On the northern flank of Okement Hill a small trickle of water rises out from the peat, this is the East Okement river whose journey will take it through 5 miles of some beautiful moorland scenery. Once the river reaches Okehampton it unites with its sister, the West Okement and becomes The Okement which then joins the river Torridge and flows out into the sea at Bideford. One could well suggest that there is nothing remarkable with this, several Dartmoor rivers majestically flow through a landscape of idyllic valleys, granite tors and sylvan dells. But the East Okement hides a dark and dangerous secret that finally hit the national headlines on the 28th of August 2009. Had this story come out at the beginning of April people would have said it was an April Fools Day prank. However, just as all the Bank Holiday visitors were wending their way down to Devon the Plymouth Herald printed a report which would make many of them think twice before dipping their toes into the East Okement!
It appears that three fishery experts from the Environmental Agency were carrying out a routine survey of the East Okement in order to establish the health of its fish stocks. In normal circumstances they would expect to find, brown trout, salmon, bullheads and the odd minnow or two but on this occasion they found something totally unexpected – a dead piranha. Normally found stalking the depths of the mighty Amazon, these killers have been known to strip a carcass to the bone in a matter of seconds, piranha are the stuff of nightmares. Fully equipped with a set of razor sharp teeth, these fish hunt in shoals and once they have found their prey they will immediately go into a feeding frenzy, ripping their victims flesh to shreds. But the big question is, ‘how did such a creature find its way into one of Dartmoor’s rivers? Is this another sign of global warming or yet one more mysterious beast to find its way onto the moor?
This particular 35cm piranha was taken back for forensic examination and after being dissected it was revealed that the fish had previously dined on nothing more sinister than sweet corn. This led the experts to assume that the piranha was kept as a domestic pet swimming around in some fish tank. This in turn would suggest that for whatever reason somebody had released the fish into the river, but why? Also of concern was the fact that normal piranha grow to about 20cm, this specimen was nearly twice as big – a giant killer piranha. Was it just the one that was put in the river, if not how many more are lurking in the weedy depths of the East Okement? How long had it been living in the river? Is the reason more sinister? Has somebody began a process of introducing this deadly species into the rivers of Dartmoor and are they actually breeding? Will we begin to see the moorland sheep devoured by shoals of hungry piranha as they cross the various moorland water courses? There are many people who enjoy swimming in the numerous pools on the moor, does this now mean their lives are in peril? Even worse, is it safe to let our dogs swim in the rivers and streams? The only comment the Environment Agency made was the following statement by Mr. Paul Gainey:
‘Whilst piranhas can’t survive the colder climates of the UK, this latest find highlights a real issue – that releasing unwanted exotic pets or plants into rivers can have serious consequences for native wildlife. Rather than dumping things in the wild, we would urge people to seek advice about what to do with exotic species‘.
Well, that’s reassuring, presumably Dartmoor qualifies as one of the, ‘colder climates of the UK‘, if not we could be in for an invasion of giant killer piranhas. But there is yet hope, the Practical Fishkeeping magazine believes that the fish is not a piranha it’s a red-bellied pacu, (Piaractus brachypomus), a species that can reach over 80cm and weigh more than 25kg.
Either way it is just one more mysterious beast to add to the growing list of exotic animals roaming, or in this case swimming, around Dartmoor. One last thought, just before leaving the open moor the East Okement river flows past Scarey Tor, I wonder why it was so called?