Pickers muscle in on bumper cockle harvest: Michael Prestage on a shellfish bonanza in South Wales that has led to violence

POLICE officers stood by yesterday to prevent violence as a JCB digger from Carmarthen District Council cleared tons of boulders blocking an entrance to the beach at Ferryside on the Towy estuary, South Wales, the setting for a cockle war between rival pickers.

On Friday six men were injured in an attack with cudgels and baseball bats in the latest outbreak between local and professional pickers from the Deeside area of North Wales, who have moved in to take advantage of a bonanza crop.

Chief Inspector Gwilym Evans, of Carmarthen police, said there was a fight between a local gang and the Deeside pickers. Three people were taken to hospital and later discharged. Another three injured at the scene did not require hospital treatment. A police appeal for witnesses has had a limited response.

Yesterday, vehicle access to the beach had been blocked by locals. The council was called in to clear the barricade. Police were on hand to prevent further skirmishes.

Up to 100 people at a time have been on the beach at Ferryside, taking advantage of the crop of cockles, which have thrived in commercial quantities for only the third time in 50 years. On one day last week more than 40 tons of the shellfish were harvested at an average price of pounds 10 a hundredweight (51kg).

At the nearby Burry Inlet commercial beds can only be harvested by licence holders. But because an abundance of cockles at Ferryside is so rare, there are no regulations and a free-for-all has developed.

Stephen Holland and Chris Mossman, from Flint, North Wales, employ more than 20 men and travel the country in search of cockles, using two articulated trucks, tractors and all-terrain vehicles.

Mr Holland said: 'We are here for the duration, until the beds reach a level where it is no longer viable for the lads to pick. I don't mean clearing the beds. There will still be some left.'

Andre Swiston, a local cockle picker, said of incoming gatherers: 'They have no right to come here. We want to gather cockles here for the next 40 years and not just for a couple of weeks.'

The South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee said it was powerless to prevent anyone picking. 'It is a gift of nature for everybody to enjoy on a public fishery,' Haydn Morgan, Fisheries Officer, said.

(Photographs omitted)