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Dales project “saves” native crayfish

[Tuesday 30 December 2008]

A UNIQUE experiment in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales may turn out to be the saviour of yet another native English creature being wiped out by American invaders.

We are at a critical stage in protecting our remaining native crayfish populations and our work in the Yorkshire Dales is at the forefront of conserving this endangered species.

Dr Helen Phillips - Natural England

Like the grey squirrel and the water vole, the English white claw crayfish has been pushed to the point of extinction by American signal crayfish, first imported to be farmed as a gourmet delicacy but now spread throughout thousands of miles of fast flowing streams and rivers.

The invader not only eats native crayfish but also carried a disease which is fatal to the natives – just like the American grey squirrel, which has driven there native red out of most of the countryside here. American mink escaped from fur farms have killed millions of water voles.

The white-clawed crayfish, one of England’s most endangered species, is clawing its way back, thanks to a pincer movement by the Environment Agency and Natural England in Upper Ribblesdale.

The five year pioneering project bred 300 juvenile white-clawed crayfish this year – making it the UK’s most successful breeding programmed for the native white-clawed crayfish.

Since it began in 2003, the Yorkshire Dales project has evolved from a project designed to ring-fence surviving pockets of white clawed crayfish to protect them from the “crayfish plague” and from predation by its bigger cousin, towards an active breeding programmed.

Environment Agency fisheries officer Neil Handy and Ecologist Paul Bradley, took the project one step further by developing techniques for captive breeding and rearing of white-clawed crayfish. A recent stock assessment showed that over 60% of the hatchlings had survived; in the wild only a small fraction would reach breeding age.

Neil Handy, who has been responsible for developing and managing the facility, said, “We are at a critical stage in protecting our remaining native crayfish populations and our work in the Yorkshire Dales is at the forefront of conserving this endangered species. It has required a lot of hard work, but the results demonstrate just how successful we have been in rearing native white clawed crayfish. We now need to build on this success.”

Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, said: “The news that white clawed crayfish are breeding in captivity in the Yorkshire Dales is extremely encouraging and shows that targeted conservation work can make a real impact. The species has been all but wiped out in much of southern and central England following the introduction of its American cousin. By continuing to work closely together with our colleagues in the Environment Agency, we may just be able to save it in time”.

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