Slippery little shuckers: seafood quandries, from coast to coast

Farming Today and Open Country take on seafood.

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Farming Today; Open Country
BBC Radio 4

“I’m looking at Poole Harbour,” broods the Farming Today presenter, Charlotte Smith (25 July, 6.30am), making her way towards an oyster nursery. “And at a scene which is so reminiscent of so many holidays spent in England. It’s raining. It’s just a typically British summer day. But . . . we haven’t come here to moan.” And immediately on to a report from the Burry Estuary in South Wales, suffering a wave of unexplained and catastrophic cockle mortalities. Trudging along with the correspondent Trish Campbell and a fisheries representative, we crunched countless old shells strewn on the shore. An entirely mysterious situation, desperate cockle-pickers are now forced to take increasingly small clams in the hope of finding ones that stay alive even briefly.

“Nobody would normally gather them at such an extreme size,” the representative mourned. “We even make home-made riddles to keep them in our nets.” For a moment, there floated the irresistible image of cockle-pickers murmuring Daedalean tongue-twisters, coaxing miniature creatures to a longer life. But no: these riddles are in fact the finest of sieves, filtering the still-living from the multitudinous dead.

Yet more crunching. Campbell points out wild horses crossing the corpse-strewn marsh in the distance, and a couple of tenacious sheep. “I can tell you’re quite upset about all of this,” she soothed both guest and listener, just as Helen Mark had soothed a young marine biologist on Open Country half an hour earlier in a feature from the North Antrim coast. “We’re finding something called a spiny sea crab,” the scientist had worried, “which is a very large ­species normally found in far warmer waters.” Mark made intrigued but concerned noises. “And also a giant sea cucumber,” he continued: “basically a big . . . black . . . thing.”

But back to drizzly Poole and those oysters. It turns out that, for your average bivalve mollusc trying to eke out an existence on the south coast of England, life is a constant struggle against not just algal toxins and blooms upswelling from deeper waters, but herpes. An oyster with herpes: the very definition of cosmic disfavour? Surely the sight of one might draw a tear from even the most invincible of eyes. Stay vigilant, peeps. And happy holidays!

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double