28 July 1995

WHY NOT DIP A TOE INTO CRAYFISH?

The perils of putting all your energy into a non-farming diversification and neglecting the farm are well known. But what about a profitable business that isnt too demanding of cash or time? Dorset farmer Charles Coleman reckons crayfish could fill the bill as he explained to David Cousins

MOST farmers have an area somewhere on their farm that isnt much good for anything. It may be because of poor soil, a tendency to flood or even tricky access.

Charles Coleman and his father, Joe, are no exception. For though the 240ha (600-acre) family farm at Tincleton, near Dorchester, includes a thriving 150-head dairy herd, 80ha (200 acres) of productive arable and 80ha (200 acres) of grass, some of the land bordering the river Frome is low-lying and wet.

But rather than simply live with the problem, Charles Cole-man has turned it to his advantage by starting an alternative enterprise where water is a positive asset. He has carved out 10 large ponds on a 0.8ha (2-acre) site, stocked them with crayfish and now has a low-input (but profitable) add-on enterprise.

"I first learnt about freshwater crayfish while I was studying for my NDA at Sparsholt College," he says. "As part of a dissertation on diversification I covered crayfish production, so it was simply a matter of putting theory into practice."

The first four ponds were dug in September 1987. Each was 50m long x 8m wide x 1.5m deep (165ft x 25ft x 5ft) and the gravel taken from the ponds was used to build up the partition areas. Crayfish came from a local supplier and were stocked at a rate of two for each metre of shoreline. Set-up costs were low – £500 for digger hire and £800 for breeding stock.

Farmed crayfish are generally the American Signal variety, a larger and more vigorous cousin of the British crayfish. They are not mature until 2-3 years old so they are not much good if you need an immediate income. But they seem to thrive in the ponds at Eweleaze Farm and Mr Coleman has since dug out another six ponds.

Part of the attraction of crayfish is their high breeding rate. The female produces 150-300 eggs each autumn. These hatch in April and, typically, 10-20 of them will survive to become adults. Stocking density is the main influence on breeding. Too few in a pond will mean that males and females fail to find each other; too many and the bigger ones will eat the smaller.

Management is fairly simple. The water doesnt have to be particularly clean, says Mr Coleman, though crayfish like a pH above 6. Ponds have to be kept isolated from any other rivers or watercourses, otherwise the crayfish will get into rivers and prey on the local variety. Eels are one of the few predators of crayfish, so they need to be kept out of the ponds.

Crayfish live on pondweed and water shrimps, dragonfly larvae and water snails, so they dont need extra feeding. But ample pond weed (typically Canadian pondweed) should be available in the water. They are also relatively untroubled by disease.

"You could give them food and you would probably get better growth rates," says Mr Coleman. "However, they seem to work best when they are farmed extensively."

Small crayfish are of only limited interest to the restaurant and hotel trade as decoration on exotic seafood dishes. But once they reach 10cm (4in) head-to-tail they provide chefs with a useful alternative to lobsters. So Mr Coleman traps continuously through the summer, throwing back the smaller ones but keeping back larger specimens.

He reckons to take out 250-300 large crayfish from each pond each year. Their fast reproduction rate means there is little danger of exhausting the stocks – there are probably 5000 crayfish of different ages in each of the 10 ponds, he says.

Some of the big crayfish will be sold to restaurants, hotels and caterers and Mr Coleman gets £11/kg (£5/lb) through this channel. But demand is erratic and suitable restaurants are often widely-spaced, so 75% of his output goes to wholesalers, who cover a much wider area.

He receives slightly less – £9.40/kg (£4.25/lb) – but has a regular weekly order, which makes life somewhat easier. There is a also a small farmgate trade, again at rates of £11/kg.

Packing them couldnt be simpler. The crayfish spend 48 hours in a plastic tank, where they are fed on potato to purge their digestive tracts. They are then packed into polystyrene boxes with a generous amount of Canadian pondweed to protect them and will survive that way for another 48 hours.

The 10 ponds on Eweleaze farm produced a total of 2500-3000 mature crayfish last year. That is about 230kg (500lb) in weight which, at £11/kg, gave a total income of £2530. That may only amount to a small proportion of the farms total income but its not bad going from an otherwise unproductive two acres, says Mr Coleman.

Moreover, the crayfish are self-generating, so no new breeding stock needs adding after the initial stocking. The main workload – trapping the mature crayfish – occurs between May and September, but it is not exactly onerous.

"We have always treated the crayfish as the least important enterprise on the farm," he says. "We can trap heavily for two weeks, then leave the ponds for two weeks, so it doesnt affect the rest of the farm. That is very important. At harvest time I can do the work each morning before combining."

A further source of potential income is selling crayfish as breeding stock. These are usually animals that are in their second summer and Mr Coleman has already stocked 12 ponds around the UK. Typical selling price is 85p a crayfish.

There is considerable scope for expansion, too, reckons Mr Coleman. "The UK currently only produces 15t of crayfish a year and we consume all of it," he says. "That is tiny compared to somewhere like Sweden, where they eat 2000t a year. But the UK market is slowly growing."

Charles Coleman and his father, Joe, check the progress of the farms crayfish. They are given potatoes to feed on for 48 hours before packing.

Handle with care. Charles Coleman holds a mature crayfish carefully to avoid a painful nip from its pincers. Though far from cuddly, crayfish are a low-maintenance, fast-breeding creature that can bring in useful income.

Above: The 10 ponds at Eweleaze Farm probably contain 50,000 crayfish in all. Below: Trapping the crayfish — 2500-3000 are taken out each year.