Tuesday, 26 June 2007

All hail the tyrant

The river is clear again now that the surge of rainwater, transporting its load of sediment, has passed through. Standing on the bridge I can see the dark torpedo shapes of two jack pike, parallel-sided predators whose broad, almost smiling, snouts conceal vicious, backwards facing teeth. I enjoy watching the pike from this vantage point. They are often here, just downstream from the bridge, hanging almost motionless on the edge of the weeds and waiting for some unsuspecting fish to pass within range. If the prey ventures close enough, the pike will strike its powerful tail to surge forward and grab its meal. This is a sit and wait predator, for over longer distances the pike is a poor athlete.

The pike is an ancient fish, belonging to a family whose closest ancestors have been around for at least 80 million years. I have often heard it said that monks introduced the pike into British waters, some time after the Romans arrived. While there may be some truth in this claim, in that monks may well have introduced this species into certain waters, it is more likely that this is a truly native fish. One of the earliest pike fossils in Britain, taken from the Cromer Forest Beds at West Runton, has been dated as being about 500,000 years old. This native pedigree is reinforced by the presence of pike bones found in Yorkshire peat and pike remains have also been found at ancient settlements, suggesting that this fish has long been hunted by our ancestors.

Over such lengths of time it is, perhaps, unsurprising that a host of legends and superstitions have grown up around the pike. Often, it has been depicted as vermin – through names like water wolf and pond tyrant. There are tales of huge pike taking swans and even small children, yet these are unsubstantiated and may be part of an educational myth, designed to keep small children away from the many other dangers associated with water. Certainly, many fisherman regard the pike as vermin and it is extremely sad to come across the rotting carcass of a pike that has been discarded by a fisherman on the bank of a lake or river. Pike are opportunist predators, taking mainly small fish like dace, roach, rudd and perch, but they will also take ducklings, other waterbirds and water voles. They are also cannibalistic and the removal of large pike from a lake may actually cause problems for a fishery because it is these large pike that control the numbers of smaller jack pike. With no larger pike to control their numbers, the jack pike may exert extra pressure on the populations of other fish.

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