How fish came to Britain in modern times

How fish came to Britain

The fish stocks existing in the British Isles today bear little resemblance to what was available around the year AD1. Nature has had a hand in spreading fish to new waters, but undoubtedly the greatest influence in the movement of species from country to country and from one water to another has been man himself.

Food for thought

For the last two thousand years and more man has been a farmer and a settler and wherever he has gone he has introduced crops, plants, birds, animals and fish. Settlers undoubtedly brought fish species that they could eat to previously barren waters and, once the stock had built up, spread them even farther afield.

It is of course the monks who are widely credited with most artificial fish stocking in the Middle Ages. They did indeed require fish for their Friday diet, and so each religious house had to be near natural water or to build its own stewponds. Labour was cheap and many of these ponds were quite extensive and probably stocked in the early days with pike and perch.

These species, as well as being tasty, are very easily moved, even over long distances, by slow cart transport. A pike can remain alive for several hours in cold weather if just wrapped in wet weed. 1066 and all that

Once the Normans had invaded England in 1066 the monasteries grew rapidly in size and prestige, many French monks coming over in the wake of the soldiers. From the late 11th century it is almost certain that these religious men imported stocks of continental carp into their new stewponds.

These fish were of the fully scaled variety that soon found their way into many natural waters and became fairly widespread by Izaak Walton’s time (1593-1683). The descendants of these monastic stockings are still with us today in the ever rarer variety of wild carp.

Until about 1500 Ireland had few varieties of fish – probably only salmon, trout, char and eels. But around the 1500s the English began colonizing Ireland and where they settled they introduced pike and perch. Slowly, either through man or nature, these fish spread through Ireland.

Sporting stocks

Until the 1700s most fish stockings were for food, but thereafter many were made for sport. This was a period that saw increased wealth and leisure time and several famous angling books like the Compleat Angler (published 1653) helped spread enthusiasm for angling. Tackle improved and everywhere the middle and upper classes began to take up the sport.

During the 18th century pike were introduced into Scotland by anglers seeking further sport. This tendency was increased by the growth of the non-fortified country house. Rich farmers, landowners and industrialists all tended to build their own mansions from the mid 1700s, and every house had its own lake.

Nature study

During the late 19th century there was a great interest in natural history as the Victorians began to explore the world and Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared. Several influential fishery biologists emerged during this period, the most famous being Frank Buckland. They made many experiments in moving fish, both into Britain and out to other countries all over the world.

For example, golden tench were brought here from Germany in the 1860s. They were helped by the growth in technology: trains, steamships and the invention of refrigeration meant that eggs and live fish could be carried around the world quickly and safely. It was these advances that allowed the transport of trout to India, Australia and South America. Today’s transport is yet faster and more efficient.

Lord Russell’s cats

One of the most exciting developments in the late 1800s was the introduction of wels catfish in October 1880. The man responsible for this was Lord Odo Russell of Woburn Abbey. Seventy catfish were taken from a fish farm in Germany and put into his lakes and left well alone.

In 1907 a second batch of catfish was brought in from the Continent but this time stocked into the reservoirs at Tring by the wealthy Rothschild family. In fact many of the catfish waters that anglers now enjoy were the result of these stockings by far-sighted members of the aristocracy.

Not all such introductions were so successful. For example Buckland brought huchen – a type of European salmon – and put them into the Thames. However the species disappeared after a few years.

Mirror mania, zander zeal

Until the 1920s and 1930s most of the carp in this country were fully scaled commons of monastic heritage. However around this time several fish farms, notably one in Surrey, began to import foreign mirror carp. Several stockings of these larger, faster growing fish were made – the most famous being into Redmire Pool in 1934.

Redmire is only one famous example and by the 1960s many continental carp were being introduced by clubs and landowners into their lakes and ponds. The average angler now has the opportunity to fish for carp far larger than his grandfather would ever have thought possible.

Some stockings have been highly controversial. Zander were introduced into Woburn in the 19th century but later, in 1963 the Anglian river authority put a great many into the Relief Channel in Norfolk. They thrived and spread throughout the Fens and became an object of hatred when stocks of smaller prey fish began to disappear. A vendetta was waged against them but now they have settled to become a useful species in the English scene.

What of the future?

Of course, while we have gained fish we have also lost them, and not only introduced species like huchen or the black bass that came from America. Once the burbot was a very common fish in the south-east and the Midlands but it appears to have been extinct since the 1970s. Pollution and land management have also threatened other fish such as golden rudd and even silver bream, so we must not take inevitable progress for granted.

Indeed, the future does not seem to be all rosy. Increased commercialism will in all likelihood see the importation of huge continental carp and catfish, for example, that may not be really beneficial to our waters — or to our native fish. And pollution, water extraction and drainage are all having a marked effect on the fish currently living in British waters. Man can do a great deal to help nature but we must be careful of overstepping the mark and ruining what has been built up through thousands of years.