Feature: Porlock's pearl of a project

tim Edwards and Eric Nicholls inspect the bags before turning them over. PHOTO: Maureen Harvey.

tim Edwards and Eric Nicholls inspect the bags before turning them over. PHOTO: Maureen Harvey.

First published in News This is The West Country: Photograph of the Author by

REPORTER Danielle Morris visited Porlock Weir to learn more about a new venture taking place which hopes to bring employment and tourism to the area.

Porlock Futures, a sub-group of the parish council, last month planted oyster bags in the sea and poles ready to farm mussels as part of a two-year trial.

This project is to set up Great Britain’s first community-sustainable shellfish farm producing oysters and mussels.

The trestles you can see here are visible only once a month at low-tide, when it’s a race against time and tide to ensure everything is ship-shape.. Danielle joined the group to check on the first month’s progress. 

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VOLUNTEERS work hard to make sure everything is ship-shape before the tide comes in. 

OYSTERS might be considered a food for fine dining nowadays but back in the 19th Century, the shellfish delicacy was the food of the people.

Right here in West Somerset, oysters saved the people of Porlock from starvation.

“You wouldn’t think it but oysters were actually food eaten by the poor,” Roger Hall tells me.

“It wasn’t until much later on that they were considered a treat.”

Roger is among a handful of members of Porlock Futures, a sub-group of the parish council which was set up to develop ideas to enhance the local economy and employment opportunities. Now it is hoped the ‘food of the poor’ will help keep poverty at bay.

The first of their plans is ‘Porlock Bay Shellfish’ and less than a month ago the first bags of oysters went into the bay.

The trestles, which have been made by Allerford Forge, are only visable once a month for a few hours during low tide.

That means the volunteers have to work quickly to check everything is in order and make any repairs and observations.

I joined the group on the first of their monthly checks to see how it was all going and find out how exactly you farm oysters.

“Not only did the locals enjoy our oysters but they were sent from the railway in Minehead up to London,” Roger explains.

“Porlock oysters attained a national reputation for quality and taste. Brown’s Hotel would only serve our oysters and it would be great if history repeated itself.”

Local legend has it that Porlock’s feasting suddenly came to an end one day when ‘ships from the East’ pillaged the oyster beds in the Bristol Channel in the late 19th Century.

The area in which the two-year trial is taking place is owned by Porlock Manor Estate.

Estate owner Mark Blathwayt has been “extremely helpful and supportive and his knowledge of the coast has been so valuable”, said Roger.

It’s not just oysters which are being farmed either.

As we made our way down to the beach, rope was being tied to long wooden poles, known as Bouchot Poles.

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THE Bouchout Poles which will be used to grow mussels. 

The rope is used to catch mussel spawn which clings on to it and grows into mussels as the tide comes and goes.

There are already mussels in the area so the group hope their efforts will be successful although if not they will then buy mussel spawn to attach.

On a gloriously sunny and surprisingly warm day, I asked the group if they worried about when the winter weather returns.

Roger had already pointed out where fierce tides earlier this year had “moved the beach back”, almost completely burying a walking sign and tree.

Dave Salter, another member of Porlock Futures, said: “It does worry us and that is something we are going to have to face when the time comes.

“The weather hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as what it was back at the beginning of the year but already some of the bags have been split open, just a tiny amount, and we’ve lost some of the oyster seed.

But it is all part of the learning experience.”

As well as the weather, there is also other sealife to contend with.

Dave adds: “We have to put plastic rings at the bottom to stop crabs climbing up the poles and eating the mussels ... there really is so much to think about here.”

So how exactly are oysters farmed?

Plastic mesh bags are filled with partgrown and seed oysters, then secured to low metal trestles along the beach.

Oysters only grow when they are feeding from nutrients the sea brings in, so the trestles are positioned at a level for which the majority of time they are completely submerged.

Two types of oysters are grown – diploids and triploids.

Diploids are ‘parents’ with two genes and triploids are hybrids with an extra gene making them sterile; therefore the latter don’t spawn and grow all year round whereas the diploids can lose up to 70% of their body weight.

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DAVE Salter from Porlock Futures examines an oyster left in one of the bags which had split open, losing nearly all of its contents.

It’s not only Porlock’s past which has encouraged the project either.

Resident Tony Kenyon had the idea to farm oysters back in 2008.

He told me: “Porlock is the perfect place for oysters, not only because of the history but because of the environment.

It fits in well with the landscape and there is more money in oysters, if the plan is successful.

“It is exciting to see people so enthusiastic about the project and that we’ve finally started the work but I won’t be happy until I see results and we have a long wait yet.”

So far 12 Bouchet Poles and eight oyster trestles containing between 17,000 and 20,000 oysters have been installed, and if the trial is successful there are further plans afoot.

Dave Salter added: “Any money we make will go back into the community to set up more projects to help boost tourism and job opportunities.”

The group has already planned its next venture – a micro-brewery with beer called ‘Sea Breeze’.

PHOTOS: Maureen Harvey. 

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