The price of a Dream - by Steve Dawe

          I, like most anglers, have always dreamt of having my own lake and its one of those dreams that come under the “when I win the pools”category. Whilst sitting on hundreds of banks for thousands of hours, I have mentally designed what my fishery would have, taking inspiration largely from Mother Nature herself. Over the years, I have created dozens of imaginary fisheries all bursting with monster specimens itching to take my bait.

          To create my fishery I would first need to win the Lottery, Pools or The Apprentice- none of which I have a realistic chance of, so a dream it was to remain until spring 2009. My parents, who have always invested their savings into property, were considering new investments as the property market stagnated.  I strongly believed that land would be a good investment at this time. We agreed to find a bit of land,build a lake and stock it with fish.Bish, bash, bosh- fishery done! Wow- that was easy.


          Time for a reality check, and I hope that anyone considering building their own lake never assumes you can just dig a hole, fill it with water and set up your bivvy! The process at a first attempt can have many pitfalls, hidden costs and legal requirements. You soon learn the right way to do things and I hope this article may point people in the right direction.I will cover each process in order but as my water is an on-going project,I will no doubt come across further setbacks. Despite the various issues and problems I would still say that, other than my kids, it is the best thing I have ever achieved and if anyone wants to take the plunge, so to speak, you won’t be sorry.


The Land


          When looking for land to build a lake there are several factors that can save or cost you thousands. If you look at flat grassland up to 5 acres it will generally be at the higher end of the cost range as this is perfect land for horse paddocks. Flat land is however great for making a lake to the exact shape and dimensions you require; as everything is level your water depths can be determined by your wishes. Another downside is that all excavated material must be disposed of and every cubic meter from a flat site will need to be removed, and this can lead to transporting and tipping charges.


          Sloping land is generally cheaper to purchase and has the huge benefit of allowing the “cut and fill” method of lake construction. This uses the excavated material to construct a dam on the downwards slope side of the lake, reducing tipping and transportation costs. The shape and depths are largely determined by the land gradient, but this is a small price to pay and good design allows for considerable variations. 
          The land we purchased consisted of two sloping fields considered too marshy to be of use in farming, which totalled just over 6 acres and were obtained at a heavily reduced price. Before purchasing land to build a lake it is advisable to speak with your local Wildlife Trust. This was something we decided to do after we purchased our crappy, boggy land. The Trust Officer informed us over the phone if the land was Culm Grassland we would have to leave it exactly as it was and if there were rare flowers or insects we would have to leave it like it was. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and you must always get an environmental assessment prior to signing on the dotted line. The Environmental Officer assessed the land and luckily found nothing to stop our plans and felt the construction of a lake would enhance the land, so we dodged a bullet there!

Planning


          Surely we won’t need planning to build an environmentally friendly lake on a boggy bit of marshland will we? Too right you do and our particular planners charge £170 per 0.1 of a hectare for permission. The 1 acre lake was going cost a wad of cash before a single turf was lifted. Those were the rules so we sent in our application. I did the design drawings and the excavation calculations as a highway engineer- it is standard stuff, so there shouldn’t be any problems with the application! Weeks of nit-picking was to follow, such as I had used feet instead of meters for the lake depths, I hadn’t included a red line showing how the digger got from the gate to the top of the field. They then wanted more money as my cost calculation must include the whole site not just the excavated area. Finally, they were appeased and their coffers full. We still had to wait the 8 week period that you would to build a new housing estate! After what seemed an age, and in fact took us up to September 2009, the permission was granted and we could now proceed.


Constructing the Lake

 
          The next hurdle is getting in the contractors and it is probably best to get a fixed price for a lake as per your drawings. Once the job is ready to start it becomes enjoyable. I loved strutting around like Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs saying “I want this here” or,“Not like that!” This is fine to a degree but too many variations and the contractor will get the hump. At the same time if this is your dream, then you want it right; when it’s full of water it’s a damn sight harder to change. The next little issues that became apparentfollowing discussions with the contractor were A: is the subsoil clay,essential to form a waterproof lake and B: where are the thousands of gallons of water needed to fill and maintain the lakes level coming from?Just a few more issues that may have been better addressed prior to buying the land.


          A trial hole quickly confirmed a suitable clay soil. Where land has a more porous soil the options for lake construction are considerably more expensive- importing clay to line the lake or purchasing a preformed liner. The water issue didn’t really cross our minds as the land was boggy we assumed water must come from somewhere. The field’s drainage ditches were badly silted up but full of water and during rainfall would run like a river. We decided to take water from this ditch and run it into the lake and overflow back into the ditch again sorted! Unfortunately it’s not that simple you can’t just use a watercourse without an abstraction licence from the EA. More money.


          We contacted the EA who checked out the site and informed us they didn’t consider the ditch to be a watercourse and we could use it as we needed. This was excellent news and we gave the contractor the go ahead, about 3 days in the contractor is on the phone saying we have a water problem. When I arrive on site I can see the lake is looking good and filling up with water. Strange, I thought they would have waited until the work was finished to start filling. The contractor informs me the lake has 3 large springs and is starting to fill. Luckily, they were finished in the deeper area and would not be hampered by the water. I decided to keep the pipe from the ditch for emergencies. If the level dropped I could allow ditch water to replenish the level and if oxygen levels decreased I can allow water to run in.

