Take me to the river
Lots of women want to fish, but few do. Now there are moves to change the image of a pastime seen as stuffy, male and very old-fashioned
Days spent fishing don't count against the lifespan, according to a Chinese proverb - words borne out by the late Queen Mother, who fished for salmon into her nineties. And now the Environment Agency wants to encourage tens of thousands more women to take up fishing and experience the health benefits for themselves.
As male domination goes, angling is hard to beat: 98 per cent of the four million people who went fishing in the UK last year were men. There are a few famous female enthusiasts including actor Diana Rigg, chef and businesswoman Prue Leith and former ITN newsreader Fiona Armstrong. But only 2 per cent of those who bought a fishing licence last year were women, and angling was a lowly 28th in a list of the most popular recreations among women in the government's last General Household Survey.
The Environment Agency, in a move intended to banish the sport's image as a male preserve, seeks - by 2015 - to double the number of women who fish.
'There are benefits to fishing, including health, and we want more people, particularly women, to share in those,' said Dafydd Evans, the agency's head of fisheries.
It has decided to try to boost female participation after conducting research showing that 5 per cent of women are interested in trying angling, but few ever do so. After consulting women who already fish about how to realise this potential, the agency is considering moves such as increasing the tiny number of female coaches, changing the 'laddish' atmosphere at watersides, mounting advertising campaigns, building more ladies' toilets and introducing girls to the sport when still at school.
'The strongest feeling we've had from women anglers so far is that, as most coaches are men, they need to modify their behaviour to encourage women, try to create the sort of welcome, supportive atmosphere that women would feel comfortable in, and be aware that you can't get on as if it's a bunch of lads,' said another agency official. Its 'Angling In 2015' strategy document, due to be published next spring, will spell out its plans in detail.
The Salmon and Trout Association already has 1,400 women among its 15,000 members. It has just recruited a former army major, Terry Atkinson, as a development manager to increase the number of anglers, especially women and people from ethnic minorities.
'We must get fishing into the media that women already read,' said Atkinson. 'And we need women instructors, and need to be much more inclusive in this sport.'
Veronica Kruger, a consultant to the association, got hooked on fishing 27 years ago on her honeymoon when her husband John insisted they spend their days fishing from a boat around South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. 'I can't think of a more spiritually reviving experience than sitting on a riverbank quietly watching the wildlife while you breathe the scent of the country,' she said.
Lesley Crawford, who teaches fishing in Caithness in the Highlands, said: 'Other women go for spas - fishing is my hydrotherapy. It's a great escape from family and maybe work commitments, so women appreciate it a lot more when they go out.'
Helen Donohoe, head of policy at the Women's Sport Foundation, said women faced quite a few practical barriers to getting involved in fishing: the time it takes to go on an angling trip; having to juggle family commitments; needing a car; and feeling vulnerable as a lone woman in a secluded place.
Fishing will need to change dramatically if the agency's initiative is to succeed, said Donohoe. 'Angling is recognised as being so male-dominated that females may feel intimidated in the fishing environment. It's not associated with a young, modern lifestyle, isn't an aspiration sport for young people and isn't very fashionable.'
Prue Leith, who fishes regularly for trout and salmon in rivers throughout Britain, says: 'The activity is good because it's just enough to be interesting and not enough to be exhausting. Being out in the fresh air is good for the appetite. And it's never boring.
'There's also a wonderful camaraderie and you can sink into a comfortable ritual, knowing you'll always talk about the same sort of things. I couldn't do without it.'
Fiona Armstrong likes the fact that fishing is such a gentle pastime, can provide a dinner and also 'the social side - fishing people are such good company. There's nothing quite like being out in the open air and then, when you get a fish, you have to think how you're going to cook it. There's nothing quite like it for relaxing'.