The other day I found myself looking into the eyes of a large, beautiful and rather unusual fish, writes Dick Warner.
It was a common carp with a muscular, golden-brown body about 40cm long and it was lying placidly on a soft un-hooking mat where it had been placed by the angler, so he could take a photograph before he released it.
It was a man-made lake called Oaklands just outside New Ross in Co Wexford that has been developed as a general coarse fishery with an emphasis on carp.
Nowadays carp are not rare in Ireland but they are still unusual, and they have an unusual history.
They were first introduced into this country at some unknown date in the Middle Ages, almost certainly by monks, probably French monks who brought them from their home country.
Some medieval monastic orders were forbidden to eat meat at any time, except on medical grounds, and others had a huge number of fast days when it wasn’t allowed, so fish were a vital source of protein to them.
They kept carp in artificial stew ponds in the grounds of the monastery and were pioneers of European aquaculture.
Carp travel well, an important consideration if you wanted to bring a fish from France to Ireland in the days of sailing ships and horse-drawn land transport, and will grow rapidly in small ponds if they’re fed properly.
But the monks discovered one snag — they don’t breed well this far north. In order to spawn they require a water temperature of 18 degrees sustained over a couple of weeks.
Many Irish lakes and ponds never achieve this and others only do so in occasional good summers.
So when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries the future looked bleak for Irish carp.
But a few did survive in an isolated scattering of ponds and that’s the way things remained until the middle of the last century.
There was a similar situation in England, though they had a little more breeding success in the south of the country.
Anglers regarded them as virtually uncatchable but in the 1950s a band of pioneers led by a man called Richard Walker set out to prove this wasn’t the case.
They caught some very large fish and this started a booming fashion for carp angling in Britain.
The fashion then spread to Ireland and carp were introduced into new waters and bred in hatcheries by the Central Fisheries Board, the precursor of today’s Inland Fisheries Ireland.
Different strains were bred, including mirror carp which have a haphazard scattering of large, mirror-like scales and leather carp which have no scales at all.
Today they are spread quite widely around the country in ponds, lakes and some rivers and canals and what was once a rare fish has turned into an unusual one that’s on its way to becoming quite common.
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