The article is reproduced here with kind permission of its author, Fennel Hudson.
Saving our Oldest Carp: The Wild Carp Trust
Mention ‘carp’ amongst flyfishers and you’re likely to be accused of lowering the tone. Shame on you for uttering such an unsavoury four-letter word. Noses will twitch, windows will be opened and the foul stench that you brought to the conversation will be talked about in hushed voices for the rest of your angling career. “He’s the one,” they’ll mutter, “who dared mention the word.” They’ll draw closer to each other and, in a discrete whisper, will say, “It’s an anagram, y’know.”
I confess to being a catcher of carp. You can blame the smell on me. But before you assume that it is I who limps shamefully into the Club with something unpleasant on my shoe and asks Marcella for a warm lager and Deliveroo kebab, I must say that I’m not your typical carp angler. And I rarely fish for the usual type of carp.
Of course, before we talk about carp in the hallowed pages of this Journal, we have to get all stereotypes and prejudices out of the way. John Gierach was right when he said, “If you wanted a fish that could sip white wine and discuss Italian poetry, you’d look for a trout. If you needed a ditch dug, you’d hire a carp.” There’s a certain thuggery about a fish that can grow to the size of a teenage child and has a belly so large that it ought to be hanging above a pair of stained Primark jog bottoms. The mud-sucking, bottom feeding, rubber-lipped swines of the aquaworld attract a certain demographic amongst anglers, many of whom would struggle to spell ‘Sancerre’ let along drink it while discussing The Divine Comedy. For some anglers, flyfishers especially, the thought of fishing for carp evokes images akin to the circles of hell. Personally, I believe that the labels we put on different types of fish and fishing aren’t healthy. Better, in my opinion, to utter the Three Musketeers’ Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno.And as Flyfishers, we have to remind ourselves that the founders of our Club were catholic in their tastes and fished for species other than trout and salmon. But during the late Victorian era of collar-stiffening and steam-rolled primness, our fish became either ‘fair game’ or ‘coarse’. Carp were gobbed into the spittoon of shame, to be submerged by a century of bait bombardment and put-downs. And yet, while trout rose to become Britain’s favourite fish, carp surged to become the most popular amongst freshwater anglers. It seemed that, as Andy Warhol said, “As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it.”
Of course, there are a great many reasons why carp are so popular amongst anglers (not least because they fight hard and, to the fishery manager’s delight, grow quickly to a size big enough to evade avian predators). Modern carp have been bred to sizes that would be unimaginable to the founders of our Club. Much in the same way as wild trout were taken from their native waters and selectively bred to become modern-day stocked Frankentrout, carp too were subjected to this fate. The true wild carp was a relatively small, lean and golden fish that evolved in rivers (such as the Danube) that drained into the Black, Caspian or Aral Sea. It looked much like a chub or, in the right light, a bonefish. Yet over a thousand years (and especially during the past century) carp have been progressively bred by fish farmers to grow faster and fatter for the table and to satisfy anglers’ desires for ‘biggest is best’. Today, in their semi-scaled and lumpy forms, these ‘king’ carp (no swearword intended, I assure you) are barely recognisable from the fish they once were. And so, much like the opinions that exist concerning wild and stocked trout or salmon, there exists amongst carp anglers a growing belief that biggest isn’t necessarily best and the original wild fish might actually be a lot better than the farmed alternative. Sadly, though, when it comes to wild carp, the original wild fish are now virtually extinct, devastated by the last 70 years of human activity. We’ve flooded their natural breeding plains by channelising and damming their rivers, we’ve overfished their populations and, most impactfully, have bred modern varieties of carp that have cross-bred with the wild fish and thus hybridised their offspring. The original wild carp is now classed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ on the global Red List of Threatened Species held by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This means they have reduced in numbers by more than 50% and are expected to reduce by 10% every ten years until, well, they’re gone forever. This means they’re ‘worthy of observation’. Hmm. That’s the conservation equivalent of a jockey patting Eeyore after the stallion has bolted. But the research scientists are imminently more qualified than I to address this and, it seems, are attempting to assess how many wild carp are left and where they live. (Estimates are between 1,000-10,000 fish globally, hanging on in tiny populations around the Caspian and Black Seas, notably in Kazakhstan, Iran, Greece and Turkey.)
