“I remember a time when sometimes the river ran red, sometimes it ran blue,” says George Mackintosh, talking to me about the River Avon over coffee in the cafe at Muiravonside Country Park last month.
He’s not referring to a gruesome period of history; he’s remembering when the paper mills along the Avon discharged their waste into the river. “The colour depended on the dyes they were using.”
Waste from mills as well as mining activities ended up in the river, which over time had a devastating effect on it. George, born and bred around Falkirk, and has spent most of his life labouring to help bring it back to life. Fishing on the river since he was a child and a member of Slamannan Angling Protective Association for the past 50 years, he has seen works in the 70s to remove the bends from the river, works to try and reduce the flooding, and since around 2005 has been pretty much fully dedicated, in association with various environmental bodies, to river improvements. Last year he was awarded the UK wide River Champion Award for his dedication to the Avon, Almond, Allan, Carron and Kelvin.
“Anglers are not only interested in fish,” he explains, “We’re interested in the whole river ecosystem, the water and the banks, all the plants and animals that live in and around it.”
In 2005 the Avon was not in a good state, there was very little habitat, so George and his committee decided to approach various boards for funding to make improvements. Over the years he has become somewhat of an expert at getting funding for his beloved river. His first major project, putting boulders in the river to make “pinch points,” was funded by Falkirk Environment Trust. Certain fish need areas where the water is flowing faster, which is what pinch points create. These occur naturally in rivers, where bends and boulders create different habitats, but along the stretches where the Avon had been straightened and cleared, it was lacking the variety needed.
“Fish in the Class” is one of George’s favourite projects. It’s a Forth Rivers Trust initiative where a number of primary schools in Falkirk have a trout tank in the P5 classroom. Over the winter the children learn about looking after the eggs, keeping them at the right (cold) temperature and, when they hatch, releasing them into the river. George has helped deliver it for the past eight years, and loves sharing his knowledge of river craft with the next generation and seeing them respond to wildlife. “The children love it too, they take responsibility for the health of the tank, and love coming out to release them. We do other things with the children such as “kick sampling,” where you sample an area of the river bed and count how many invertebrates you can find. My grandchildren love doing this with me!” Any primary school in the Falkirk area is welcome to ask for a tank under the scheme subject to funding being available (£420 per school).
As a volunteer boatman on Linlithgow Loch on Sundays, George’s passion for helping everyone to access and enjoy the water shines through in a different way here. He can be very proud of his fundraising efforts there which recently saw the purchase of a boat for disabled anglers on the loch. With a price tag of £14k, it’s fully wheelchair accessible and opens up the loch for those with limited mobility.
George is very hands on, feet in the river, and is never happier than when working on something related to the river along with other members of the Slamannan Angling Protective Association, the Forth Rivers Trust and other groups who care for the river. From electrofishing – an electric current that attracts fish into a net where they can be counted, examined then safely returned to the water (“It lets you see what sorts of fish are in the river, and how they are doing”) to willow weaving - to create natural woven banks to help prevent erosion; through to control of invasive weeds, installing gravel for salmon or building bridges for older anglers (like him); there is always something going on. George is grateful for the support of several funders who help make this possible, including Falkirk Environment Trust, LandTrust, Falkirk Council, West Lothian Council, Avondale. S.E.P.A., Biffa, W.R.E.N, Forth Rivers Trust, The Wild Trout Trust and the Wheelyboat Trust.
What’s next? This year, with Forth Rivers Trust, the focus is on stopping river bank erosion. Local landowners and farmers have always been very supportive of actions to improve the river; George is conscious that it’s their livelihood and is very grateful for their co-operation over the years. “We may look at fencing the banks off in some areas, especially where there are cattle, in order to allow the grass to grow right up to the bank which forms a matting to stop erosion,” he explains. “We’re so busy we don’t get time to actually do any fishing!”
RiverLife: Almond & Avon, is an ambitious programme of works undertaking a range of catchment-wide improvements along the rivers Almond and Avon. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, and will run until July 2020. By engaging with communities and restoring the natural heritage of the rivers, the project will reconnect wildlife and communities with their local rivers.
There are many opportunities to get involved the RiverLife project, from action-packed volunteer days, community lead action for our rivers, education days with Fish in the Class, and seeing the benefits to our river systems. You can follow the project’s development and get involved at www.river-life.org.uk, follow them on twitter at @ForthRiversT and on facebook through the Forth Rivers Trust’s page.
Article in Konect May 2019
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer