Northern Ireland

Small fry making a big hit in the classroom

Audrey McKee and the children from Milburn Primary School, Coleraine
Image caption Audrey McKee and the children from Milburn Primary School, Coleraine

The children of Millburn Primary School in Coleraine have raised a small school of their own.

They were given more than 100 salmon eggs to look after as part of a major Rivers Agency environmental improvement scheme at Anderson Park in the town.

The eggs stayed in a fridge in their classroom and they had to ensure the young ones were not stressed.

Teacher Audrey McKee gave her pupils full marks for achieving a survival rate of more than 90%.

"The children actually came in in the morning checking the fridge, checking the temperature, taking out any hazards and removing anything that shouldn't be in the water. So they were fantastic. I've done nothing," she laughed.

But if you love something, you have to let it go… and if it comes back it was meant to be.

Wednesday was the day when the children released their salmon fry in the Lodge Burn, hoping that within the next three years they will return to breed in exactly the same spot.

For many it was a time of excitement and sorrow, as they shouted goodbye from the bridge.

Pupil Luke Clements said: "Some did die, but at least we got quite a lot of them out."

His school friend, Rachel Devenney, agreed: "I feel quite happy that we are releasing them."

Dylan Stewart said: "It was just good to have a feeling of accomplishment. I just loved looking after them and being responsible."

Kirsty Thompson added: "We had real fun because we got to look after them and care for them because we hadn't really done anything like that before."

Image caption Time to say goodbye... down at the riverbank

At the "Salmon in the Classroom - Return to the Water" event was Dr Gareth Greer, conservation officer with the Rivers Agency of Northern Ireland. He has been instrumental in the work at the park, providing new flood defences for local residents and significantly improving the physical condition of the river and the movement of migratory fish.

"The Lodge Burn, being close to the River Bann and Atlantic Ocean, has historically supported a good population of salmon and trout," he said.

"However, over time through catchment development and pressures on water quality, there has been a severe negative impact on migratory fish. Weirs and culverts have limited the movement of fish throughout the catchment, while periodic pollution events have also had a devastating impact.

"The flood defence scheme provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse some of these impacts through changes to the physical structure of the river."

The work involved the removal of two weirs which were forming a pond in Anderson Park and restoration of the natural river channel which recreates the type of habitat that is beneficial for small fish.

Pipes were removed from under the Coleraine Leisure Centre car park and replaced with a large box culvert with a natural stone base to help fish move upstream.

A large drop from the culvert outlet will also be replaced with a series of step pools created to allow the upward movement of adult fish into the catchment.

Dr Greer said the involvement of Millburn Primary School was a way to involve the local community in the scheme.

Image caption The small fry proved a big hit in the classroom

"The children from Millburn have helped plant trees in the area visually complimenting the environmental aspect of the scheme," he said.

"This local interest in the river will hopefully continue and with completion of the new flood defences, the environmental aspects will be enjoyed for many years to come."

Local angling guide, Mark Patterson, helped the children gain more knowledge about the salmon and the rivers.

"This has really really improved it and made it extremely fish friendly. When I was asked to help with this project, I was more than happy to be releasing salmon into a river knowing they would have every chance to come back here to breed.

"The stock (of salmon) in Irish rivers in general has gone down by about 90% over the last 30 years for various reasons - overfishing, population, habitat destruction. What we need to do now as anglers and environmentalists is to make sure we build up those stocks so that we have a good healthy salmon population for the future."