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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
On Oyster Culture in Scotland


By W. Anderson Smith, Oysterculturist, Ledaig, Argyllshire.
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The culture of the oyster has come to be included under the head of "Agriculture" in the United States, where the vast expansion of this industry has made it one of the utmost national importance. In this paper we do not propose to deal to any extent with the history, or natural history, of this prince of shellfish, but to call special attention to the exceptional facilities for this species of cultivation to be found in our well-sheltered Highland lochs, and most extensive foreshores. At the same time we will give our own experience as a guide to others, both in its successes and failures.

In the first place, it may be noted as a proof of the suitability of our waters for the growth of the oyster, that there are very few parts of the coast of the Western Highlands destitute of representatives, in a more or less scattered condition. As a rule these are not in extensive beds, but to a large extent rock oysters, affixed to rocks and stones, and in many instances covered over with a profuse growth of sea-weed. This situation renders them inaccessible to the ordinary oyster dredge, and they are only attainable by the tedious and costly process of lifting them one by one in calm weather, by means of an iron "graip " in some districts; an instrument called a hand dredge, shaped like a spoon as to the circumference, but with a net bottom, in others; or, as in the further north, a pair of pincers worked with a cord, and directed at the end of a long pole.

This absence of extensive beds, and difficulty of gathering the scattered oyster harvest, has not only prevented the extension of the trade, but, to a considerable extent, hidden the fact of their presence from the general public. The local demand, however, of many parts of the West Highlands is partly supplied by the "natives," of large size and particularly fine flavour, obtained from the neighbouring waters. These are mostly the products of low spring-tides, in which the peasants and cottars can reach the oysters that have been either driven further inshore by heavy weather, or have grown up on the rocks and stones accessible at these particular seasons. All this points to the fact that our seas are thoroughly congenial, and that only the physical constitution of our commonly rocky and stony sea bottom prevents the more frequent deposit of extensive dredgeable beds along our western coast. When the character of the bottom would lead us to hope for a more successful harvest, it is found that there, as elsewhere in the kingdom, the beds have been over-dredged, as in Loch Ryan; or completely cleared, as in some of our small Highland and more accessible lochs. When this is done, theory has been found to be entirely at variance with resulting facts. The statement so frequently made that oysters are so prolific that no bed can be dredged so completely but that sufficient oysters will be left to replenish it, is never found to hold good in practice. Allowing that the oyster will throw from 200,000 to one million spat, the chances seem against its remaining where it is thrown; while on this point also, our own experience is against the statement that the spat are then carried away by currents to some bank in the vicinity, if not found upon and around the parent oyster. Enough that our shores are frequented all along by oysters, and that our banks have became and remain denuded of them, and the question is next how to replenish the one, and utilise the capabilities of the other.

In considering the difficulties attending oyster culture in Scotland, the first place must be given to the action and inaction of the Government in the matter. While professing to be anxious to give every encouragement to the efforts of the public, they somehow thwart them on every occasion by the mischievous application of such laws as there are. We do not greatly object to the fee of £60 demanded before any grant of foreshore will be made, as the Government were almost forced into this by the conduct of those who previously secured such grants, only for the purpose of keeping the public out of their neighbourhood, and obtaining such local fishery as there might be, but without making any effort to cultivate the ground. The above fee was no doubt meant as a fence to keep all but bona-fide cultivators from claiming grants of foreshore. In the case of extensive grants this is reasonable enough, but a distinction ought to be made between a capitalist and a practical working fisherman. We understand the French cultivators are all tenants-at-will, but their property in their stocks is secured to them. This, if properly administered without undue interference, is not an unfair arrangement, but unfortunately the greatest complaints are always made against the administration of the authority of the Woods and Forests with us, the whole idea of the department apparently being to increase immediate revenue, so long as their action will be supported by law. We do not believe that, under the present mode of administration in vogue in the department, any body of fishermen would invest labour or money on the principle of tenants-at-will, they having no confidence whatever in the will as ordinarily exercised.

