Undertones frontman Feargal Sharkey on his love of fishing and saving chalk streams

  • ITV News Anglia reporter Hannah Pettifer caught up with Feargal Sharkey on the banks of the River Lea in Hertfordshire

A million miles away from his former life as a rock musician, Feargal Sharkey says he can't remember when he first held a fishing rod in his hand. 

"I'm assuming I was about 9, maybe 10 or 11," he guesses.

He had been told to take up some extracurricular activities at school. He chose fly-fishing and, shortly after, was hooked for life.

"This is the perfect example, we're half an hour out of London, if you're really feeling down, come up here on a Thursday night, there's two and a half miles of valley with nothing but the burbling sound of water, birdsong in the background.

"I specifically say Thursday night because of the Norman church in the valley it's church bell practice and for a moment in life the world is a much, much better place. And that, for me, is what fly fishing is all about."

Feargal Sharkey fishing on the River Lea in Hertfordshire where he is chairman of the Amwell Magna Fishery Credit: ITV News Anglia

The banks of the River Lea in Hertfordshire couldn't be further away from the Feargal Sharkey most of us are familiar with.

Lead singer of punk band The Undertones in the 1970s and 80s, with hits Teenage Kicks and My Perfect Cousin, Sharkey later pursued a solo career. But fly-fishing remained a constant throughout.

I ask him if he used fishing to cope with the pressures of his music career.

"It was more when I got into the corporate side of my career," he says.

"I was once invited to speak at a conference in Washington, with 500 copyright lawyers. There's one part of my brain saying, what do I want to go to Washington for, stand in a room with 500 lawyers, there's nothing more dull a thing to be doing.

"Then I remembered there's some really good fly fishing about an hour's drive north of Washington up in Pennsylvania. Guess what happened?"

Former punk rock musician Feargal Sharkley angling on the River Lea in Hertfordshire Credit: ITV News Anglia

Sharkey's love of fishing now sees him as chairman of the oldest angling club in England, the Amwell Magna Fishery. Based in Amwell, Hertfordshire, along the River Lea, there are only 60 members allowed.

"Have you heard of the saying Dead Man's Shoes? Someone has to die for you to become a member here," Feargal jokes.

Since retiring from the music industry, Feargal Sharkey has become one of the most vociferous campaigners for the health of chalk streams.

The chalk stream is one of the rarest types of river in the world, with just over 200 in existence, the majority of which are in southern England. But their future is in jeopardy.

Over-abstracted and polluted, more than three quarters of the country's chalk streams are not in a good state of environmental health.

"For me, the truth is, the rivers are the veins and arteries of society," says Sharkey.

"They're the bits we neglect, and whilst we may talk about them, we overlook them constantly."

Chalk streams are known for their pure, clear water that comes from underground aquifers and chalk springs.

Chalk streams support an abundance of wildlife including water vole Credit: Russell Savory

The pristine water is perfect breeding ground for brown trout and other wildlife. But the biggest problem for the chalk stream is over-abstraction, taking too much water out to supply homes, farms and industry and not leaving enough to support wildlife and the natural environment.

Sharkey does not believe enough is being done by water companies, regulators and the government to address the issue.

He said: "You have to question what exactly are organisations like the Environment Agency doing, what is OFWAT, and how is the regulation of the water industry ever allowing some of the rarest eco-systems on the earth, chalk streams, to be robbed and deprived of water, the very thing they need?"

Feargal Sharkey is chairman of the oldest angling club in England, in Hertfordshire Credit: ITV News Anglia

The Environment Agency says the problems facing chalk streams are complicated and expensive to solve.

The Agency said: "As the environmental regulator, we are doing everything we can, with the legal powers and resources we have, to guarantee chalk streams for future generations. 

"We are responsible for ensuring those who abstract, discharge and use chalk streams comply with the strict conditions specified through our permits.

"Responsibility for complying with these permits lies with the operator.  If these permits are breached, we take action to enforce them.

 “The future of chalk streams is dependent on action by water companies, farmers, landowners and individuals. Sustainable abstraction, reducing demand for water and reducing pollution, particularly from storm overflows, will have the major impact on the quality and preservation of chalk streams."

Chalk streams are among the rarest waterways in the world with only just over 200 in exisitence Credit: ITV News Anglia

The recently formed National Chalk Streams Restoration Group is now in place to bring key players, including the Environment Agency, together to agree actions to meet the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan target of 75% chalk streams to get to their natural state as soon as practicable.”

Feargal Sharkey says he suspects he might not be on the Environment Agency Christmas card list this year but he still praises some of the officers he has spoken to as desperately dedicated people whose intentions are being undermined by bureaucracy.

The Amwell Magna fishery celebrates its 190th anniversary this year. Its members still fishing the same waters, but now also fighting to protect them for generations to come.