For the past 4 years, Jack Uridge has been the river keeper on a three-mile stretch of the River Kennet. The River Kennet is a chalk stream which rises in Avebury, Wiltshire and joins the Thames at Reading.
In the latest in our series looking at the lives of keepers across England and Wales, we caught up with Jack as he was mid-way through his winter work.
How did you become a river keeper?
I’ve always had passion for the outdoors and when I learnt to fly fish it seemed to connect everything I loved.
As soon as I found out that river keeping existed, I thought that’s what I need to do.
I’m 28 and I’ve always worked outdoors. I was born and grew up in Hertfordshire and for a while was an arborist. I later went on to work for the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust where we managed a small section of the River Mimram in Hertford, I also fished here in my spare time.
Talking to the right people, my background and learning on the job gave me the skills, and got me the position that I have today.
How did you learn your trade as a river keeper?
I already had most of the skills needed and I was offered an apprentice role at the Leckford Estate, helping to consolidate my knowledge. Leckford owns and manages a large section of the River Test in Hampshire. I got chatting to the right people and found out about the opportunity on River Kennet. It has almost been a blank canvas.
How do you know you’re doing the right thing for the river?
I don’t think you can be taught what’s right and what’s wrong. As a fisherman, you can almost feel what’s right – it’s second nature. It’s about experimenting and seeing how the river wants to work, how it wants to move.
How are our chalk streams doing at the moment?
Chalk streams are under serious threat. Pollution, lack of rainfall and over abstraction and prolonged mismanagement are continuing to cause damage that needs to be addressed to save these rare and precious rivers.
The bedrock in the south of England is generally chalky, as the rain falls on the land it’s filtered over weeks and months through the chalk and builds up in an aquifer, which over weeks and months drains into the river. Lovely clean water.
If that water gets polluted or there is a lack of rainfall, you can see where the problems begin. Agricultural run-off is a real issue but I’m hoping this will reduce hugely over the coming years.
With help from the many land-based organisations, this may become less of a problem in the future. On the River Kennet we are lucky to have Action for River Kennet (ARK) which has some fantastic staff who are providing advice and carrying out work to help keep the river and its catchment healthy.
How are chalkstreams managed?
Traditionally, chalk streams have been heavily engineered. Dredging, channel straightening and bank raising are all examples of how previous managers thought it best to manage rivers for both its health and their industry.
It is now known that these techniques do not work and working with the river and its natural processes does. Because of the way chalkstreams function they are easy to work with and restoration can be achieved quite simply.
Chalkstreams are low-energy rivers, they rarely flash-flood and they don’t have the power that rivers for example in Scotland and Wales have. So there is little fear that your projects will be washed out to sea with the next load of heavy rain.
How do you decide what you’re going to do with the river each year?
I look after three miles of river, which may not sound like a lot, but it’s a huge stretch. My job is quite unique and the estate is very up on environmental issues which is great. They’re happy for me to run the river in the way I see fit.
My plan is to reduce the amount of fish that I put in the river and to promote the natural fish population.
How is your work funded?
We run a small syndicate of 30 members each year and the season runs from May to September. In shooting terms, it’s more wild grouse shoot compared to a large commercial pheasant shoot.
The natural population of fish in the river is high so I don’t feel it’s necessary to add much more stock.
There’s more to fishing than catching fish. Many of our syndicate members enjoy the whole experience of fishing and they have the right mindset and it’s not just about catching the biggest fish. Many of them do catch and release and they just enjoy the beautiful surroundings. And the tranquility.
How would you describe the average fly-fisherman?
In the four years I’ve been here I’ve seen a real change in the types of people who are fishing. It was traditionally seen as an older sport but now the younger generation are taking it up. They’re always asking what I’m up to and they appreciate the constant improvements.
They’re keen to find out what I’m doing and why. They’re interested in wild trout and what I’m doing to improve the river and the trout numbers.
We run an open syndicate. Members are free to come whenever they want. They’re also allowed guest days when I go out and say hello and give their guests some advice. It’s all pretty relaxed. When they bring guests to the river it very much adds to their enjoyment.
Fly-fishing is an all-encompassing experience. Many fishermen tie their own flies which gives them a real sense of achievement if they can catch something themselves. I don’t have the patience and my fingers certainly aren’t delicate enough to make my own flies!
What’s your favourite season?
I enjoy my job at all times of the year. The river looks fantastic in the summer and I can see all the work I have put in over the winter come to fruition.
In the winter I can really get stuck in and do the proper work that’s beneficial to the river. At this time of the year, it’s my time.
What does your year look like?
During the summer, it’s the fishing season from May to September. I need to be there for my fishermen. Advising which fly to use on which day, making sure they’re happy and just doing general maintenance jobs like cutting the grass.
A lot of the jobs have always been done the same way
There is a prolific weed that grows in the river – water crowfoot – which grows like crazy and needs to be cut or you get summer flooding. It’s a classic river keeping job and it’s cut with a hand scythe.
September to March or April it’s bigger work with trees and big digger projects and deer control.
Being by the river, everything in sight grows like hell. Managing the marginal growth, pruning back trees, grass cutting…
What has been your biggest contribution to this particular role as a river-keeper?
I’ve completely changed the way the river is managed.
Taking a project from a pen and paper to the final outcome is hugely involved, but very satisfying when you can see the real impact in the river of what you’ve done.
Sometimes the best results don’t have to be done with heavy engineering, it can be a simple, subtle change which has a huge impact. There is funding available for people who want to improve stretches of their river.
It looks like your work has had quite an impact?
I have a lot of people who come and visit and see what we’re doing and what techniques I’ve been using.
The Wild Trout Trust is doing some great work on river management and providing real help to landowners and they’ve been a great help to me. We won a Wild Trout Trust award for the work we’ve done on the river which was a great endorsement.
How you would like to see river management change?
A lot of people think tidy rivers are best: when a tree falls in, it must be pulled out; if it looks untidy, clear it up.
These views are the opposite of what we should be doing. Rivers, fish and all things that thrive in these area need natural systems to remain. Tree cover is vital for refuge – trout in particular need cover from predation, so where better to seek this than under a fallen tree.
To preserve and improve our local rivers, it’s everyone’s duty to report something they feel isn’t right. If you see pollution then the Environment Agency or local water companies need to know.
A lot of people don’t realise that what they put down their drain affects the river. On the Kennet a few years ago, someone put a small amount of illegal insecticide down their drain and it completely decimated the insect population of the river for about 10 miles. Most rivers monitor fly-life by taking regular ‘kick samples’ in key locations. Insect life is a key indicator to a river’s health.
I wish that more gamekeepers would talk about the good work that they do and actually they do a huge amount of work for the environment. Showing people the practical conservation work they do does go a long way to people understanding it.
What are your plans now?
I’ve been here for four years. I think I need at least another four years for me to get the river exactly how I want it, to be at its absolute best.
I really like what’s going on across the UK with these new re-wilding projects and I would like to do more of that here.
We’ve spoken about mini re-wilding projects and having native cattle and horses. But, my long-term goal would be to have the whole river catchment completely re-wilded. That’s about 400 acres, but it’s all do-able.
The re-introduction of beavers for example, let’s see what happens!
You can follow Jack on Instagram @wild_riverkeeper
This featured first appeared in the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation Keeping the Balance magazine in Spring 2021.