Press release

Primitive fish return to Yorkshire and the North East

The rare lamprey is returning to the region to spawn.

Paul Frear with a sea lamprey
The rare lamprey is returning to our rivers

A rare and protected fish has returned to Yorkshire and the North East for its annual spawning as water quality in the region’s rivers continues to improve.

The Environment Agency, working with local angling groups and Natural England, has been surveying the rivers searching for the rare, jawless fish called the lamprey.

So far the Environment Agency has identified one spawning site on the River Wear and spotted a total of 20 adult sea lampreys.

In Yorkshire, Natural England has a project underway in search for sea lampreys on the River Ouse. River and sea lampreys are also expected to return to spawning grounds on the lower River Wharfe, Swale, Nidd and Ure.

The fish are a good indication of the high quality of the river water and scientists are continuing to search for more lampreys on the Wear and the Ouse river catchments.

Paul Frear, Environment Agency fisheries officer, said:

We welcome the return of the lampreys back to Yorkshire and the North East. The lampreys are like swallows. They return to the same spot to spawn within the same few days every year.

These illusive fish are extremely selective with their spawning sites and will only nest where the water quality is good. Their appearance is a ringing endorsement of the water quality in these areas.

The lamprey is an extremely unusual creature. The most primitive fish in the world, it uses its mouth like a suction-cup to attach itself to the skin of a fish and rasp away tissue with its sharp probing tongue and teeth.

They outwardly resemble eels because they have no scales and an adult lamprey can range anywhere from 13 to 100 centimetres long. They have large eyes, one nostril on the top of their heads, and seven gill pores on each side.

Claire Horseman from Natural England said:

We are hoping that the lamprey projects being undertaken by Natural England and the Environment Agency will help us better understand the migratory behaviour of these primitive species and the challenges that they face along their migratory route. With this increased understanding we can work towards restoring lamprey populations to their former status.

During the Middle Ages lampreys were widely eaten by the upper classes throughout Europe, especially during fasting periods, because their taste is much meatier than that of other fish.

The deaths of two English kings, King Henry I and King John, are said to have been from overindulging on these blood-suckers.

Published 1 July 2015