IT is possible that I have never caught a wild carp, although I’ve caught hundreds of carp that looked like wildies.
The highly-respected angling historian, Kevin Clifford, in his “A History of Carp Fishing Revisited”, pointed to the work of fish biologist, Professor
Eugene K. Balon, who believed that “true” wild carp were now only to be found in the tributaries of the Black Sea, at least with any certainty.
Mr Clifford also makes the fair point that, as carp were being domesticated from Roman times, then the carp stocked into England in medieval and later times must have been cultivated fish.
He and Professor Balon point to the “notch”, the dint, that is apparently always found in cultivated carp, “where the head ends and the body starts”,
but is apparently always missing in true wild carp, which are more chub-like in appearance, and with a more rounded head.
as there are many different varieties of tiger in the wild, there may have been more than one variety, strain or race of wild carp.
Mr Clifford, in his belief that old illustrations merely show cultivated carp, has published several examples in his excellent book.
One eighteenth century illustration, from the Icones Piscium Austriae Indigenorum, shows a common carp that is clearly a “modern” king carp, notch and all.
This supports his belief in the early emergence of cultivated fish; but elsewhere, perhaps, Balon and Clifford are on less solid ground.
Clifford’s own research indicates that the origin of “king carp” in England can only really be traced back to the work of fish farmer Thomas Ford of the Manor Fishery, Caistor, during the last
few decades of the nineteenth century.
He points out that there may have been other king carp breeders in the UK at the time: but if there
were, we are yet to hear their names.
So there is a problem here, - because there appears to be no evidence of scientific carp
breeding in England prior to 1880, - but by then, carp had been present since medieval times, at least.
How, then, can we explain and describe
the carp of Brayton Pond, in Cumbria, - present there since at least 1836, according to Mr Clifford’s own research?
although in the nineteenth century, was well before Mr Ford started to sell king carp, and before railways could have been a reliable mode of transport for live fish.
Mr Clifford’s book carries an image of a common from Brayton, complete with a “notch”, and he claims this “demonstrates a domesticated origin”.
But how can he and Balon be sure, if one accepts the not unreasonable premise that the wild carp in the Black Sea tributaries may have been a different strain, or race, to the wildies stocked into
England over five hundred years ago?
When one looks at images of the Hunstrete wildies, fish caught by members of the Carp Catcher’s
Club in the 1950s, they did not look like the chub-like fish of the Black Sea area. Nor did they look like modern king carp.
They were long
and thin, - “rakish” was how the CCC described them, with quite elongated, not rounded, noses.
It is sobering to reflect
that these fish could trace their origin back to a stocking by the Popham family, in the early part of the sixteenth century.
Let us then
accept these carp as examples of what we mean by the term “wildie”, by which we are really saying, “old English commons”.
had some interesting things to say about these fish in the Fifth British Carp Study Group Book.
He said: “There were a lot of what
I call the old-fashioned monkish carp – a long thin common carp, and a sort of silvery colour they were...”
in complete contrast to the thoughts of some modern anglers who believe that dark or deep chestnut colouration is indicative of an old strain; - this is clearly not always the case.
Of course, it is reasonable to claim that the Pophams must have found cultivated fish for their pool. But this is more than we know; and I think an equally reasonable solution to the “wildie”
question is to assume that the Hunstrete fish may have been cultivated carp, but not scientifically cultivated, in modern terms, and that they were of a different race or strain to the carp of the Black Sea tributaries – but still essentially
It is still possible to catch carp that look like the Hunstrete fish and, indeed, the "Black Sea" chub-like fish: but you need
to move away from modern commercials to some old farm ponds.
No-one could claim a “wildie” record with fish like this, because
king carp will, almost invariably, be present too.
The issue is further complicated by the idea that king carp, over many generations, will
revert to a more "wildie-like" form.
These are the so-called "feral" commons; but while it is true that fish, under natural selection,
will eventually reach an optimum shape and size to suit their environment, this shape and size will also be informed by their gene pool.
I do not expect to ever see "feral-type" commons in an established king carp water such as Redmire, because the gene pool will continue to have its say on how the carp turn out.
Sticking my neck out, I would expect the genes of wild carp to be equally robust and, even given optimum feeding conditions, I would not expect a colony of wild carp to ever evolve into some of the obese shapes we see among
the king carp at times.
Of course, there may be cross-breeding between wildies and king commons. Some anglers believe that the two strains
or races keep themselves apart for breeding purposes; but as common carp are known to cross-breed with crucians, this concept seems unlikely.
then, are the characteristics of English wild carp, in my view?
I think a large and deeply forked tail is indicative, as is a more narrow
tail root, with the root ideally going back some way from the anal fin, towards the tail. This long, narrow tail root is hardly, if ever, seen in king carp.
Obviously, the carp must be fully-scaled, and it must not have a prominent hump.
In short, it must be shaped more
like a chub than Clarissa!
I don't think that dark scale colouration is indicative, because Hunstrete carp were silvery, as we
have noted, and images from the Sixties of the Wadhurst wildies show they were a lovely metallic gold colour.
said, a dark colour does not rule out a carp as a wildie, because it is accepted that carp can and do change colour, according to light conditions.
head of wildie-type carp can be rounded, like the "sazan-type" carp from the Black Sea tributaries, or it can be more elongated, like those of the old Hunstrete carp.
It is probably true that king carp will display longer barbules.
Fin colouration means little - dark
or light - because these colours too can be affected by the environment and, especially, diet.
In my part of
the world - rural Herefordshire - I get the distinct impression that farmers, at least in the past, have tended to pass fish round to one another, from pond to pond, mainly to clear up weed problems. This, most probably, explains why some of the carp caught
from some of these ponds, appear to have “ancient origins”.
Recently, I enjoyed a lengthy chat with two angling friends, concerning
what should be called a wildie, and which should not....and we agreed it was impossible to settle on a conclusive definition, because one man's wildie is another man's feral, and so on and so forth. We also seemed to agree that the first carp stocked into
English ponds must have been cultivated to some degree, but not - of course - in a modern scientific sense.Nonetheless, these fish were for food, and breeders look for agreeable traits in a selection process - and these choices are, to a greater or lesser
extent, personal and subjective. This could explain why wilides from one pond can look disimilar to wildies from another. There were indeed, or at least most probably were, different strains or types of 'wild' carp in England as far back as the Middle Ages.
So, what are we left with?
Well, can any one type be selected for preservation as a wildie, at the expense of another and, if so, on what grounds? Perhaps
it is more accurate and helpful to describe the older strains of carp as "heritage carp", and to seek to preserve, as far as possible, the ancient pools and lakes where they still exist?