There have been oysters at Lindisfarne in one form or another since the priory monks paid 100 shillings for a boat full of oysters from a Scotsman in 1381. Since then farming of oysters has been intermittent with the most recent resurrection of the aquaculture in 1989 when John Sutherland found some oysters at low tide and embarked on the current commercial operation. John’s son Christopher took over the farm in 2003.
What attracted me to explore oysters in the northeast wasn’t a desire to see production of a luxury food commodity; although this is certainly something northeast England should be proud of producing. I was drawn here to follow the oysters from production to consumption because this is one of the most sustainable methods of food production in the UK. Although rarely marketed as a sustainable product, oysters are fully organic with zero inputs; on top of this the nature of oysters as filter feeders actually benefits the immediate marine environment.
The ecologically sympathetic farming of oyster’s means that this fully commercial operation finds itself within the boundaries of one of the North Easts most important and highly protected Landscapes with no ill effect. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve surrounds the oyster beds and the oystermen share their working environment with 100s of grey seals, 1000s of wading birds including Godwits, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, and Dunlin. In winter there are an estimated 50,000 birds sharing the land, huge numbers only dwarfed by the vast number of oysters coming from the beds, a half million in 2014 with an expected one million for 2016/17.
Seed oysters are brought in from Guernsey, placed in plastic mesh bags and tied to steel trestles. It takes around two to three years for the oysters to grow to adult size during which time they will be moved around the farm two, three or four times and divided into more bags as they require more space. The biggest challenge to a successful crop is in reducing mortality says Christopher Sutherland, a simple case of good husbandry, husbandry that draws heavily on ‘sweat equity’ provided by a team of Latvian and Lithuanian workers. As with most casual agricultural work in the UK the oyster operation relies on migrant labour to fill an unpopular and irregular workload. The work is tied to the tide, as the oyster beds are only accessible one to two weeks a month during the lowest tides.
After two to three years of growing on the trestles the oysters begin their journey to restaurants and markets all over the UK and into Europe. The bulk of production goes to wholesalers in Glasgow and London with Frank Round Ltd, a wholesaler in North Shields distributing some 32,000 a year more locally around the Tyne.