The mussel beds

'There's nothing worth eating here.' (photo: Ann Lingard)

“People think we’re making millions, they say we’re taking away wagonload after wagonload. But thousands of tonnes of mussels disappear each winter through the weather, this side of the Solway takes the brunt of the south-westerly gales. We take a mere percentage.” Andy Reid, tall and lean, dark-haired and bearded, is a committed and articulate mussel-gatherer.

Dr Jane Lancaster acknowledged that, “When people living by the beach wake up and see 20 pickers and an articulated lorry, they think the pickers will have stripped the beds. But if you reckon there’s about 20 kilos of mussels per square metre, then it takes only a small area to pick a tonne.”

That was the state of the South Solway's mussel-harvest back in 2005.

“The price of hand-gathered mussels is poor,” Andy told me at that time. “Cockles have always been big money, and somebody is making a lot of money out of mussels - but it certainly isn’t the gatherers. And you’ve to be careful, there are some unsavoury characters and con-men out there. I’ve had my fingers burnt.” The 6-12 local gatherers, from Maryport, Flimby and Silloth, had had to take on other jobs to survive.

Since then, though, because of these various factors and the current low density of commercially-sized mussels, hand-gathering by locals and incomers has all but stopped. It could well come back again - and meanwhile, the annual mussel survey goes ahead.

Jane Lancaster was dressed fashionably in short V-neck top, jeans and long coat when we met in Allonby on a cold Saturday afternoon in April, but as soon as we parked at the Mawbray Banks carpark she became the hardy professional, pulling on wellies and bright red and orange oilskins, and striding off towards the low tide-mark. Her terrier Amstel (so-called because Jane was working in Greece and needing cooling draughts of the eponymous beer when her father bought the dog) hurtled around us, apparently – like her owner – completely oblivious of the biting wind that blasted across the sands. Yet despite the conditions I have rarely spent such a fascinating time on the Solway shore. Jane is a marine biologist who works with the environmental consultancy Entec, and after spending a few hours in her company on the shore at Ellison’s Scar, I began to have a very clear picture of the richness and dynamics of the Solway's mussel population.

Jane Lancaster at Dubmill Scar, with the Ellison's mussel beds beyond. (photo: Ann Lingard)

Mussels (the species on the Solway shore is the edible mussel, Mytilus edulis) are Molluscs: they belong to the large group of animals that includes slugs, snails, oysters, cuttlefish and octopus. They are bivalves: they have 2 shells or valves which are joined together by a hinge, and which enclose the body. They feed by filtering small organic particles out of the sea-water which they circulate over their large flat gills. They are “sessile” for most of their life: they attach themselves to the substratum by a strong, brownish thread, the byssus, which is secreted by glands in the muscular foot. Having helped run a few university marine biology courses myself, I always thought I “knew about mussels”, but I soon discovered the depths of my ignorance:

I certainly knew nothing about “mussel mud”. Ellison’s Scar has three mussel beds, the inner, middle and outer, two of them separated by a lagoon, and the outermost a very long way from the top of the shore. As we strode over pebbles, mussels and the fairly firm sand of the inner bed, Jane told me that a few years previously this area had been knee-deep in mussel-mud – and would be again. “It’s very fine, sticky and soft, and you sink right in over your knees. In the summer this will be impossible to walk over.” The “mud” is a mixure of trapped silt, mussel faeces, and “pseudofaeces” – the filtered particles that are rejected as inedible. Astonishingly, it accumulates at the rate of about 15 cms a year, and young mussels “produce vast amounts of the stuff”.

But the Solway's shore – particularly that on the English side – is notoriously unstable: the wind and tides scour out or deposit sand and silt in ever-changing patterns. So sometimes the mussel-mud is thick, then the sea removes it; sometimes the mussels are densely-packed, at other times they are torn off and swept away, cast up in clumps on the upper shore. On the mussel-beds we found circular patches which had been stripped bare by the sea, and in other areas there were empty shells, all sizes. Wading birds like oyster-catchers and turnstones prise open and eat the smaller mussels; further out the starfish prey on them. Jane has counted starfishes at an average density of 17 per square metre: “They can decimate a mussel bed in weeks”. Crabs, too, are predators and so, of course, are humans.

