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A Devon conservation charity has taken another step to help save a threatened native species.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, based at Paignton Zoo, has teamed up with the Environment Agency and Buglife to rear white-clawed crayfish.

The white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes) is one of the largest freshwater invertebrates in the UK but is under threat of extinction in the wild because of the introduced North American signal crayfish, which out-competes its British counterpart for food and carries a killer plague.

WWCT UK Conservation Officer, Tracey Hamston, said: “We collected four females from the wild under licence in late May and early June. The female carries the eggs on her belly and underneath her tail. When they hatch she carries the babies around for a week or two before they disperse and fend for themselves. It looks like we have about 50 or 60 babies.”

At about 8 millimetres they are smaller than a fingernail. They are being cared for behind the scenes at the Zoo. Keeper Rod Keen: “The babies will be reared at Paignton Zoo for two years. The adult females will be returned to the river from where they came in the next few weeks.”

There is a crayfish exhibit at Paignton Zoo as well as an off-show husbandry facility. Crayfish reintroductions are carried out by Buglife and the Environment Agency as part of the South West Crayfish Project.

Mary-Rose Lane, Biodiversity Technical Specialist for the Environment Agency, said: “This exciting and successful partnership is really giving us hope that we can save our native crayfish from extinction. We congratulate the committed team at the WWCT in adding a new dimension to this long-term conservation project, and encourage the public to visit the live exhibit at Paignton Zoo.”

Andrew Whitehouse, South West Manager at Buglife said: “What a fantastic result, we hope that the young crayfish will flourish and eventually we’ll be able to release them into the wild in Devon to establish at least one more ark site.”

The white clawed crayfish is protected by law and became recognised as Endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in October 2010. It is a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

The species has an important role in the freshwater ecosystem because of what it eats and what in turn eats it. The species is also an important indicator of good water quality. Tracey: “The project fits well with our commitment to native species conservation in the South West.”

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