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Wanted: An apprentice; A river fisherman is looking for an apprentice to learn his dying craft - must enjoy moonlight and be available in summer, no weekend working involved. By Sandra Hembery...

Byline: Sandra Hembery

N OFFER is one of the rarest job opportunities you will ever find.

OIt's no ordinary job - the work only takes place in the summer months, you would get to know one of the most beautiful rivers in Wales, usually by moonlight, plus help keep alive one of Wales' centuries-old traditions. And there's another perk - you won't be allowed to work weekends.

The idyllic-sounding advert is seeking an apprentice to join a coracle fisherman on Carmarthenshire's River Towy.

And the man who has placed it is Andrew Davies, a coracle licence-holder for 17 years, who wants someone to join him for the 2019 season, which runs from March to July.

Just eight licences exist to fish on the Towy - with around three actively used.

On the Teifi a further 12 licences are actively exploited, while there is one on the Taf at St Clears.

That's it. The entire coracle-fishing population on earth today.

While its future is far from certain - an inquiry is under way that could force fishermen to release any salmon caught in our rivers - up for grabs is a chance to take part in a profession that dates back to Roman times.

It even has its own unique form of Welsh, with words shared only between coracle fishermen - and some only used on specific rivers.

If you meet a coracle fisherman they might refer to places on the river by names known only to the community.

Normally the unique skills of fishing and coracle-making are handed down through the generations.

But Andrew, who also fishes for bass on a commercial vessel, wants to pass on the culture and knowledge he has gained over the years.

He said: "I would just like to pass it on. It's something that, with the Welsh heritage, I thought an outsider would like to do.

"They would need to be keen - somebody that wants to be part of the heritage and physically fit."

As a child, Andrew would go to the river Teifi at Cenarth and was transfixed watching the coracle men.

After leaving the navy someone asked him if he wanted a go... and he's never looked back.

He talks about the new role - one which he's never offered before: "They would fish with me. The licence-holder has got to be present and I would teach them how to do it.

"Normally, unless someone passes away and a licence becomes available, you would never get that opportunity. It would be a very sad day for Wales if coracle fishing disappeared.

"It's the same as the cockling, laverbread and sewin - it's part of Wales' heritage."

Any apprentice taken on would expect to fish by the light of the moon, often barely seeing your hand in front of your face.

Two coracles operate at any one time with a 40ft net stretched out in a semi-circle between them. When a fish is caught the two coracles are drawn together by pulling at the net. In previous decades a fisherman could expect to catch four to five salmon in a shift, but now you are just as likely not to catch anything.

Clocking off time could be anything up until 3am or 4am.

But for Andrew, the joy of catching a salmon that might be eaten in restaurants as local as the award-winning Y Polyn or the New Curiosity in Carmarthen is one of the reasons he takes to the Towy.

For Malcolm Rees it's deeper than that: it's in his blood. His family connections with coracles can be traced back 300 years - as far back as records stretch.

Malcolm's great-grandfather, William Elias, was born in 1876, and worked with coracles for much of his 98 years. Although the trade missed a generation, Malcolm's father was a fisherman who passed on the knowledge almost from the cradle.

As you walk around the Quay Centre on Carmarthen's riverfront you are met with a fascinating historical archive of the coracle on the Towy, with many pictures of Malcolm and his relatives on the walls.

Malcolm had his first coracle aged two - in the same way most children are given a toy car or tractor.

He watched his father make coracles and learned the trade over several years. But there came a crunch time when Malcolm had to choose a profession. He became a finance broker, regretting the fact he had not kept the tradition alive.

"My father said to me, 'Don't worry about it. It's in your blood. It will come to you."

When Malcolm, now 53, hit 40 it came to him. He now fits in finance with fishing - and manages to keep centuries of family tradition alive.

What is the history of Carmarthenshire's coracle fishing? A hide-covered vessel was first recorded when the Romans invaded the country in AD48, but the coracle was at its height in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then Wales' biggest port, it was estimated some 2,000 townsfolk made their living from the river at Carmarthen.

Many worked on huge cargo ships that imported items such as coal, wine and iron, and exported Welsh wool. Among these huge ships the tiny coracles plied their trade - with the families living in poverty outside the town's boundary wall.

Their damp cottages often only had straw covering the floor, which was sometimes washed away by the town's waste as it made its way down to the river.

In the 1860s it was estimated that 400 coracle men relied on the river. Over the years there has been a dramatic decline in the number of coracles permitted to fish.

In 1923 the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act put an end to coracle fishing on many rivers.

It is now limited to three west Wales rivers - the Towy, Teifi and Taf.

In 1929, 25 pairs were permitted to fish the river Towy, a number cut to 12 by 1935. Today just eight coracle fishing licences are issued by Natural Resources Wales for the river.

What is a coracle? Traditionally it was a small boat made with ash woven together to make a lattice and covered with a calico sheet then painted with three coats of bitumen paint - a mixture of tar, linseed and pitch and applied with a leather tassel as a paintbrush would just disintegrate.

But, in 1973, the river was dammed at its source and overnight the river level dropped, making shingle banks appear and making it difficult to stand up in the traditional boats.

A new-style fibreglass boat emerged. The boats are very light, with the traditional coracle weighing around 20lb.

A seat is placed in the centre with a seat support and two leather straps are attached, with the larger one used to carry the coracle over the fisherman's shoulders.

The smaller one is used to house the "cnocr" or "priest", the small wooden club used to stun the fish. When afloat, the boat can be used in as little as three to four inches of water.

Traditionally the paddle is painted at both ends in white so when it falls into the water in the dark it can be easily retrieved.

Meanwhile, the fishing lines were still being made of cow tail as recently as the 1960s.

For Malcolm Rees the traditional boat has a distinctive feel: "You can feel the river more in a traditional one.

"It's difficult to explain, but I feel closer to the water in a traditional one than in fibreglass."

What is the future for coracle fishing? The very future of coracle fishing as we know it is under threat.

With salmon stocks diminishing, an All Wales Inquiry is under way to investigate how to protect the remaining fish.

The Planning Inspectorate for the Welsh Government is conducting the inquiry into The Wales Net Fishing (Salmon and Sea Trout) Byelaws 2017.

The inquiry started in January in Newtown, Powys, and is set to end on March 7. Proposals being suggested include reducing the fishing season. Currently it runs from March 1 until July 31. It is suggested that the months of March and April could be shunted back into the closed season - leaving just May to July available for fishing.

An alternative proposal is to have a "catch and release" policy, effectively ending the ability of fishermen to make a living out of their catch. Naturally, while the fishermen understand the need to preserve stocks, neither option is welcomed by them.

They point to the fact that the reduction in stocks could be down to a number of reasons, including pollution, and not just because of over-fishing on the river.

But they fear that - after centuries of tradition - coracle salmon fishing could die out within 12 months if even a temporary ban on catching fish is imposed.

| For more information on the apprenticeship, contact Andrew Davies on 07896 009079 What it's like to paddle a coracle ON A cold but bright February morning I took to the Towy to try my hand at steering a coracle, writes Sandra Hembery.

After days of heavy rain, the river was too turbulent to be gentle on a mere novice, so I took instruction in the safe waters of the slipway. For the other hand to be free to fish, the coracle oar is held in one arm, with the shoulders used to steer the boat.

The oar is held at the 'two o'clock' position, with the skillful oarsman carving out a figure of eight gently in the water.

I wasn't a skilful oarsman. Neither could I remember how to complete a figure of eight when combined with the impossible task of staying afloat, sitting correctly in the boat and avoiding a crash! I was told it was impossible to sink the boat from the front. I very much doubted that in my case.

Within minutes my pathetic shoulders were feeling the strain of holding the oar steady and paddling in the shallow waters.

If there was a competition for going round in circles while simultaneously intending to go in a straight line I would have won it. And we won't mention the couple of times when there was a crunch of coracle on quayside.

Minutes later I watched humbly as professional coracle fishermen glided through the water, almost soundlessly pushing the craft to seemingly impossible speeds.

I won't even imagine how I would have fared A language of their own STILL spoken today, there are many words that relate only to the coracle - with some even geographically limited to certain rivers.

Based on the Welsh language, they unite the fishermen who continue the tradition. Here are just some of them: Astell Orlais (Towy) - the plank supporting the seat Ffiol (Towy) - the wooden bailer kept under the seat Clyfwchwr - the time to begin fishing Helingo (Teifi) - the process of covering a coracle Gafel - the claw at the top of a Teifi coracle paddle Sdol (Teifi) - the coracle stool or seat.

Towy fishermen also divided up the river into small areas and gave them names recognised only by themselves. They include Gwar Garw, Pwll Jini Ban and Llyn Owen.

My father said to me, 'don't worry, it's in your blood, it will come to you'

CAPTION(S):

<B Andrew Davies, left, and Malcolm Rees coracle fishing on the the River Towy in Carmarthen Robert Melen
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 16, 2019
Words:1879
Previous Article:19 February 2019; TUESDAY.
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