the scientific work is being out on the river during the day and I've been lucky enough to have seen four or five otters during daytime over the past couple of years. They may take the occasional salmon, but they're beautiful creatures."

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