Nature Notes

Eels in the Classroom

If, like me, you can remember the Nature Table at school, you may lament its perceived loss: much is said about how removed children are now from Nature. Yet there are imaginative teachers and organisations that realize what’s at stake if children are not immersed in nature. Which is why, instead of a Nature Table at Hungerford Primary School in Y4B, there has lately been a tank full of eels.

Eels are declining across Europe because of habitat degradation, pollutants, oceanic climate change and particularly, migratory routes blocked by man-made obstacles and eel-macerating turbines and pumps.

Between 2005/ 2010, eels in the Thames, fed by our River Kennet, declined by 98%. There haven’t been eels in The Kennet for twenty years.

Action for the River Kennet (ARK) and Thames Water have joined forces with  Severn and Wye Smokery to return eels to the river, via our future conservationists.

No-one yet has found a way of breeding eels, but a percentage are caught annually and grown for eating (mortality in wild eels is more than 90% , so this is easily considered sustainable) and a proportion of these are raised and released through conservation programmes such as Eels in Classrooms.

So, on a hot July afternoon, we walked from school to the river, whilst the eels went by car. Born in the shifting Sargasso Sea, the eel larvae hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream, changed to glass eels crossing the continental shelf, and were caught coming in on the Severn Bore. They then had an unplanned diversion, via an eight week stay of safety in Miss Barber’s class.

On the appointed day, the children each released a 10cm eel, that quicksilvered into water like liquid glass.

Just 5% of these eels (four out of those we released) will survive to become, when the children are aged 24 or more, ocean-going silver eels. But on a dark, moonless night, probably after flooding, those eels will heed a mysterious call and find their way up the Kennet and out of the Thames, seeking the great ocean conveyors that will take them back to the centre of the Atlantic Gyre, and the Sargasso. There, each female will spawn a million fry, before dying. Some of those may make it back, drifting on ocean currents, to this chalk stream.

The children all knew their river, but now had a connection to its role in the ecology of the planet, they won’t forget. Whatever they end up doing in life, they have become part of the eels ancient wriggle through the world.  Let them care for it – the kids are alright.



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