It’s bitterly cold. The northerly wind is blowing across the harbour and cutting through my coat like an icy blade. I pull my scarf up, my hat down. Sunglasses protect my eyes from both the harsh wind and the glare of sunlight off the water. The tide is creeping back in over the mud flats and seabirds are following its advancement. I’m not very good at bird ID and its too cold to take my hands out of my pockets to look through the binoculars that are hanging around my neck. I can see some small brown waders, some larger brown ones with curved beaks. A group of black and white birds take off with piercing cries.
Those ones are called oyster catchers, I remember. Although, I don’t think that they actually catch oysters. Not that oysters would be difficult to catch, if they did. The hand sized disks of the oysters lie on the surface of the mud, immobile.
I remember my grandfather telling me than when he was a boy, oysters were almost extinct. In his grandfather’s day, there had been masses of them. They sold them by the barrel-full, made them into sausages. There was such an abundance of oysters that they formed huge reefs a few miles offshore, covering thousands of square miles.
Within twenty years of being discovered, those reefs had been mined, stripped bare.
I walk on further along the shore and then pause to shelter behind a stand of oak trees. Some of the low spreading branches have dipped below the bank and carry strands of seaweed, waving in the wind like prayer flags.
A V of geese fly low across the harbour. They land a few hundred paces away and with a lot of honking and fussing, settle in to feed on the seagrass. They disturb a flock of starlings and they swirl up from the patch of saltmarsh in which they were sheltering.
I pick up a shell that was resting near my feet. It fits in my palm, circular, one side flatter than the other. The edges are thin, jagged. I can see where there is a ring of new growth like the rings within a tree, pale and fragile at the edge. The shell hinges open like a book full of secrets.
The inside is as smooth as the outside is rough. I run my finger over the pearlescent white interior, the sunlight picking out highlights of blue and pink and shades of ivory, ice and opal.
When oysters form reefs, they create complex habitats for fish and crabs, sponges and anemones. They feed by opening their shells and filtering the seawater, extracting the tiny particles of food they eat. A single oyster can filter seven litres of water a day, my grandfather told me. I imagine trying to drink seven litres of water a day and smile at the empty shell which rests in the palm of my hand.
I gaze out across the harbour and think about all the complex, mysterious patterns which flow through just this tiny corner of the world. I think about my grandfather’s grandfather and the abundance that he saw; the flocks of birds which covered half the sky, the huge shoals of fish, the oyster reefs which stretched for miles. I think about the efforts which have been invested in regaining that historical abundance.
In this harbour alone, there have been decades of research, planning and projects, hundreds of hours given by volunteers and experts. Finally, oyster numbers are beginning to recovery, their abundance increasing. Other once-threatened habitats, the seagrass and saltmarsh, are also recovering. There are now more juvenile fish, native shark species, seals, breeding birds, wildflowers and insects.
The tide has turned and all the complex, interwoven flow of wildlife is rebounding.
I place the oyster shell back on the beach. The oyster has long been a symbol for this harbour, for the people living here and now they hold it high as a symbol of community. I know that my grandfather would be proud. His efforts were not in vain.
I was thinking about last week’s post about rewilding in urban spaces and then I was thinking about Valentine’s day and how oysters are supposed to be a romantic food. However, around the UK, the population of native oysters has declined 95% over the past couple of hundred years, mirroring similar trends worldwide. There are some great projects helping oyster populations and I wanted this post, as part of the Visions of Hope series, to show that bright future we’re aiming for, with robust natural processes in wild places that bring people and the environment together.
Last week’s post about a healthy city river and the post introducing the Visions of Hope series can be found here.
Links to further information
https://noraeurope.eu/ The Native Oyster Restoration Alliance (NORA) supports the protection and ecological restoration of the native European oyster.
https://nativeoysternetwork.org/ The Native Oyster Network is a community of academics, conservationists, oystermen and NGO’s who are working to restore self-sustaining populations of native oysters.
https://www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/news/oysters-natures-water-filters A University of Cambridge article about oysters.
https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/oystercatcher/ The RSPB ID guide for oyster catchers.