          The work was finished, and prior to the swing shovels departure I arranged for the waterlogged ditches around the fields to be cleaned. This resulted in a real bonus in the shape of two eels being uncovered. These eels must have thought Christmas had come early as they were the first residents in a quickly filling lake. The 1 acre lake was completed in October 2009 and despite having depths over 10 feet in places was full by January 2010. All of this water had come from rainfall and the 3 springs that had for many years made the field unusable. Now they were responsible for creating a thing of beauty.


Habitat


          One of the things I hate about manmade lakes is most people think fish, fish and more fish. Get the fish in the water and that’s job done. To me trees, plants and features were far more important and needed to go in as soon as possible. My dad and I have worked our butts off planting and digging. I have quickly found out I have become a water plant expert, learning my Purple Loosestrife from my Water Mint and my Nympha Alba from my Nuphar Lutea. I have been obsessed with getting my lilies to grow and texted all my mates when they eventually flowered. When you first see a dragonfly pitch on a flowering Flag Iris growing in the lake you have created, it is a great feeling.I placed concrete and clay pipes into one area of the lake along with gabion baskets to create an eel habitat. I should add that at this stage the hard work will pay dividends further down the line. The trees will take several years to mature and the lily beds will thicken eventually, but at least it’s all in place and nature will do the rest.


Fish


          Fish are the next big stage and its worth remembering that most fish suppliers will only dispatch fish during the winter months, a period where temperatures are more suitable for transportation. You will usually have to order your fish in advance,and although I am a dedicated eel angler I wanted a mixed fishery and ordered 30 carp. These first fish were from a carp farm only 2 miles from my lake and were a superb breed of fish -part Orchid Lake strain and part Horseshoe Lake strain, resulting in fast growing lovely scaled fish. When purchasing fish a section 30 licence must be issued by the Environment Agency. This is very often done by the supplier and is necessary for each stocking. The 30 carp ranged from 4 to 6lb and cost £1,200 including delivery. I chose 15 commons and 15 mirrors. These carp went in the lake in March 2010 and now range from 8 to 12lb. The lake has some nice tench, perch and silvers. I do feed 6 kilos of vitalin and pellet per week to encourage rapid growth and allow for the natural food to kick in. I was also given some more eels by the carp farm who found them lurking in their stew ponds and now have around a dozen eels; of course they may have migrated by now. The fish have already bred and the eels have a plentiful supply of gudgeon and rudd to munch on.It is nice to see nature finding its natural balance.


Predation


         Initially, I didn’t consider predation of my fish by anything other than my eels and remained blissfully unaware that my secluded little lake was being targeted. I turned up one day to see a huge heron trying to cram a large rudd down its throat. I quickly threw small stones and twigs in its general direction while making the attack call of a velociraptor. This seemed to do the trick as the well fed heron took to the skies screeching a far poorer pterodactyl impression. Then in early April I found a 3lb plus tench with its head missing, and a few days later another big tench with its stomach removed. It is a sickening feeling, and each time I turned up I dreaded what I may find. I initially thought it was a mink and set traps but these were ignored and a carp was slain, which was the final straw. The neighbouring farmer stopped me to have a chat and gave me the news I was dreading. He had seen an otter coming out from our land and onto his two nights before. I took advice from some otter experts and purchased the materials to construct the same type of fence that was used in Jurassic Park. In reality a 400mm high fence with four electrified wires around the perimeter of the lake and, boy, does it omit a shock as my Dad found out after I tricked him into testing it. A satisfying crack sent him flying into the air!
          I do feel more relaxed now and touch wood we haven’t lost any more fish I would have loved to see the furry ball of fluff sniff the fence though!

The Future


         Well, my dad and I have decided to build a second lake and this time things will be so much easier. -The planning was a doddle and we have about two weeks to go before we get the go ahead. We also have plenty of water plants and fish from lake one, so costs will be far less and we can do it at our own pace. A lake is an awful lot of work justplanting, trimming and grass cutting, but my dad has a ride on mower and loves whizzing around the lake. The work really is a labour of love and for every hour of work you put in you get it back tenfold in the pleasure it brings you.


Top Ten Tips to consider if building a lake

  1. Get your land surveyed, environmentally and geologically.

  2. Look for boggy sloping land- it’s perfect and generally cheaper.

  3. Check you’ve got a natural water supply.

  4. Speak to the Environment Agency to find out if an abstraction licence is required.

  5. Speak to your local planners.They could save you having to reapply due to mistakes further down the line.

  6. Get a Contractor involved early. He might point out something you’ve missed.

  7. Decide on your fish stock as you need to allow time to order them.

  8. Create your habitat as soon as possible. It takes years to establish.

  9. Don’t overstock. It’s an easy trap and leads to stunted fish.

  10. Factor in anti-predator measures and don’t assume it won’t happen to you.

 

Cost


So what does it all cost and do you need to win the pools? Well, you can tailor the lake to your budget and I think the most important factor is an overwhelming desire to make your dream a reality.

 

Land  -£21,000

Planning - £800

Lake - £5,500

Fish - £3000

Plants & Trees - £500

Predator proofing - £300

 

Total = £31,100

     It is a lot of money but not beyond the means of a group of determined guys. The value increases annually as the fish get bigger and the lakes mature. If it is a dream for one day don’t put it off too long as where there’s a will there’s a way!

 

Steve Dawe

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