The latest status of the Freshwater Fish of Lancashire can be found in the Vertebrates publication from 2018. (Available from the Hon. Secretary)

GRAYLING AND THE RIVER IRWELL

Malcolm Greenhalgh

As recorder for fishes for the Lancashire & Cheshire Fauna Society and a trustee of the Grayling Research Trust I knew of no past (pre 21st century) record whatsoever for Grayling (Thymallus thymallus) in the Irwell, the major tributary of the Mersey. All past reports by the Society have stated “In Lancs., found in Hodder and Ribble only” (Ellison and Chubb, 1962), or, more recently, “A species found in Lancashire and North Merseyside only in the middle and upper Ribble and Hodder, but which is expanding its range into the Calder and Ribble below Calderfoot following the cleaning up of the Calder.” (Greenhalgh, 2017). This status is confirmed by the Grayling Society’s records (e.g. in Roberts, 1982).

It came as a great surprise when I was informed that the Environment Agency had stocked the Irwell on 18 July 2018 with 3000 Grayling, on the grounds that some anglers have claimed to have recently caught Grayling in the Irwell and some of its tributaries, including Bradshaw Brook (which I sampled during the early 1980s and never saw a single Grayling) and the River Roch near Rochdale. Had Grayling occurred in any part of the Irwell in recent years keen Grayling anglers living in or very close to the catchment whom I know well would have been well aware of it. Furthermore, zoologists working at both the Manchester Museum (e.g. Alan Brindle) and Bolton Museum (Alfred Hazelwood), who were active recorders here in northwest England during the 20th century, would have recorded the species had it occurred anywhere in the Irwell system.

Both the EA and local angling clubs have argued that the Grayling did exist in the river in historic times, the evidence coming from a book, The River Irwell: pleasant reminiscences of the nineteenth century and suggestions for improvement by J. Corbett, published in 1907. Corbett admitted at the start of Chapter 10, ‘Angling in the Irwell’, that “I have never been an angler, except as a boy accompanying my father, Edward Corbett, who was a fairly enthusiastic fisherman,” so he quoted from a talk given by his father to the Manchester Anglers’ Association on 14 October 1879 and published the same year by the Association in a volume Anglers’ Evenings.

  1. Corbett’s 1907 book quotes his father: “Of course I was converted to fly-fishing, and pursued my way, with or without one or more of my companions, as far as Ringley Weirhole. There we generally caught some fish, and at sundry places on the way we had more or less success; often bringing home ten or twelve fine fish, either grayling, chub, or dace; occasionally only gudgeons and minnows.”

That is the only mention of Grayling in the 1907 book, but it is a misquote of his father’s Anglers’ Evenings piece, for there the word grayling does not appear. Instead his father took home “graining, chub, or dace”. Furthermore, his father tells us that, ‘They are a fine fish of good flavour, like a herring in size, form, and colour, and not so broad as a dace, nor so thick as a chub. They are described in Webster’s Dictionary as ‘Graining (Leuciscus Lancastriensis), a small fish found in England and Switzerland.” We caught them in the rapids generally….’

Graining also feature in the Rev. W. Houghton’s book British Fresh-Water Fishes, first published coincidentally in 1879, for on page 74 of the 1981 edition he lists two separate species of dace, Leuciscus vulgaris and Leuciscus lancastriensis. On page 76 he deals with the subject of the Graining: ‘Dace, like most other kinds of fish, are subject to variety, and ichthyologists now regard the Graining, first mentioned by Pennant, and described as a different species by Yarrell in the Linnaean Society’s Transactions (vol. xvii., pl.i., p.5), under the name of Leuciscus lancastriensis, as a mere variety of Dace. Pennant says, “in the Mersey, near Warrington, and in the river Alt, which runs by Sephton, Lancashire, into the Mersey near Formby, a fish called Graining is taken…”’

Graining also appear in Ellison and Chubb (loc. Cit., 1962): “The Graining, L. Lancastriensis Shaw, has often been recorded in the past as a separate species, but is simply a local variation of the typical Dace.”

So it seems clear that the L&CFS reports limiting the distribution of grayling in (traditional) Lancashire to just the Ribble and Hodder were correct, and it seems likely that any recent record was of fish introduced by anglers into the river (e.g. a 12 inch fish was caught downstream of the stocking on 18 July 2018). It seems unfortunate that the EA failed to check thoroughly the reference given by Corbett, where ‘Graining’ became ‘Grayling’. Would they have stocked the river had they known that?

But there is another point. If there had been a Grayling population in the Irwell which, like the Brown trout population, became restricted by the foul pollution of the river’s lower reaches and tributaries to the cleaner headwaters, would there have been a need to artificially stock? Surely the Grayling stocks would have increased rapidly as the river became clean during the present century, just as the Brown Trout stocks have increased and as Grayling have increased in the Burnley (Ribble) Calder when it became clean?

Furthermore, if there was a Grayling population in the Irwell, would artificial stocking using fish from a Midland’s hatchery have been wise, for the native Irwell population would presumably have been genetically adapted to the Irwell and that genetic integrity threatened by stocking with non-Irwell fish?

The Irwell, which has become so clean during the 21st century, is now a great wild Brown Trout river, stocked by fish from the unpolluted headwaters. Having been stocked it ought now to become a great Grayling river.

I would like to thank Keith Harwood and Dr Dmitri Logunov of Manchester Museum for help in the preparation of this paper.

References

E. Corbett (1879) Angling in the Irwell. Anglers’ Evenings, First series pp. 102-116. Manchester AA.
J. Corbett (1907) The River Irwell. Abel Heywood, London.
N.F. Ellison and J.C. Chubb (1962) The marine and freshwater fishes of Lancashire and Cheshire. Lancashire & Cheshire Fauna Committee 32nd Rept. pp1-34.
M.E. Greenhalgh (2017) Freshwater Fish, in White S.J. (ed.) et al. The Vertebrates of Lancashire, L&CFS Publication 122.
Rev. W. Houghton (1879) British Fresh-Water Fishes. Peerage Books, London.
J. Roberts (1982) The Grayling Angler. Witherby, London.