Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Fish-ponds and fish-breeding

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A “person of honour,” generally supposed to be Lord North, who wrote “A Discourse of Fish and Fish-Ponds” one hundred and fifty years ago, was anxious that any gentleman who had employed his money and pains in cultivating the waters, would set down his experience for the benefit and guidance of others, “and communicate it to such as have a mind to divert themselves with the most reasonable employment of beautifying and improving their estates.” At the time indicated, it was quite usual for noblemen and other country gentlemen to have fish-ponds; in fact, a fish-pond was as necessary an adjunct of a large country-house as its vegetable or fruit-garden.

In those days there were no railways or other quick modes of conveyance to carry fish from the sea-shore to the far inland towns before it became unfit for consumption; hence the necessity for fish-ponds to persons who were in the habit of entertaining guests or giving great dinner-parties; hence, also, the multiplicity of recipes in our older cookery-books for the dressing of all kinds of fresh-water fishes: besides, in the very ancient times—that is, before the Reformation, when Roman Catholicism required a rigorous observance of the various church-fasts, a fish-pond near every cathedral city and in the precincts of every monastery was a sine qua non. The range of fish bred in these ponds was necessarily very limited, being usually carp, some of which, however, grew to a very large size. There are traces also of some of our more curious and valuable fishes having been introduced into this country during these old monastic times; thus it is thought that the celebrated trout of Lochleven was introduced from foreign parts by some of the ancient monks who had a taste for gastronomy. The celebrated vendace of Lochmaben (which, like the powan of Lochlomond, is another of our mysterious fishes), is likewise supposed to have been introduced in the same way.

As may readily be imagined, most of the fish-ponds of these remote times were quite primitive in their construction; very often, where it was possible, consisting of the intercepted water of some little rivulet dammed up for the purpose, much in the same way as the beautiful trout-pond at Wolfsbrunnen, near Heidelberg. There were, no doubt, ponds of large extent and of elaborate construction, but these were comparatively rare; and even on the very sea-coast we used to have ponds or storing-places for sea-fish, one of which is still in existence. We allude to the Logan Pond in Galloway. This is only used as a place for keeping fish, so that they may be attainable for table uses without depending on the state of the weather. This particular pond is not an artificially-constructed one, but has been “improved” out of the natural surrounding of the place. It is a basin formed in the solid rock ten yards in depth, and having a circumference of one hundred and sixty feet. It is used chiefly as a preserve to ensure a constant supply of fish, which are taken in the neighbouring bay when the weather is fine, and transferred to the pond, which communicates with the sea by a narrow passage. It is generally well stocked with cod, haddock, and flat-fish, which, in the course of time, become very tame; and we regret to say, that for want of proper shelter, most of the animals become blind. The fish have of course to be fed; and they partake greedily, even from the hand of their keeper, of the mess of boiled mussels, limpets, whelks, &c., with which they are fed, and their flavour is really unexceptionable.

Judging from the Logan Pond it would not be difficult, nor yet very expensive, to construct a large breeding-pond for salt-water fish; and such depository would be of great value, as it would enable us to study with exactitude the various debatable points of fish-growth upon which at present so much ignorance prevails. We have settled the various questions connected with the growth of the salmon by means of breeding-ponds, and what we have thus accomplished for the fresh-water fishes might, with equal ease, be achieved in the case of our more valuable sea-fish.

Coming back, however, to the subject of fresh-water fish-ponds, we may state that, at one time, some very large but simply-constructed fish-ponds or stews, as they were then called, existed in various parts of England, but that, as the commerce in sea-fish gradually extended, these were given up, except as adjuncts to the amenities of gentlemen’s pleasure-grounds. Ornamental canals and fish-ponds are not at all uncommon in the parks of our country gentleman, although they are not now required for fish-breeding purposes, as the fast London or provincial trains carry baskets of fish to a distance of one hundred miles in a very few hours, so that the turbot or whiting is in excellent condition for the late dinner.

A very simple and old-fashioned way of keeping and breeding fish was to have a suite of two ponds—one for the very young fish, and the other for the marketable stock.

The following rough sketch will indicate the style of pond we mean:—

Diagram (OAW 9-655).png

A. Feeding Stream.
B. Upper Pond for breeding.
C. Covered sluice, with gratings.

D. Stock Pond.
E. Outlet, with regulated sluices.
FF. Sheltering Places.


Great care should be taken not to admit the cannibal pike, or he will soon make short work with the finny population. Fish can be easily transferred from one piece of water to another. Mr. Maltby, at his pond of La Hulpe, uses for the purpose of carrying fish from one pond to another large barrels; and the jolting of the cart on which these are transported keeps the fish in a lively condition, whilst a wisp of straw in the bunghole admits a sufficient supply of air. The effect of transferring the fish from one lake to another, Mr. Maltby says, told favourably on their rate of growth. The ponds of this gentleman at Boilsfut and La Hulpe, near Brussels, are well worth seeing.

