FROM the bed of Lochryan, to the plates of some of the most exclusive restaurants in London in one day.
Oysters off the coast of Stranraer are a much sought after delicacy, with the attraction of being farmed from the only remaining natural fishery in Scotland.
Plucked from the seabed covered in mud and hardly standing out amongst all the other debris from the water, their appearance belies the premium-priced food sealed tightly inside.
This native creature can attract prices of up to £50 for just six shells in Harrods, and graces the menu at the Savoy, the Ritz and Selfridges.
Tristan Hugh-Jones manages the award-winning fishery and has been involved in farming oysters for about 40 years.
When he was just ten, he was already steering the boat for his parents’ fishery off the coast of his native Cork. Since 1996, he has been in charge of ensuring the estimated five million oysters in Lochryan stay stocked.
“We are the last remaining native oyster bed, there are no others like it in Scotland,” he said. “There are reasons for that, one being that the entire bed is protected by the owners, the Wallace family. They decide what happens.
“Historically, public beds have been overfished. It means the population is depleted to a point where they won’t recover.”
Lochryan, however, also has another weapon in its armoury to help keep the bed alive – something a little more basic.
Tristan said: “There is an uneven balance of male to female oysters. In Lochryan, it is approximately three females to two males. In some of the English beds it can be as much as six to one. It reduces your breeding capacity when it is skewed as much as that. It’s probably just luck but there could also be a genetic reason.”
The loch has been the subject of PHD university research for the last three years to find out what is happening with the gene pool.
Fishing takes place almost right through the year or in the months with an ‘R’, as skipper of the Vital Spark, Rob Lamont, puts it.
That means the oysters are left to breed in the summer months while the boat remains moored in Stranraer.
During winter, Rob and John Mills are back out on the water while it is still dark dredging for oysters.
There are hotspots where they grow better, and again Lochryan has proved to be a natural breeding ground.
Rob said: “The best place to get them is just south of Cairnryan. It’s sheltered and the tide brings in food for them. Further up the loch and there are the ferries, further down and you find they just sink into the mud and they can’t get any food.”
With every dredge, the farmers are also laying the foundations to ensure the population of the bed is protected.
The net is lowered for eight minutes at a time. When it is opened everything is dumped on to a table, which Rob and James will meticulously sort through.
Just the oysters of the correct shape and size will be kept. Only the finest are sent to London.
Everything else is thrown back overboard into the loch to keep the stocks high – but not necessarily in the same place.
Rob said: “We use a computer to plot everywhere we have been, and we’ll record if there were any oysters there or not.
“You’ll see that there are lots of points marked south of the ferry terminals, because that’s where we go a lot, and virtually nothing past that.
“Some days we’ll go searching to see what we’ll find because they will grow virtually all over the loch. We also drop some of the rejected oysters into some of those places to help with the breeding.”
Once they’re landed on the shore they are kept in water until they are taken down south to be scanned to make sure there are no pearls hiding inside.
Then Tristan sells them directly to London stockists, where they could be on someone’s plate “shucked” 24 hours after leaving Stranraer.
There are plans a-foot to try to tempt oyster aficionados up to Scotland and use the unique status of the fishery in Lochryan to attract tourists to the area.
An oyster festival has been mooted by the Solway Firth Partnership in a blueprint for how the loch could be used in the future.
With Agnew Park right next to the harbour and set to undergo a facelift itself this year, the pieces could be falling into place.
Tristan said: “It certainly might draw people into the area. It could also be more than just an oyster festival, it could be a general sea food festival in Stranraer, there could be bands and whatever else.
“We could let people try some oysters. The schools could also get involved. There’s no saying how big it could be at the moment but it is quite exciting.”
BY: David Mackay