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Galloway Fisheries Trust

Fisheries House, Station Industrial Estate, Newton Stewart, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland. DG8 6ND
Telephone: 01671 403011 · Fax: 01671 402248 · Scottish Registered Charity No. SC020751

Looking downstream on the River Cree

Brown Trout

Looking upstream on the River Bladnoch

Felling of commercial forestry in Galloway Forest Park

Looking upstream on the River Luce

North American Signal Crayfish

The sandy beach at Loch Grannoch

Belted Galloway Cattle, or 'Belties'

Fly fishing on the River Cree

Murray's Monument

A small upland burn

A stoneloach

The High Cree, looking towards Cairnsmore of Fleet

A small waterfall on the Buchan Burn

A salmon from the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee

River Cree Rare Fish Project


The River Cree supports an important range of rare native fish. These are of high conservation status and most are protected under local and international legislation, as well as being listed as UK Biodiversity Action Plan species. These rare fish include sparling, allis shad, twaite shad, brook, river and sea lamprey, and spring running Atlantic salmon. The River Cree rare fish project employed a project officer (Dr Etheridge) to find out out more about these fascinating species and undertook various works that resulted in their protection and enhancement.

Most of these fish are anadromous meaning they spawn in freshwater, but spend much of their adult lives at sea, thus good habitat in the river and access to it is vital for completion of their life-cycles. This three year project ran from 2009 to 2012 and was funded by GFT, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), The Tubney Environmental Trust, The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Scottish Government, SWEAT and Crown Estates.

Esmée Fairbairn FoundationThe Tubney Charitable Trust

Sparling

Sometimes known as smelt, the sparling is a silver fish related to salmonids. Once numerous and supporting thriving fisheries, they have undergone severe declines in the U.K. The River Cree is now the only known population left on the West Coast of Scotland. However, nine populations were originally found just in the Solway in the Rivers Annan, Bladnoch, Cree, Dee, Esk, Fleet, Lochar, Nith and Urr. The reasons for these local extinctions include over-fishing, pollution and construction of barriers to migration.

Photograph of a River Cree sparling

A River Cree sparling, the only known population left in the Solway

Annual monitoring of sparling spawning in the River Cree took place as part of this project. While the population appears relatively healthy, any catastrophic event occurring during spawning has the potential to severely impact this sole sparling population. Due to this vulnerability of this population and the apparent absence of natural re-invasion, translocations to the Water of Fleet, a river of former occurrence, was undertaken. In 2010 and 2011 several million eggs were moved to the Fleet.

Photograph of the sparling spawning shoals

Images of the sparling spawning shoals were captured using the Trust’s Remote Operated Vehicle

In addition to this work, the area where these fish spawn in the River Cree was badly infested with an alien plant species Japanese knotweed. This plant adversely affects the spawning runs of this and other anadromous species and causes bank erosion, thus a program of eradication took place in riparian sections of the Lower Cree (see the news archive for more information).

Allis and Twaite Shad

Shad are silver fish that are closely related to herring, although they can reach lengths of 40 or 50cm. These are extremely rare fish, although like sparling they used to be common and targeted by fisheries. Although both species of shad can be found off much of the UK coast, only one spawning population of allis shad is known in the UK in the River Tamar on the south coast of England and only a handful of spawning populations of twaite shad are found in England and Wales.

Photograph of Shad fish

Shad captured for research purposes in nets close to the Cree estuary by Walter Davidson

While no known spawning grounds for either species of shad occur in Scotland, gravid allis and twaite shad are captured in the Solway Firth, and Wigtown Bay in particular. Spent twaite shad are also captured (allis shad die after spawning) and hybrids between the two are caught. This strongly suggests both these fish are spawning in Wigtown Bay, possibly in the same area. It is interesting that no spawning behaviour has been observed locally. These fish are famous for their vigorous and noisy spawning which involves splashing on the water surface. This is why, although many shad populations spawn many kilometres up a river it is believed that these shad species are probably spawning in an upper estuary since they would be conspicuous in most rivers in the area.

Photograph of Shad stomach contents

Processing of caught shad involves looking at stomach contents and weighing the gonads to assess spawning condition

The River Cree estuary is considered a candidate site due to shad captured in the vicinity by salmon nets. During the project potential spawning areas were accessed by boat and kick-sampling for shad eggs took place. Sampling was not easy in this environment and disappointingly no eggs were found. The hunt will go on as we do believe shad spawn here. Examination of catches and gonad development suggest Solway spawning takes place towards the end of July.

