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Eels swim 4,000 miles home to Blakeney

Blakeney is the beginning and the end of an epic 4,000 mile journey for the European eel.

This particular destination on the north Norfolk coast is where tiny European eels or glass eels aim for each spring on their remarkable journey ‘home’ from where they were born in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda in the North Atlantic.

The journey sees ocean currents carrying the 3mm-long eel larvae towards the European coast and takes two years to complete.

North Norfolk’s River Glaven, which joins the sea at the sluice gates on the Coast Path beyond Blakeney quay car park, is where many eel larvae arrive. This is also where adult eels, up to 30 years old, leave the freshwater of the river Glaven each autumn and head back to the North Atlantic to breed - and then die.

Blakeney is now playing an important role in saving this endangered species from extinction and involving schools so the story of the eel as part of our cultural heritage is not lost. The Glaven Eel Project received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of almost £100,000 to increase eel numbers. The project has helped to improve the eels’ habitat, created new habitats along the Glaven valley and removed barriers and obstructions to help eel migration.

Numbers of the European eel (Anguilla Anguilla) have dropped by 95 per cent over the last few years due to over-fishing, infection from parasites, changes in habitat such as draining land, and man-made barriers including modern sluice gates which impede the young eels’ migration upstream. The eel is now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The glass eels feed on worms, shrimps and snails in the estuary and river as they mature for a year to become elvers.

They climb over weirs, across fields and any obstacle as they struggle upstream to their ‘home’. The process sees them turn yellow as they build their strength feeding on frogs and fish. Over the next five to 20 years they turn silver, reaching up to 1.5 metres long as they prepare for their return journey.

The River Glaven is one of only 210 chalk rivers in the world and its clean, clear waters are essential in supporting special wildlife habitats and species like the European eel.

In days not too long gone, every north Norfolk river had at least one eel catcher, and villages such as Salthouse were famous for the number of eels caught during the annual 'eel run'. Cartloads were sent to London to supply the capital’s famous pie and eel pie shops. Many East Anglian fortunes were once built on the eel harvest and jellied eel became a traditional English dish in the 18th century.

Dried eel skin is tougher than leather and was plaited to make wedding rings and chastity belts. Eel ‘babbing’ competitions were held on Blakeney Marshes, with people catching the fish with a baited thread of wool. You can see a similarity with today’s crab catching on Blakeney quay.

Eels can live out of water for short times so they move over wet grass and dig through wet sand and from river to ponds to get up stream. They are scavengers feeding voraciously in the summer on worms, small fish, dead fish, molluscs, and other bottom-living animals. In the winter they become less active, often lying dormant and half-buried in the muddy bottoms of the river.

When they leave fresh water to return to spawn in the Sargasso Sea as mature eels some 20 years later, their digestive system breaks down and they make the 4,000 mile return journey without eating again.

Another bonus from the eel project has been to increase Norfolk’s population of the reclusive Bittern which lives in the reedbeds and feeds on eels. Now it can be seen and heard booming across Blakeney Freshes and the marshes around Cley.

If you want to find out more about the Glaven Eel Project follow the link.

Sluice gates by the Coast Path at Blakeney where eels enter and leave on their life journey
The sluice gate on the Coast Path at Blakeney is where eels enter from and leave for the Sargasso Sea

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