Fishing has long been a way of life around the shores and the rivers of South West Ceredigion, it has provided food and an income for the people who have lived here. An early method was the fish trap, an efficient way of catching fish in large numbers using the tidal flow. Coracles, small, pitch-covered boats that were powered and steered by a single paddle were used for fishing in the river with Seine nets. For greater catches from the estuary or the sea Seiners, larger sea-going vessels with a crew, were used.
A fish trap is a large V-shaped structure of stone or timber, usually with a gap at the point, where a net can be fitted. Fish come in with the tide and then as the tide flows out they are trapped inside the structure and can be caught in the net. In 2007 an ancient fish trap was discovered at Poppit (see above) in the Teifi estuary by archaeologists studying aerial photographs. Stretching over some 260 yards (250 metres) the structure was created from local stone. Dating back around 1000 years, this fish trap would have been in use at the time of Norman Conquest. These traps were so effective at catching fish that they were banned from inland rivers in the Magna Carta (1200s). This example is one of the few remaining around the Welsh coast, a timber one being discovered at Cei Bach (New Quay), a little further north. These days the Poppit fish trap resembles a natural reef and has become home to many protected sea creatures such as the honeycomb tube-dwelling worm (Sabellaria), a variety of red algae species and sea anemones. Fish traps were also installed below the castle at Cilgerran and on the Castell Malgwyn Estate in Llechryd. The Cilgerran trap was ordered for destruction by the king (1270s) as it interfered with the carriage of timber and stone to building works at Cardigan Castle. In Llechryd a series of stone salmon traps that collected fish for the Castell Malgwyn estate were attacked during the Rebecca Riots (1840s) and later dismantled but there is still a small cave beneath the river bank where the catch was stored, and the scattered stones are now frequented by mallards, wagtails and various small birds.
Coracles have been used with nets to fish for salmon and trout on local rivers since time immemorial. The word coracle can be traced back to the Celtic language but types of coracle can be found all over the world in various forms. The Teifi coracle consists of a woven willow frame with flannel or calico stretched over and covered in tar/bitumen paint. They were light enough to carry on the fisherman’s back. As the demand for fish grew, heavier nets were required and the fishermen of the area gradually separated into coracle men and those who manned seine boats with their small crews. Coracle fishing became a night time occupation, the fisherman going about their various occupations during the day.
Seine nets can be used from the shore, from coracles or from larger boats (Seiners). The Seine is a large fishing net, the upper edge of which stays near the surface of the water by means of cork floats while the remainder is kept down in the sea by lead weights attached to the lower edge. Nets would be thrown from the shore by a team of fishermen. They would then be drawn back in collecting fish on the way.
Coracle fishermen would work on the river in pairs to spread the nets. Each one held a cork and lead line between the two boats. The nets were placed in natural gaps and crevices in the rocks where salmon and trout usually hid. Long sticks were then used to stir up water in these natural gaps, encouraging the fish to swim into the nets. Fishermen would draw lots to fish specific pools as some were more prolific than others.
The larger Seiner boats would work in the estuary dropping their nets into the breaking waves on their way out and then turning back to gather in the catch. Most of the Seine fishing was carried out near the mouth of the estuary, the larger boats being better suited to the more turbulent conditions than coracles. The boat would encircle a school of fish trapping them in the net. Seiners were made locally in St Dogmaels and Cardigan, and continued to be built into the 20th century. The Seiner method of fishing is still carried out around the world.
References: Lewis, W J, ‘The Gateway to Wales, a History of Cardigan’, Dyfed County Council, 1990. Dr Ziggy Otto, Countryside Council for Wales. www.coflein.gov.uk