ISSUE 1 ARCHIVES - Ross Jelfs 'Seeds and Oaks' Part 1


Back in 2012 when this was recorded, almost 10 years ago now, the landscape of the carp scene looked quite a bit different. Today it almost seems as if there are incredible looking, pretty, diverse, scaly carp everywhere - which is a fantastic thing. Ross's story, energy and enthusiasm are infectious and if you don't know too much about the history of the Leney, or how breeding carp works, this will spark some curiosity ... that and some eye meltingly beautiful little scaly ones. Fire up the kettle, and kick back. Enjoy.. seeds and oaks.     

It was a heavy, grey, November morning when I rolled into the estate at Lower Berryfield, the only colour in the scene being provided by the vast swathes of yellow and red fallen leaves that were entirely carpeting the gravelled car park alongside one of the units. The persistent drizzle evoked the most carpy atmosphere imaginable and despite the fact that I was excited about seeing some of Ross’s little pure-blood Leneys, I also couldn’t help but wish I was angling myself, it was just one of ‘those’ mornings.

Ross arrived within minutes, still in his chesties, covered in mud and slime, jacket soaked from the relentless rain and sporting a rather dapper flat cap, probably for no other reason than because it is a practical piece of headwear for autumn fish netting, but given the scenario, and his work with descendants of an almost forgotten strain from a bygone era, it also seemed fitting on another level.

I thought I’d had a long morning already with a 6am start, my Costa coffee and toastie at Rownhams, and a few hours on the A34 in the warmth of the cab of my van, but Ross had quite obviously had a much longer one. Despite the creeping dampness, a big smile grew across his face as he exclaimed with a wink, “Get your camera then, mate. Let’s go and see some special ones.” 

So how long have you been breeding fish for Ross? I know you had some experience with other species prior to working with carp.

I went to Sparsholt College straight from school, back in 1998 I guess that would have been, and I really enjoyed breeding carp during my time there. I had a placement at New Forest Koi; that was what really got me into it and sowed the seeds.

Did you go to Sparsholt with the intention of getting an education that would get you into breeding carp specifically?

I did, yes. I had always wanted to breed carp or be involved with that side of things, from a young age. I remember seeing a picture of a little ‘2-4’ in someone’s hand when I was young. It looked so pristine, so perfect, like a new penny, and I remember thinking that I just wanted to see more of those in my life.

Where did you go from college, then?

When I left Sparsholt I ended up with a job on a big trout farm, Trafalgar Fisheries in Downton, so I was based in Fordingbridge at Bickton Mill which was beautiful. It was okay for a while but I just got sick to death of growing fish for the table; I just didn’t like breeding fish purely to kill them. Obviously, it’s very necessary to breed fish as food but something about it just didn’t sit well with me personally. I’d shown an interest in the breeding of carp so they moved me over from the trout farm to the carp hatchery and I worked there for a while. Around that time, I decided I wanted to have a go at breeding them myself so I knocked up some tanks and a system at home in my Dad’s greenhouse, and I got myself some little ones, bred a few and went from there. That was the path that eventually led me here to Arthur.

For any younger readers, or older ones for that matter, wanting to get into breeding fish, what’s the established route for going about that? What kind of education or qualifications do you need?

It is fairly simple these days. I think it’s actually just a first diploma at Sparsholt, that’s the first stepping stone, so you don’t even need GCSEs; you can certainly get into that route without A-Levels or a degree. What you need more than anything is some passion for it. Breeding fish is hard work so you need to be dedicated and really be passionate about it. The Sparsholt education is necessary, but that’s just a tiny part of what I know now, the rest is experience and hands-on.

Looking backwards then, to the seeds of all this. How important do you see the work that Donald Leney did back in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s?

Oh, hugely, hugely important to the angling world. In many ways he was the first pioneer of stocking carp for angling. He was the one who brought over all the pretty ones. Leney specialised in bringing over 5-8 inch ones, and he brought over lots of them, stocking them into ponds and lakes and a great many of them never got fished for over a very long time. They’d appear as big ‘uns years later, and when of course carp angling started to grow and anglers started to search out the stocking records of Leneys it became clear how deeply he’d sown the seeds for our future.

