I thought I might be last person in the world to defend the Environment Agency, but a circular newsletter that I received this morning has me tapping the keys to do just that. The author of the newsletter is a fellow conservationist, a lover of chalk-streams and a fisheries letting agent and yet he argues to scrap the rod licence fee: fewer and fewer licences are sold each year and the licence fee itself, so he argues, might well be part of the problem. It is stopping people from fishing.
I find that hard to believe. It’s easier than ever to buy a rod licence: you can now buy them online, via a phone call or – as ever – from a post office. Children under 12 don’t need a licence at all. And for children aged 12 to 16 the licence is free. When finally you have to pay, the licence for trout and coarse fish is only £30.
The money raised – about £20 million – pays for much of the work of the Environment Agency fisheries team. Some of that is circular, I admit. Licence fee money paying bailiffs to check licences. But it also pays for other forms of regulation like policing closed seasons to protect spawning fish, fisheries habitat work, and the re-stocking of rivers (after pollution incidents for example). Where does your licence money go?
To put that £30 into context: you’d struggle to buy an actual fishing rod for that sum, let alone all the rest of the paraphernalia you need to start fishing. To put it into another context: a day permit to fish on the River Test bought from the chap who wants to scrap the licence can cost up to £350.
As implied earlier, I think there is room for the Environment Agency to do a much better job. They are in a muddle, with a sprawling remit and a shrinking budget. So it isn’t easy. However, the work they do is often of great benefit to river conservation in general and our fisheries in particular.
What would happen were we to scrap the funding stream that links anglers and anglers’ needs to the work of the Environment Agency? Well, we’d have to make a case that the work should be wholly funded by the wider tax-payer base for the greater public good.
One should be careful what one wishes for. Should the wider tax-payer base pay for conservation work on rivers that are privately owned and where the permits cost hundreds of pounds a day? Should the Environment Agency work to protect the habitat of a private chalk-stream from public water-supply abstraction?
Far from scrapping the rod licence, the more money anglers raise and spend on river conservation the sounder our claim to being custodians of the nation’s waterways. Without that link we’re at the mercy of public opinion and no longer able to point to all the good we do.