I was walking round the garden just before dusk on All Souls Day, when something at the edge of the pond caught my eye. I immediately thought the predatory heron had been in action and perhaps left behind some part of its prey. A closer inspection showed that the eel which lay there, for such it was, appeared unharmed and with no sign of damage from that stabbing beak.
It was a beautiful elver, maybe ten inches long. Pigmented in colours of grey and brown from its elegant dark head to its finely tipped tail, it was also mottled with greens and blues, that seemed to refract in the low light. A yellowish-brown belly, looked soft and vunerable.
The elver seemed semi-comatose and made no effort to wriggle away. I lifted it gently and placed it in the pond water. Here it gave a couple of casual flicks and then disappeared without a ripple, beneath the duckweed and into the darker depths below.
The whole business took less than a minute. I had no phone with me to take the obligatory photograph. Nothing remained to tell of the elver’s presence.
But next morning I woke up thinking about that eel. Was it preparing to leave the pond or was it arriving there from the nearby burn, just a few yards away? The recent rainfall had been substantial. The burn, trickling and gentle in summer, had become a raging torrent hurtling over the weir at the bottom of the garden. I’d read that eels can move some distance in wet grass. I concluded that the elver had somehow left the boiling spate of the burn and was heading for the tranquility of the pond. Last year I had seen the remains of eels caught near the same spot and I’d even filmed a gruesome episode when the heron was endeavouring to kill a large specimen, fully two feet in length and newly taken from the pond waters.
Had I put the elver at risk? Possibly. But in recent days I’d seen the heron sitting patiently below the weir, clearly with food on its mind. So there were hazards in the burn too. This elver, it seemed, had run that gauntlet successfully, battling its way through the currents of a makeshift fish ladder at the side of the dam, whilst simultaneously avoiding the fatal jab of the bird’s bill.
I felt admiration for the elver. It had made the successful ascent of the Pennyland Burn. Before that it had swum up the River Nith, avoiding the dangers of cormorants at the ‘Caul’ weir in Dumfries. Before that, no less, it had completed a marine journey of formidable dimensions.
For the eel spawns in the western Atlantic in an area known as the Sargasso. Such a beautiful word. It conjures up a mass of eels swimming intertwined, as a raft of seaweed floats above them, the sargassam, from which the sea takes its name. Bounded only by circulating currents and touching no land, the Sargasso Sea seems a beautifully enigmatic place for eels to procreate.
From the Sargasso, transparent larvae of Anguilla Anguilla drift north east on the Gulf Stream until they reach European shores. There they transform into evocatively named ‘glass eels’ that grow on in river estuaries and brackish water before metamorphosing into the juvenile stage, known as the elver. Over the next few years the elvers live in burns, rivers, lakes and lochs where, on reaching maturity, they are known as ‘silver eels’, from their shining white bellies. They are now ready for the reverse transition from fresh to salt water and for the 5,000 mile return journey south west. En route they will again face many threats, natural and anthropogenic, as the cycle continues.
So I hope the All Souls elver will now settle in the Dumfriesshire garden pond and, avoiding the heron, grow large in a rich habitat full of dragonflies, frogs, water beetles, leeches and snails. Who knows, perhaps I will see it again one dusky evening, by then as a silver eel, slipping out of the pond, heading for the burn, and beginning its epic migration to the spawning grounds, where it will reproduce – and then die.
Note: The featured image was taken recently on the River Nith in Dumfries, and appears here by kind permission of Keith Kirk.
Podcast: You can listen to me reading this article here: https://anchor.fm/david-clark14/episodes/The-eel-e19p0je