'They’d appear as big ‘uns years later, and when of course carp angling started to grow and anglers started to search out the stocking records of Leneys it became clear how deeply he’d sown the seeds for our future'

What do you think attracted Donald to that particular strain of Galician strain carp? What was special about them?

Donald had contact with the fish farm out in Holland through Thomas Ford, so there was a link there already. He worked from the fish farm in Surrey, breeding trout with his father predominantly, but as for the fish, the original ‘Galicians’, I think they just caught his eye, I mean how could they not? When you see something like that, perfection in miniature, you just know they are special and want to be involved with them. The long frame, the head shape, overslung mouths, incredible unique scaling patterns and colouration. Leney came across as a very thorough man, so he would have done his research and asked all the right questions. There will have been generations and generations of fish farmers breeding those strains selectively out in Holland, so they would have known about the growth rates and longevity and I think that was something Leney was interested in as well. What he left us with is a true legacy and an astonishing feat of foresight for someone that wasn’t even an angler himself.

So how did Lower Berryfield come into being, then? What is the history of the fish and the site?

There has been carp on the site here since the 1930s, and it has had no new introduction of fish since 1951. Part of the building dates back to the 13th Century, so there’s been something here for a very long time, but the site and house in its current form was owned by Richard Gainsborough in the early 1900s and he had a three-quarter-acre pond hand-dug in the front of the house which was stocked by Leney with the Czech Blue strain. The old boy used to sell a few of them but other commitments took over and the fish breeding was forgotten about here for a long while.

So how did you become involved with everything here? How did the strain get a second lease of life and the site grow into the fully-blown fish farm you have here today?

I had my little set-up at home in my Dad’s greenhouse, and I was looking for some new brood fish back in about ‘02 or ‘03 because I was bored with the trout rearing I was doing for work at the time. I knew about the site up here. I used to fish one of the little ponds as a kid and remember them being the prettiest ones I’d ever seen, so I came up to see Arthur to see if he had a few fish I could borrow to breed from. Arthur, being Arthur, had bigger plans than that and offered me the opportunity to set up something more long-term and substantial here, so suggested I put some designs forward, which I did and we just never looked back from there.

I spent weekend after weekend up here, building tanks, putting in the filtration systems and getting everything together so that we had a fully functioning set-up, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I actually came to work here full time. Prior to that, I was still at the trout farm and just spending every other available minute I could up here.  Since then, we have extended the site massively. We extended the hatchery, we built a separate large unit, built the re-circ systems, all the walled garden and the mud ponds. We then went on to build the bigger fish house and extended the farm with some more mud ponds as the demand for the bigger fish grew, so it has very much been a continually evolving project. The balance of environments is key, as well, so having controlled environments as well as natural ones, we can select the right fish and condition them accordingly.

Why bother to keep an old strain like this going? What makes it such a good strain to continue to grow? These days, there would be many others to choose from if you wanted to.

It has everything going for it! There is an incredible variation in the scale pattern, from fullys, to zips, to scattered linears, to petal-typed scaling, and they take on a variety of colours, from steely blues and greys, to chestnut and bronze, and often there’s a lovely bit of red colouration which comes through around the anal fin which is quite unique to the Czech Blues. Then, of course, there is the longevity, so they will live for a long time and prosper. They have excellent growth rates as well, so really they have it all; they are just proper lookers and that is what excites me the most about them. The original fish have been here on-site for over 60 years, so that’s some indication of how long they are likely to live. It would have been very easy for us just to buy a ‘new’ strain in, one of the popular more commercial ones, and grow from those, but I thought it was valuable, as an angler and someone with an interest in the history as well, to keep this particular strain alive.

'from fullys, to zips, to scattered linears, to petal-typed scaling, and they take on a variety of colours, from steely blues and greys, to chestnut and bronze'

This obviously has to work from a commercial point of view as well, though. You’re not just doing this from an archaic point of view to keep some history alive are you?

