Market Life heads out with Wright Brothers to see their oyster farm in action
Words: Viel Richardson
Images: John Holdship
It is early afternoon, our scheduled morning departure having been delayed by an apocalyptic deluge which at times reduced visibility to as little as 50 feet. Now, the Helford River is in a navigable if somewhat boisterous state.
As we bounce along in a boat reminiscent of a D-Day landing craft, open to whatever horrors the elements choose to throw at us, I’m beginning to get a clear idea that farming oysters involves an awful lot more than strolling along picturesque oyster beds at low tide, picking up bivalves.
The river, a coastal inlet dotted with a series of wide creeks, is home to the Duchy oyster farm, leased by Wright Brothers from the Duchy of Cornwall. Much has changed since Wright Brothers took over this then moribund farm in 2005.
Waist deep in mud
“When we first stepped out onto these oyster beds we sank waist deep in mud,” operations manager Mark Mercer tells me. “We knew from the beginning that we’d have quite a job to get the beds back to where they should be.”
One of the company’s aims is to re-establish the native oysters which were once plentiful in these parts. “The family we bought the lease from had been farming oysters for generations, and there has been a farm on this site for over a century,” says Mark.
“The reason regeneration is necessary at all is because native oyster populations across Europe were decimated in the 1980s by a bacteria called bonamiasis. When we took over the farm, it hadn’t been operating fully for about 20 years; the farmer was buying in fully grown oysters and selling them on.”
Under the Wright Brothers’ careful stewardship, native oyster stocks are growing in the Helford River once again. “In fact, we are now finding them in places we haven’t seeded, which is very encouraging,” Mark says with a grin.
While stocks of native oysters gradually recover, the core of the Wright Brothers business is the farming of high quality Pacific oysters. As with many other types of farming, the process begins with millions of ‘seeds’—tiny, immature oysters.
“We will buy between 15 and 16 million seeds this year. This sounds like a lot but there will be significant losses along the way,” Mark explains as we reach our first destination: a rather basic looking raft made of steel and wood, floating in the centre of the river.
This is the nursery, where the seeds will be planted: a very sophisticated piece of kit indeed, but one that is known by an appropriately childlike name. “It’s called a ‘flupsy’, which is a floating upweller system,” says Mark.
Each seed is about 2.5mm when it arrives, and needs to grow to around 7mm before it can head off on the next stage of its journey. “Oysters are filter feeders and in their natural environment, they settle on a rock and depend on the rising and falling of the tide. The flupsy creates that flow but on a constant basis, providing the best environmental conditions.”
We leave the nursery, occasionally waving to the occupants of passing sailing boats as we head towards a processing station on the shore. Here we watch Jordan Westlake, one of the workers on the farm, use a powerful hose to wash a pile of strong mesh bags.
“As the oysters increase in size, we put them into bags with the appropriate sized mesh,” Mark explains. “These are then put in cages and taken out to different parts of the river system, which have different nutrient mixes and flow rates. They stay there until it is time for them to move up to the next size of bag, and we repeat the process.”
Sorting the molluscs accurately is essential. “If an oyster becomes much bigger than its neighbour, the smaller ones will be starved of food and become unusable.” With as many as 16 million oyster seeds a year, that’s a lot of oysters, and an awful lot of grading.
This is what lies ahead for oysters that have just left the flupsy with us. For these little chaps, the next stage will involve them being fed through a gentle water based grader before being taken to a part of the river so rich in nutrients, it is almost too good for them. “There is 5.5m of tide, so a vast amount of food-rich water flows over the oysters. This is what drives their fast growth.”
Growing its shell
Why ever move them from there if the water is so rich? As with many aspects of life, you can have too much of a good thing. “It’s about the quality of the final oysters,” explains Mark. “If there is too much food, the oyster puts all that energy into growing its shell which gets thin and brittle, making it easier for predators to break in. You also end up with very low meat content.”
In a particularly cruel twist, the oysters are then sent straight off to oyster boot camp, where “they are underwater at high tide and exposed to the air at low tide. They naturally clamp their shell for protection and open it when the tide comes in so they can feed. This gives a strong muscle and thicker shell, preparing them for the last stage of growth.”
The cages are then taken to an area called Frenchman’s Creek and the oysters are poured out of their mesh bags into the water, where they sink down to nestle on the oyster beds.
“There’s something extraordinary about the environment here,” says Mark. “It’s created by the meeting of the different tributaries of the river, and the run-off from the woodlands. The water is still very nutrient-rich, but there’s a slower flow which is wonderful for fattening them up. It’s what gives our oysters their real depth of flavour.”
There’s one last surprising task in the nurturing of these high maintenance molluscs: just like an artisan cheese during maturation, oysters have to be turned on a regular basis. “If you don’t move the bags for several months the oysters will start to grow into each other,” he explains.
“On a monthly basis all the cages are flipped and we rake the beds, ensuring that as few oysters as possible spend their whole time trapped under others without access to enough food. Also, that beautiful teardrop shape would not occur if we simply left them alone.”
Depuration—essentially, cleaning—is the final part of the process. This involves them sitting in tanks of flowing, filtered water for a minimum of 42 hours. The water, which goes through intense UV-radiation treatment to kill off any bacteria, flushes any remnants of the untreated river water out of the oyster’s system.
We tend to think of oyster farming in terms of fishing, as it takes place on the water. But this is truly a farm, with all the joys and challenges that brings. It is a labour-intensive, highly technical process designed to give the oysters the best possible lives, so that we in turn can enjoy the best possible texture and flavour.
I for one will appreciate that taste of the ocean a little bit more the next time a Wright Brothers oyster arrives at the table.