Ex-punk rocker Feargal Sharkey is channelling his anger into saving Britain's beleaguered chalkstreams and holding those responsible for their decline firmly to account
A punk rocker is nothing without his anger, and Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of The Undertones, is furious. Sitting beside the sparkling River Lea at Amwell Magna Fishery, with a cuckoo distantly keeping the beat, it is hard to find anything to be even vaguely irritated about, let alone seething. Indeed Sharkey, welcoming and enormously engaging, doesn’t seem at all cross. This is because the idyllic scene we are enjoying now has been achieved through the positive, planned application of anger.
Sharkey explains: “When I got involved with the Amwell Magna Fishery club I discovered that the flow of the River Lea here had all but dried up. It was suffering the effects of over-abstraction and eutrophication. Two and a half miles of rare and beautiful chalkstream were in danger of turning into little more than a stagnant ditch. And this was the last remaining stretch where there was a spawning population of wild brown trout.”
When Sharkey took over as chairman of the club, one of the oldest in Britain, his predecessor told him that for years the water company had been taking too much fresh water out of the river and letting too much fertiliser and other effluent run in. The Environment Agency (EA) had apparently been studying this since 2003 but somehow seemed powerless to do anything about it.
Feargal Sharkey doesn’t do powerless
Sharkey doesn’t do powerless, and he discovered that the EA was perhaps not as powerless as it made out. “I am quite comfortable being faced with challenges and then methodically getting on with it, so my idea was to find out the issue and fix it. There had been a conversation going on about the state of the river for almost 15 years at that point. The EA did know about this, but no one had really tried to do anything about it.”
He contacted Fish Legal and spent the next 18 months researching and preparing to take the EA to the High Court. It was clear that this ex-rocker wasn’t going to back down, so the EA did. Today, opening the gate and walking over a footbridge to the fishing hut feels like Alice stepping through that little door into the beautiful garden of Wonderland. He says: “When I discovered what was happening at Amwell Magna I felt angry and frustrated, but I believed I could deal with it and I set about doing that.”
Sharkey points out that his family has fought and won battles every bit as daunting. “I grew up in Derry in the 1960s and 1970s and my parents were very politically active. I remember sitting ’round the kitchen table; there would be everybody from poets and politicians to trade unionists and tradesmen. In April 1969 my mother threw the whole family in the car to go down to Dublin to take part in the People’s Democracy March – and do you know, that battle was won in the end. I was brought up that if you see social injustice you must fight it.”
Sharkey admits age 10 was a big year for him all round as, when he wasn’t marching, he was discovering fly-fishing. “I went to the Christian Brothers school and they were determined we wouldn’t have any spare time to get into trouble, and so I signed up for fly-fishing. The River Faughan is about 10 minutes from the centre of Derry – you could get on a bus and have a chance of catching a salmon, and I caught my first little brown trout there not far from the bus stop.”
While still at school he was co-opted into a “delusional really” rock band, as he had won prizes for singing after performing at Derry’s annual culture festival. And so occurred the perfect collision of fighting spirit, fishing passion and rock mentality. Sharkey stresses how important the fishing has been: “I’ve spent my life in the music industry and the more stressed I was, the more I loved it. Fly-fishing is an outlet: you cast the line out [in his case a woven silk line from his handmade cane rod] and give a massive exhalation of breath. Everyone should have an opportunity to experience their moment of joy.
“I’ve discovered that this country is peppered with groups filled with honest people trying to do something,” he believes. “These are local people, not activists. They don’t have an agenda; they know instinctively that their river is sick. These are decent people who realised something was wrong and did what they thought was expected of them by raising queries with the water companies and regulatory agencies. I know one chap who has been measuring the falling levels of his local aquifer for the past 20 years. And here’s the thing that made me really furious: the companies and regulatory bodies took no notice of them.”
Good hearts may become harder to find
Nor is it just Sharkey who is fuming about the performance of Britain’s various environmental bodies. As long ago as 2003 the European Commission first informed the British Government of its intention to take legal action for failing to stop thousands of tonnes of raw sewage pouring into the Thames. This was in breach of a Europe-wide urban waste water directive agreed in 1991. Then in 2012, the European Court of Justice found the UK guilty of allowing water companies to illegally discharge sewage. Records show that over the past three years, 7.5 million hours of sewage discharge has poured into our waters.
And so Feargal Sharkey is angry: “They took these people’s trust in doing the right thing, and they trashed it.” A good heart these days is hard to find. During his river journey he has found many good-hearted people, all working tirelessly to save Britain’s water. As such, the authority bodies that have been so cynical in the past must be gentle with these hearts, and respect them and their values. Or good hearts will become even harder to find. For more information, visit: fishlegal.net