Thousands of mussels, sea snails and peeler crabs thrive on the four- mile chalk reef at Botany Bay near Margate, Kent. They are being ravaged, however, by beachcombers who gather seafood in groups of up to 100 at a time.
When the Tidy Britain Group last week issued its Beach Care Code for Children, calling for sea shells to be left on the seashore, they were labelled as the ultimate beach-party poopers. But the organisation had places such as Botany Bay in mind.
Erosion, caused by a number of factors, including unusually stormy weather, rising sea levels and offshore dredging is causing increasing concern for Britain's shorelines. Quarrying of both the commercial and the casual variety is also making conservationists anxious.
English Nature are monitoring the underwater stretch of Botany Bay's reef, a site of special scientific interest, to establish if it is being damaged.
Hidden from view for most of the day, at low tide the reef is a magnificent sight, as the chalk and seaweed stretch 50 yards into the sea, a glistening combination of white and varied shades of green. The setting is enhanced by the adjacent spectacular chalk stacks. In the white cliffs there are derelict smugglers caves dating back 200 years.
Conservationists fear that if the shellfish population is wiped out it will disturb the balance of this delicate eco-system. "We don't have a problem with children putting a few shells into their bucket but these people are filling up builders' buckets," said Chris Tull, senior leisure officer at Thanet District Council.
"Most of these people come down at weekends and are part of extended families of Asian origin. We're pretty sure it's not commercial but the effect is almost the same. They are clearly very partial to shellfish. Our main concern is sustainability. If too many are removed they will be wiped out."
It is not only the gathering of living shellfish for food that is of concern. Mark Lloyd of The Tidy Britain Group, who is also secretary of the National Aquatic Litter Group, said the large-scale removal of empty shells puts eco-systems at risk.
"We're trying to show people that these resources are finite and to raise awareness that beaches are not just places for people to sunbathe," he said. "People do take large quantities, filling their gardens full of shells as a display. But shells provide homes for invertebrates and fish lay their eggs under them. Any sort of damage to beach or cliffs will affect the food chain."
The Marine Conservation Society is also concerned about the unrestricted removal of items from beaches. "There's a growing interest in having pebbles and stones for housekeeping and the commercial side of removing them should be controlled," said director of conservation Sam Pollard.