Starfish on the mussel-beds. (With thanks to Dr Jane Lancaster for allowing me to use her photo.)

At 6pm, we were out in the middle bed, crunching over the shells and splashing through pools. From the head of the beach, this distant part of the shore had looked like smooth sand scattered with a few rocks, but when I reached it, I was completely amazed: acres of black shells stretched out in all directions over the lumpy terrain; there were metre-high domes of mussels forming a thin layer over mud. In some places they were piled up in the line of the current, and Jane talked about “fabulous areas of shell, where they are all laid flat.” There were whelks and winkles, some green weed; oyster-catchers and turnstones were running and probing and twittering on every side. There was a high sandbank further out, which Jane didn’t recognise from previous visits, and Scotland was invisible. Amstel pottered about happily, rooting amongst the shells.

Mussels on Ellison's Scar (With thanks to Dr Jane Lancaster for allowing me to use her photo.)

Apparently the lagoon would continue to drain for about an hour after the tide started coming in, and at the moment the water was pouring out over the lips of the pools, very fast and purposefully.But if the water in the channels started to have scum on its surface, we would know the tide was coming in. We were a mile or more out when the tide was due to turn, but Jane appeared unconcerned and indefatigable (by 6.30pm I found myself suggestingly, rather weakly, that “perhaps we should go back now?”, and she was good enough to humour me).

The mussels in the middle bed looked in good condition, about 30mm long, their shells thin with brown stripes; they were a year old and would grow fast now that winter was over. The mussels in the outer bed grow even faster because they are covered by water, and so can feed, for longer periods. So where do they all come from? Mussels release their eggs and sperm into the water at mating-time and the small motile larvae (“spat”) swim about until they find a place to settle and attach. The larvae come not only from local mussels but - and here the Upper Solway is especially fortunate - are also recruited in huge numbers from the South, swept here by longshore drift. Larvae are small enough to be filtered out of the water and eaten by adults, so the safest places to settle are bare areas on a solid substratum (for example, when Ellison’s outer bed was scoured clean by storms two years ago, the cleared space was heavily colonised by spat). While we were talking, Jane suddenly bent down and picked up a piece of red filamentous seaweed and teased apart the fronds. “There are the spat, do you see?” And there they were - dozens of flea-sized, shiny, pale-grey shells, attached to the weed. I had always thought that when spat attached they would remain anchored for life, but now I learnt that the spat would have over-wintered amongst these red algae, mainly off Dubmill Point, and in the early Spring would let go and settle on the mussel beds.

Weed with newly-settled mussel spat, the size of fleas (photo: Ann Lingard).

Because I had previously only looked at mussels on rocky shores, I had wrongly assumed that the byssal threads by which mussels anchor themselves were short, immovable and permanent. But here were minute spat that could release themselves so as to be carried elsewhere to settle anew. During hand-gathering, under-sized mussels are discarded and left to grow. So could they, too, re-attach? “Even while you’re sieving,” Jane told me, “some of the small ones will have re-attached to the sides of the sieve!” The byssal proteins and “glue” (see below) can clearly be secreted very quickly, and the byssus can be lengthened too. Because of the silty, unstable nature of the Solway beds, the mussels may be anchored as much as a metre below the surface; as mussel-mud builds up the threads are extended, and the animals can also pull themselves down into the mud for protection during a storm.

Jane was amused to be helping with the annual survey, because she grew up in Brigham and – having moved to Newcastle University to read plant biology – “was doing (her) best to escape West Cumbria!”. But she ended up switching to a degree in marine biology, followed by a PhD on mussel biology, and then helping the Cumbria Sea Fisheries Committee (CSFC, soon to become the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority) as part of her consultancy work. “The mussel survey is quite a slog,” she told me, “there’s so little time on the beach. And it’s filthy work, your hands hurt, you get cut by the shells. The cockle survey is much more fun!” She used a quad bike (ATV) to get about, and a GPS to plot the shape and position of each bed.

Trowel and quadrant for sampling mussel size (With thanks to Jane Lancaster for permission to use her photo.)

