By Nick Turnbull

It's been an interesting winter so far - generally quiet with high pressure allowing work to continue unabated at our intertidal oyster site. This is very unusual, normally deep depressions cross Scotland at this time of year prevent the tides from going out very far and consequently not allowing access to the trestles and bags of oysters. Yesterday when we took the water temperature from the long line site it was 9 degrees Celsius - the highest temperature I ever remember in January. Global warming? It can't all be bad news, as it probably keeps the oysters feeding and growing in months traditionally regarded as dormant months for shellfish. However everything has a knock on effect and we have yet to know how this will affect the marine environment and the species living in it. My younger son fishes for crab and lobster and he is increasingly seeing species that I never saw when I fished, such as spider crab and trigger fish.

Of course just as you get lulled into complacency, winter rears its ugly head in earnest, even if for just a few days. Last week the wind suddenly swung round to the north and a cold blast from the Arctic reminded us just how bad it could be on a north facing shore! The wind was strong and a proper severe gale. Working in these conditions is not easy with hailstones "shot" with force straight at your head, numbing the brain and slowing down physical effort. However it soon passed, the damage sorted and with a return of warm air, the brain or what's left of it, returns to a reasonable thinking process again. Like many working in the marine environment, we are probably obsessed with the weather and tides, they do of course impact on every aspect of our working lives - sorry!

Since the last blog our farm equipment has undergone a complete transformation. Gone is the old "rattling" grader to be replaced by our new quiet water grader. This was a big decision for us as the new grader was a big investment. The French industry, always innovative, has developed these water graders to cause less stress to the oysters. Having used this grader now for a couple of months we can already see the benefits. There are so many other benefits from this grader and coupled with a few ancillary pieces of equipment we can now double or treble the number of oysters we grade in the day.

Sales continued to be good and the run up to Christmas and New Year was excellent. With the quieter weather we managed all deliveries onto the mainland without a hitch. Normally we anticipate "panics" at this time of year, with cancelled ferries and a plan B put into place, so this was so much more relaxing! Now of course we are building up stocks for the next big event, St. Valentine's Day. How quickly this seems to come after the build up to Christmas and New Year. Our thanks go as ever to the Scottish Shellfish staff who manage the complexity of matching orders from remote farms into their factory then delivery out to the retail markets at what can be a difficult time of year. We are all getting better at forecasting the right quantities for delivery.

The oysters are looking and tasting good just now and the meat content is also good. We continue to work towards improving the quality of our oysters and believe by growing our own stock from the hatchery right through to the finished product we now have a better handle on the whole process.

As our customers increasingly gain knowledge of shellfish products and confidence in the shellfish products they are eating, it would be good if we could differentiate from oysters from other parts of the country with tasting notes a bit like you get when buying a bottle of wine or one of my favourite Islay whiskies. Perhaps one for the future?

Bud the oyster dog

Image above: Bud the oyster dog

With the growing season well underway there is work to be done every way you turn.  Oysters grow particularly quickly on the outer site and need graded every month, bags to be turned and in some cases oysters to be re-bagged due to overcrowding caused by their fast growth.

This early growth that was so promising, slowed down in May and June and has only really picked up again in mid-July.

This has put a strain on our harvesting commitments, and if these natural events are happening on our farm, then the likelihood is that it is happening to everyone else and it is testament to the great work of everybody at SSMG in ensuring customers are kept fully supplied with the highest quality oysters. As August creeps in and all is coming right, it won't be long before our oyster farms are agitating to sell more produce!

Over the years, whether it be oysters or mussels the one problem that occurs over and over again is matching the supply and demand.  I believe we have all got better at forecasting and delivering on these forecasts.  However, the growth and delivery of these shellfish depends on many factors, sometimes totally outwith the control of the grower.  Oysters unlike mussels are slightly more predictable as they don’t depend upon a natural spat fall.

