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British eels in danger – because of Japanese imports

Friday 21 May 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard fumes over yet another environmental disaster caused by the import of foreign wildlife into Britain...

THIS MIGHT not seem a major disaster to most people, but Britain’s eels are on the slippery slope, their numbers in massive decline throughout Europe - thanks to yet another disastrous wildlife import from abroad

The Environment Agency has just issued figures which show that the number of "glass eels" – babies – arriving in British rivers on their epic journey from the Sargasso Sea has dropped by a massive 98% in the past 20 years.

And the reason is that some idiot – the agency does not say whom – imported eels into Europe from Japan and they brought with them a killer parasite which causes chronic internal bleeding.

On the slippery slope, a Giant Moray

Now I happen to love jellied eel or, better still, smoked eel from Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, but I admit that in this I am probably in a very small minority, along with herons and other predatory birds for which it is an important food source.

However, what has me absolutely fuming is that this is just the latest in a long line of environmental disasters brought about by sheer stupidity. When will we ever learn to stop bringing in wild creatures or plants which, away from their native climates become, at best, a nuisance or, at worst, lethal killers?

Everyone knows the story of the American grey squirrel, which was imported because some landowner (or his wife) thought they were nice cuddly little things. Now, our much prettier red squirrel is on the verge of extinction, clinging on only in remote parts of Cumbria, Scotland and Wales.

But that is just the best-known of many similar tales of animals or plants which, like Hubber the Beserker, the Viking who colonised Upper Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales a thousand years ago, have done their best to exterminate the local population.

Muntjac deer have become a menace in Burnsall gardens, American signal crayfish are wiping out the native breed in the River Wharfe nearby.

And on that and many other rivers, the kingfishers, sand martins and water voles are long gone, killed off by imported mink which, unlike native otters, are thin enough to invade their river bank holes and devour their young or eggs.

How long it will be before the banks of the Wharfe disappear under thick swathes of Japanese knotweed is hard to tell but it will be soon: this pretty but deadly pink-flowered weed, which kills off English reeds and many other riverside plants, has already colonised miles of the nearby River Lune and is almost impossible to eradicate.

There are many others examples like this – Dutch elm disease is now being followed by another European disease which is attacking ancient beeches in the south of England. But one, of course, stands out a mile…

Although we shall never know for sure, it is almost certain that the foot and mouth epidemic of two years ago was brought into the country on contaminated meat from – the experts never narrowed it down – either South America or Africa, where it is endemic.

That, of course, cost billions and devastated huge areas of the countryside, with the Yorkshire Dales particularly savagely hit. After that, the Government promised to tighten import controls and perhaps they did – for a bit.

When returning from a holiday or business trip abroad, have you ever been asked by Customs if you are carrying seeds or food products? I never have. Try to take something like that into the USA and, after being gone over by sniffer dogs, you are likely to be strip searched, thrown into the jug and, on release, put back on the first plane home.

Now I know that our Customs people are more involved in catching drug dealers or people smugglers but surely, when someone begins to import such an unusual commodity as Japanese eels, someone, somewhere ought to be consulted and asked: are they any threat?

Jellied eels may not be on your favourite menu but a death threat to any native species ought to be taken seriously by anyone who loves our countryside.

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