It was a surprise to discover from a television programme that eels had become a critically endangered species. In teenage years, we thought eels were a nuisance, they seemed so resilient that we could not have imagined that they would ever be endangered. How could a creature that could survive crossings of the Atlantic to breed in the Sargasso Sea, and that could find its way into our obscure waterways ever be threatened?
Fishing with rod and line in the River Yeo to the east of Langport, we rarely caught anything of note (we rarely caught anything at all, an odd perch, roach or dace, but always very small ones). The one thing that would regularly be landed was eels. There were some fishermen who had a special interest in eels. There was a National Anguilla Club whose activities must have been reported upon in the Angling Times, the weekly fishing newspaper, for there is no other way I could have known of the club’s existence.
In some parts of the county, eels were caught in large numbers to be sold for food. The local name for the activity was “rayballing.” Earthworms were tied together using a ball of wool and the ball of bait would be fastened by wire to the end of a wooden pole. The bait would have been lowered into the water and pulled up from time to time. The teeth of the eels would be caught in the wool and they would have been lifted, wriggling from the water. The eels would have been knocked free from the bait against the side of a tin bath in which their number would accumulate until the catcher was content with his haul.
Eels were extraordinary creatures. There were tales of their migration across land to reach isolated ponds and lakes, stretches of water that could only be reached but lengthy periods in the open air. Even if the eels could survive, how did they know where they were going? How did they know the direction in which to crawl? How did they know that water awaited?
The thought of eels making terrestrial journeys seemed an unlikely one until a visit to the French city of Bergerac one autumn. In the middle of a street market, a fishmonger had a tank of live eels among what he was selling. From time to time, an eels would climb up the side of the tank and attempt to escape down the street. In between serving customers, the fishmonger would step down the street, pick up the escapee and throw it back into the tank.
The end of the eels would be the end of something quite different from any other creature.