Court sets legal right to dig for worms on shore

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The Independent Online
THE RIGHT TO dig in the foreshore for worms to use as bait has been established for the first time in English law. The right had existed since time immemorial, Lord Justice Evans and Mr Justice Macpherson said yesterday in the Court of Appeal, but it had never been defined before.

Their judgment went back to Magna Carta (1215) for its authority. Before 1215 the Crown granted fishing rights to individuals, but the barons regarded this as an abuse and it was ended by Magna Carta. After that a private right to fishing could only be justified by reference to an earlier Royal Grant. Where no such right exists, which is the case around most of the coastline of England and Wales, there is a public right to fish and also to dig for bait, which is ancillary to the right to fish. The case arose from an appeal by Tony Anderson, a fisherman from Whitley Bay, Northumberland, who was fined pounds 50 by magistrates for digging for bait in Boulmer Haven, Northumberland, contrary to a by-law passed by Alnwick District Council.

Mr Anderson's conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal judges yesterday on technical grounds. In their judgment a map which had been attached by the local authority to the by-law defined the area where bait digging was forbidden. The area went only as far as the mean (average) low water mark and Mr Anderson was digging on the seaward side of that line.

Lord Justice Evans said that the law allowed a fisherman to take small fish or crabs from a seaside pool to use as bait for a larger fish, but if Alnwick council was correct, he may not take or use a single ragworm for the same purpose without permission. He said that an explicit right to dig for worms had not been established previously, but there was also no indication that the activity had ever been challenged before.

'The most likely explanation is that no one doubted that the right to take fish from the sea included the right to dig worms from the foreshore as bait,' Lord Justice Evans said. But the judgment was based on wider grounds. 'To restrict the use of worms as bait . . . would itself have been a restriction on the right (to fish). We hold therefore that a public right to take worms from the foreshore is recognised by the common law and may properly be described as ancillary to the public right to fish.'

However, it did not follow that the right to dig for bait was unrestricted. 'This means, in our judgment, that the taking of worms must be directly related to an actual or intended exercise of the public right to fish. Taking for commercial purposes such as sale is not justified in this way,' Lord Justice Evans said.

Councils will now have more difficulty in enforcing by-laws intended to regulate or prohibit bait digging. Magistrates will have to balance a person's right to dig for bait for personal use against the reasons of the council for forbidding the activity.