Although the necessity for gentlemen to grow their own fish has, in a sense, departed with the extension of the railway system, still, when an estate is possessed of a piece of water, either natural or artificial—and at one time every gentleman who had a park deemed it incomplete without a fish-stew—it is as well to take advantage of it; and even in places where there are facilities for the formation of a sheet of water on waste ground, otherwise unprofitable, we have no hesitation in saying that it would pay to “grow” fish.

Ponds, like the pair we have sketched, may be constructed of any size—from one to twenty acres. Great care ought to be taken in their formation, as the fish readily take on a foreign flavour, and some discretion in filling the pond when it is made is necessary. Perch, carp, trout, and bream are the best fish to breed. Of course, a pond ought not to be overstocked; the feeding-ground being limited, only a certain number of fish will profitably thrive in it. The most suitable size of water for a pond is about three acres, and ponds are best adapted for breeding and fattening in suits of three—the water being made to flow from one to the other.

As to how many fish a given extent of water will support, there are many different opinions. Much, undoubtedly, will depend on the soil which surrounds the ponds, whether or not it yields a supply of food of any kind, and also on the stream employed to supply the water. The flavour of a fish, we may say, depends entirely on the kind of food it obtains; and when more fishes are placed in a piece of water than there is food for, they will either equalise the supply by turning cannibals, or remain lank and flavourless. The “person of honour” to whom we have referred as writing on fish-ponds, and who had evidently a good knowledge of his subject, recommended, for small ponds of only a few acres in extent, three hundred carps per acre, if the water became fat after a good rain; a few tenches are also to be added, likewise perches to any extent. The upper ponds must be used for breeding the fish—that is, as nurseries for the young, from which, in due time, to supply the larger water. Of the fry, a fair allowance will be twenty-five to the square rood, and the largest of these should be let out in the course of two years, and their places supplied by others. In due time the new-made ponds will be filled with breeding-fish, and the best way, then, is to let nature have full swing; for if food, either natural or artificial, be not abundant, the supply will become self-regulating. The proper plan for profit is just to feed our fish in the same way as we feed our turkeys, or other domestic fowls.

Another foreign fish-pond, as well worth mentioning as those at La Hulpe and Boilsfut, is very picturesquely situated at Wolfsbrunnen, near the Castle of Heidelberg. This pond is of the simplest possible construction, and has been formed out of a small tributary of the Neckar, about half-a-mile to the south of the castle. The bed of the rivulet has been divided, at a suitable place, into three parts, all of which are effectually separated from each other by iron-gratings. The trout very naturally spawn in the upper waters, but return to live and sport about the feeding-grounds of the lower ponds, where there are excellent contrivances for affording them shelter; and as the water is very clear, the habits of the fish can be noted with great ease. The family seems to be most despotically governed, a few of the larger trout ruling the others with a rod of iron; thus, when a supply of food is thrown in, some gigantic member of the community will rush at it with great vigour, and carry it out of the midst of the hungry small fry who have been expecting to partake of it. Thus, in every fish-community, there are a few fat fellows who contrive to secure a very large share of the food. In the pond at Wolfsbrunnen the trout attain a considerable size, specimens of six and seven pounds in weight being very common. They are daily fed with small fishes, which are caught for that purpose in the Neckar. The pond is in charge of the landlord of the small inn adjacent, and is chiefly designed for the use of his customers, and not so much for the sale of the fish as an article of commerce.

As an example of a modern pond for the breeding of fish for commercial uses (and these are the kind of ponds that we have the greatest need to erect at present), we subjoin a rough pen-and-ink plan of the salmon nursery at Stormontfield, on the River Tay, in Scotland:—

Diagram (OAW 9-656).png

A. Lade (mill stream).
B. Filtering Pond.
C. Breeding or Hatching-Boxes.
D. Rearing Pond.
E. Upper Canal.
F. Lower Canal.
G. Connecting-Stream of C
and D.
I. Smoult run to the river.
K. Pipe from Lade to Pond.

L. Pipe to empty Pond.
M. Pipe from Lade to Filtering
N. By-run to the river.
nn. Discharge Pipes from dc.
O. Dc. to Lower Canal.
P. Sluices from Pond.
R. Marking Box.
S. Keeper’s House.
T. V. Sluices from Lower Canal.


