How five humble fish transformed the British Isles

Cod, carp, eel, herring and salmon might seem an odd quintet, but these charismatic, story-rich species changed our nation.

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I met the author of this book once, when we did a double piece for a newspaper, in which I tried to persuade him of the pleasures of birds, while he tried to make me into a fisherman. Even on the day, I knew that placing him in front of thousands of migrant ducks and waders scattering across a Norfolk winter sky was never going to work. Charles Rangeley-Wilson values feathers mainly for tying flies; his eyes are for creatures with fins. As a writer and television presenter he has spent his life celebrating fish. Otherwise he devotes himself to what he calls “the best waste of time ever invented: fishing”.

The aim of this book is to tell us how important fish really are and why we should all care far more about them. To his near-religious sense of mission Rangeley-Wilson has enlisted the persuasive powers of five charismatic, story-rich species: the cod, carp, eel, herring and salmon. His book is essentially a five-part drama and five-part biography of the fish that “made Britain”.

Yet at first acquaintance they seem a rather odd quintet. The eel is virtually unknown now to most of us either as a native animal or item in the British diet. Herring was indisputably a staple once but, let’s be frank, how many eat kippers today? Then there’s carp. I have spent as much of my life in the countryside as Rangeley-Wilson, but must confess that I have never knowingly seen a wild one. The most significant commercial species is clearly the one supplying the key ingredient in our national dish, but it is equally shocking to discover that the cod in our fish and chips comes mainly from Norway, while the annual British catch is now a paltry 12,000 tons.

Finally, we have salmon. No one would dispute that those long-jawed monsters that leap their way upstream to native spawning grounds are a long-established cultural totem. A more recent development, however is their omnipresence in our supermarkets, most of which shrink-wrapped pink flesh is part of the 180,000 tons produced on Scottish fish farms. It is extraordinary to reflect how the British harvest of this former preserve of the wealthy now exceeds the newspaper-wrapped cod by a factor of 15. Yet Rangeley-Wilson’s salmon account is devoted entirely to the 12,000 individual wild fish caught, and invariably put back live, by anglers on English and Welsh rivers. In short, the captive stock of this species counts for little. Or rather it counts for a great deal, but largely as an expression of what is fundamentally wrong about our relationship with fish.

The author notes how the Highland imagery used to sell supermarket salmon – the tartan, castles, peat, heather, and lonely pines on mist-shrouded lochs – are all really a summary expression of “something the product has destroyed: Scottish natural heritage”. The real picture of these farmed fish, he continues, “is of a lifeless seabed, billowing tides of excrement, dead shellfish for miles around, and lorries full of ruined salmon, cooked in an ever more toxic brew of chemicals in an effort to rid them of increasingly immunised lice”.

It is the present state of our fisheries and the history of how we have destroyed the former astonishing abundance of wild British fish that is Rangeley-Wilson’s other great theme. Perhaps the most telling expression of profligate waste is his tale of the herring industry. The silver darlings were once so numerous that they changed the appearance of the North Sea into “fields bespangled with purple, gold and azure”, in the words of one witness.

The attendant fishing fleet, supported by a workforce of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of workers, involved no fewer than 1,700 herring drifters which, by the early 20th century, were landing 1.7 billion fish. It is with these steam-shrouded images of East Coast ports, packed with herring girls amid ziggurats of salt-barrelled meat ready for market, that one finally grasps how fish actually could have played a part in the foundation of a nation.

In successive threads, Rangeley-Wilson shows how the same once went for cod and cod fishermen, and earlier still in medieval England, for carp and eels. The latter in fact gave their names to some of our oldest cities – Ely, for example – and were so fundamental to national life that people paid their taxes in the form of their smoked flesh.

The author summarises the individual fish biographies with wonderful clarity while also managing to illuminate how gloriously entangled his subjects are with human history. Just to give one example, in picking apart what has happened to wild British salmon, Rangeley-Wilson makes a detailed analysis of corn distribution and then the milling practices of medieval England. Because it turns out that watermills, of which there were 5,236 by the time of the Domesday Book, were one of the first major impediments to the salmon’s breeding runs upstream. Thus their slow withdrawal from our inland waters was a process begun long before either industrial pollution or industrialised fishing.

Another part of the author’s achievement, while he describes so much maritime greed and over-consumption, is to avoid taking sides or apportioning blame. For, in the end, aren’t we all implicated? Yet Silver Shoals does have its villains and heroes. One obvious baddy is the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union, which seems to have been a complete disaster for fish and fishermen. The recovery of meaningful territorial waters and the opportunity to institute genuinely sustainable fisheries may just be one small silver-scaled lining to the present thunderclouds surrounding Brexit.

Given that they defeated the British in three so-called cod wars, it is rather strange that the Icelandic people emerge as one of Rangeley-Wilson’s good guys and the community that has best managed to achieve his ideal model – a truly sustainable, cultural-rich fishery.

At the end of the book, Rangeley-Wilson asks: “Is it too mad to imagine a rejuvenated coast, where fishermen working in a sustainable way make a living selling good fish to a public who are fussy about where they come from and how they are caught; or to imagine a future where we have vast marine reserves…?”

The answer in the short term is almost certainly yes, until politicians, of both left and right, understand that the world’s economy is only a sub-department of its planetary ecosystems; and until our incessant palaver about “economic growth” ceases to be viewed as a chief, if not the only, metric of social achievement. Yet if we are ever to make those changes then there are few better places to start than to read and digest the implications of this intricately woven, fair-minded and wonderfully insightful book. 

Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape)

Silver Shoals: Five Fish That Made Britain
Charles Rangeley-Wilson
Chatto & Windus, 368pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain