Hand digging


Lugworms (Arenicola spp.) and rag worms (Nereis and Nephtys spp.) are traditionally collected by using a fork (occasionally spade) to hand dig over the lower shore of a beach where dense worm beds are present. Each spit of sand is turned over and quickly searched for worms. Where bait species are more sparsely distributed, a more productive method of collection is to search for the signs of burrows of individual animals (i.e. the largest king ragworms Nereis virens) or investigate several areas by digging small holes in order to find a site with a population worth exploiting. Other large burrowing species (razor shells Ensis spp. and other bivalves) are dug in much the same way, usually after finding signs of their siphons. Black lugworms Arenicola defodiens are dug individually, sometimes using a specially adapted spade, to extract them from about an arm’s length depth, but most are now taken by bait pump (see separate section, below).

Slightly different methods may be used by different groups of bait collectors:

Professional and experienced local bait diggers work methodically over a large area of sand (Blake (1979) estimated 200 m2 per tide) by digging a series of adjacent trenches, which are back-filled as they proceed, and take only large worms. This is an economic method of working, minimising the disturbance to the intertidal habitat, and hence recovery of the infaunal community. The method is very efficient and removes the majority of worms in the area dug. Experienced and professional bait diggers tend to manage their activities and local bait populations. They will generally take into account the cost-effectiveness of their efforts and not over-exploit a worm bed when yields begin to fall, provided that alternative sources are available locally.

Less experienced or well-informed bait diggers, usually occasional anglers collecting for their personal use (apparently the majority seen on most beaches) dig numerous scattered holes, which are not back-filled but left open adjacent to the mounds of spoil removed from the trench. Although these bait diggers are less efficient at finding and removing lugworms than professional and experienced bait collectors, they often do not limit the size or number of worms they take and may sometimes exploit nursery areas. Many appear to be prepared to continue bait digging for as long as there are any worms available, regardless of yield per effort. This activity may cause long-term damage to bait stocks and intertidal habitats at some locations.

Collection by more mobile groups of commercial bait diggers is increasingly a source of conflict in many areas. The increasing value of and demand for bait, particularly in the autumn and winter months, has encouraged the formation of informal groups of commercial bait diggers who may travel very long distances to bait beds. Bait supply companies put together teams of bait diggers and provide their transport to new areas of shore, both locally and much further afield. One team of commercial bait diggers reportedly travelled from north-east England to south-west Scotland to dig bait for the winter market (Fowler 1992), and teams of bait diggers from Newcastle have been reported to be digging bait in Scotland during winter 1998/99 (D. Donnan pers. comm.)

Commercial bait digging gangs reportedly dig out bait populations over a period of a few days (e.g. as reported by Arnold and Arnold 1985 and 1987), and sell the worms for resale in commercial outlets, frequently a long distance away. These bait diggers do not have the same incentive to conserve the local bait resource, and may run into conflict with local anglers who take bait for their personal use, or indeed with local commercial bait diggers, over resource use. Additionally, they may not be sufficiently experienced or concerned with local habitat conservation to backfill holes and minimise damage to the habitat and shoreline species.

The increase in commercial baitdigging has resulted in conflict between competing teams of bait diggers and between local anglers and commercial bait diggers. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the increase in bait digging pressures by anglers and new suppliers for the retail bait market, combined with declining local bait resources, have driven some of the traditional bait diggers out of business by over-exploiting their home areas.

Impacts on target species

Impacts on habitat

Impacts on non-target species

Impacts on other shore users

Opportunities for mitigation