Sadly, as alarming as the problem may be, it’s all part of the global catastrophe that we humans have inflicted upon the planet. But, like the child who cries when he sees part of his sandcastle washed out to sea, we know that we cannot rush out into the surf and ask for it back. Instead, if we’re conscientious, we think about how we can protect what remains and adapt our behaviour to avoid the same fate.
My motivation to help our oldest strains of carp was triggered in March 2020 when, while sitting in hospital awaiting emergency surgery for cancer, I experienced the acute focus of: “If you’re going to give your last breath to something, what’s it going to be?” Being someone who has made it his mission to find and fish for ancient strains of carp for the past 30 years, I decided that I shouldn’t just be fishing for them. I should be conserving them.
My surgery was successful and so, during the long recovery, I set about doing everything I could to raise awareness about the plight of wild carp. Specifically, I wanted to get hearts and minds behind the idea of forming a charity to conserve them. But knowing that most people care more about things on their doorstep than far overseas, I started by highlighting how the plight of the wild carp matches that of their feral descendants in the UK; hoping that once I’d rallied enough support for domestic strains of ‘heritage’ carp, we would collectively have enough impetus, expertise and funds to help save the original wild carp. So: local first; global second.
In the UK we have a unique history concerning carp. Unlike our neighbours in mainland Europe, we are an island race with a once plentiful supply of sea fish. When commercial farming and distribution of carp grew to a large scale in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, carp – which are not native to Britain – were imported to England but quickly fell out of fashion. Our medieval ancestors, like those of us who enjoy the Savile’s Smoked Mackerel in Truffle Sauce, preferred the taste and texture of sea fish to a lump of boiled carp. So, while the eating and selective breeding of carp continued apace in Europe, those that remained in the UK were left to their own devices. By the late 1800s, when modern strains of carp began to arrive in the UK, the medieval carp had, through centuries of breeding in the wild, reverted to a size and shape very similar to the original wild carp. Such is the way that Mother Nature chooses to raise her children. But we humans have an inherent ability to change the course of nature. Today, due to anglers’ preferences for big fish, there are perhaps only a dozen waters left in the UK that contain medieval carp. The others have mostly seen their carp replaced by, or hybridised with, modern strains; or eaten by predators; or lost to the siltation or pollution of old waters. It’s miraculous, really, that any are left at all. But they do remain. And, like the wild carp, they are running out of time. I agonise daily about how long will it be before they are mauled by otters, snaffled by cormorants or infiltrated by a ’king modern strain. (That one was deliberate.) Sadly, I’m not a fishery scientist; I’m an author and marketer. So I knew that it would be by spreading the word that I could gain most traction.
Esteemed conservationist Sir Peter Scott said, “The most effective way to save the threatened and decimated natural world is to cause people to fall in love with it again, with its beauty and its reality.” So I wrote a book and several blogs about wild and heritage carp, I gave interviews on angling podcasts, I garnered support from my close friends and together we filmed YouTube videos, built a website and formed a Facebook Group. But it was through the Flyfishers’ Club that the biggest successes were achieved. My membership of the Club’s Environmental Special Interest Group helped to fuel my passion for conservation (thanks Feargal), sustaining me when the uphill climb seemed daunting; Keith Elliott secured publicity in the national angling press and introduced me to several experienced fishery experts; Theo Pike provided guidance on conservation strategies and, with Bruno Vincent, secured a ten minute film for the new charity during the Wild Trout Trust’s virtual get-together; and Steven Murgatroyd came forward with a lake that has since become our first conservation water. To date, we have attracted the interest of nearly 2000 people, many of whom are part of the growing movement of anglers who fly-fish for carp. Most exciting of all is that the positivity from this activity resulted in the owner of one of the UK’s oldest strains of carp agreeing to donate some of his fish to begin our special breeding programme. What happened next, including the work we’re doing to conserve heritage carp in the UK and wild carp overseas, will feature in future articles. For now, I ask that you join me in celebrating the ways in which Members of the Flyfishers’ Club pulled together during the pandemic to enable great strides to be made towards conserving part of our treasured natural world.