So far as it goes, the Stormontfield suite of ponds is admirably adapted for the purpose of salmon-breeding. The water-source, a mill-race, runs parallel with the River Tay; and the breeding-boxes are laid down on a gentle slope, which is nicely sheltered by a clump of trees. The expense of constructing the Stormontfield ponds was only 500l., and it is greatly to be regretted that the proprietors of the Tay fisheries did not sooner complete the series by adding another fish reservoir. That is now, however, about to be done. As explained in our paper on “Fish Growth,” only one-half of the salmon hatched are ready to migrate at the end of a year from the date of their birth; the other moiety remains another year in the ponds. Now, to secure an annual hatching, it is necessary that there should be two reception-ponds at Stormontfield; otherwise the tiny fry of the new hatching would stand a good chance of being devoured by the old stagers of the year before. It has been greatly against the commercial success of the ponds on the Tay that they have hitherto been only able to yield a hatching every alternate year; but, even as they are, they have added largely to the income from the fisheries. Another benefit in such a series of ponds would be a depôt for the gravid fish. It is frequently the case that salmon cannot be found, just when wanted, in the precise condition that would be suitable for manipulation; but if they could be detained for a few days, they would then be ready for the process of artificial spawning. Thus, three ponds would be absolutely necessary in a perfect hatching establishment. A splendid salmon-river like the Severn might have its natural powers of production immensely aided by a series of ponds, where artificial spawning and protected breeding on a large scale could be carried on. One million of eggs could easily be hatched in a suite of breeding-boxes three times the size of those at Stormontfield; and were the ponds in proportion, and were there enough of them, a hatching might be effected annually with great ease, and much to the profit of all concerned.

Another suite of salmon-breeding ponds has been constructed on the River Ugie, in Scotland. Forty boxes have been laid down at a suitable place on this stream, and each of these will contain a thousand ova. These ponds have been constructed on the model of those at Stormontfield—Mr. Peter Marshall, the manipulator at the latter place, having supplied the plans. The piscicultural system is likewise well known in Ireland, salmon having been introduced into Lough Mask by the Messrs. Ashworth of the Galway salmon-fisheries, who propagate annually (or, rather, hatch by the artificial mode) 300,000 salmon-eggs!

As showing what can be done in fish-breeding, when it is properly gone about, we may state that the extent of new water taken in by the Messrs. Ashworth, in the district of Loughs Mask and Carra, comprise an area thirty miles in length by ten in width. In a communication with which we have been favoured by Mr. Ashworth, we are told that as many as 659,000 salmon-ova were collected, impregnated, and transported for the purpose of stocking the new salmon-water—that is to say, the waters that communicate with Loughs Mask and Carra, the purest streams of the rivers at Tourmakeady, Robe River, at Hollymount, and other streams. These loughs will speedily become highly productive. Salmon being once introduced into a good stream, and properly protected, will go on propagating themselves ad infinitum. We may here quote from Mr. Ashworth’s communication a brief description of the process of artificial spawning, which is an operation of a very simple kind, and perfectly harmless to the fish which are manipulated. When a female salmon with ripe ova is taken, it is held in a tub full of clean water, and the ova-bag is gently pressed till the eggs fall into the tub. The milt is squeezed in a similar manner from the male salmon, when an instantaneous change becomes observable in the eggs, which, bright and clear before, at once become florid. The spawned fish are as soon as possible returned to the river, when they dash away with apparent delight, agreeably relieved of what must have been a heavy burden; indeed, the spawn is a fourth part of the fish’s entire weight.

Venturing now into the sea itself, we can give our fishermen a “wrinkle” which is worth their attention. We are always hearing of the scarcity of mussels for bait, and that fishermen have to go far and pay dear for that particular shell-fish, which is largely used on the lines set for cod and haddocks. Well, what we want to teach our coast-folk is, that they should grow their own bait and be independent of their neighbours. It is quite possible for each fishing community to have both its oyster and mussel-farm. At Colchester and Whitstable we know that oyster-culture forms a large and profitable source of trade, and that the mollusk is carefully grown or cultivated from a very early period of its life. In some parts of France, and particularly in the Bay of Aiguillon, the mussels are cultivated in the same way, and are immensely profitable. The following drawing will show how the mussels are grown:—

These mussel-hurdles were the invention of one Walton, who was shipwrecked in an Irish vessel in the Bay of Aiguillon. There are about 500 of these hurdles in the bay, and these give employment to about 160 boats in gathering and looking after the mussels, which, in consequence of being cheap, are largely purchased by the poor people. The following is a summary, by M. Coste, of the French Institute, of the money-results:—A hurdle generally contains from 400 to 500 layers of mussels, each of which is about 300 lbs. in weight, and sells for about 4s. 2d.—producing in all a revenue of 21,000l. per annum. So much for mussel-culture!