No, not at all. This is a commercial venture so it has to work financially as well. To be honest, there are some fish out there that will do massive forced weight gains, but I just wasn’t interested at all in that. These fish that we have here just sell themselves for the sheer quality and prettiness of them, and to be honest, they almost sell themselves twice over. People will often come looking for 50 fish, and leave with 100.

What kind of weight gains are you looking at from these fish? There seems to be a bit of a perpetuated myth these days that the older Leney-type strains don’t grow as quickly as some of the blander, more ‘clone-like’ strains. Is that just a fallacy?

In the right environment these fish will do, on average, I guess 5-6lbs a year, but we have had reports of some doing 10lbs in a year, so this is absolutely comparable to the growth rates of some of the other strains that are more commercially popular. It all depends on their environment.

What about the price? Without wanting to degrade these astonishing little beasts by reducing them to figures and prices, am I right in saying that your fish are no more expensive than the more commonly available blander strains?

That’s right. In fact, if you look at the current pricing schemes ours are actually just slightly cheaper. The major difference being that ours is a smaller scale set-up to the mass market farming that is done by some of the breeders.

So how does the whole process work? What do you look for when selecting brood fish, and how great an effect do the brood fish have on the hatch?

I look for body shape and colour, personally, above anything else. Funnily enough, scale pattern will come depending on how many fish you are producing. It is almost more of a numbers game when it comes to acquiring interesting variations of scale pattern. Body shape and colour are the dominant characteristics, so if you want fish with big, boxy shoulders you need parents like that. If you want ones with deep bellies, you need that in the parents; or long, lean, torpedo ones… it all comes from the parents, as does colour. If you want the beautiful autumn jackets, and chocolate colours, then that’s what you need in the brood fish, too. That part of it is a fairly simple equation and you will always get a big percentage of the fingerlings that will exhibit the characteristics of their parents.

'Body shape and colour are the dominant characteristics, so if you want fish with big, boxy shoulders you need parents like that. If you want ones with deep bellies, you need that in the parents; or long, lean, torpedo ones… it all comes from the parents, as does colour'

Are there any dominant genes in the sex of a fish? Where do the genetics come from? Do certain qualities come from certain parents?

It is a bit of both, definitely. Say, for example, I wanted to breed some long, lean, classic, Leney-shaped fish, I would choose a long, lean male, and I would look for the colour from the female, or both ideally. Female bodies are shaped differently than males to be able to carry the eggs so they always tend to be plumper and rounder anyway, and carry larger fat stores, whereas the males should be longer and leaner naturally.

Is it just two brood parents at a time, or is the process more complicated than that?

I have favourite brood stock, so I will choose from them, and use, say ‘X’ with ‘Y’ on one spawning and then they’ll all go out separately to one fry pond, then I’ll spawn ‘A’ with ‘B’, and they’ll all go out to a different fry pond, then I might mix ‘A’ with ‘X’ and ‘B” with ‘Y’ to see how they go, so it’s intuitive and experimental in some ways. They are still the same strain, though, so we’re not mixing strains like the Leney/Dinks, or the Sutton/Leneys, they are all the same single strain here, I am just trying to work with their specific qualities to offer a variety of different fish.

How about scaling? How does that work in terms of what is achievable?

It is very similar to the body-shape and colour equation, really. If you are after fully-scaled fish, then by using a fully as either the male or female brood fish you will get at least 25% of the hatch looking like that as well. It is very much a percentage game, again. In the rest of the mix is where you get all your other anomalies; half linears, scattered linears, randomly-scaled fish and so on.

…and leathers?

Leathers are a different beast, true ones anyway. They are a million-to-one in terms of percentages in normal circumstances; they are weaker than normal carp as genetically they are not quite as strong and with a 40% survival rate for your average small carp it is easy to see why we have so few big leathers in the country.


Head back for part 2 of Ross's fascinating story tomorrow

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