But even more important than the injudicious action of the executive is the present state of uncertainty as to the rights of any man in the foreshores,—a deadening condition of affairs, which paralyses the strongest men in any effort to grapple individually with the question, and which is partly owing to the narrow views of the department as to the duty of a Government. There is absolutely no possibility of obtaining any distinct declaration as to the real owners of most parts of our foreshores, as the Government and the proprietors on the one hand, and the public on the other, are standing opposed in a state of tension. Wherever and whenever the Government believe they will not be seriously opposed, they will assert their claim, but never if possible press it to a legal decision. Most proprietors are equally unwilling, single-handed, to push the question to extremity; so that at present it mostly means that the Government claim is tacitly admitted wherever a proprietor is too weak to fight, or not bold enough to rebel. The Government will guardedly sell " what rights they themselves possess"; the proprietors will sometimes knowingly exact rental for what they do not legally possess; the outside public will occasionally suddenly upset the calculations of either party whenever the interests are sufficiently important to stimulate them to try conclusions. "We have more than once been turned aside from intended operations by discovering the real weakness of apparent rights; and, after a considerable experience, we have come to the conclusion that the whole matter as it stands is a hopeless muddle, that can only be attacked by a strong public body.

If the Highland and Agricultural Society can ventilate the subject, and stimulate the proprietors to combine to force the hands of the department, so that a clear declaration of ownership be made, they would do more to open the way for the utilisation of vast tracts of our cultivable seashore, than could otherwise be managed by any amount of private enterprize.

The first thing is to know who is the owner of the ground to be cultivated. We would suggest that the elucidation of this, for the benefit of all concerned, is a worthy goal for a powerful Society, in combination with the Scottish proprietary.

In the meantime, we do not believe that the heavy fee demanded will prove injurious or prohibitory to bona fide cultivators demanding important grants, but we do think it is high time that the poorer cultivator be considered. It is not perhaps necessary to grant leases if the Government would simply treat the unoccupied and unutilised foreshores as wilderness land; and, like an American homestead, if the man who cleared and planted any given portion of such foreshore were secured therein. It is always necessary to remember that access to such ground and any required buildings connected with the business, must be through and upon the land of the ex adverso proprietor; and consequently their reasonable claims of jurisdiction should be considered, so long as they did not unnecessarily interfere with the conduct of the undertaking. But this question has already been raised in connection with salmon and other fisheries.

The above considerations are wholly connected with foreshore cultivation, but this is not by any means to our mind the most promising department of oyster-culture. So far as our experience goes, oysters spat more freely in deep water, and their spat also comes more readily to maturity there, This is also the American experience. In deep salt water the oyster breeds more readily, and also increases more rapidly in growth; while on the foreshores the fish "fattens" better, grows a finer shell, —a sign of a more delicate fish—and is altogether more manageable, and beyond the reach of enemies. On the whole, we would look to more important and successful operations being conducted in our Scottish lochs by beds in deeper water, with plentiful spat-collectors suspended over them, and placed around them. When our own shore-beds were quite innocent of spat, the dredge brought up from some fathoms quantities of young about the size of a split pea; and this year we have dredged one stone with a dozen oysters, from a shilling to a florin in size, within a few hundred yards of our barren beds. These were evidently thrown by outside oysters.

The temperature has no doubt something to do with the spatting of oysters, but we firmly believe our western lochs are quite as warm as the Thames estuary, although we have no certain data for this. Certain it is, however, that there are far more oysters in congenial parts of the west than most people are aware of. We have taken thousands from a narrow piece of sea-bottom where the local authorities, constantly seeking them, declared none to exist. A gravelly bottom overgrown with tangle, often conceals immense numbers that the dredge could in no instance reach. Pure gravel we believe to be the best ground for oyster breeding, and a rich marl, or soft blue clay such as is common in some of our western districts, is the best feeding ground. This seems to supply the necessary lime in quantity, as well as the required nourishment. In this ground oysters may sink very deep without being choked with the soft muddy material; whereas, were they to sink at all in sand, the irritation would rapidly destroy them. We think it better, however, to lay them out on wattled hurdles, on which they will reap the advantages of the rich feeding ground without danger of being overwhelmed.

It is evident that deep-sea beds such as we advocate are beyond the reach of any but capitalists, or a combination of fishermen such as own and work the great Whitstable beds. Here we are on more certain ground, as the Government distinctly arrogate to themselves the right to allocate such stretches of sea-bottom to individuals or companies,—despite public use and wont,—as has been recently done in the Thames estuary itself. This being the case, on every ground it is the safer and more certain course to take, for a party of fishermen to combine and plant such a sea-bed, having secured a Government grant therefor. Too much ground should in no case be granted to any one individual, unless under distinct conditions as to utilisation; but allowance should be made for a company, more especially of working partners, who would be stimulated to greater exertions when the profit was all their own.

We should like to have entered more into the question of temperature, and also that of gravity. Our data are, however, not sufficiently reliable or extensive to build any definite theories upon. The estimation of chlorine in our own lochs differs but little from the Atlantic, although there is a considerable influx of fresh water; while the figures with which we have been favoured as to other waters, arouse the suspicion that the samples have been taken from near or upon the surface, where the fresh water would be forced by an advancing tide. A fresh water oyster is much hardier, and better prepared for enduring carriage than a salt water specimen. Severe cold, too, is not injurious to a full grown oyster; but a low temperature at the time of spatting is apparently fatal. We believe the steady temperature of the deeper waters greatly favours the deposit of spat.

Various attempts have been made along our shores to start fresh beds, but these have generally ended in failure. This has partly been caused by inattention to the first rules of any "culture,"—want of care and nursing—partly from want of knowledge of the conditions of the problem. Thus we understand a large quantity of oysters were thrown down in Holy Loch, a district of sea thronged with mussels in myriads—that enemy that chokes the oyster—deep with mud which is constantly shifting, and open to the assaults of starfish and sea-urchins, those deadly enemies to the oyster, more especially when in a weak condition. Oysters have also more than once been laid down in Loch Etive unsuccessfully; but as they were taken from a neighbouring loch with scarcely any fresh water, and transferred at once to a loch remarkable for its variations of gravity and temperature, through the sudden enormous influxes of fresh water from its high and frequently snow-clad watershed, such a result was only natural and to be anticipated, without a much more careful and graduated transfer, so as to acclimatise the shellfish.

The oysters of Loch Roag, in the Long Island, have long been noted for their excellence, and at one time they were very numerous and readily procurable. A friend of the writer having collected a large number, laid them down in a sheltered part of the loch, and extended over the bed thus formed long ropes of heather, with the heather in bunches all along, so as to act as a cultch for the oyster spat. This, in a season or so, was well covered with the young oysters; but, as no government grant had been obtained, the depositor had no security against the public, and the scheme soon fell through from want of "security of tenure."

Two years ago we took a lease of the southern shore of Loch Creran, in order thoroughly to test the possibility of creating an industry in connection with oysters among the warm western lochs. Our intention was at first to carry out the French system in its entirety; but, considering the different character of our seas, and the necessity for the utmost care in securing what spat might be thrown, against being carried away by strong currents or unexpected gales, we set about the matter with even more than French exactitude.

Having gathered what oysters could be collected in time along our own shores, so that they might not require acclimatising, we had them placed in enclosures erected at the very lowest of ebb tides, so that in no case would the oysters be uncovered, except for a few hours each fortnight. These enclosures were made by driving strong stakes into the ground in a circle, and wattling them all closely around. This formed a strong close basket upwards of six feet high all around the deposited oysters, on which it was hoped the spat would be sure to affix itself; a firm bottom of small gravel having been previously laid down, on which the oysters were laid.

