It may not seem like it when we’re sweltering in humid sunshine and the rivers drop to a trickle but here around Cirencester we are surrounded by water. There’s the Thames and the Churn and the Windrush and, of course, the old gravel pits now grandly rebranded The Cotswold Water Park, an area of water greater than the Norfolk Broads, apparently.
And lurking within all these freshwaters is a foreign invader every bit as a pest as the American grey squirrel which has almost single-handedly driven out the native red squirrel from practically all of England, most of Wales and large parts of Scotland. But despite reports that the grey squirrel, which also consumes large volumes of songbird eggs and chicks, is edible which I personally cannot vouch for, (looks too much like a rat for my liking), I can assure you that the American signal crayfish is quite delicious and should be consumed by a wider audience for very good conservation reasons.
The signal crayfish – Pacifastacus leniusculus – was imported to be farmed as a food source but the little critters are no respecters of boundaries and, once ensconced in a nice lake in the Water Park, they decide to go exploring in someone else’s lake or river and soon the whole area is infested with them. Looking like miniature lobsters, they attack and eat the smaller native white-clawed crayfish – Austropotamobius pallipes – resulting in that little fellow now being endangered. It also attacks small fish and consumes huge quantities of fish eggs so they are not ideal companions to conservationists or anglers.
In Scandinavia they are highly regarded as a treat and there they hold kräftpremiär parties where crayfish and aquavit are consumed in great joy whereas in Louisiana, similar celebrations are known as ‘crawfish boils’ or ‘mudpuppies’. They really are delicious although you will need quite a few before you cry “enough!”
As I said earlier, they are widespread around the area and easily caught but you do need an official permit in order to hunt them as well as the water-owner’s permission. In the days of my youth – no ribald comments, please – village lads would collect a sheep’s head from the butcher, tie it to a length of string and toss it in the water. Retrieving it several days later, the greedy little carnivores would have eaten their way through flesh and brain and with any luck when it was hauled out up to a dozen would be found hanging on to their dinner.
Today, you need a trap and its specification is to be found at the same website where you can apply for a permit to catch them between May and September – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/permission-to-trap-crayfish-eels-elvers-salmon-and-sea-trout#crayfish-trap-authorisation. The traps must be constructed so as not to accidently catch or injure water voles or otters.
When you begin trapping them, using a meat- or fish-based bait, you will usually trap the larger, more aggressive males. These big fellas – as well as eating almost everything else they can find – will happily consume their own offspring so in conservation terms you may think that by getting rid of these you will cause a population explosion. Fear not! Keep trapping and as the males become fewer, you will start catching some of the smaller females or less mature males, emboldened by the decline of the big bulls and numbers will decrease.
Set yourself up properly and you may be able to get sufficient on a regular basis to supply a local pub or restaurant and thereby secure an income as well as getting rid of a pest.
Once caught, like prawns, the crayfish will need either purging in aerated freshwater, (with a lid to prevent further escapes) or by removal of the digestive tract.
So, what could be better? Get out in the fresh air, catch a delicious supper almost free of charge and help rid us a vicious pest that should never have reached our wild waters. Good fishing!