Cray to go… charity defends Devon species

2018 08 PZ white clawed crayfish
(Last Updated On: August 20, 2018)

A Devon conservation charity is coming to the aid of a native species under threat from its bolder American cousins. The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, based at Paignton Zoo, has teamed up with Bristol Zoo Gardens to help the white-clawed crayfish.

Unnoticed by the tens of thousands of visitors to Paignton Zoo, in a small building that previously stabled jungle cattle, stand two big vats. They hold about 1200 litres of fresh water and around 70 native British crayfish. Some twisted trail of zoo keeper humour has led to the tanks being named Fifty Shades of Cray and Cray David…

The white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes) is the largest freshwater invertebrates in the UK, but is under threat of extinction in the wild because of the introduced American signal crayfish, which out-competes its British counterpart for food and can carry a killer plague.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust UK Conservation Officer, Dr. Tracey Hamston, said: “We have a chance to save this species for Devon. The situation is urgent – if it becomes extinct in the county then another small piece of our natural heritage mosaic will be gone. This is a shy, reclusive species that few people know about – but it has an important role in the freshwater ecosystem because of what it eats and what in turn eats it. The species is also an important indicator of good water quality.

“There are only two rivers left in Devon where you can find this species in the wild. There are populations elsewhere in England and on the Continent, but it is in severe decline in many parts of its range.”

Paignton Zoo previously trialled work on native crayfish with the Environment Agency and the charity Buglife, but this new phase has a greater capacity and the potential to breed. The Zoo, with partners Bristol Zoo and ecologist and crayfish specialist Nicky Green, is working with the Culm Community Crayfish Project.

These crayfish came from berried (egg bearing) females taken – temporarily – from a site on the River Culm in East Devon. The river has signal crayfish on it, though luckily there is no crayfish plague at present. The plan is to release the Zoo crayfish higher up the Culm catchment.

The white clawed crayfish is protected by law and is recognised as Endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Paignton Zoo Environmental Park is a registered charity. For more information go to or ring 01803 697500.

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