Fisherman claims ancient right to dig for worms

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A MAN found guilty of digging for worms to use as bait, contrary to a by-law, is to be acquitted after taking his case to the Court of Appeal. But the issue of whether a legal right to dig for worms exists, inherited from Magna Carta, will be decided by the court before Christmas, Lord Justice Evans and Mr Justice Macpherson said yesterday.

Anthony Anderson was found by a policeman digging for worms in February 1990 at Boulmer Haven in Northumberland at a point below the mean low water mark. It was held that he had contravened Alnwick District Council's by-law which prohibited bait digging in the haven. He maintains he had a right to dig for bait which is ancillary to the right to fish, a right which the court acknowledged went back to Magna Carta.

Detailed evidence was heard on what rights were ancillary to the right to fish. Whether, for example, a fisherman had a right to cross the foreshore, moor a boat, place his kit upon the shore, or dry his nets. Although these rights may or may not exist, there is no right to gather musssels from the shore, the court heard, placing in doubt any alleged right to gather worms.

Legal argument turned to the question of how close to the sea the writ of the local authority runs. The boundary between the sea and the land has long been taken to be the mean high tide mark. However, no corresponding boundary has been definitively accepted in law on the seaward side.

The case against Mr Anderson was weakened by the fact that the council had distributed a map with copies of its by-law on digging which showed a shaded area corresponding, at least approximately, to the area between mean high and low tides. If the authority's case falls only on this point then it may redraft the law and effectively prohibit bait digging. However if a right to dig for bait is acknowledged then the council may only regulate the activity.

The case is important because local authorities are increasingly restricting bait digging and fishermen have to travel further afield to obtain bait. Mr Anderson, who won a fishing contest with the worms he obtained in Boulmer Haven two years ago, will be competing again tomorrow, but will not be going to Boulmer Haven for his bait.