Monday, 20 January 2014

How To: Trap UK Signal Crayfish

"In 1976 a Cray commando unit was sent to the UK by the USA for a crime they didn't commit. These crayfish promptly escaped from a maximum-security farm to the English countryside and went underground. Today, still wanted by the environment agency, they survive as food for foragers. If you have a hunger, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the crAy-Team."


North American Signal Crayfish – The Foe
Length: Adults usually about 15cm but can be up to 30cm
Body: Generally bluish-brown to reddish brown. Smooth all over. Two pairs of ridges behind the eye sockets. Spines absent from behind cervical groove. Rostrum well developed with parallel sides and long apex.
Claws: Smooth on both sides, underside bright red in colour.
Habits/habitats: Aggressive. Invasive. Lives in streams, rivers, canals, reservoirs, water-filled gravel pits. Burrows extensively.
Distribution: Found across England, especially in the south. Wales but also in present in Scotland.
Status: All Signal Crayfish caught should be humanely destroyed. It is illegal to put them back.

European White-clawed crayfish – The Friend 
Length: Adults usually about 10cm but can be up to 12cm (excluding claws)
Body: Usually brown or olive brown in colour. Smooth but pitted. Two pairs of ridges behind the eye sockets: however second pair may not be visible. Has a row of sharp spines behind sides of cervical groove. Rostrum (extending point on top of head) triangular with very short apex.
Photo courtesy of
Claws:  Top side rough, underside dirty white to pink.
Habits/habitats: Relatively docile. Lives in streams, rivers, canals, reservoirs, water-filled gravel pits. Capable of burrowing.
Distribution: Found in central/northern England and eastern Wales
Status: Protected. All white clawed crayfish caught should be released. It is illegal to kill them.


A License from the Environment Agency is required to make sure people aren’t going to go out and start trapping in an area where UK Crayfish or Water Voles are present. To get a license and get trapping you’ll need two important things, 1. You’ll need to find a place where you know the signal crayfish are present, 2. You’ll need the landowner’s permission to trap there. This may seem like quite an obstacle to over come but when you consider that around 75% of the UK’s rivers now have Signal Crayfish in at some point it gives you some hope., that and the fact the crayfishing licenses are FREE! Once permission is granted you’ll receive a credit card sized license for each of the traps you have applied for which must be attached to the trap when it’s in the water. The traps must be UK legal which means the entrance to the trap must be no more than 9.5 cm across if the entrance is more than 9.5 cm across, there must be an otter guard or restriction on the funnel leading into the trap the holes in the mesh must not be more than 3 cm across, the trap itself must not be more than 60 cm long or 35 cm wide.

My Story:

I had been interested in trapping crayfish for some time but had no idea where to find them so it was a stroke of luck when a guy who came to Hunter Gather Cook for work experience mentioned he used to catch them on a river nearby. That’s all I needed to know. The very next day I sneaked off with a couple of friends down to the river in question armed with a piece of bacon and some string (hi-tec I know!). My friend who was local and had fished that same stretch of river all his life was sceptical, “never even seen one on in all my years……” he had to stop short as I’d just picked up a sizeable claw from the river bank, he was stunned and immediately started taking photos of it with his phone, tweeting and messaging his fishing friends as we all unfortunately tend to do these days. The claw was most probably the leftovers of a herons dinner, I have quietly witnessed them wading along the river plucking them out.


With that we tied the bit of bacon around the string and threw it in the water not really expecting much to happen, within a minute or two I mentioned to my friend that I thought I could see something in one of the small holes that lined the bank of the river, another minute passed and whatever it was gone from the hole. I had a little tug on the string to see if anything was happening at the other end, and there it was! my first crayfish hanging on to the bacon like his life depended on it, I gently pulled him closer to the bank but just as he was about to surface he shot off backwards like some kind of rocket propelled mini lobster. That day was early last summer, since then I have acquired licenses for personal consumption for about 5 miles of river and 20 traps,  my friends and I have consumed no less than 300 crayfish and I am about to upgrade my licenses to commercial ones with hopefully 150 traps.

To some that may sound greedy but my time spent around the river has made me realise how destructive these little blighters are not only do they carry a plague that has all but wiped out our native species, their burrowing in the river bank has cause parts to peel away and fall in causing it to silt up massively and this has proved detrimental to the trout populations. In short the less of these in our rivers the better, I hope to be able to remove, eat and sell as many as possible and in doing so give something back to the local eco system I so regularly use as my food source.

Trapping and Preparation:

Night before:
1: Check all traps to ensure not broken (if broken in someway could end up snaring unwanted wildlife.)
2: Fill my bate boxes for each trap with the bait of the day. Stick in the fridge for the morning.

Casting Day: Head down to the stream with traps and bait.
Look for the tell tail holes in the bank where the crayfish nest, around that area place the trap with the bait box inside in one of the deeper pools nearby. Secure the trap with paracord to the side of the stream.

Repeat for the number of traps you have.

Once finished check the time. Never leave the traps unattended for more than 24hrs as other wild life may be caught and you don’t want to cause any unnecessary suffering.

Trapping Day: Back down to the stream for the same time as the day before bringing a holding cage.


Gently rope in the traps as you can often find Crayfish on the outside of the trap. Once the trap is landed carefully pick off the Crayfish on the outside and place them in the holding cage, then open the trap and shake in the rest of the catch.

Repeat with each trap.

Once all the traps have been emptied in to the holding cage close and secure it ensuring none can escape. Similar to the trap find a nice deep bit of stream, secure the holding cage to the bank with paracord and drop it in.

At this point the Crayfish should be left to purge, essentially they are sitting in the holding cage with no food but don’t worry I have been told they can actually survive several weeks without food so the 3-5 days they’ll be spending in there won’t bother them much.

The purging period enables the crayfish to get rid of much of the crap and gunk that you come across should you decide to just eat them as soon as they come out the river. It also adds a certain sweetness and flavour to the meat.

In the deep south of America they have a preferred method of pouring a lot of salt over the crayfish before boiling, this essentially agitates the crayfish causing them to vomit and crap and to me looked like a pretty unpleasant time of things for the little blighters.

Once purged my preferred method and the one recommended by the RSPCA is to place them in the freezer for around an hour. This stupefies them putting them into a state of semi hibernation. Once in this state they can be put into a pot of boiling water with little worry that they will suffer any pain.  Once the water is boiling they should be ready in 5 minutes. They’ll come out Bright Red and ready to eat. If you are not serving immediately it is best to douse in cold water otherwise they will continue to cook in their shells and become tough and chewy.

So that’s it for now, if you’d like to learn a bit more about preparing them for the table and perhaps meet a few crayfish in person before you make the leap in to trapping yourself why not book onto one of the Hunter Gather Cook Courses this year and get cooking with these tasty little critters!

Photos by Nick Weston