From left: Kennet Crayfish Company managing director Andrew Leech, production manager Tomasz, and marketing manager, Iggy Ilott.

Bringing the crays to justice

Signal crayfish are the gangsters of the rivers, and a UK company’s investment in purging, processing and packaging is ensuring there’s still a commercial incentive to get them out of the water despite a ban on live sales


Producers of both wild-caught and farmed seafood can sometimes be given a tough time by critics. But even the most ardent opponent would struggle to find cause for complaint against an English company that is getting rid of a destructive invasive species while producing a tasty product at the same time.

The Berkshire-based Kennet Crayfish Company Limited has created Britain’s largest processing facility for crayfish, to process crayfish caught by traps in rivers and streams.

The initiative follows a ban on selling live crayfish, which are smaller, freshwater cousins of lobsters and are thought by some to have a superior flavour.

Destructive invaders

Tasty they may be, but invasive signal crayfish are also the scourge of waterways. They are said to have decimated native crayfish species populations, and eat all the young fish and invertebrates, ruin plant life, and collapse riverbanks.

Andrew Leech emptying one of up to 150 traps on any given day in the height of crayfish season.

The Kennet Crayfish facility is the brainchild of local design engineer and crayfish specialist, Andrew Leech, managing director of the company, who has spent the last 20 years trapping and removing crayfish from Berkshire’s chalk stream valley for fishing clubs and landowners.

Leech said: “We wanted to provide the finest crayfish possible and create the largest crayfish processing plant and I think we have done both. We have special licences to process crayfish and to use water from the River Kennet. Our bio-secure facility enables stress-free processing of the crayfish to sell chilled or frozen, vastly improving quality of the final product.”

Purging tanks

The plant’s storage tanks have a capacity of three tonnes of crayfish to be held while they are purged for a minimum of five days with spring-fed chalk stream water from half a mile away. This is done to remove most of the material in the gut and clean out the black vein through the middle of the tail meat.

The water source is crucial, says the company, which claims that Kennet crayfish are probably the cleanest in the UK and are better tasting due to the nutrients and calcium in the water. The River Kennet and its tributaries provide very clean water that is high in nutrients and calcium found in chalk streams.

After depuration, the crayfish are stunned with the company’s custom-built Environment Agency-approved stunning machine, 10 kilos at a time, before being processed in a variety of ways. The facility also includes vacuum packing, chilling, and freezer rooms.

The company uses an imported vacuum packing machine which gives its ready-to-eat crayfish packets a 21-day refrigerated shelf life.

“Signal crayfish are an invasive species and new legislation, which strictly controls the handling and bans the sale of live signal crayfish, meant we had to raise considerable investment to upgrade the existing plant and develop new facilities,” said Leech. “As a result, we have adapted and created a humane, ethical and environmentally friendly way of bringing this popular, world-class delicacy to people’s dinner tables.”

Kennet Crayfish’s sales and marketing director, Iggy Ilott, said: “Prior to setting up the new company, Andrew was part of a co-operative that used to sell live crayfish from all over the UK. We soon discovered that chalk-stream crayfish, particularly those in the Kennet, are more energetic, healthier and physically cleaner. This gives them their superior, sweeter flavour. We expect the company will grow quickly through consumer sales on our website and wholesale to restaurants and specialist retailers, as well as innovative product development.”

Production manager Tomasz emptying 10 kilos of crayfish into crates converted into stress free graders. This way the crayfish sort themselves into sizes, without fighting or becoming too stressed as they do when being handled by humans. The company says reducing stress on the fish makes a big difference to the quality of the crayfish once they’ve been cooked.