As far as oysters are concerned we are trying to develop our growing cycle to enable us to have greater control over the whole process.  So it was great to be able to show Gillian Dickie and Nic Cargill from SSMG and the technical staff of a supermarket chain what we are trying to achieve.  I hope they found this process interesting – and I do know for sure that ‘Bud the oyster dog’ was a big hit with all of them.  The classic tractors also received a lot of attention!

As part of our expansion strategy, we are working on developing our deep water site.  This continues to perform well and we have recently increased the longline length and number allowing us to grow more hatchery seed and to a bigger size.  One of the really good things about today's technological world is the ease of communications from growers all over the world, meaning that we can learn from each other what works and what doesn't .  When we started growing oysters we relied on our own somewhat insular ideas to figure out the growing techniques.  This led to many mistakes before succeeding. It also led to some interesting and individual growing methods!  I intend to go into much more detail regarding these events, with my presentation at the forthcoming Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers conference in October.

We are now looking forward to our new grading equipment arriving from France - a water grader, that can now be viewed in action on YouTube or the makers own website. How good is it to see this bit of equipment actually working compared to the old diagrams and occasional photos? However, it is always good to go and meet farmers actually using this equipment both to see the equipment in real time use and importantly get their opinions on performance, etc. It is encouraging that most farmers have been only too happy to share their knowledge on the latest technology.

Will this be the last time we are part funded from the EU on this new and innovative equipment? Without this funding some alternative would need to be found to ensure the shellfish industry can continue to expand at the rate previously expected.   I would imagine that most of us involved in aquaculture view the impending exit with a degree of trepidation.

No doubt there have been heated discussions and arguments as to how all this will affect the Scottish shellfish industry, and am sure this will continue to be discussed at the forthcoming conference and round pub tables for some time to come.

Winter time is turning into one of the busiest harvesting periods for the oyster farms with excellent sales through December, a small respite in January and then even better sales through February culminating in the big push for St. Valentine's Day. This is surely a boon for all oyster farmers in what used to be traditionally a quiet time of year. So well done to SSMG staff for working hard on the marketing to make this happen.

An article about our own farm in the Waitrose magazine will have no doubt helped sales. It is great for consumers to understand what goes into producing a quality oyster and of course the photograph that accompanied the article highlights the wild, remote location.

While all this is good news for oyster turnover, it also brings with it some logistical problems particularly for Island farms who are always constrained by transport problems in winter.

The weather this winter has been particularly unpredictable, with a number of named storms creating havoc with ferries and for us potential problems in meeting delivery dates. However with a careful watch on the forecasts we have juggled deliveries to meet all our commitments - and now the Spring approaches surely it will get easier.

Coupled with this poor weather is the unusual fact that there has only been one week of proper working low tides since November. Low pressure systems that bring all the storms and push the tide high, conversely, don't go out far. Intertidal oyster farming depends on the tide dropping enough for the tractor and trailer to get round the trestles and pick up the oyster bags that are strapped to them. Our own farm anticipated this might be a problem and had built up good stocks of marketable oysters higher up the beach, accessible at all but the poorest of tides, still, this didn't stop us plunging up to the top of our waders to get oysters when it looked like we needed more. A small hole in the wader at this time of year and boy do you know about it!   Like other oyster farms we managed to keep grading even when it looked impossible, it is amazing what you can do when the pressure is really on.

The last big tide in February allowed us to work longer and with our first delivery of seed, thankfully gave us time to have all this securely strapped down at low water, before the next storm rolled along.

There is much work awaiting us as the weather improves and the tides finally reveal all the oysters that have been lurking under the water for the last three months. Our farm is investing in new equipment including a water grader -- this should improve the stock and allow us to grade the smaller oysters throughout the year. An added benefit allows us to grade at any time of year rather than trying to do everything in a short time in the Spring as we normally do.

So there we have it - the oysters have hunkered down, battled against the winter odds and are ready for a spring take-off much the same as those who farm them!

Have a good season.