As regards fresh-water fish, a great deal has been accomplished in the way of artificial breeding, during the last ten years, in France and on the Continent generally. In France pisciculture has been recognised as a regular branch of industry, and the system of artificial breeding has its head-quarters at Huningue, a beautiful place not far from the St. Louis Station of the Basle and Mulhausen Railway. At this establishment pisciculture, so far as regards France, has been brought into a focus by the erection, at a cost of ten thousand pounds, of what we may call a laboratory, or rather reservoir, for the collection and distribution of fish-eggs. The établissement at Huningue is not, as many suppose, a series of fish-ponds: it is a great deal more than that. It embraces a large group of buildings devoted to the reception of fish-eggs, and with machinery for the distribution of all the ova collected, at the proper time, to such persons as require to re-stock their rivers or ponds with fish. The fish-eggs dealt in at Huningue are collected from the streams of France, Germany, and Switzerland by the accredited fishermen of those countries, assisted, when necessary, by the manipulators of Huningue. It will give a good idea of the magnitude of French fish-breeding to state that about twenty million of fish-eggs are annually distributed through the agency of the great reservoir we have mentioned. The kinds of eggs most in demand are those of the Ombre Chevalier, the Danube and Rhine salmon. Many of the eggs are procured at a considerable cost; it is calculated, for instance, that the eggs of the chevalier cost one penny each. The Danube salmon is an easily-reared fish; it is very prolific, yielding a large number of eggs, and it grows to an immense size. The general cost of fish-breeding is at the rate of twelve eggs for a penny; in China, so great a proficiency has been arrived at in artificial breeding, that twenty pounds of wholesome fish may be obtained for the sum of fourpence!

As showing how much may be achieved in fish-breeding in a limited space, we take leave to borrow, from an illustrated copy of M. Coste’s voyage of exploration, a hatching-apparatus capable of holding ten thousand eggs; we give an illustration on the next page.

A prolonged investigation of the apparatus used at Huningue has convinced us that the French engineer—(M. Coumes) who has invented or, so to speak, created the “apparel” of fish-breeding erected in that establishment—has been more than ordinarily fortunate in his devising of a means to an end. There is a very ample supply of excellent water, which of course is the chief agent used in pisciculture; and behind the group of buildings we have mentioned, there is a suite of ponds and running streams devoted to the exhibition of the progressive stages of growth of the Rhine salmon, Ombre Chevalier, and various kinds of trout. As We have said, the collection of the eggs, and, in some cases, the spawning-fish gives employment to many of the fresh-water fishermen of Switzerland and Germany, who make a good deal of money at this picturesque occupation. We noted ourselves, whilst driving to the bridge-of-boats at Strasbourg, the establishment of a pêcheur, who seemed very comfortable from devoting his time to the collection of eggs and spawning-fish for the authorities at Huningue.

It is not our purpose to enter at present upon the subject of maritime pisciculture, further than to state that experiments are at present being conducted on various marine fishes, and on the crustacea, with a view of entering upon the improvement of the sea-coast fisheries of France on a scale of great magnitude. Already there are wonderful achievements to record in the way of oyster-cultivation on the coasts of Brittany and Normandy. The spat is collected on artificial trusses of branches, or on builder’s débris, where it is grown to maturity, and can easily be transported from one place to another. Oyster-banks have thus been formed where there were none before, and old beds have been re-stocked, and are now yielding large supplies, amply remunerating their proprietors for the expenditure of capital and labour.

Fish hatching apparatus (OAW).png
M. Coste’s Hatching Apparatus.

Is it not as possible to enter on a systematic cultivation of the water as it is of the land? We think it is; and we have the industry of Commachio to bear us out, as likewise the co-operative or free fishermen of Whitstable, who derive a large revenue from their oyster-beds. The humble fisherman of La Bresse, Joseph Remy, who re-discovered pisciculture (for fish-breeding was well known and largely practised by the ancients), could not dream of the great results which would ultimately flow from his discovery. There are no other useful members of the animal world susceptible of similar cultivation: fish alone yield their young in such incredible numbers as to convince us that, under proper conditions, there is no end to the supply; and the fact of the impregnation of fish-eggs being an external act is, of itself, a convincing proof that man was destined ultimately to cultivate the water upon the same principle as he cultivates the earth—viz., to sow the seed, that it might germinate, and, in course of time, ripen into a great and remunerative food-harvest.