Saving the Sparling

Sparling were found in various Scottish rivers in the past but died out from many due to over fishing, pollution or the building of barriers preventing them from reaching suitable spawning habitat. In Scotland they are now one of our rarest fish, apparently only remaining in the Cree, Forth and Tay. The Saving the Sparling project ran for 2 years, employing interns to study the local sparling population in the Cree and to work with and inform the local community about these wonderful fish.

Sparling (Osmerus eperlanus), also known as smelt or the cucumber fish, are a relatively small fish growing up to 30cm long. They have an adipose fin, appear grey-green in the water and have a distinct cucumber-like smell. They are anadromous species, meaning they spend most of their lives in the estuaries but require freshwater to complete their lifecycle by migrating on mass into freshwater over a few days each spring. They utilise the incoming high spring tides, as they are relatively weak swimmers, to reach the upper tidal limit of the River Cree to spawn. Their sticky eggs adhere to substrate surface and water weed where thy hatch after a few weeks. After hatching, juvenile sparling are then carried downstream to the estuaries to feed and grow before returning as adults to spawn after a few years.

Sparling were once a common species found in various Scottish rivers but have suffered significant declines due to overfishing, pollution or the building of impassable barriers. Historically records show that sparling were heavily netted with some years recording up to 6 tonnes being caught in the Cree, that roughly equates to 50,000 fish. Alongside commercial fishing, locals would regularly head down to the river during their spawning migration to collect a few buckets for their annual tasty dinner treat.

In Scotland they are now one of our rarest fish, only reported to remain in the Cree, Forth and Tay. There were once 15 known populations of sparling occurring in Scottish rivers; Almond, Annan, Bladnoch, Clyde, Cree. Dee, Esk. Fleet, Forth, Girvan, Lochar, Nith, Stinchar, Tay and Urr. Sparling are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and are also included in the UK and Dumfries and Galloway Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species list. Since 1991 the Lower Cree has been designated as an SSSI to protect this rare fishes vital spawning ground.

The Saving the Sparling project was designed to be delivered over a two year period by two interns. The interns were to study the local sparling population in the River Cree and educate and engage the local community about this wonderful fish.

The key deliverables of the project were: 

    - To collect environmental data to predict the arrival of the sparling to spawn
    - Completing regular checks for spawning in the lower river
    - Involve volunteers in the project
    - To collect a sample of sparling during a spawning event
    - Collecting biological data from sampled sparling
    - Engage with the local community to record local historical information
    - Raise awareness of sparling in the local community and further afield
    - Deliver a sparling focused project in local schools

In February of 2018, Jack Wootton was the first to be assigned the position of Sparling Project Intern. During his 5 month position, Jack successfully predicted the arrival of 2018 spring spawning event using various data collected including water temperature, tide data, predator presence and river flows. Jack, along with other members of the GFT team, sampled 200 sparling collected from the River Cree during the 2018 spring spawning event. From the 200 sparling collected, biological data was recorded such as weights and lengths to monitor the health of the sparling population in the River Cree.

In terms of community engagement and education, Jack was responsible for running the ‘Sparling Goes To School’ programme to educate local schools about the ecology of sparling. Jack visited Dalbeattie Primary, Kirkcowan Primary, Penninghame Primary and Wigtown Primary with all pupils excitingly getting to meet real live sparling! During this year, Jack helped to produce a range of dissemination material including display boards, leaflets and a short film. This material includes local historical information collected during public engagement events in Newton Stewart and Gatehouse of Fleet. Throughout 2018 local filmmaker John Wallace filmed the project work and created a short documentary-style film which includes footage of the sparling on the spawning grounds, you can watch the informative film by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page.

In December of 2018, Courtney Rowland was appointed as the second Sparling Project Intern which came to an end in May of 2019. Courtney continued to build on the work previously completed by Jack, particularly focusing on community engagement and education. Courtney invited volunteers to join her on various aspects of the project, including recording the presence of known sparling predators where volunteers had the opportunity to learn new skills in bird identification. Volunteers also had the opportunity to learn more about sparling along the banks of the River Cree and the River Urr, learning more about their ideal habitat, signs of the sparlings arrival and to observe sparling (even testifying they smell of cucumber).

Courtney continued with the Sparling Goes To School Project visiting a further 9 schools (Belmont Primary, Dalbeattie Primary, Kirkcowan Primary, Gatehouse of Fleet Primary, Minnigaff Primary, Palnackie Primary, Penninghame Primary, St Ninian’s R C Primary and Twynholm Primary). The pupils enjoyed playing sparling themed games and meeting real live sparling! Other community-based events held by Courtney were various presentation evenings open to locals wanting to learn more about this rare species so culturally and historically important and a very successful film night held at the Newton Stewart Museum.

Cumulatively the interns successfully delivered all aspects of the project including predicting the arrival of the sparling, sampling sparling, educating local children, engaging with locals and involving volunteers. Most importantly this project has successfully increased awareness about rare sparling in the local community and even further afield, receiving national coverage this year on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Door programme and in the national newspaper the Scotsman.

This project was funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), The Scottish Government and The Holywood Trust.

Click this link to see the Sparling Film produced as part of this project by local filmmaker John Wallace.



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