Mary-Ann Ochota

In a quest to learn more about Bri­tain’s tra­di­tional boats, Mary-Ann Ochota at­tempts to mas­ter an an­cient craft on a wild Welsh river

Countryfile Magazine - - Editor’s Letter - Pho­tos: Drew Buck­ley

“Ma­noeu­ver­ing is fiendish – pad­dle in one hand, fish­ing net in the other,” says Mary-Ann of her cor­a­cle ad­ven­ture.

Be­low the vil­lage of Cil­ger­ran in Pem­brokeshire, the River Teifi surges noise­lessly through a steep, tree-cov­ered val­ley. It’s a dark night, the moon is yet to rise and the thick sky blan­kets us. “Look at that,” Mark Del­lar mur­murs, at the haze form­ing above the black wa­ter. “The old men used to call that ‘Salmon Mist’. It’s a good sign, it means the fish might be run­ning.”

I flick my head­torch on, step gin­gerly into my cor­a­cle, and we push off from the bank into the vel­vet night. Mark is a Teifi nets­man, en­ti­tled to fish the river for salmon and sea trout (known as sewin), us­ing hand­made nets trawled be­tween two cor­a­cles. It’s the way it has been done for gen­er­a­tions. Tonight, I’m join­ing him as a helper, or ‘gwas’, Welsh for ‘ser­vant’.

With the rough net in one hand and a smooth wooden pad­dle in the other, float­ing on a dark river wait­ing for the tug of a fish, I can’t help think­ing that I could have trav­elled in time and wouldn’t know it.

Along with tim­ber log boats, the cor­a­cle – a small, rounded craft made from a wooden or wick­er­work frame cov­ered with an­i­mal hide – is the most an­cient type of boat in hu­man his­tory. It’s cer­tainly played a role in Bri­tain since the Bronze Age, around 2,500BC, and prob­a­bly ear­lier.

Nowa­days, most co­r­a­clers have swapped an­i­mal hides for stretched fab­ric wa­ter­proofed with tar, or the 21st-cen­tury in­no­va­tion, pond-liner fab­ric. The cor­a­cle I’m in is pretty tra­di­tional – a wil­low lath frame with a twisted hazel rim, and a cal­ico ‘hull’ stretched taut and hard­ened with bi­tu­men paint.

TRICKY TECH­NIQUE

Ear­lier that day, Mark had coached me in the art of cor­a­cling. The boat may be sim­ple, but mas­ter­ing the ma­noeu­vring is fiendish.

“It takes about 10 min­utes to learn the ba­sics. And then about 10 years to get good at it!” Mark chuck­les as I flail at the wa­ter with my pad­dle. Co­r­a­clers face the way they are trav­el­ling, and pad­dle over the front of the boat in a fig­ure of eight ‘sculling’ mo­tion. Get it wrong and you find your­self spin­ning in cir­cles or sim­ply float­ing off down the river.

To help with fish­ing, I need to pad­dle one-handed, po­si­tion­ing my cor­a­cle in the right part of the flow of the river, and main­tain­ing the ten­sion of the net in my other hand. Our quarry are fish trav­el­ling from the At­lantic Ocean to their birth­place spawn­ing grounds up­river. Cor­a­cle-caught sewin and salmon have European pro­tected ge­o­graph­i­cal sta­tus – up there with the likes of Cham­pagne or Parma ham.

“I think the old men would be sur­prised that there’s so much in­ter­est in cor­a­cle-fish­ing her­itage. For them, it was just a way of life. But I think they would also be proud of us, for keep­ing it go­ing,” Mark says. “And of course, the qual­ity of the fish speaks for it­self.” The sewin I taste is de­li­cious, a vi­brant pink fil­let with rich, earthy flavours. It’s a real treat, wor­thy of ac­co­lade.

SALMON SLIP­PING AWAY

A cen­tury ago, fish were abun­dant here from April to Septem­ber. Thou­sands of Teifi salmon were sent to cities across Eng­land, com­mand­ing top prices. Trout would be kept for lo­cal sale and as food for the fam­ily. But salmon fish stocks are now dras­ti­cally low and Mark and his fel­low nets­men are wor­ried. An es­ti­mated 6,000 salmon ran up the Teifi to spawn in 2010 – fewer than 2,000 ran in 2015.

All 12 li­censed Teifi nets­men de­clared a vol­un­tary catch-an­drelease pro­gramme for any salmon they caught this year.

“Even though we’ve got com­mer­cial li­cences, this is now about preser­va­tion, not mak­ing money,” Mark ex­plains.

Fish num­bers have crashed be­cause of re­duced sur­vival rates at sea – due to cli­mate change and habi­tat de­struc­tion – and en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion events that can de­stroy whole breed­ing beds and a gen­er­a­tion of

“Get it wrong and you spin in cir­cles or float off down river”

young fish in one go. In this ru­ral area, river pol­lu­tion is mostly agri­cul­tural fer­tiliser run-off and slurry over­flows from farms (see page 52).

The nets­men want to keep the fish­ing her­itage alive, but not at the ex­pense of their beloved river.

“Even when you’re not fish­ing, it’s a plea­sure to be out on the river in a cor­a­cle. They’re quiet, you’re close to the wa­ter. And maybe be­cause they’re not plas­tic,” he thumps the side of his cor­a­cle, mak­ing a dull bas­kety noise, “wildlife such as ot­ters and king­fish­ers just watch you pass. They don’t bother with us at all.”

NET RE­SULT

Back at our night fish­ing, Mark calls in­struc­tions in hushed tones. There are three braided mark­ers on the main net-line – so it doesn’t mat­ter that it’s pitch black, I know to keep feed­ing the net out un­til I feel the next braid un­der my fingers. As the river gets shal­lower, we pull the net up, grip­ping the line in our teeth as our hands reach to gather the slack. The key is to keep the net skim­ming the river bot­tom, rather than drag­ging along loosely or drift­ing in mid wa­ter. Mark knows ev­ery inch of this river and moves to the right place with ninja-like skill. I pad­dle with all my might, try­ing not to let the side down. When we reach the end of the run, catch­less, some 600m later, we swing our cor­a­cles on to our backs like tur­tle shells, walk down the river­bank, and pre­pare to go again. It’s a strange com­bi­na­tion of calm and ex­hil­a­rat­ing. And I don’t mind at all if the sewin miss our net. Mark agrees. “There’s a rea­son they call it fish­ing, not catch­ing.”

Au­thor Mary-Ann nav­i­gates the Teifi in the river’s dis­tinc­tive cor­a­cle

ABOVE Teifi nets­men in their cor­a­cles on the river in 1972 – they are pad­dling with one arm, hold­ing the net be­tween them with the other LEFT Cor­a­cles have been in use for cen­turies, dat­ing back to pre-Ro­man times. An­cient Bri­tons used them for fish­ing and trans­port

Bri­tain Afloat Mary-Ann ex­plores the de­sign and his­tory of six tra­di­tional boats in the BBC se­ries, Bri­tain Afloat – cor­a­cles, punts, nar­row boats, the row­ing eight, Mersey sail­ing boats and Thames sail­ing barges. Watch on BBC2, Satur­days, 8pm, or catch up on iPlayer.

LEFT be­tween them as they pad­dle, al­low­ing it to skim along the river bot­tom BE­LOW The walk back to the start, car­ry­ing the cor­a­cles

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