Dream on, fishermen

COUNTRY MATTERS
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The Independent Online
Want to buy a river? For only £1.85m you can have the entire length of the Halladale, in Sutherland. Admittedly, if laid out beside the Amazon or the Nile, it would look fairly insignificant, being only 12 miles long; but it is a bonny salmon river for all that, and over the past five years has yielded an annual average catch of 312 fish.

From its source near the hamlet of Forsinard, it flows due north through a desolate yet lovely landscape. Gentle mountains roll away towards the sea, with grey bones of rock showing through the purple-brown heather. The light is ever-changing, as clouds scud over on the west wind and dapple the hills with huge, dark shadows. On the coast, the river flows out between the glorious sands of Melvich Bay. There, in the far north, the days of summer are never-ending, but in winter the nights are 16 hours long.

The vendor is Jonathan Bulmer, a member of the cider family, who, together with his wife Lady Marcia, last year bought a 50,000-acre estate on the island of Harris, and is proposing to move there with his young family. For the past few years he has been living in the house known as the Net Store, poised above the mouth of the Halladale - in his experience "a magical spot, from which you can watch birds, otters and seals, and literally look down on every salmon entering the river".

To most people, of course, the idea of buying a river will always be a fantasy, but I find this daydream a particularly seductive one. Your money would secure you ownership of the solum, or bed of the river, five- yard-wide strips along the banks on either side, the fishing rights both in the river and in the estuary, five houses, three hill lochs with brown trout in them, and the deer-stalking and grouse shooting rights over 4,000 acres.

Your principal interest would be the salmon, and one of the river's prime attractions is that the new owner will have full control. Normally fishermen are obliged to share the water with countless others: here, you would have a grip on the entire system, not least of the netting rights in the estuary.

Perhaps the chief irony of salmon fishing is that purists make things as difficult as possible for themselves. By casting with a fly only, eschewing worms or spinners, they give the fish the best possible chance. Yet there is a still easier way of catching salmon than with a rod - in a net.

With the rest of the Halladale package come the rights to net the estuary - and until 1986, captures averaged 3,000 fish a year. The Bulmers chose not to exercise these rights, and no doubt that is one reason why rod catches in the river have more than doubled under their ownership.

Another is the fact that many physical improvements have been made. Left to itself, a Highland river gradually grows wider and shallower, as successive spates redistribute boulders and gravel. But what salmon like, as they move upstream to spawn, are deep pools or hollows behind rocks, where the current is slacker, and they can rest before continuing their journey. Under the Bulmers' direction much work has been done to deepen old pools and create new ones. The family can also take credit for helping to keep at bay the march of commercial forestry, which is thought to damage fishing by increasing the acidity of soil and water. Just out of sight, over the horizon, millions of conifers have been planted in the controversial afforestation of the Flow Country, which stretches eastwards into Caithness, but the new woods stop short of the Halladale's catchment area.

Another important innovation has been the creation of a hatchery, in which up to 100,000 eggs stripped from hen fish can be incubated in running water over the winter. In spring the fry (infant salmon) are released into the upper reaches of the river.

There are snags, of course, principally the expense of running and protecting so distant a playground. At the very least you would need to employ a couple of full-time bailiffs - for the physical maintenance of the river and the warding-off of poachers - and although you could earn income by letting some of the fishing, you would naturally want to retain a good proportion for yourself. Another consideration is that in summer the strath must often be infested by midges, which can render a place practically uninhabitable.

No doubt some human otter will surface to snap up this tasty morsel. But for me (unless I win the lottery in the very near future) the Halladale will remain a river of dreams.

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