Helford Native Oysters

The collection of native oysters for food has long been recorded from coastal and inland archeological sites even as far back as the Iron Age. Near Eastern traders and Roman settlers were familiar with oysters from their Mediterranean use and Turkish pirates were reputed to target succulent Cornish oysters! By the 16th century oysters became marketable here and with an increase in value, ownership rights were established and cultivation techniques evolved. Historically the main British industry developed on the coasts of Kent, Essex, Isle of Wight, Devon and the now abandoned beds in Scotland, whilst in mainland Europe it was chiefly in France and Holland. Until the mid 19th century, oysters were a ‘poor man’s food’ and huge quantities were sold. Now they are regarded as a luxury item!

The Helford River beds came under private ownership through church lands and royalty. Early in the 20th Century MacFisheries and subsequently the Hodges family leased the rights from the Duchy of Cornwall. Some four generations of the family have managed the oyster beds but now, in 2005, changes are taking place with a transfer of the lease to Ben Wright who has experience of marketing oysters in both France and England. (Ben will have more to add in the next newsletter.) Ben aims to regenerate the Duchy Oyster Farm beds whilst respecting conservation issues within a Special Area of Conservation and VMCA and following the advice of bodies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and the National Trust.

His long-term project is to produce the high quality Native or flat oyster Ostrea edulis and his first job is to test the stock, rake and clean all the beds and identify the most favourable areas for bottom cultivation where the visual impact would be minimal. Motor powered dredgers will be used but, by buying in stock from the Fal, the historic oyster sailboats will also be supported in some measure.

A secondary project will probably include mussels and the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas after consultation with Natural England.

Problems with the Bonamia disease in Native oysters, which caused devastation some 25 years ago should be avoided by good husbandry, namely by removing all stock at the end of each year. Pacifics were less affected and would be useful to fill the market demand all year round.

Extremes of temperature, and storms which can cause silting, are natural hazards, whilst physical disturbance of the beds by pleasure boats or water sports enthusiasts cause concern. Accidental pollution of the water is an ever-present and serious threat to this long-established industry and everyone using the river and its shores needs to be extra careful with fuels, sewage and all chemicals. The high quality of water so essential to the successful growth of the Helford oysters is a factor that is also important for the marine wildlife in all its diversity -truly “Commerce, Conservation and Community” in action.

Pamela E Tompsett

Extract from HVMCA newsletter No.31 Autumn 2005

© Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area