Let's build homes fit for happy lobsters

Maybe the fishermen could wear berets and matelot shirts and sing Gaelic sea-shanties
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The Independent Culture
"DEAR DAVID Attenborough. Could a lobster live in a concrete block and if it could, would it be happy? I only ask because they're planning to build an artificial concrete reef in the loch beside the island in Scotland to which we escape every summer and, to put it bluntly, some of the islanders are not exactly overjoyed at the prospect. Please advise soonest. Yours, S A."

I'm sure he'll reply. My mother wrote to Sir David (and got a hand-written letter by return) about a squirrel which keeps vandalising the nut feeder she hangs outside her bedroom window for the birds. She claims to have seen it undo the screw that holds the feeder base in place and then snaffle the contents. I bet she didn't tell him that she hides behind her bedroom curtains and takes pot shots at poor old Nutkin with an air gun. Anyway, to get back to the lobsters. The idea of building an artificial reef originated at the nearby marine research laboratories, who contacted the local quarry to see if they could provide the concrete blocks. Since it happens to be the biggest quarry in Europe (its owner regularly features in the Ten Richest People in Britain charts), whose Hadean depths have provided the granite to build most of Britain's motorways and all the Channel Tunnel, this didn't seem too much to ask.

Here's where the story takes a sinister twist. Instead of making the blocks from the usual grit they sell to concrete block makers, the quarry suggested they might use the vast quantities of dust that they are left with when the granite chippings have been washed. At the moment they dump it in lagoons or landfill sites at seven quid a ton - which doesn't sound much, but soon adds up when you work out how much granite the Channel Tunnel, the Newbury bypass or the Hanger Lane gyratory system must have used and how much dust they had to wash out of it.

The snag with dust is that to make it blockable you have to mix it with more than the usual quantity of fly ash - a binding agent commonly used in block-making. Fly ash - that you get from burning fossil fuels - contains trace elements which if deposited in large quantities in sea water might well contaminate it. Ghastly visions of nine-headed mutant Ninja herring floating belly-up in the polluted waters of the Firth of Lorne past before the eyes of the more imaginative locals. To allay their fears, a well- primed, fish-loving eco warrior was despatched from the quarry to talk to the islanders. It was, by all accounts, a stormy meeting in which accusation, recrimination, insinuation, insult and a fair amount of dirty linen played as much part as enthusiastic talk about experimental reefs, coastal enhancement and sheltered housing for shellfish.

As a non-involved arriviste, I am loathe to take sides. I've met the manager of the quarry, a charming Canadian who once offered to let me have a few blocks of natural granite to enhance my garden, a la Henry Moore, and even laid on a guided tour with lunch for me to choose them. I've also talked to people whose homes will overlook the proposed reef and its concomitant dangers and I sympathise with their concern. "Overlook" is not the right word, for there will be nothing to see since the blocks will lie on the seabed. If, on the other hand, the lobsters take to their new accommodation, there will be a lot of fishing boats to-ing and fro- ing, but surely creel fishermen plying their time-honoured trade is not just picturesque, but a positively welcome sight in these dark days of poisoned fish farms and factory trawlers.

Maybe the fishermen could be persuaded to wear berets and matelot shirts and sing traditional Gaelic sea-shanties as they haul in their creels adding to the picturesque charm of the scene. As a tourist attraction it could rival St Ives. Why, you wouldn't be able to move for artists' easels and documentary film-makers.

Talking of poison, the latest news from the marine laboratories is that the fly ash content of the blocks has been reduced from 20 per cent to two per cent, thus reducing the dangers of contamination to roughly the same level as the radiation your supposed to absorb from eating a brazil nut.

My chief reservation to the scheme is that if I support it I shall fall even fouler of the cruelty to shellfish lobby, who are currently hounding me. I wrote a piece recently about prawns and had a vitriolic letter from the CIA - Crustacea in Agony - giving lurid details of the torment shellfish suffer when being boiled alive.

The lobster we had for supper the other night didn't complain a bit - but that's probably because it came from a happy home, and if a happy home is a concrete block containing two per cent fly ash, then there's surely no harm done.

What do you think, Sir David?