By Dylan Jones, National Museums & Galleries of Wales
Published: 08 February 2005
waiting for a catch.
This centuries-old fishing method continues along the banks of the River Severn.
The waters of the Severn Estuary are among the most dangerous in Wales but this has not deterred generations of fishermen from fishing its rich waters for salmon. Traditional Welsh methods of catching them survived particularly strongly in the area. Within living memory a range of methods were used, including putcher ranks, stopping boats, putts, drift nets and lave netting. Sadly the latter is the only method to have survived into the 21st-century.
Blackrock Lave Net Fishermen, beside the Second Severn Crossing. From left to right: Bob Leonard, Richard Morgan and Martin Morgan
Bob Leonard, chairman of the Blackrock Lave Net Fishermen Association, carrying a lave net.
The number of lave netsmen has dwindled over the years and now they can only be seen in the area of the Second Severn Crossing close to the villages of Sudbrook and Portskewett (Monmouthshire). These men, members of the Blackrock Lave Net Fishermen Association, carry on a tradition that has a unique cultural and historical significance. The Association's chairman, Bob Leonard, has been a lave netsman for 57 years and explains that it is imperative to only go out on the estuary "with a man that knows the river otherwise you are in a very dangerous situation".
Fish are caught at low tides, known as spring tides, using a hand-held net. At one time fishermen were allowed to fish from February to August but this has since been restricted from June to August. At most they can fish for an hour and a half at a time depending on weather conditions.
Fishing commences as it always has with the fishermen going down to the shore at Black Rock. Often fishermen stand in the spots where their fathers and grandfathers once stood.
The basic technique for lave fishing is simple, the hand-staff is held in one hand and the headboard with the other, whilst the fingers are entwined in the bottom of the mesh feeling for the fish. The net is positioned in front of the fisherman, to face the run of the water. The fishermen consider wind direction and the height of the tide, with the optimum conditions being flat and calm. Rain does not necessarily worry them. Once positioned, as Bob Leonard explains, "they scan the water for the telltale signs of fish". They feel the strength of the water going by and expectations are raised of a sudden movement in the net. When the movement of a fish is felt the fisherman takes a backward step and raises the hand-staff out of the water.
Richard Morgan netting a salmon.
The lave net.
Once caught, the fish is quickly dispatched using a priest (a mallet named in parody of the priest's role in delivering the last rites) and taken onto the boat. The salmon is taken ashore and divided equally among the netsmen whether or not they had been fishing. At one time there was no need to divide the catch as there was sufficient salmon for everyone. Times have changed and commercial fishing using the lave net has not been viable on the estuary since before the Second World War. Prior to 1939 the fish were sent to Billingsgate Market in London.
The lave netsmen are as skilled as their forefathers but due to the diminishing fish stocks they are more than happy to reach double figures for the season. They fish to keep their centuries old craft alive as Martin Morgan, Secretary of the Association explains "Lave fishing has a tradition going back a thousand years in Wales. My great-grandfather was a fisherman and passed his skills on through the family".
Severn Tide by Brian Waters. Published by J.M. & Sons Ltd (1947).
Nets and Coracles by J. Geraint Jenkins. Published by David and Charles (1974).
All images above © National Museum of Wales