Organised gangs of ne'er do wells from Llanelli and Laugharne are plundering the molluscs under the very noses of fishery protection officers. The officials are spat at and threatened with violence for attempting to protect the harvest.
The cockle rustlers, who are attempting to muscle in on the industry, operate under cover of darkness. They are equipped with sieves, rakes and stolen four-wheel-drive vehicles for making off with the booty. Lookouts warn the poachers of the presence of inspectors by mobile phone. Fist fights often erupt between rival gangs as they compete for the most toothsome specimens.
The activities are becoming an increasing headache for the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee, which admits that the rustlers are slippery customers. Inspectors have nowhere to hide in the vast wastes of muddy sand exposed by the retreating tide. So they have taken to using night- sights and state-of-the-art telescopes, which can pick out a face at three miles. A record 56 poachers were prosecuted last year, but the committee concedes that it has insufficient staff to police the problem properly. Miscreants are normally fined a few hundred pounds, compared with a maximum pounds 5,000.
A quaint local problem it might be, but it can turn nasty. In the great cockle war of '93 platoons of Deesiders descended on unlicensed beds near Laugharne because of a shortage in their area. Locals, who have no exclusive rights to the harvest in that area, set about the invaders with baseball bats. One merchant was threatened with a shotgun for daring to buy the contraband. Since then there have been skirmishes between locals and the "foreigners" from North Wales, although one police officer in Llanelli looked on the bright side: "When they're out stealing cockles, they are not breaking into people's homes. The greater the value of cockles, the more they go poaching and the lower the crime rate in town."
The price of cockles reached a record pounds 85 a hundredweight towards the end of last year, but has since slipped to pounds 10. Nevertheless the cockleshell cowboys of South West Wales are often out in force. "They seemed to get a taste for it last year when the prices were high," according to an official at the fisheries committee.
It is a risky business. A thorough knowledge of tides is necessary and so is the position of deep gutters, which can't be seen in the dark. The quicksand is also best avoided, says Byron Preston of Penclawdd Shellfish, a co-operative formed by 11 families in the area. The remnants of a recent night can be seen off Llanelli in the shape of a four-wheel-drive vehicle that got stuck and has stayed there ever since, disappearing from view when the tide is in. A minority of the raiders are families who bring their children along to gather what locals believe are the juiciest, meatiest cockles in the world.
While the rustlers get much of the bad publicity, locals point out that licence holders who fish in the Burry Inlet are not above turning a dishonest cockle. In some instances they have even taken to "laundering" the ill- gotten molluscs of the poachers by selling them on to merchants, said a spokesman for the fisheries inspectorate.
Some official operators, such as Jeff Williams who has fished in the licensed Burry Inlet between Llanelli and Penclawdd for 38 years, have incurred the wrath of the committee by exceeding the quota. Mr Williams was caught with more than the legal 500 hundredweight per day and has been suspended from the beds for three months.
Not that there is an insatiable appetite for the product locally. Mr Williams says that the increasing range of food available from all over the world means that South Walians are turning their noses up at cockles and lava bread, the dark green viscous mush made out of seaweed.
Most of the output of Penclawdd Shellfish ends up in omelettes and fish stews on the plates of continentals. When they have a mind to, locals eat them doused in malt vinegar and powdered liberally with white pepper.
What with the fluctuations in price, the depredations of cowboys and the sporadic attentions of fishery inspectors, the industry is in something of a turmoil. "People from London will look at me gathering cockles out in the estuary and say, `Look at that lucky bugger by there'," said Mr Williams, "but I tell you it's no picnic."