The great eel migration: One million to swim to Britain in one night

Another influx of young eels expected on the River Severn in April

An armada of more than a million eels is mysteriously swimming towards Britain, exploiting a spring tide and a full moon to arrive in unprecedented numbers.

And waiting with nets for the migration will be teams of conservationists, hoping to smooth the eels’ passage up rivers and avoid man-made flood defences.

For decades, eel numbers had dwindled to the point that they were considered critically endangered. But on Monday night, at least a million juvenile eels are expected to swim up a single British river – the Parrett, which flows through Dorset and Somerset. This will trigger a massive operation by conservationists to catch as many of the slippery eels – known as glass eels – in nets, and transport them round flood defences and weirs blocking their path upriver.

Another influx of young eels, and a similar effort by conservationists to help them round man-made obstacles, is expected on the River Severn in April. Later this year, the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) plans to restock wetland habitats across England and Wales, particularly East Anglia.

“What we are attempting over the coming months will be the greatest relocation ever done in the UK,” said Andrew Kerr, SEG’s chairman.

If successful, the operation will hold out the hope of a remarkable, and baffling, comeback for the European eel (Anguilla anguilla). From the late 1970s, eels, once regarded as so common they were looked upon as food for the poor, have suffered a severe decline in the UK and across Europe. Glass eels, the almost transparent juvenile form, had slumped by up to 99 per cent compared with 1979 levels. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the European eel as critically endangered.

In the past three years, however, more and more glass eels have started appearing in UK rivers. Experts have yet to explain the unexpected revival, adding to the mystery surrounding a fish that has baffled scientists for centuries.

It took naturalists until the 18th century to work out that eels were fish. The Greek philosopher Aristotle had contended they were “born of earthworms”.

European eels are thought to breed in the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda, but even this has yet to be confirmed, because spawning of eels in the ocean has never been observed. It is thought, however, that the tiny young eels due to arrive in the UK tomorrow will have drifted with the Gulf Stream for 300 days before making their way up the River Parrett. Conservationists awaiting their arrival are hopeful that 2014 will prove to the best eel season for up to 35 years.

Mr Kerr said: “A million fish in one night on the Parrett would be a phenomenal number. Last year we collected a million but it took us the whole season. This year there are so many we should manage to match it in one night. It would be madness to leave them on the wrong side of barriers where they’ll die.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness