Ghillies, River Bailiffs & Poachers

Ghillie: he who attends someone on a hunting or fishing expedition.

Over the years, this lovely river of ours has enjoyed entertaining and taunting an illustrious roll call of British royals (HRH The Prince of Wales, Edward VIII), Japanese royals (Emperor Hirohito allegedly), Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, captains of industry, military commanders (Col. Sir Thomas Pearson, El Alamein), artists, writers, and he of Starship Enterprise, Captain Kirk (William Shatner)! Like the salmon they are hunting, they slip into the county unseen, and slip away leaving barely a trace.

Standing beside their guests is the ghillie, guiding, advising, nudging. His knowledge with the fly, the worm, which pool and where, is rarely noted. Respectful, sometimes silent, other times garrulous, he is one of country sport’s greatest figures, alongside the gamekeeper. His knowledge is honed from years on his beat, paying close attention to the river and the landscape, noticing changes in his environment before anyone else.

‘A ghillie is there to look after the rods of his guests, his ladies and gentlemen, and to assist them. A true ghillie will never fish if he's got ‘rods’ (guests) there. If he wants to fish, he’ll do it when he gets home, if at all.’ Lyn Cobley

Sadly, the decline of salmon, and changes in river management, have seen a related decline in ghillie numbers, but there’s no protection order on them. Today there are no more than three or four full-time ghillies on the Wye.

‘If you can think, from Bigsweir, the lower end of the river, to just above Ross, which would be approximately 40 miles of river, there was fifteen ghillies years back. It’s doubtful now if there are even three or four full-time ghillies on the Wye.’ George Smith.

George Woodward

Ghillies take their guardianship seriously. They know their river intimately and care deeply. And, it has to be said, there have been some pretty big characters among them. George Woodward, 72

‘Basically, you’re a school teacher looking after a small child.’ George Woodward.

George Woodward arrived to take the position of gamekeeper and soon graduated to ghillying at the Courtfield Estate. He has fished with thousands of fishermen and women and taught his daughter, Lynn, the tools of the trade. She was the first-ever female ghillie on the Wye, working under the expert eye of her dad.

George: ‘I think one of the attractions of Courtfield was that the River Wye borders the estate on three sides. We’re nearly an island. If it wasn’t for Coppett Hill we would be. I had read a bit about the Wye before I came down and knew it was one of the most well-known salmon rivers in England and I had heard it referred to as the ‘beautiful Wye.

‘There were two local ghillies who fished what we loosely called the Estate water. Having an interest in fishing, it wasn’t long before I got quite friendly with them, and after a short while they realised I liked my fishing and they would say, “Come on George”. I had never been a ghillie before, I just had this big interest in fishing and I was really, really lucky with Jack Hillman and Cecil Teague because they were two really knowledgeable people and they was quite happy to pass that knowledge on. After I’d been going with them for a bit, and they got somebody new or a guest, I’d get asked to go and help out. So, I got to know the river quite well. And then dear old Jack died and I got offered his job and it worked quite well at that time because Mr Compton, who had owned the shooting, had packed it up. So, I then went doing a bit of part-time keepering and part-time ghillying, and that went on for a good couple of years.’

Lynn Woodward, 50, is George Woodward’s daughter. She caught her first fish when she was five and by the time she was 20, she was an expert angler, oarswoman and shot. In the early ‘80s, when Lynn applied for the role of assistant ghillie on her dad’s stretch of the Wye, he told her ‘not to be so bloody daft!’ Undeterred, she was appointed as the first woman bailiff on the River Wye, working under the tutelage of her father. Today Lynn is married, and lives on a sheep farm in Builth Wells.

‘When I was 20 I had been working in a factory for three months and got fed up with it and ditched it when I heard that there was a vacancy where dad worked as a ghillie. But dad working there didn’t help me get the job at all. I was working at a factory and wanted a change. I’m an outdoor person, so I applied. People talk about sexual discrimination today, imagine what it was like then. At the interview, I was asked what I would do if I was in a boat and needed to pee, or did I like worms. I was very apprehensive about getting the job and working with dad, but we got on fine and he taught me a lot. I had a good idea what I was doing. Some people come along and have all the gear and no idea, not a clue.

‘I started in the January, was sat in a boat in freezing conditions, ice on rod ring and all that. It wasn’t pleasant at times. My first guests were a couple of experienced locals, and they knew dad and knew the fishery well. Those that were new to the fishery were a bit horrified when they saw me. I don’t think they had lot of faith in me to be honest, but they were very polite. I had to prove to them I knew what I was doing. In the end, we became good friends and had a laugh. They respected me.’

It may have helped Lynn that her boss’ wife was keener on fishing than him. ‘She was a big supporter of mine. My first Wye salmon was when I was ghillying for her. She was delighted to have caught it.’

River Bailiffs and Poachers

‘Poaching's not thieving, rustling sheep is thieving’, announced a poacher to a journalist on the Independent in September 1995. Even more brazenly, H.L.V. Fletcher (Portrait of the Wye Valley, H.L.F. Fletcher, 1968) described people who lived by the river as ‘poachers by nature’. He went on to say: ‘I am not defending them, and I am not saying the custom is a good one. But for thousands of years their ancestors have taken fish out of the river for food and the salmon population has not apparently been affected.’

He might have been referring to Charlie Catchpole, a marvellous character and, according to his 85-year-old son, Jack, an equally excellent fisherman. He was also something of a maverick:

‘He used to poach a lot. I can remember Bullock Mill on the Arrow. Mr Passey, an agriculture merchant, owned all that area. We went there one day and, without warning, dad suddenly threw the rod into the stinging nettles and put his binoculars round his neck. And I was there with a net and he snapped, “throw the net away!” and along came Mr Passey with his farm manager. He was dressed up with his spats on and all the crap. And he said who are you? “I’m Charlie Catchpole”, said dad. “Well, what are you doing on my land?” And dad said, “We’re birdwatchers”. And I thought, this will never work. And Passey looked dad up and down and said, you can come on my land any time you like!”’

That the salmon population has dropped dramatically is a given. Whether the prolific poaching along the Wye played a part in that is still up for debate, but there is no doubt an effective river bailiff force was required in the face of some fearless and highly efficient poachers on the River Wye. The problem reached its height in the late 1970s through to the early 1990s.

George Smith 70

‘Poaching - more lucrative than robbing banks.’ George Smith

George Smith enjoys a round of golf in his retirement near his Kington home. It’s a far cry from the rough and tumble of his working life as a river bailiff. But he loved every minute of his job. In the late 1970s he was appointed the first-ever dog-handling bailiff on the Wye. His role was to enforce all the legislation on the river. But his anti-poaching work had started in the mid-70s when poaching was reaching new heights. His training for the job was, at best, minimal or laughable, depending on your point of view; or even cloak and dagger stuff:

‘I got the job and I was told to meet a chap on the bridge in Kington, at a certain time on a certain day. So, I met him there and he gave me four things: a truncheon, a pair of handcuffs, a torch, and a map with a big circle on it and he said, “right, that’s your area, now get on with it!”’

‘When we went out anti-poaching, and when we were such a small number, we were watching, say, just one mile of river at night, and the poachers would have thousands and thousands of fish out of the river. It was more lucrative than robbing banks. I worked for 35 years and it’s really changed in that time. When I started there were 12 bailiffs on the whole stretch of the River Wye and 12 on the River Usk. We had an office in Hereford, in St John Street, and a boss and two assistants and secretary. We had two fishery officers and a secretary and 24 of us on the river. But when I finished in 2012 there were just two of us for the whole of the Wye and the Usk and half of Wales; only two of us doing enforcement work.’

‘The most we ever got out of one net was 86 fish, worth about £5,000. That was just one pool on one night. It was really big business. In the 1970s, fresh salmon was about £5 per pound, you can buy it now for about £2 per pound, but because there was no farmed salmon then, each fish was worth about £100. Well, if you had ten in a net that’s thousands of pounds worth of fish. And one year we had 276 nets out of the Wye and I suppose they averaged ten or twenty fish in each net and that is the ones we got.’

Lyn Cobley was another of the ghillie bailiff brigade:

‘Poaching on the Wye was a major problem in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. You'd have peg nets, and the poachers had dinghies and they would put them across or even swim across the river to put them across. They'd paddle across to put one net in, then go down 50 or 60 yards and then put another in, and three or four nets like that. This would be at night; they'd never do it in the day. What we used to do to try and find them was get a dinghy out and drift downriver with a silent engine. They were netting virtually from Builth Wells down. One night we done a drift and we put on the river at Glasbury and between Hay-on-Wye and Whitney Toll Bridge in that little short spell we lifted 16 nets.’

Les Moses was one of these. During the drinking and bragging in local pubs, Les kept silent, listening, picking up information, quietly going about his ‘business’. He was super organised, and demonstrated business savy in his dealings.

‘I came home in the summer 1976, the drought year, and the talk of the town in Monmouth was the amount of salmon dying in river. People were giving jobs up to have salmon. It was so shallow at the side and you could take the salmon just like that. No body took any notice before then. That’s when I first got to hear about it. It was always a gentry fish. Two or four salmon was a week’s wage. It opened the eyes to a lot of people of the potential.

‘And then I got to hear about netting salmon from some Bridport boys in 1976. There were two or three gangs of them in Monmouth then, working away quietly. They were just walking up the river and taking fish out. Nobody knew they were coming up here to do netting. They would stretch a net from one bank to the other. That’s how the netting side of things got out.

Working in the evening or the early hours of the morning, Les and his team were soon putting multiple nets across multiple pools. In the beginning, they would swim the pools, later graduating to dinghies:

‘We used plastic dinghies to begin with, the cheap shop stuff, no life jackets or anything. We had a few close calls. We learnt to swim for our lives, because if the current took you down you were tangled in the net. So, you started spending a bit of what you earned to look after your health, getting proper rubber dinghies. I never got actually tangled in the net, but a lad called Terry drowned ten feet from the bank. He couldn’t swim and he jumped out of the boat, but couldn’t make it to the bank. ‘Another old man, he drowned swimming the net out, this was years and years ago. I was about 20. I knew them. I used to fish with them. Didn’t put me off, made you think a bit differently. But you’re young, you’re invincible.

‘Once we knew what we was doing, I organised a group of four lads: we had a driver, a look out and two of us working the boat, and we would average £4,000 to £5,000 a week back then. And it was good.’

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