The annual survey, carried out in July or early August, gives an estimate of the tonnage of mussels growing on the Solway beds, of which one-third can then be collected annually - “one-third for man, one-third for the birds, one-third for regeneration” – and the CSFC issues the permits, and checks that the permit-holders adhere to regulations and bye-laws. Surveying and collecting can be a risky business. The quads lurch to and fro or even get stuck, and the beds are so changeable that it’s hard to get a feel for their shapes relative to the chart, and all too easy in bad weather to lose a sense of direction.

It is this aspect of mussel-fishing that particularly concerned Andy Reid, of the hand-gatherers, when I talked to him a few years ago. “If you’re out on a winter’s night, the fog’s down, or it’s howling a gale, and there’s sinky-sand – it’s a very dangerous place. If you’re working far out, as soon as the tide turns you’ve got to leave, or you stand to lose thousands of pounds of equipment.” Ken Morgan, of the South Solway Shellfish Association, told me the fog could come down so quickly that they had once almost lost a quad bike that was only a few metres away.

Out on a quad bike in 2010

Dr Bill Cook on the 2010 mussel survey (Photo: Ann Lingard)

I go out on the annual survey in 2010, sitting on the back of a quad bike on a July evening with no fog or gale, although lightning flickers over Skiddaw and the northern fells. Jane's involvement with the annual shellfish surveys has ended, because the Sea Fisheries Committees of Cumbria and North Wales are being amalgamated and some of the duties are being shared, so this survey is being carried out by Dr Bill Cook and Bob Houghton of the North West and North Wales SFC, with the help of Erik Thinnesen. I've met Erik, Fishery Officer with the CSFC before, when I went out on the fisheries protection vessel, the Solway Protector. As we set out on quad bikes on the wide flat shore, I express concern that we might appear to be good lightning conductors but Erik, who has been associated with the sea since he was fifteen, just grins and says,"It's going to pass us by. Trust me!" 

Dr Bill Cook and Eric Thinnesen discussing shellfish (Photo: Ann Lingard)

At the inner bed of Ellison's Scar, the shore is bound up with tiny mussels, a half-centimeter long. Bill reckons these spat will survive, they're well-fixed, and half-buried so probably safe from predation by crabs. Their small size means that they will not be of a size for commercial picking until at least the end of 2011.

There's no point counting the density of the spat, so Bill and Bob drive their quad bikes around the circumference of the spat-fall, mapping it with GPS. Erik and I walk a straight line, a transect, across the bed, having been instructed to let Bob know if we find larger mussels. We don't - we are surrounded by black patches of uniformly small mussels.

Spatfall at Dubmill (Photo: Ann Lingard)

On the middle Ellison's bed there are some slightly larger ones, up to 1cm long, evidence of an earlier settling. As Erik and I wade through shallow pools, the water is flowing out very fast around our ankles. Far out, a bass fisherman, a dark silhouette against the sea, is standing up to his waist in water in the distance, his carbon-fibre rod a perfect lightning conductor. Fortunately the storm has indeed moved past us and on to Galloway, where sky and sea have merged in blackness, occasionally lit by a jagged flash.

We come across a man digging for ragworms. He's surrounded by piles of muddy sand, and tells us, "Ah've been digging an hour and Ah've only got fower in all this time!'", and then he laughs and starts a long story about a trip to Norway where he caught a 28lb cod. (Driving back up the beach from the Scar, we come across a line of hooks anchored at each end by stones, with live ragworms tied at intervals as bait. Erik says, "I've heard about this. It's for catching cod," and later, someone on my guided shore walk tells me he used this method to catch 'codling' at Silloth when he was a lad.)

Although there are some larger mussels further out, the outer bed has not been uncovered. Erik tells me, "This has been the easiest survey I've ever done. There's times I've been here on the mussel beds, they were so dense they'd grown several layers deep on each other and built up the mud. You could scoop up a handful of the mud and they'd be loose in it, like grains of sand." Here, on the middle Ellison's bed, "Previous years, me and Jane have been up to our knees, digging down in the mud to check what's there. This has been the easiest first survey yet -- there's nothing to do!"

