European eels once thrived in the UK’s rivers, but their numbers have declined by over 95% since the 1980s and the species has been classified as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN since 2008.

Constructed weirs, tidal gates and dams all act as barriers to migration, while pollution, climate change, overfishing and habitat loss all have a negative impact on eel survival.

Specifically, in the River Ouse, the number of elvers (young eels) trapped through the Environment Agency’s monitoring has declined every year since 2013 (2018 populations were down by 83% compared to 2013).

Cambridgeshire ACRE received funding from the Anglian Water Flourishing Environment Fund to offer children and young people a hands-on experience of rearing endangered eels in their classrooms, in order to create a long-term legacy of eel conservation. The ‘Eels in the Classroom’ project helped more eels to reach their adult life-stage in the Cambridgeshire Fens, contributing to their future viability.

The project was delivered in partnership with the Environment Agency, as well as Over Primary School and Little Thetford Primary School in the Old West river catchment.

Children aged were given a hands-on experience in rearing endangered eels in their classrooms, releasing them into local rivers and streams after 5-6 weeks to help boost eel populations in the Fens.

In addition, the project provided an opportunity for the children to learn about the fascinating life cycle of the eel and the current environmental issues they face.

This project directly benefitted the conservation status of a critically endangered species, and hopefully inspired children to take action for rivers in the future, not just for the survival of eels, but for the health of all wildlife which depends on the river and its surrounding landscape.

The project was well documented and written up into an interactive guide for schools elsewhere, so they could use it in subsequent years to engage in eel growing in the classroom. The training and equipment provided will help each school to continue this project well beyond the duration of the project’s grant period, hopefully ensuring a lasting legacy of eel conservation.

Children looking over a container with elvers.

They [the students] learnt a lot about eel life cycles and they learnt that, sadly, some just don’t make it. They learnt about the importance of conservation and helping endangered animals.

A teacher at a participating school