Cockle pickers back at work, but Chinese stay away from sands of death

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The Independent Online

There was no mistaking who was missing in the pre-dawn darkness yesterday, as the cocklers of Morecambe Bay progressed across the sands by the light of tractor headlamps to resume their trade for the first time since last week's 19 drownings.

The Chinese, distinguishable by their uniform, lime-green waders and orange jackets, and the laborious walk they often took to the cockle beds while locals hitched a 20-minute ride across the sands on any tractor going, had become an integral part of the daily search for riches here. But none was present in the throng of about 100 cocklers at 6am yesterday.

Alan Archer, 35, a local dairy farmer who had just started cockling to supplement his income, said: "There's not that much talk of them [the Chinese]. All the talking's been done these past few days, but it is certainly different without them. It's a tragedy what happened to them but they didn't have the equipment and they didn't have the vehicles to get them off [the sands] safely. You have to respect this place. A little bit of knowledge and a lot of respect, that's what you need."

Mr Archer's tractor swept past a bouquet of yellow and red roses before rounding a pile of rocks, known as Periwinkle Island, and reaching Warton Sands, the mile-wide strip of land at the apex of two river estuaries where the cockles are found in abundance. This was the place where 19 people were overcome by the tides of the Kent and Keer and died.

Police were present at the shore yesterday to check vehicle registration plates, and fisheries staff were policing a permit system which was abused or ignored in the weeks before the tragedy. It also seems that the disaster will mean an upgrade for the dilapidated signposts telling of the insidious local currents that the Chinese would not have understood as they set out in the dying light. The signs will include warnings in other languages and through symbols.

But no one was giving a second thought to the currents as the cocklers' procession began. This was the first day of a new tidal cycle which allows the cocklers to work safely in the daylight. During the next nine days, they will gradually leave the shore up to an hour later until low tide materialises; too late in the day to give them more than few hours working in safety, just as it did on Thursday.

Mr Archer said: "The tide wasn't out until 3pm or 4pm that Thursday and the weather was filthy. It was a no-go to anyone with sense."

Shaun Scourfield, 37, who was out alongside Mr Archer yesterday, had not even stuck around to collect cockles on the day before the drownings. He said: "I travelled down from North Wales but the amount of rain flowing into the channels made it impossible and I went home with nothing."

Gary Meadows, 36, another of the cocklers, said: "It's the worst beach I've ever worked on and I've worked on a lot of beaches. Every day you go out and it's different. A hole will appear where there wasn't one before. The ground is always moving around. It's weird."

Alan Griffiths was among the 30 cocklers who did brave conditions on the day before the drownings. "We only made a ton on our last day," he said, brandishing a waterproof hand-held global positioning system, technology beyond the dreams of the Chinese workers. "Those people must have been desperate to be out the next day."

Mr Griffiths' new cockling cycle does not begin until today, when the working hours are long enough for Wirral Seafood, the big cockle distribution firm he supplies, to have a wagon on hand to remove the fruits of his labour for eventual shipment to Holland.

Mr Griffiths, 46, said: "This place is not the bed of gold that the Dee Estuary is. The cockles there can be three years old and they were fetching £1,200 a ton in December. They're smaller here. But we won't be unhappy if they tighten restrictions here. The way the Chinese were going, they would have stripped the bed clear in no time."

The criminal investigation into Thursday night's drownings continued yesterday, when police bailed two Merseyside businessmen who had been questioned on suspicion of manslaughter after handing themselves in to police on Monday afternoon. David Eden, 60, and his son, also David, from Wirral, Merseyside, are well known in the cockling industry and must appear at Lancashire police stations in April, by which time a file on their evidence will be considered by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Lancashire police also secured permission to extend the detention of five survivors of the tragedy, who are in custody on suspicion of manslaughter.

The force is being assisted by colleagues on Merseyside, where officers have been conducting Operation Leather, a long-running investigation into people smuggling.

Detectives know that potential witnesses are evaporating fast, as the Immigration Service is now reporting a mass exodus of Chinese from the North-west. Chief Superintendent Wendy Walker said: "They fear being discovered and questioned. But the sad thing is, what are they going to do? Who are they moving to be exploited by next?"

Back on the Morecambe Bay shoreline last night, Alan Archer was clutching 11 bags of cockles, each weighing 40kg, which should have made him £200, and concluded that cocklers would be "back in the old routine" by the end of the week. He said: "It's a bit average when you start back and you build up to it. You get to know the best spots." But the bouquets suggested that the disaster may have changed even the ferocity of legendary cockling rivalries. A gang of Scottish cocklers have been involved in one of the many spats with locals since the bed was opened here on 3 December but they are among those who have laid flowers. "God Bless You's All, from the Jocks - RIP," reads the message.