Discovering that our native crayfish are in an even more precarious position than we thought, Blackdown Hill AONB started to look for ways of helping our special River Culm residents. In 2019 we teamed up with Paignton Zoo who set up a facility to house and breed captive-bred Culm white-claws, descendants of animals that I collected in 2015 and 2016 for the Bristol Zoo breeding programme. James Maben from the AONB and some of our regular volunteers located some potential ‘ark sites’ – safe places where we can release and nurture captive bred crayfish – and carried out initial tests and surveys. In the meantime, Paignton Zoo secured funding for a two-year Devon ark site project. This means we can develop this work and extend it to the other Devon white-clawed crayfish population on the Creedy/Yeo river near Crediton. Sadly, due to Covid-19, we were unable to make a start on the ark-site work this year, but things are back on track ready for 2021.
With careful planning and social distancing, we have managed to get out ‘crayfishing’ this year, surveying the Sheldon stream, a tributary running northward entering the Culm at Five Fords. It’s great to see many of our brilliant volunteers from 2018 – I think some of them may have caught my crayfish ‘bug’! We survey using a combination of searching under rocks, kick sampling, and setting artificial refuge traps which mimic the natural places a crayfish would hide.
It’s sometimes challenging – like when the forecast heavy rain arrives three hours early – or when the river more closely resembles the Amazon jungle than the Blackdown Hills! – but we always enjoy the unique outlook on the local countryside seen from the river. Unfortunately, this year we haven’t found any white-clawed crayfish and have found yet another signal crayfish population, making the need for ark sites even more pressing.
Over the last three years we have managed to do a huge amount of work to find out more about our special crayfish and the threats they face. None of this could be achieved without the assistance of our volunteers and I for one am eternally grateful. As this year’s crayfishing season comes to a close, I will look back on a challenging but nonetheless productive and rewarding year and be grateful that there are so many lovely people out there who share my interest and enthusiasm from these enigmatic and fascinating creatures.
NB: this post was first published on the Blackdown Hills AONB website.