The Department of the Environment has banned worm digging in Budle Bay because it is seen to be a crucial sheltering place for migratory birds. The banning order was made under section 29 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 on the grounds that the bay is a coastal habitat in Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, with nationally and internationally important populations of birds.
Sea anglers have appealed against the ban and their case is being be heard at a public inquiry at the Guildhall, Berwick-upon- Tweed, today.
The ban appears to be the first shot in a campaign to restrict bait digging round the coast of Britain. Maps have been drawn up by English Nature showing where anglers dig for worms.
The move to restrict bait digging follows a Court of Appeal decision last year that, under Magna Carta, anglers have a lawful right to dig for worms. In 1215, the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede because he had been selling monopolies over common resources such as fishing. Magna Carta acknowledged that there was a right to fish, to have passage by sea and other matters. However, it was not until last year that the Court of Appeal decided that there was a right to dig for bait on the foreshore, which is ancillary to the right to fish.
The decision means that the right to dig for bait must be acknowledged in court and authorities can only enforce by-laws which forbid bait digging if they can provide an adequate argument against it.
Now local officials in the DoE are seeking to use the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as a means of challenging Magna Carta 1215. The maps show the sites where anglers dig for bait. A note on the map pointing to Budle Bay says: 'Restrictions introduced on account of bird disturbance, damage to commercial mussel beds . . . and mobilisation of heavy metal content of sediment. Intense pressure: 40 diggers on a normal tide; 100 plus at weekends/spring tides.'
Dr Peter Olive, a biologist working at the Dove Marine Laboratory, Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear, found in a study made 10 years ago that, in just three weeks, 4 million worms were taken from Budle Bay by commercial diggers.
'Bait digging cannot be sustained at this level,' Dr Olive said. 'They are destroying the habitat and the food which the birds feed on. If it were possible to restrict bait digging to anglers who take the worms for their own use then it might be tolerated.'
Tony Anderson, the Northumbrian fisherman who established the right to dig for bait in court last year, said: 'Digging doesn't disturb the birds at all. They are attracted by the digging, not frightened by it.'
Mr Anderson argues that fishermen are being unfairly accused of disturbing birds while real disturbance from sportsmen, who shoot thousands of birds a year in the Lindisfarne Nature Reserve, is overlooked by the DoE.
Other sites that the DoE notes on its map are suffering 'habitat disturbance' include all the prime places for worms on the north-east coast, from Spurn Head, Yorkshire, through five sites in Northumberland to the Eden estuary, Fife, and the Ythan estuary north of Aberdeen.
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