River Cree fight for rare fish's future

Sparling hunt The River Cree in Dumfries and Galloway is one of only three sites known to have sparling in Scotland

It is one o'clock in the morning and I am scrambling about in a river in near total darkness. Truly, there is a first time for everything!

Thankfully, I am not alone. Alongside me are half a dozen other hardy souls, similarly well-wrapped up against the night-time chill and wearing waders and life jackets. I am carrying a camera; they are wielding nets.

I have joined staff and volunteers from the Galloway Fisheries Trust in the hope of seeing one of nature's spectacles in the River Cree, near Newton Stewart.

My companions include Liz Etheridge. She has been monitoring the water for days; taking the temperature, watching for predators, looking for any signal that might pinpoint the exact time that a very special and increasingly rare fish migration will take place.

'Wall of fish'

The Cree is home to one of only three remaining breeding colonies of sparling in Scotland (the others are in the Tay and the Forth on the east coast) and we are hoping to see them arrive in big numbers to start spawning.

Sparling spend their year out at sea, returning to the river for only a few hours each March; the females to lay their eggs, the males to fertilise them with their milk.


  • Known as sparling in Scotland they are referred to elsewhere as European Smelt (Osmerus eperlanus)
  • Sparling occur around the western coasts of Europe and extend as far south as Spain
  • Populations have been recorded in the Rivers Almond, Annan, Bladnoch, Clyde, Cree, Dee, Esk, Fleet, Forth, Girvan, Lochar, Nith, Stinchar, Tay and Urr in Scotland but only remain in the Cree, Forth and Tay
  • Sparling are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. They are also included in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species list

Information courtesy Scottish Natural Heritage

They come in on the high spring tides and last year the entire population seemed to arrive all at once. Liz was on hand with an underwater camera to capture the spectacle for the first time ever.

"It was amazing," she says. "Just a wall of fish coming in. It was just quite incredible."

We are hoping for a similar show this year but sadly it doesn't happen, at least not in the part of the river safely accessible by humans. What happened further downstream nearer the river estuary is anyone's guess.

On the night earmarked as the one when the migration was likely to happen we saw only a few sparling - nearly all of them males.

It is disappointing because the fisheries trust people are not just out for the show. They need to see - and catch - sparling as part of vital conservation work which Liz is leading.

But, after a couple of hours and having netted only a handful of sparling, we agree to call it a night - and to reconvene 24 hours later. In truth, a second night shift is more than I bargained for. However, needs must!

This time, there are more sparling in evidence, although again not in the huge numbers seen last year. However, the biologists are able to net more than a dozen - not as many as they had hoped, but still a significant number.

The fish are removed for analysis at the trust's laboratory near Wigtown in a bid to learn more about their health and genetic make-up.

After that they're taken to a neighbouring river, the Water of Fleet, to strip the females of their eggs (one fish carries about 75,000 of them!) and the males of their milk to fertilise them.

The hope is that Fleet-hatched sparling will return there to breed themselves in future years and a new colony will be established.

It is a small step in fightback against decline caused by over-fishing, pollution and the construction of barriers such as dams, but it is a start.

'Very, very vulnerable'

Jamie Ribbens, the Galloway Fisheries Trust senior biologist, explained the importance.

"The Cree sparling are the last on the west coast and very, very vulnerable," he said.

"They all come into the river together and if we had a pollution incident, or something similar, we could lose the entire population.

"They are an important part of the whole eco-system from a bio-diversity point of view.

"You only have to come down through the day at this time of year to see seals, cormorants, goosanders and otters feeding on the sparling, so they are a key part of the eco-system and important to try and keep them."

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