Matthew Hatchwell, is a local wildlife conservation consultant working with the Kent Wildlife Trust. He spent 30 years in Africa working to preserve exotic species like lemurs and elephants, then came to Faversham and, walking on Graveney Marshes in North East Kent, realised he had an endangered species right on his doorstep! Matthew is now working to raise our awareness of the critically endangered European eel and its significance to the unique landscape of Graveney Marshes, an area threatened by a proposed to build a vast solar power station stretching 2.5 miles long.
It is at this time of year that Spring tides bring millions of young European eels – elvers – at the end of their mammoth journey from the Sargasso Sea where they hatched, to Europe where they will grow to maturity. By the time they reach these shores, European eels have metamorphosed from hatchling larvae into transparent glass eels about 11cm long and are in the process of acquiring the pigmentation that will help camouflage them in the mud and silt of the freshwater rivers and lakes in which they’ll spend the next 20-30 years of their lives.
This annual arrival of elvers in the creeks and tributaries of the Thames Estuary a very special event. Matthew spent a memorable night last Easter watching incoming glass eels trying to make their way through the tidal flap at the head of Faversham Creek and over the concrete sill into Stonebridge Pond. No-one would describe eels as charismatic, but there are few spectacles more dramatic in nature than seeing these tiny creatures that have swum three thousand miles or more from the Sargasso Sea trying to make it the final couple of meters to their final destination, evading one more potentially lethal obstacle in the form of adult eels that lurk in the shadows picking off the new arrivals.
For centuries, Europeans have been installing barriers on their rivers as ways to control coastal flooding and increase the area of land available for human use. Even though eels are remarkably resilient creatures, able even to leave the water in order to crawl their way through wet grass and mud to reach their destination, those same structures can be insurmountable obstacles unless they’ve been properly designed or adapted to be passable by incoming elvers and by adult silver eels heading back to the Sargasso to breed.
The total population of European eels has plummeted by around 95 percent in the past 40 years and the eel is the only wildlife species at the proposed Cleve Hill solar power station site that is classed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Matthew will be watching the incoming elvers again this week, but this time to see whether the eel passes installed on the two sluices at the head of Faversham Creek, with the support of the Environment Agency and several local organisations, are working properly.
Please help save this, and many other protected species on Graveney Marshes, by writing to the Secretary of State, Alok Sharma (Secretary.State@beis.gov.uk) to voice your views and sign the petition here.
Photo: Ondřej Pelánek