BOB KINDNESS is a dedicated man. For more than 15 years he has been spending seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year by the side of a Wester Ross river, trying to return it to its former glory as one of the best places to fish for salmon in Scotland.
When he first arrived at the River Carron only a handful of salmon were being caught each year, a far cry from the days when it drew anglers from across Britain. Now, however, he is pleased to report hundreds of catches each year, more than ever before.
Salmon farming has long been viewed as harmful to wild fish, with environmental concerns including sea lice being passed to natural stocks. Then this week, there was a call from one farming consultancy to ban anglers from catching salmon in conservation areas during spring to protect stocks – although this was strongly rejected by anglers and authorities. It’s fair to say that the two sides do not often see eye to eye.
New legislation passing through the Scottish Parliament is expected to provide stricter controls but on the River Carron the juxtaposition of salmon farming companies and fishermen is showing some success, with funding from the industry provided to help stock the Wester Ross fishery.
The next stage in the re-stocking project he has run since 1996 will see DNA analysis of the fish in an ongoing attempt to scientifically work out the secret of the Carron’s success, which could have implications for rivers across Scotland.
But what drives one man to spend so much time on one river? “I am passionate about salmon,” Kindness says as he makes his way up a glen track in his 4x4 loaded with buckets, nets, tanks and all the paraphernalia of an obsessive academic and fisherman combined. “I hate to see good looking rivers that don’t have fish in them – which is the situation I had when I came here first. It is nice to be doing something where you are making a difference that is compatible with nature.”
At the top of the glen, behind deer fences, are a collection of large green plastic tanks. To the naked eye, they appear to be some kind of primitive sewage system but in reality they are a hatchery, producing hundreds of thousands of tiny young salmon each year.
This is the science bit of re-stocking. Kindness takes the eggs from hens and fertilises them with the milt (semen) taken from cocks. This is a job that begins in November and comes to fruition when the young fish, known as parr, are released into the river about a year later and then others, bigger ones known as smolts, are released the following spring. The process would take a year longer in the wild, away from the protection of his tanks, fed from a series of pipes leading from a nearby burn.
The hens and cocks are caught from the Carron and then released back, but when the project began in 1996 there were too few fish to catch regularly so a brood stock had to be created – this is the ingenious part of the scheme developed by Kindness. It meant growing the fish to full adulthood and keeping them in specially-built ponds in order to maintain a ready supply of eggs and milt.
Brood stock is still kept because there is always the fear that fish numbers could plummet again – it is widely suspected the numbers became so low initially because large spates caused by heavy rain washed away the gravel containing wild salmon eggs. Kindness says: “It is a case of managing the stock you have in the river and in our situation we had to get young fish back in the river.”
Back down the glen and on the banks of the River Carron he tramps across boggy ground carrying a large plastic bag containing a thousand parr, rather like a Gulliver’s fairground prize. Before tipping them into the river, he announces with a slight hint of pride: “The last pair of shoes I bought was 20 years ago – I’m always in wellies.”
Although he spends all his days, and many evenings, by the river, Kindness actually works for Inverness College, University of the Highlands and Islands, which has just secured a three-year, £300,000 funding package to allow the project to continue.
It seems no wonder the project has won more backing after the success it has had. In 2001, when the first fish were placed in the river by Kindness, only six salmon were caught. By 2006 that number had rocketed to 200 and last year it reached 303, with a similar number expected once numbers have been tallied at the end of the 2012 season.
As he casts his line out to catch a hen for his stocking programme just upstream from a part of a beat named after him – Kindness Run – he says: “It is quite amazing really. We have good years, and excellent years. We don’t have poor years any more.”
Of the future, he adds: “No one knows what will happen if we stop stocking, and if the numbers start to go down that wouldn’t be good for the river. For everyone involved in the funding, it is very much in everyone’s interest that the river stays healthy. The only way we will be able to work out what the stocking has done over the years is if we continue stocking and then monitor how the stock are doing.”
The next stage involves genetics, where the DNA of fish can be taken and when re-caught, either on lines or in traps set along the river, they can be better monitored. Kindness says: “It will give us a clearer picture as to how many of our stock fish are reaching the various stages. If we can do that it obviously opens up possibilities for any other river that wants to gain a good feel for what the fish are.”
Away from the Carron, the big question is whether this can help other rivers. Kindness is slightly guarded and keen to stress he won’t tell others what to do. But he adds: “Every river is an individual river so you need to treat every river on its own, but I suspect there are an awful lot of rivers that have very similar problems to what we have here. I regard the Carron as a fairly typical west coast river that suffers from spate and has a lot of mobile gravel and very similar habitat to other rivers. So, there is no reason why a similar approach – it might not be an identical approach – wouldn’t work (elsewhere).”
After more than 15 years on the banks of the River Carron, Kindness shows no sign of giving up, despite having the option of retirement. That may well be a good thing considering the amount of expertise he has developed on his own: “When you look at anything in life, the fewer people you involve the more successful you are likely to be. When you have these big committees you can’t get consensus.
“I am not unique, but for someone to come in and carry on with the system we have here they would have to spend a lot of time with me. Also, there is a huge requirement in terms of time and dedication – I am at it seven days a week, 52 weeks a year pretty well. The last kind of holiday I had was in 1996. I could be retired now, I am 61, but I don’t like letting people down. I am a passionate angler and what would really disappoint me would be if I stopped and things went downhill.”
It is not all idyllic fishing in some of the most stunning scenery Scotland has to offer.
Kindness says: “The last winter was okay but the two winters before that … I spent the best part of three to four weeks going to clear ice – I was down to every two hours at one point. When you get periods like that you think ‘there must be more to life than this’.
“I like doing it and I like the fact that we have had success. Also, you are leaving something behind: even if stocking stops and the river keeps going I can think maybe I was part of the turnaround.”
• For more information about the project go to: www.rivercarron.org.uk
Traditionally, salmon farms and salmon fisherman have not seen eye to eye. Amid accusations that farms produce pollution, disease and parasites which harm the wild salmon from Scotland’s rivers, they have never been seen as a bedfellows.
But the latest tranche of funding to help restock the River Carron involves money from salmon farming companies.
Shaun Macdonald’s family have farmed the area for more than 150 years and he owns a prime beat on the River Carron, which he hopes will attract both fishermen and visitors to his lodge. He is also convenor of the River Carron Improvement Association which has welcomed the involvement of salmon farms, although he admits not all members of the association are keen on the industry.
Mr Macdonald, below, said: “It is a huge step forward but we have always done that. My late father and our neighbours fully realised early on the economic importance of fish farming to the area, and in that context we made a decision to work with the fish farmers and we have always had open channels.”
Scottish Sea Farms has pledged £50,000 towards further research. Managing director Jim Gallagher said: “With proactive management of the river, the desired outcome of the local anglers of having more fish to catch can be achieved and enjoyed by all.
“The funding can now help the university team identify what exact aspects of the restocking programme have made the real difference to the river. They will monitor the stock through every stage and are able to identify every fish that goes into the river. This gives the research hard evidence about what is working. It is now up to the river owners to make decisions about their future investment and management practices of their rivers to address any stocking issues.”
The Scottish Salmon Company has been involved since 2008, providing funds and offering practical support as well as agreeing to make concerted efforts to control sea lice in their fish, especially when smolts are leaving the river and going past the fish farms on the way to sea.
Henry Dalgety, freshwater manager at The Scottish Salmon Company, said: “It’s encouraging to see a significant increase in the river’s stocks and we understand important lessons can be learned from The River Carron Project.”