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.
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.
But just 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.
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.
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?
This date, 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”.
BB 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...”
This is 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 wild carp.
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.
Therefore, 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.
What, 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!
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.
This 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.
The 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
Some writers claim very ancient origins indeed for UK wildies.
In “Classic Angling” of September/October 2009, Nigel Hudson discussed his “Quest to Catch a True Wild Carp” and he believed he may have caught a fish of “Roman” origins from a lake in Wales, close
to where a Roman camp had been.
He also makes the interesting point that a mummified carp was found in the remains of a Roman villa at Silchester, in 1890.
This then, places a carp on British soil at least 1,600 years ago!
whether that carp had ever swum in an England pond or river beforehand is another matter entirely.
However, I’d like to think it was a British carp...