The Fynest of sport
Inveraray Castle has a 500-year ancestral and sporting history. Jane Pruden talks to the Duke of Argyll about his family estate's latest initiatives.
'As a child, I remember family and friends fishing our little spate rivers with big salmon rods and catching some really decent salmon,' recalls Torquhil Argyll. 'In the 70s and 80s, the Castle Beat on the River Aray, for example, was regularly producing 200 fish a year. They were mainly grilse - nice and small, but not without some good sea trout and 7-10lb salmon.'
In the 70s, onshore netting stations in Loch Fyne were hauling out 1,700-2,000 salmon, too: proof that there was no shortage of fish. And then, in the late 90s, everything changed.
Twenty years ago an influx of fish farms sprang up in Loch Fyne and wild salmon numbers suffered dramatically. It is widely recognized that sea-lice, which accompany farmed fish, affect the welfare of wild fish stocks. The situation was worsened still, as sea-lice became immune to the pesticides used to kill them. However, Andrew Montgomery, Argyll Estate's factor, is careful to tell me: 'We are not bigoted towards fish farms, I think there is a place for them, but the industry needs to be more regulated when it comes to the effects on wild fish stocks.'
But for fishermen at Inveraray, and neighbouring rivers, the effects were disastrous. Fish counts shrank dramatically. Fish that were caught were smaller and invariably covered in sea-lice. It would be easy to point the finger of blame entirely at fish farms, but they weren't solely responsible for the downward trajectory. Silting and environmental issues within the fine balance of the marine ecology were also identified as contributory factors.
The easiest option would have been to just write off the fishing and wait for a miraculous wind of fortune to precipitate change. But that would be to underestimate the determination and the passion for fishing at Inveraray. A plan of attack was cast.
In 2002, the estate, in conjunction with the Argyll Fisheries Trust (AFT), acquired spare equipment from various fish farms and built a hatchery for the Upper Loch Fyne river systems. Andrew picks up the story: 'We caught up odd fish that were around in October and November and transferred them into our hatchery. This carried on for a number of years. Two years ago, we felt the recruitment had taken a significant upturn, and there was a good enough number of redds that we took a decision to allow them to spawn naturally. Neighbouring riparian owners do still use the facility under the watchful eye of the AFT.'
Significantly, six years or so ago, fish farms were moved out of the Upper Loch Fyne. 'I don't know whether it was a coincidence,' says Andrew, 'but we have had good numbers of grilse returning to the rivers again. In the last couple of years, salmon up to double figures and 5lb sea trout have been recorded in both the Shira and the Aray.'
'Today,' continues the Duke, 'if we have had a reasonably sustained period of rain, which our spate rivers need, I will fish the Aray with my 11ft sea trout rod and enjoy catching 1-2lb sea trout, and if I'm lucky, the occasional 7-8lb salmon.'
'It is a great privilege to live on a river, especially a spate river, and be able to pick and choose your moments to go fishing. The last two years have been particularly dry, but on the whole the outlook is positive. Things improved this year after it rained in the autumn, with some good catches of healthy salmon, and the sea trout run has got a lot better. But apart from much-needed rain, fish have got to be able to live in the loch; the ecology is very important.'
It's all nose to the grindstone but, along with ongoing work and efforts to prevent burns silting up, the majority of the river system is showing measurable signs of recovery.
Stalking at Inveraray has never suffered such a perilous journey and its reputation continues to grow. Stalkers can tread in the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots, who visited the estate as a guest of Archibald, 5th Earl of Argyll, and shot deer in Glen Shira. 'Our stalking is very popular,' explains Andrew. 'We can offer sport for any ability. With our ground rising up from sea level you don't have to be super fit or particularly agile to take part. Lower level stalking is very popular with some of our older guests. Alternatively, you can walk up to 3,500ft.'
Deer stalking is one of the fastest growing fieldsports in the UK at the moment and Inveraray is offering plenty of opportunities to access the sport. As well as stags and hind shooting, the estate has recently opened up some woodland stalking through the summer months. It is a win-win situation. It's a cheaper alternative for the client and it helps the estate's managers protect new woodland plantations.
An estate stalker accompanies every guest and particular attention is paid to youngsters or beginners. 'Our stalking guides are extremely knowledgeable. But it's not just about sharing information with new stalkers to the sport; it has to be fun too and we make sure everyone has a memorable day from the stalk to the gralloching,' adds Andrew.
Inveraray is a truly beautiful place to visit, not just for its stunning scenery, the sport, history and the castle, which is open to the public from the beginning of April to the end of October, but also as a base to explore some of the Hebridean islands.
For wildfowlers, a trip to the Island of Tiree has to be the Mecca of all locations. The stories are legendary. One of the most impressive records was in October 1906 when Lord Elphinstone and Mr. J. D. Cobbold shot 1,052 snipe in a week. Ground predators are non-existent on Tiree, the climate is mild and biblical numbers of wildfowl, including a native population of 4,000 greylag geese, thrive on the island - that's before you count the migratory populations from northern Europe on their way south. Unfortunately, such is the demand for the five weeks of snipe shooting available that you may need to wait some time for an opportunity.
Torquhil Argyll and Andrew Montgomery have maximised every opportunity for sporting tourism on the estate. But innovation continues. New for 2014 is an enterprise for nonsporting enthusiasts. Wildlife Tours are being offered for those just wanting to soak up the scenery and incredible plethora of wildlife, including golden eagles, red deer and mountain hares.
As every generation of the Argyll family have had their stories to tell, so too will the next. The present Duke's young children may well look back one day and recall their own sporting childhoods - photographing eagles and posting their pictures on social media sites, and catching increasing numbers of silvery fish from the rivers.