Health & Safety gets flounders off hook

FOR almost 40 years its bizarre fusion of fishing and tap-dancing has reeled in competitors and camera crews from across the globe.

• Photograph: Adam Elder

But now one of Scotland's most eccentric sporting events has finally been sunk by health and safety regulations.

Over the decades, thousands of hopefuls have rolled up their trouser legs and waded into the muddy waters of Galloway's River Urr to compete in the Grande Internationale World Flounder Tramping Championships.

The individual who captured the most flat fish, by the unorthodox method of treading on the hapless creatures, was given three bottles of whisky, 150 and the right to call themselves the undisputed champion of the world.

The spectacle was filmed for Neil Oliver's hit BBC series Coast as well as by Australian and American networks and attracted contestants and spectators from Japan, Russia, Canada and Finland.

The annual aquatic ritual, held near the village of Palnackie, was cancelled last year because of a lack of volunteers and now a tide of red tape and regulation looks set to wipe out the event for good. The organisers would have to shell out at least 400 in advance just to insure the championship to comply with rules governing public events.

The final scrapping of the event has echoes of the cancellation of the Grand Match - a contest between hundreds of curlers on the frozen Lake of Menteith, near Aberfoyle, in January.

Although the ice cover on the lake reached the crucial thickness of seven inches, organisers were unable to overcome the health and safety concerns that would have allowed the event to be insured and go ahead for the first time for 30 years.

Craig Parker, who, alongside a handful of volunteers, has organised the flounder tramping contest for 15 years admitted it was unlikely to ever return.

He said: "Sadly, health and safety issues mean that the event will not be going ahead this year or in the foreseeable future, "There have never been any problems in 36 years and we never used to bother with insurance, but then somebody made a complaint.

"Even though it is just a bit of fun we were told we needed to provide cover, but the cost has gone through the roof and we just can't afford it.

"The whole event was for charity, but all the money raised would have been wiped out by the cost of paying for the insurance."

The painter and decorator felt the loss of the summer contest would be felt way beyond the mud flats of Kirkcudbrightshire.

He said: "People came from all over the world to compete and spectate.

"It has been filmed by the BBC, SKY, Channel 4 and Channel 5 as well as by Australian TV and others.

"It is a unique event which put Palnackie on the map and it is sad that this looks like being the end."

Over the years, the foot fishing contest has raised tens of thousands of pounds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI).

Lynne McGinlay, a barmaid at the village's Glenisle Inn, felt the cancellation would also be a blow for the area's economy.

She said: "It was a great day for the whole village and was one of our busiest days of the year. We have had so many phone calls from people asking if it is on this year. We contacted the organisers to see if we could help out, but sadly it just doesn't seem possible because of health and safety regulations and the ridiculously high cost of insurance."

Catching fish without a rod has been practised in south-west Scotland for centuries but the modern event was the brainchild of villager John Kirk, who on a sunny summer afternoon in 1973, offered a bottle of whisky to the person who could catch the biggest flounder.

The fishing contest snowballed into an expanded fun day which attracted large crowds and up to 350 competitors.

The last event, held in 2008, was captured on camera for the Channel 5 series Rory and Paddy's Great British Adventure, where comedians Rory McGrath and Paddy McGuinness travelled around the UK filming unique events like bog snorkelling, toe wrestling and cheese rolling.

Harris Ellis, who organised the event for 20 years, revealed there was a knack to capturing the common flounder, or fluke.

He said: "You wade in and literally stand - or tramp - on the flounders.

"You know when you've stood on one because the fish moves, it's a very strange sensation.

"The secret is to keep your foot firmly on it because if you lift it, even a tiny bit, the flounder will be off like a shot.

"If you keep your foot steady they kind of freeze and you are able to bend down and pick them up."

As the contest grew in popularity, organisers were quick to nip any attempts at cheating in the bud and banned contestants from using tridents or spears as well as disqualifying a contest who attempted to present a super-sized frozen flounder as his catch.

However, animal rights campaigners were heartened to learn of the event's demise.

John Patrick of Scotland for Animals said: "We are glad to see the back of this cruel, barbaric and inhumane spectacle.

"It is very sad that in 21st century Scotland some people still believe that stamping on living, sentient creatures constitutes good family entertainment. Some will no doubt claim flounder tramping is a popular tradition but so were bear-baiting and cock-fighting."..