Student Sam hunting Britain's rarest fish

Student Sam hunting Britain's rarest fish

‘The canary of climate change,’ that’s how Marine and Freshwater Conservation student Sam Poultney refers to the illusive freshwater fish that he’s currently studying.

While most were enjoying a festive break, Sam was patrolling the shores of Derwentwater on a mission to track Britain’s rarest fish. The fish are protected so the technique used is to find evidence of another rare species making the most of them in their diet. Otter spraint is Sam’s quest. By finding and analysing what elements the spraint contains will help indicate possible spawning locations for the vendace.

“It’s classed as a keystone species - the vendace is Britain’s rarest fish which is only found in the Lake District,” Sam said. “Rare fish in Cumbria is my niche.”

As well as the changing climate the fish face the challenge of changing levels of sediment and invasive species. For four months, during some of the harshest and darkest days of winter, Sam is patrolling the shore looking for evidence that the plankton eating fish has itself become food for another rare species. Glamorous, it isn’t; the tourists have long gone and he and colleagues often finish their work in pitch darkness aided only by a head torch.

“It’s sometimes easier to spot spraint by head torch and in a way the darkness helps focus your mind,” Sam said. “This technique has been tested for white fish which is a relative of the vendace but this is the first time it’s been tried specifically for this species.”

Sam came to Cumbria after completing Countryside Management BTEC which confirmed his desire to work in the outdoors and freshwater ecology in particular. A summer job as a river keeper saw him offered a job if he completed a degree course which to an application to the university he says made ideal sense. The Marine and Freshwater Conservation course is still in its infancy at the university and he’s among the first students to embark on the three-year programme. However the opportunity to take up a seven month work placement in the fjords of Norway following researchers proved irresistible. Alongside his dissertation in Cumbria it means extending his studies by a year, by switching to the four-year ‘with-placement’ version of the undergraduate degree course.

“Sam’s passion for conservation of freshwater fish was apparent as soon as he joined the course,” Dr Gill Notman, Programme Leader BSc (Hons) marine and freshwater conservation, said.”When he approached us with a dissertation idea on vendace we were able to make use of our contacts to help him set the project up. The vendace is a protected species and we have received advice on the best way to carry out his research without disturbing the fish or their habitat. We have amazing access to lakes which are home to the country’s rarest freshwater fish, and our Marine and Freshwater Conservation students can really make the most out of the opportunities available here in Ambleside. We hope the results of Sam’s vendace research and his work with NINA in the Norwegian fjords will make valuable contributions to the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, generating both national and international interest.”

Until February, Sam will be a familiar figure on the Derwentwater shoreline. He’s expecting to conclude his work here later in the year once when he returns from the second part of his Norwegian placement. As for the future, an MSc or taking up the offer of a job as a river keeper beckons but for now he’s happy keeping an eye on the life cycle of two of the country’s rarest species in the Cumbrian winter twilight.

“We were always going to be guinea pigs as the first intake of the degree but I’ve really enjoyed it,” Sam said. “The assignments are a littler nerdy and geeky but they’re pretty cool.”