Fenland eel catcher to hold workshop in bid to raise stocks

THEY say a leopard can’t change its spots, but fen tiger Peter Carter is sure he can change his stripes.

Mr Carter’s family have been pursuing the mysterious fish, the eel, since medieval times.

But now the man thought to be the Fen’s last traditional eel catcher needs a sideline as stocks of eels decline.

He has thrown open the doors of his Outwell workshop where people can see him making traditional eel traps, willow work, nets and wood carvings.

As well as seeing demonstrations of the ancient fenman skills, the 45 year old will be selling the goods including eel traps, mole traps, willow work and baskets. There are also barrels will eels and crayfish for sale.

“Eel catching is getting worse and worse”, he said. “The eels stocks are getting low and I’m not getting the amount of money I used to.

“I think my family would have been proud of this because my family have been in the Fen for 500 years.”

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He said he was not the only generation to have had to adapt to a change in the Fens and his relations had been peat cutters and wildfowlers, as well as eel fishermen.

“But Fen folk always use their initiative”, he said. “I couldn’t read and write when I was at school. When I got a chance I would be out across the Fen watching the wildlife and the wildfowlers.”

As well as earning him a living, his new venture is as much about teaching people about his heritage.

He said: “The main thing is just to educate people about eel fishing. So many people do not know that it exists anymore.

“It’s about Fen life then and today. How we used local materials to make things from the decoy ducks we carved to the eels traps and baskets.

“We made things for practical use.”

His tools are also a piece of living history.

“These tools have been in the family for hundreds of years, some of them. I wanted to get them out and let people see them. Some of them were used for peat cutting . They used to cut peat to sell in Newmarket, Ely and Cambridge.”

Mr Carter does still fish for eels and he said the shop works well around his trade as he can set his eel traps in the evening and go out and collect them in the early morning before the shop opens.

“I do still fish for eels, but nothing like I used to do. If eel stocks come back, then eel fishing will come back.”

But the secrets of traditional eel fishing have been passed through the generations and methods and knowledge could be lost.

“You can set two traps four feet apart and one will get lots of eels and the other won’t. You need to know where eel runs and understand how they are moving.”

The workshop has not changed much over the 10 years he has lived in Outwell and apart from a few pictures and information put on the walls it is genuine. After the doors close to the public Mr Carter often works late into the night there.

“I never use a clock. I start when I start and I finish when I finish.”

In the future he said he wants to sell fishing tackle and fish hooks as well as bait for children coming down the river.

• The last traditional eel catcher’s workshop is in Church Terrace, opposite St Clement Church, Outwell on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Saturday between 10am and 4pm. It is closed between noon and 1pm.

To arrange a visit outside opening times contact Peter Carter on 01945 772157.