The result of the first season was unsatisfactory, as no spat whatever was found upon the wattles, upon the mother oysters, or upon the gravel. The severity of the season of 1879, and the fact that scarcely any spat or young oysters had been seen among those left in the loch, led us to throw the blame on the untoward season; while the fact of the oysters having been removed to their new position in the middle of the breeding season, also led to the belief that the enclosed shellfish had not had fair play.

To counteract these possible errors, we determined to leave the oysters in the enclosures for another season; as well as make a series of new enclosures, to eliminate from the problem certain possibilities incident to those already in operation.

For this purpose we built one 40 feet in diameter, and upwards of 10 feet high, at the lowest of the tide; but as the rise of the tide at the highest in Loch Creran is 12 feet, it was still below the surface at high water. As the oysters were all covered with wattled hurdles a foot or two over them, to catch any spat that might rise with the tide, we did not consider the portion of the time in which they were altogether under water as of much importance; but in order to test its influence on the problem we erected another further ashore, and of similar height, over which the tide at no time can flow clear. The bottom of this we dug out, so as to form a pond in which the oysters are always covered at the lowest of the ebb, in case the very short period in which the others were occasionally out of the water should have some influence on the prosperity of the spat.

All these were planted with our own fine oysters, in capital condition, and early in the season, so that they would be well settled ere the time arrived for throwing spat. They were likewise wattled so closely with bushy branches of Scotch fir, spruce fir, and larch, and tied together with long wands of hazel and rowan, that the whole formed huge enclosures of close basket-work, impervious to any but the most embryonic enemies, and through which it was a practical impossibility the young of the oyster could escape. In some of them, also, are placed a proportion of the oysters under a basket of close wicker-work; but the absence of light in this case would materially interfere, no doubt, with the procreative power of the parent oysters. In another we placed an erection of cocoanut matting, whose roughened fibres have before now proved an admirable "cultch" for the settlement of the young oyster. When we consider that in each of these large well-secured and well-placed erections thousands of oysters in fine condition, native to the waters, and sufficiently settled ere the breeding season commenced, were laid with care, the entire absence of spat is somewhat remarkable. That the spat could have been carried out by the currents and somewhat severe gales of the early part of the season does not admit of belief; and the more especially as this loch outside, no more than inside our erections, shows any sign of spat these two seasons beyond the merest sprinkling widely apart. This would be by no means a hopeful sign for our waters, were we not supported by the fact that the omnipresence of the oyster on our shores, shows that it certainly flourishes with us, while the almost universal failure of spat in the United Kingdom points to a general, and not a particular, cause for the absence of any with us. It is a well-known fact in connection with oyster culture, that in this country a good spat comes but once in many years, and considering the great fertility of the oyster, this alone can account for its comparative scarcity in districts where it can always be gathered by the hundred in good weather. Our experience has shown that the explanation of currents carrying off the spat cannot explain this failure in our case, while the fact that in each year the dredge or the "graip" has brought to light the survival of some few young, shows that the cause of destruction must come somewhere between the conception of the young and its attachment to a cultch. Frank Buckland has lately asserted that cold is the cause of the destruction of the spat, and this suggestion has much to be said in its favour. The oysters appear to have been in the proper "milky" state, and in all likelihood threw their spat, which, however, would have met an uncongenial temperature in our seas, even during most of the last fine spring and summer. If not cold during the day the air was cold at night, and the water was most remarkably low in temperature late into the season.

Again, our oysters may almost be called deep-sea oysters, and to a degree partake of their character; that is, they throw their spat late in the year, deep-sea oysters generally spawning in the autumn. This being the case, if they continue their habits in shallow water, they will throw their spat at a season of the year when the chances are altogether against them meeting with any kindly warmth in the shallows, which are assimilated in temperature to the air, while the deeper waters remain at a more equable temperature.

