Wild edible mussels (Mytilus edulis L.) thrive around the Gower coast in South Wales. Although the area is perhaps better known for cockles (Cerastoderma edule L.), mussels grow in great abundance and are the second most important shellfish exploited in this area.
Good spatfalls result in millions of tiny mussels seeming to settle on every available surface that is subject to inundation by the sea, if only fleetingly at high tide or even just spray from the incoming tide. Rocks and boulders are obvious surfaces but strands of algae and living limpets also provide suitable habitats. The upper rocky shores appear to glisten with a richly textured carpet of the new generations of this bivalved mollusc. From a distance the mussel shells look black but, up close, it’s possible to see just how colourful and patterned some of these shells can be.
Not all the young mussels survive. These small seashore creatures compete for space on the settlement substrates. Some specimens fail to make it to maturity. Those that outlive the others can grow to good size. I feel particularly sorry for the poor old limpets which are increasingly weighed down as the covering mussels grow larger and larger.
Storm event and natural mortality can result in huge numbers of empty mussel shells on the beaches. Mostly, the empty shells are found with the two halves of the shell (the valves) stuck together by the ligament, as in life. They can look like decorative dark blue butterflies settled en masse on the sand. The last time I visited the place where Broughton Bay and Whiteford Sands meet, the strand-line was thickly covered with very smelly mature dead mussels on which the local gulls were feasting.
It is the small seed mussels that are collected regularly at extreme low tides from the boulders and pools around the old rusty iron lighthouse at Whiteford Point. In the next posting I’ll talk about how this is done and what happens to the millions of baby mussels that are collected.
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