Brook, River and Sea Lamprey

Lamprey are among the oldest living vertebrates, and play an important role in the trophic ecology of a healthy river system. The larvae of all species, called ammocoetes, live in areas of silt or sand in freshwater and filter-feed for up to seven years before metamorphosis. However, lampreys are most famous for the parasitic adult stages of river and sea lamprey, which feed on fish usually for one or two years causing round lamprey scars.

Photograph of Larval lamprey known as ammocoetes

Larval lamprey known as ammocoetes, filter feed from silt beds. It is almost impossible to distinguish between species at this life stage.

There are three species of lamprey in the UK. Brook lamprey are the smallest, usually around 15cm, do not feed as adults and mature without ever leaving the river. River lamprey are usually around 30 cm in length. The transformers migrate downstream feeding on fish, usually in estuaries and coastal waters, before migrating back to freshwater. Both these lamprey tend to spawn in groups in April / May. Sea lamprey can grow up to 1m in length, feed on fish in coastal and offshore waters. They migrate back into freshwater and tend to spawn in pairs in June / July.

Photograph of Lamprey transformers

Lamprey transformers become adapted to migration to the spawning grounds or to the sea to feed, depending on the species

All these lamprey build redds in areas of gravel and pebbles, into which they deposit their eggs. Further knowledge regarding the Cree lamprey was gained from surveys for spawning lamprey assisted by local river users. Areas of silt and sand are also important habitat for the larval lamprey and electrofishing can inform where ammocoetes are located, although high water flows hindered this work. In addition trapping of adult lamprey in the lower Cree took place to help to tell us when lamprey are migrating into the Cree and tell us how numbers are changing over time.

Photograph of Sea Lamprey

The largest of the British lamprey become mottled in colour when returning to freshwater to spawn

Atlantic Salmon

There is an important sub-population of Atlantic salmon in the River Cree known as Spring running salmon. Atlantic salmon have been affected by barriers to migration, but more importantly by acidification in the High Cree (headwater area of the river), their historic spawning and nursery area. Acidification is caused by air pollution which has been deceasing over the past few decades, however, due to the geology of Galloway and extent of commercial forestry cover, recovery has been very slow. Periodic ‘acid-flushes’ during high flows mean that salmon spawning is not successful throughout all but the lowest sections of the High Cree.

Photograph of a Spring salmon

Release of a spring salmon caught in the lower Cree

In 2010, one of the barriers to migration, a dam on the Clauchrie Burn was modified to allow fish passage. The Cree Valley Community Woodland Trust (CVCWT) and FCS work to clear riparian areas of conifers close to the High Cree burns. However, even with this work and the reduction of air pollution, salmon recovery in the High Cree is likely to take decades to occur naturally.

As part of the Rare Fish Project, limestone gravel addition which aims to locally improve the survival of the most sensitive life stages of salmon, was trialled. The eggs and newly hatched alevins which live in the spawning redds are most adversely affected by acid, the addition of limestone gravel provides a refuge from acid flushes. When juvenile salmon emerge from the gravel as fry they are more able to cope with acidified waters, as shown by the survival in the High Cree of stocked salmon fry. Two years of trials were completed adding 40 tonnes to the Cairnderry Burn and 400 tonnes to the High Cree. These sites continue to be monitored as early results have been inconclusive.

Photograph of Limestone gravel being added to the trial site

Limestone gravel being added to the Cairnderry Burn trial site

Work to enhance freshwater habitats in the Palnure Burn has also been completed as part of this project. Conifers were removed from banksides and riparian fencing was erected to protect nearly 3000 metres of over-grazed bank. The reduction in silt entering the burn and increased riparian vegetation will benefit many species particularly salmon and sea trout.

Filming of rare fish

The Trust has been using a Video Ray Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to film some of the rare fish studied as part of this project. The ROV is a small video camera within a waterproof housing with two horizontal thrusters and one vertical thruster for manoeuvrability. It is connected by a long tether to a control box which is operated on the bank; this houses the driving controls and a video screen, which can also be connected to a digital recorder. In still water this can easily be driven, while in running water it is usually easier to kneel in the water and direct the camera at the fish. See some of the rare fish footage by clicking the links below: