THE world of rural Speyside has changed beyond recognition since the days of Alexander Grant in 1800s. The style of casting he helped pioneer, named after that great river itself, remains more or less the same – lift, sweep upstream, forward stroke and sharp stop. The line glides out across the river.

It all sounds so easy. Encumbered with double handed Spey rods of up to 20ft and oiled lines, it was anything but. Crucially though, the Spey cast allowed anglers to cast on tree-lined rivers, and quickly became the go-to method for laird and ghillie alike.

Roll forward 100 years and the wheels of southern industry slow to a stop. The Clyde and the Ayr run clean once more and the salmon return. Fishermen and their stories do too, and the poachers with them, as do the little fishing shops and fly tying guilds and angling associations.

While too many of the nation’s rivers remain outwith the reach of the average Scot, the myth that salmon angling is the preserve of a foreign elite is the sport’s tallest tale. For many working-class Scots, rivers are a cultural focal point: chatter of its height or clarity and last nicht’s rain; rumours of fish lost and landed; soapbox philosophers demanding to know why that coloured fish wasn’t released. Here the sport finds its most loyal following. Here it is as woven into society as is junior football or the bowling club.

However, figures released by Marine Scotland this week show that it is a way of life that may come to an abrupt end, with rod-caught salmon declining to a historic low of 37,196 last season. At the time, 2017 was the fourth-lowest on record at just under 50,000. In 2014, it was 45,000. There’s a trend here.

Commenting, there was for once a kernel of truth amid the evasions of Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham: the summer’s low water levels which curtailed the movement of anadromous fish upstream made it almost impossible for anglers to catch those few which did.

The causes are multi-factorial, but anglers aren’t one. More than 90% of landed fish were returned to continue their journey. The blame, despite Cunningham’s assertions to the contrary, lies squarely with the Government. Most frustrating is that many changes would cost little.

Disused structures which litter rivers may provide a tangible link to the past for historical societies, but in doing so they contribute to canalisation and habitat loss. Sepa is reticent, at best, to remove them, while endorsing new dams, such as that planned for the upper reaches of the River Garnock, and Catrine’s hydro scheme – a misnomer for green energy if there is one – which has this season trapped thousands of migrating smolts.

The placid beauty of dairy farming belies an industry potentially ruinous to aquatic habitats. Run-off from nitrates in fertilisers promote algal blooms and deoxygenation. Cattle with free access to waterways cause siltification of gravel beds and the subsequent suffocation of salmonid eggs. Rivers widen, they grow shallow, more habitat is lost.

But we need milk, no? Well, it’s fine and all, but we need a more responsible method of high yield agriculture, one that recognises and accepts its ecological impact, and an environmental protection agency willing to prosecute serial offending farms that don’t. Rather than encouraging riparian owners to plant flood-mitigating, water-cooling, habitat-providing, carbon-sequestering woodland, make it an obligation. There are a few benefits to trees on a warming planet, apparently.

And of course there is the gaping void in Cunningham’s ecological lexicon – aquaculture. It is more than a little disconcerting that an industry creating such controversy gets a free pass, time and again, from an environment secretary. Not a word on the crash in wild salmon numbers mirroring the rise in sea-lice. No talk of moratoriums or migratory swim-ways or moving this atrocious industry onshore. Silence, awful silence.

Trust, like the halcyon days of Grant, is gone. Without significant change, so are the wild Atlantic salmon of Scotland’s west coast.