Page last updated at 07:32 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010

Apprenticeships for ancient cockling skills on Deeside

Rake up and smell the cockles - licences have been restricted to 50 on the Dee estuary, although more than 200 people wanted them

By Neil Prior
BBC Wales news

With around 12,000, or 10% of all Wales' youngsters officially designated as 'Not in Employment Education or Training', Environment Agency Wales has urged people in Deeside between 16 and 24 years old to ditch Neets and take up nets.

They're creating three sponsored cockle-picking apprentice licences, to complement the strictly limited 50 professional permits available in the estuary.

Alan Winstone, Environment Agency Wales, is hoping for new blood for the ages-old job.

"Cockle picking isn't seen as a particularly glamorous career move, and it's probably not something which many young people in Deeside have ever considered," he said.

"As a result the current pool of pickers is ageing, and if we do nothing, then in a decade or so the ancient skills will be lost to us.

"Also, with such an uncertain situation with the economy it's important to diversify, and the message that we're trying to send out with the apprenticeships is that it can not only be a lucrative profession, it's also rewarding and essential work to protect and maintain the ecology of the estuary."

Alan Winstone
With the measures we've introduced, we've been able to ensure that enough cockles are left in the beds each year to protect the habitat
Alan Winstone, Environment Agency Wales

The art of cockle picking has changed very little in about 1,000 years. Pickers travel on small boats (coracles in previous centuries, but most commonly rigid inflatables nowadays) to reach submerged sand banks.

As the tide goes out, they use hand rakes to unearth the cockle beds located just beneath the surface. The cockles are sorted by passing through a type of large sieve which allows juvenile fish to fall back to the beds and carry on growing.

The boats are carried into shore on the in-coming tide, where they can off-load their catch - up to half a ton for experienced and skilful cocklers.

The three successful apprentices will be supported by Environment Agency Wales, and trained in first aid as well as basic sea navigation, tides and the geography and ecology of the area, said Mr Winstone.

'Huge profit'

He added: "The apprentices will have to be sponsored by an existing professional licence-holder, and whilst there's no direct incentive from the environment agency to take on an apprentice, working in a team will double their quota and halve the amount of time it takes them to harvest it."

In 2008, strict regulations were introduced to end the boom-and-bust cycle on the Welsh cockle beds, and discourage large operations from dominating the trade.

"With the measures we've introduced - limits on the numbers of permits, the maximum catch and the size and type of boats and rakes which can be used - we've been able to ensure that enough cockles are left in the beds each year to protect the habitat.

"It also levels the playing field, so the beds provide a decent income for 50 people, rather than a huge profit for two or three gang-masters, as has happened in some parts of the UK."

Environment Agency Wales said the required investment in equipment for any interested youngsters would be around £2,500 to £3,500, and that a skilful cockler can earn between £250 and £500 a day for six months of the year.

If the scheme in Deeside is successful this season, which runs between July and December, then it could be spread to include the south Wales cockle beds of the Burry Inlet for the 2011 season.

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