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Thwarted: our man's poaching dreams come to nowt

Friday 30 November 2007

Our generally law-abiding countryside commentator John Sheard finds that his dreams of stuffing himself with tasty fresh water crayfish are dashed by a new Environment Agency campaign

THIS MAY make me sound somewhat boring, a veritable rural wimp in fact, but I have over the years religiously obeyed the laws of the countryside. If I catch an out-of-season trout whilst fishing for winter grayling, I put it back.

I have never shot a pheasant out of season and have spared the lives of the pair of magpies which terrorise the song birds in my allotment even though I hate them for the baby killers (of nestlings, that is). It is illegal discharge a firearm near the public rights of way on two sides of my veg patch.

cray fish
Photo: Environment Agency

But for the past few months, I have been plotting a crime, an illegal exercise with a delicious reward as the prize. For my ill-gotten gains, had I launched myself into the underworld (or rather, the under water world), would be one of the tastiest morsels known to gourmets: the fresh water crayfish.

I have had these in France and Spain, bright red, hard-shelled creatures half way between a crab and a langoustine and very tasty they are too. They used to be incredibly common in any fresh water stream in England but no-one over here seemed to eat them (mind you, the French eat horses don't they!).

I would never have tried to catch them for food, either, because the native English white-clawed crayfish is only the size of a small thumb and it would take a lot of effort to capture enough to make a decent starter, never mind a main course. If I wanted to splash about in the rushing rivers of the Yorkshire Dales I would spend my time in pursuit of much more rewarding prey, trout, grayling or pike (yes, pike is delicious although tiresome to prepare: the French eat them in huge quantities).

But some years ago, in yet another of those stupid accidents that have afflicted our wildlife for the past 200 years, someone introduced the bigger, tastier and much more aggressive American signal crayfish to fish farms here in Britain, aiming at the restaurant trade. And, inevitably, some escaped to begin the long, merciless march to take over from its weaker European cousin.

It does so by either a) eating the natives or b) carrying with it a deadly fungus disease Aphanomyces astaci which kills off the natives too big to munch, both of which are pretty bad habits. And earlier this year, I spotted am couple of these invaders in a shallow stretch of the River Aire (I won't say exactly where for obvious reasons).

So when the trout season came to an end this autumn, I began to make my devious plans. I experimented with the possibility of making out of a large plastic water bottle an up-scaled version of the minnow traps I used to make as a boy. I was going to strike a blow for Britain - and help myself to a tasty supper too.

The situations is so bad that the agency has set up a safe haven

Then onto my welcome mat dropped Catch, an Environment Agency magazine for people who buy their fishing licenses by direct debit. In it is a long article outlining the perils of crayfish traps because they are helping the ethnic cleansing of the native, white clawed cray.

It seems that many criminally minded people had latched onto the idea of trapping crayfish, although it is illegal without a license - and they are only granted for conservation or research purposes. And they were using such illegal traps on the Aire and the Wharfe - but, sadly, catching and killing more of the native white claws than the invaders.

The situations is so bad that the agency has set up a safe haven for the locals in the lake in Roundhay Park, Leeds, which could become Custer's Last Stand without the final massacre of the old English white claw.

Curses: no free suppers for me this winter, for my ingenious crayfish trap will never be used. Should, however, I spot a largish signal on the river bed whilst out for a grayling this weekend, it might just accidentally slip into my landing net. I wonder if that's again the law too?

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