Leah Gooding: How I fell in love with eels
Guest blog post: on this week's Autumnwatch, guest presenter Leah Gooding investigates the plight of one of our most mysterious and iconic fish, the eel.
Growing up I always thought wildlife was either on TV or in the countryside. It just felt out of my reach. I'd watch Sir David Attenborough on television, he'd be somewhere far off discovering a new species and I'd be sitting way too close to the TV gripped and hanging on his every word. Without a doubt He sparked my campaign to get my parents to fill our house with pets.
We had three Staffordshire bull terriers, two gorgeous butter yellow canary birds, a rabbit called Thumper and two tarantulas. Yep, I love creepy crawlies!
The perfect opportunity to learn more about these mysterious creatures
Looking back it was my way of bringing wildlife closer to my concrete jungle that is East London. Every now and then - mostly on Fridays - Mum would treat us to our tea at the eel and pie shop down the road. I remember stepping into this busy world of plates clunking, Cockney banter, windows steaming up, the smell of liquor and... of course, the eels.
Their protruding jaw, massive eyes (which I was convinced were looking at me) and their snake-like bodies meant they were never top of my priority. Anyway I grew up, kept wildlife close to my heart and along the way managed to become a Newsround presenter. I left eels in my childhood... or so I thought.
That was until Autumnwatch got in touch and asked whether I fancied taking on an adventure to find out more about this creature from my childhood. I'll be honest, my knowledge of the European eel wasn't great. I knew they lurked at the bottom of ponds and rivers and ate whatever they could, mostly at night. I'd also heard stories about eel numbers declining.
So it was the perfect opportunity to team up with Autumnwatch to learn more about these mysterious creatures and perhaps get to the bottom of what's happening to them.
Filming kicked off at the very eel and pie shop I visited when I was a kid. I was so excited to go back to my old stomping ground, to the place where I was first introduced to the eel. Not much had changed (no bad thing) - builders in at 11am for pie and mash.
But this time there was a difference. An order of eels were due but they were being flown in from Holland! In the boiling hot kitchen, Peter Hak, whose family have run the shop since 1911, told me that the problem was overfishing.
But I was sure though that overfishing wasn't the only issue. I'd heard other stories of dams blocking their migration paths, and pollution and parasites causing big problems.
My first chance to get close to the eel
I also wanted to get to grips with what an eel was, its habits and behaviour. Cue Matt Gollock from London Zoo. His colleagues caught us some eels (which were later released) and placed them temporarily in a massive tank. It was my first chance to get close to the eel. I saw how shy they were, choosing mostly to hide away in the tubes placed in the tank. Occasionally they would showcase their spectacular elongated bodies, as if having a little stretch.
With their bodies a deep, frosted silver and their bellies a smooth off-white colour, these particular eels were close to being ready for salt water. It was then I fell in love with the eel. Something I never thought would happen. Against all odds - as Matt informed me - with danger at every turn after birth these fish battle their way 3,000 miles from the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic to spend their lives in our rivers. How lucky are we to have them?
As if that's not impressive enough, when they mature after 5-20 years they do it all again in reverse, swimming back to the same sea to spawn.
The most surreal moment throughout the whole filming process was when we travelled to Gloucestershire. Businessman Peter Wood invited me to help him release 25,000 elvers back into the wild. We bagged them up and released them into a lake in Wales. Over the next 15 years many of them would mature and eventually make that amazing six-month journey back to their birth place.
One of the big problems when baby eels arrive in the spring is that their journey up stream is blocked by dams. I met Andy Don who has invented eel passes that allow the eels to navigate their way around the dams to continue up river. Again, it just made me realise how much there is stacked against these creatures - man-made constructions, climate change and habitat loss - from birth right through until death.
But these shy fish have so many people on land backing them I'm convinced (and hopeful) the amazing life cycle of the eel will continue.
Thank you Autumnwatch for allowing me to fall in love with a creature I thought was pretty boring. Okay, they're not pretty or cuddly but there's not many creatures that start off life in the Sargasso Sea and end up in places like the Thames. From now on, I'll always think the eel rocks!
You can help too. If you find an eel tag washed ashore on the beach, please do let the eeliad project know. The data contained in these tags is invaluable.
Watch Leah investigate the plight of the eel on Autumnwatch, 8.30pm 28 October on BBC Two.