Tribute to John Whiting

It was with deep sadness, that the Board of ARRT and staff learnt that former Trustee John Whiting died on 26 December 2023. John was a Trustee of ARRT for over a decade, his hard work, expertise and enthusiasm for the rivers of Sussex has been greatly valued. John was a committed Trustee and a good friend to many at ARRT, he will be dearly missed. On behalf of all who knew and worked with John, we wish to extend our sincere condolences to John’s family.

Read on for a tribute written by Dave Brown, who reflects on John’s contribution to the Arun & Rother Rivers Trust and the Rivers of Sussex.

ARRT Trustee Dave Brown reflects on John Whiting’s life and his contribution to the Arun & Rother Rivers Trust and the Rivers of Sussex.

I first met John 21 years ago, our paths first crossed due to a shared interest in Sussex sea trout. John was vice chair of the Henfield and District Angling Society; I, as Secretary of the Ouse Angling Preservation Society, had a meeting scheduled with the Environment Agency and John phoned to ask if I would mention at that meeting that a number of sea trout were delayed in their migration below a weir on the Adur and would the Agency be able to address this situation. Living very close to the Wood Mills Stream, perhaps the most important sea trout spawning stream in the Adur catchment, John was very attuned to how the fish population had changed over the years, and had seen noticeable changes over previous decades.

John was an expert sea trout angler, his best fish from the Adur being a fraction under 10 pounds, a huge fish even by national standards. In later years he fished less, but remained passionate about sea trout, their conservation and enhancing the environment for them and a whole range of aquatic species. He was keenly observant and his knowledge of local rivers and riverine habitats was second to none.

John Whiting looking for sea trout redds in Rother tributary

At the time when I first met John, the river trust movement in Sussex was in an embryonic form, restricted to the Sussex Ouse Conservation Society (SOCS), then run entirely by volunteers, but nevertheless starting to successfully address the numerous issues affecting the river. John, equally passionate about his local catchment, the Adur, recognised what a group similar to SOCS could deliver for that, and in 2006, with enthusiasm and determination, he set about establishing the River Adur Conservation Society (RACS), drawing together a volunteer committee and chairing the Society, which, became a member of The Rivers Trust in 2009.

This timing was fortuitous, coinciding with when much was happening in the world of river restoration, galvanized by the UK’s requirement to meet environmental standards set by the EU Water Framework Directive. In order to speed up action to achieve these, the Government made a fund – the River Improvement Fund (RIF) available, administered by Defra and disbursed by the national Rivers Trust (RT) to individual rivers trusts. In autumn of 2009 I was asked by RT to compile a list of projects to be potentially funded by the RIF, which would, in particular help to deliver Eel Action Plan and Salmon Action Plan objectives. Salmon Action Plans encompass sea trout, hence projects which would benefit Sussex’s unique sea trout would be eligible. With SOCS and RACS sharing the same objectives, it was decided to submit an application which covered both SOCS and RACS. Identifying and costing the projects required a quick turnaround and, while I was very familiar with the Ouse catchment I was less so with the Adur, and this was a time when John’s unrivalled knowledge of the catchment really shone through – he and I spent many busy, productive and happy days evaluating innumerable minor tributaries, which John all knew intimately, identifying which weirs could be easily removed or modified to allow sea trout to migrate past them, where creating additional gravel beds for sea trout to spawn in would be most effective, and which lake outfalls would benefit from having elver passes attached. John knew exactly how, without reference to a map, to navigate to the most out-of-the-way sections of streams, and how, over a timescale of decades, their fish populations had changed. He also knew the locations of the best cafes, and a very enjoyable lunch or coffee break normally featured at some stage! However, the best cafe was undoubtedly John and Peggy’s house, from where I collected John for our days out, fortified by some of Peggy’s delicious baking. As well as the streams, John introduced me to some wonderful parts of the South Downs, where numerous small chalk streams issued from the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs; the Poynings, Fulking and Tanyard streams to mention just a few.

John Whiting & Ses Wright at Woods Mill Stream

The project bids, combining fish passage and habitat improvements on both the Ouse and Adur catchments were successful and the first year of the RIF formally commenced in 2010. With the bids successful, much remained to be done to ensure that they were successfully delivered, and John was very frequently on site to ensure this. There were a further two annual rounds of the RIF, which were again bid into successfully. Additionally, a very significant consequence of the first year was that SOCS and RACS, which had worked so effectively together, decided that it was a logical step to combine forces and formally merge and so, in May 2011, the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust (OART) was created, John becoming one of its Trustees. This period closely coincided with the launch of the Arun and Rother Rivers Trust (ARRT) and, as a mechanism to allow ARRT to build up project delivery capacity, OART submitted a joint bid for the 2011/2012 RIF. It quickly became apparent that John’s unrivalled knowledge of the Sussex rivers extended to the Arun system, and he was key in identifying that a fish passage and habitat restoration project on the Costers Brook, a Rother tributary, would make an ideal first collaborative project. The project was successfully delivered by Autumn 2012, and in November John formally became a Trustee of ARRT. As well as his role in the governance of the Trust, John was very actively involved in the identification, planning and delivery of many ARRT projects. The RIF was followed directly, from 2012-2015 by the CRF (Catchment Restoration Fund) and John was heavily involved in the planning of successful applications to this; including the provision of funding for the creation of a major spawning riffle and fish refuge on the Rother near Shopham Bridge, and habitat enhancements to its tributaries the Burton Mill Stream and Sutton End Stream. John’s wisdom, subject knowledge, and “feel” for what would make a good project (and also which projects would be impractical) were crucial. Being able to make such judgements was an important element of ARRT developing to the point where it could deliver successful projects.

John Whiting on an ARRT site visit.

While John was very much a hands-on and active member of the ARRT Board, out and about as much as he could be, he regularly attended, and made valuable contributions to the Trust’s Board meetings. On many occasions I would give him a lift to and from these meetings; the shared hour-long journeys always gave an opportunity to catch-up and I never failed to be impressed by his intimate knowledge of each of the small streams we drove over, in both the Adur and Arun catchments. This knowledge extended back many decades and I doubt if there would have been a single drive when I did not learn something new from John about one or more of the streams, told with his great sense of humour. During the final drive with him, after he had stepped down as a Trustee of ARRT at its AGM in the Autumn, as well has him recalling things from the past we talked at length about what the changing climate would mean for the Sussex rivers and their sea trout in particular – would they still be present by the end of the century or would they become a casualty of a warming world?
John was particularly fond of the River Ems, one of England’s lesser known, but still very significant chalk streams; he had enjoyed being involved in projects there and was particularly intrigued that recent fishery surveys had found juvenile salmon in it. The last thing he said to me was “look after the Ems for me”, and that is something which ARRT can hopefully continue to do long into the future.

Dave Brown, Trustee of ARRT and OART