Of Oysters and Ormers

Our local shores have been fruitful during the recent spate of tempestuous weather.  The normally sheltered east coast of the Cotentin has experienced biting easterly winds, gnashing their teeth around the chinks in our fabric armour.  Thank goodness for the naff pair of shiny purple salopettes I bought in C&A eons ago, and which I wear for fieldwork on the shore in winter (when I hope I won’t meet anyone I know!) …. and also the more up-to-date but rather staid padded goosedown coat I bought last year.  My friend the Carpenter has been sporting the survival suit he reserves for fishing in cold, wet conditions.

We’ve been exploring the  long stretch of sandy coast which runs south from St Vaast to Utah Beach.  Much of this stretch is given over to oyster and mussel culture and at low tide you can walk around the trestles to which the plastic mesh sacks of oysters are secured.  Inevitably, in this very rough weather, some sacks have become detached and they end up strewn across the beaches.  Many of them lie unclaimed and the oysters die, but sacks get ripped open and the oysters ‘escape’ and are scattered by the tides.  We collect these and feast.  There are plenty enough to freeze too, out of their shells, for hot dishes.  On one day we find a full sack of live oysters and lug them back to the car.

There are driftlines of assorted debris, abandoned by the tides.  Cockles and other clams have been washed out of their beds and can be picked up.  One day Nick finds a fully grown ormer (abalone) with the animal intact, but moribund.  It is beyond eating in our view (although our friend the doctor later tells us he might’ve eaten it!) but the shell is beautiful when it is cleaned up.  This is a consistent feature of abalones worldwide.

Ormers are primitive gastropod molluscs in the order Archaeogastropoda. They are sea snails with a low and open spiral structure.  They have an arc of respiratory holes running down one side of the shell’s edge.  The shell’s exterior surface is dull, brownish, rough and bumpy.  It gives no clue as to the dazzling inner layer of the shell which is composed of nacre or mother-of-pearl as it is more commonly known.  It is highly iridescent which makes the shells attractive to humans as decorative objects, and as a source of colourful mother-of-pearl for making jewellery, buttons, fishing lures, small spoons……..

Finding an ormer on my local shore is rather exciting.  They occur on all the Channel Islands, and are collected under certain restrictions which are designed to protect the local populations from over-exploitation.  (Thanks to my friend Paul Chambers who has allowed me to post a couple of his photos of animals in situ on Jersey.)  They are considered a delicacy with a taste quite unlike any other marine molluscs.  They also occur, but not so plentifully, on Breton coasts, and sparingly in Normandy.  I can only guess from where this animal had washed in.  According to Francois, they are certainly known to live on rocks near the Gatteville lighthouse north of us.  My guess is that there are ormers living on the rocks low on the shore, and into the sublittoral, on the far side of Ile Tatihou and I hope I will be able to prove this hypothesis one fine day.


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