If this be certain, we would suggest that it would be more advisable to lay down our native oysters in deeper water, surrounded by fascines, and to import a different class of oysters for laying down in the shallows. The fact that the spat in Arcachon never fails, and that the French oysters spat early, would point to them as a class well suited for experimenting with on our extensive foreshores; but it must be said they seem to have altogether failed on the Irish coast.

But the culture of the oyster as an industry is not by any means confined to the breeding thereof, a considerable proportion of the labour and capital employed in connection with them in England being directed to their collection when in the condition of " brood." They are thus termed when of very small size, and suitable for laying down on the beds on the foreshores of Essex and other specially favoured districts, where they are grown and fattened for the London market. Similarly, the extensive beds of Beaumaris are replenished by dredging on the Irish coast, whence they were brought in order to improve in condition and flavour before being forwarded as required to the Liverpool market.

The continued steady decrease in the supply of such brood has sent the English boats and buyers all over the kingdom, and much of the brood laid down some years ago came from Scotland. This meant great injury to our coast supplies, through sweeping off the young as they were deposited; and now that several years of a failure of spat have supervened, there are no oysters growing up to take the place of the parents, that continue to be fished for local supply, as well as for occasional export. Looking to the importance of this branch of the subject, it was necessary to consider whence a supply of "brood," or even immature oysters of a larger growth, were to be obtained, seeing our own supply, as well as that of the neighbourhood, had apparently failed for the time. We had been more than once informed that those oysters imported from America were unsuitable for our waters, and did not thrive even if they lived. Still this seemed the most likely source, and we determined to give it a fair trial.

The length of time most American oysters are on the way, and the very weak condition in which they arrive in this country, demanded more especial care in the transport. This, through the care of a friend, we managed, first with some mature Americans, and these we laid down carefully, allowing them only to drink through the barrel at first, so as to prevent too sudden a change of temperature, and too much gluttony from the rich foreshores on which they were then laid. They all survived and throve to our satisfaction. This induced a second experiment with young oysters of rather varied size, the smallest being less than a shilling. These also proved to be quite acclimatisable; and although we lost a good many thousands ultimately through a cold wind, while in a weak condition and exposed, this did not in the least affect the success of the experiment. Not only did these small oysters fatten successfully this last summer, but those laid down in the month of April had grown in six months to a remarkable degree, many having quite added half-an-inch all round to the edge or frill of their shell. Considering that they had to make up the loss caused by two months' starvation in transit, and also become accustomed to entirely novel conditions of existence, this growth seems to us a very satisfactory proof of the suitability of our waters to their constitutions. These oysters were of a superior character to the ordinary American with its coarse mussel-shaped shell, having a small, clean, hard shell, that augured well for the delicacy of the fish. In all cases it may be predicted that a fish with a coarse shell is coarse in its own character, seeing that the shell is really the "skeleton" of a shell-fish; and this holds good as a rule in practice.

The result of our experience hitherto with careful oyster culture in Scotland, may be considered therefore under two heads:—

First, As to artificial collection of the spat in shallow water we have been unsuccessful, apparently from the same causes— as yet unknown or only reasonably guessed at—as those affecting other portions of the United Kingdom. So that we are unable to consider ourselves otherwise than as still conducting a tentative undertaking, which may yet from southern analogy be a future success.

Second, The acclimatisation of young Americans as a source of supplying our exhausted Scottish beds has been thoroughly successful, and there can be no doubt that these improve vastly in plumpness, as well as in delicacy, on those of our mud flats that are fitted for their laying down.

It is unnecessary for us to enter here into details by which to show how a portion of foreshore may be best laid out for breeding or fattening purposes. This is dependent largely on local circumstances, and would also trespass far too largely on your space. Enough that we have throughout the foreshores of Scotland vast stretches of mud flats, well suited, with little cost, for laying down oyster fattening beds, by which the present dearth of good edible oysters would be greatly remedied. If the subject were taken up by our shore population with spirit, it would soon add a most important industry, at very small expenditure, to the more especially suitable industries of Scotland.


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