So there's no seiving or collecting, no counting and measuring - just an exhilarating race along the firm sand at the top of the shore on the bucking and lurching quad. But tomorrow morning, if the barometer rises and the wind changes direction, the tide may drop far enough, and estimates of the large "commercial" mussels can be made.

Meat and pearls

When I met Andy Reid back in 2005 he had explained how the mussels were collected: hand-gathering certainly looked a hard way of earning a living. The gatherer uses a short-handled rake to pull the mussels from a patch towards a sieve (tineal, pronounced “teenall”) or, more commonly, a semicircular net. The mesh size of the net is big enough to allow undersized mussels to fall through. Net or tineal is then swilled in a pool to riddle out mud, pebbles and small mussels, and the retained mussels are tipped into a carrot-sack held open by a bottomless bucket. At that time, the Solway's mussels were mainly sent to a processing plant at King’s Lynn, where they were either re-laid in “lays” in the Wash to improve their size, or were cleaned in tanks of sea-water that was circulated under ultra-violet light to kill bacteria and other micro-organisms. Mussels can get a good price on the direct market, but the meat content of the mussels from the Solway shore is low; good meaty mussels should have about 25% of their weight in meat, Ken Morgan had told me, but these sometimes had as little as 16%. Andy said, “Me personally, I never eat them. If you wait for good meat content, then the barnacles grow on the shells and restaurants don’t like that. They cook them, a piece of barnacle falls off and somebody eats it – and breaks a tooth!”

Mussel pearls (photo: Ann Lingard)

Latterly, there has been little or no hand-gathering - but mussels that have been dredged from the Solway’s deeper waters are in good shape, and David Dobson of the CSFC enthused about the quality: “They were the most fabulous mussels I’ve ever seen, best quality, lovely black shell, with extremely high yield (of meat).” In 2009, about 1000 tonnes were dredged from the Silloth channel by four of the local vessels.

There are patches of mussels on the Solway beds which have pearls inside them, but don’t waste your time hoping to make your fortune from pearls on the Solway shore: “You’d need more than a hundred to cover a penny,” according to Ken Morgan.

Instead, check the Tide-Table and keep a weather-eye open, and head out from Mawbray or Dubmill on a low Spring Tide, and you will find yourself in a rich and alien environment: acres and acres of shellfish - the complex interactions between mussels, whelks, barnacles and sea-weed; the mussel-mud; the Sabellaria reefs; the birds and crabs and starfish. Take great care -- but it's worth a look.

(A version of this article first appeared in Cumbria Life in 2004, and has been altered and updated in 2010. Copyright Ann Lingard)

Byssal proteins and pearls

On the coast of Wester Ross (and I am not divulging where!) there is a small bay where the rocks are covered in good-sized mussels. We once collected and cooked some for dinner, but when we tried to eat them, we found they were inedible because full of “grit” – dozens of tiny pearls. Bivalves like oysters and mussels protect their delicate tissues from parasites or other irritating objects by secreting layers of nacre, mother-of-pearl, around them – and the Wester Ross mussels were attached to Old Red Sandstone; the friable rock erodes into tiny particles which get trapped within the mussels. Over several years our pearl collection grew: brown and black, grey and white, less than a millimetre to 3mm diameter; some spherical, but most irregular in shape; all financially worthless, but invaluable for the excitement they caused!

Potentially more valuable is the protein “glue” by which the byssal thread sticks to the substratum, because it is strong and flexible, sets at low temperatures and underwater - and the list of surfaces it can stick to is impressive: metals, plastics, Teflon, wood and even bone and dental enamel. Scientists at the University of York have inserted the mussel gene that codes for the glue-protein into tobacco plants, in experiments designed to produce large quantities for biomedical and marine engineering applications.

The byssal thread itself is also made up of interesting proteins. The protein nearest the mussel is very elastic, like a soft extensible spring – when a wave tugs at the mussel, the byssus stretches. But the danger is that the elastic recoil would dash the mussel against its anchoring rock. To get around this problem, the end of byssal thread close to the rock is made of a much stiffer protein: an elegant solution to a tricky engineering problem. 

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