The Burry Inlet, also known as the Loughor Estuary is the region of the waterway below the Loughor road and rail bridges. The estuary of the Afon Lliw is just downstream of the bridges and at low tide, empties almost completely exposing extensive sandy areas and mud flats in which cockles thrive. The cockles gathered here are famed for their flavour and are regarded as being among the best quality of any in Britain.
There is evidence of cockle gathering in the Burry Inlet from the Mesolithic period (15,000 to 5,000 BC) and commercial harvesting during Roman times. In legislation that goes back to Magna Carta, every citizen has the right to pick a small number of cockles per day for their own use; this is currently set at 8kg. The village of Penclawdd and especially the Cockle Women of Penclawdd were particularly associated with cockling from the mid 19th century. The Cockle Women of Penclawdd were famed for their durability and determination. They worked in all weathers and hours dependent on the tide. Their traditional method was to use a long plank of wood with a handle at either end, called a ‘jumbo’, to soften the sand and to suck the cockles to the surface. The cockles were then loosened from the sand using a curved scraper called a ‘scrap’, before being put into piles using a three-pronged iron fork called a ‘cram’.
The cockles were then sorted into size using a large mesh sieve called a ‘riddle’, before being placed into large wicker baskets known as ‘tiernals’, prior to being taken ashore in donkey carts. The women would typically collect between 100-150 kg of cockles per day, which were then taken to market in Swansea aboard the cockle train, or sold door to door in local villages. Nowadays, the cockles are largely exported to continental Europe after being processed in two modern factories in Crofty.
In the 1920’s, the first Minimum Landing Size for cockles was introduced. This was to safeguard the reproductive capacity of the stock and was set initially at ¾” (18.3 mm2). Horse-drawn carts superseded donkeys as the means of transporting the daily harvests, which increased to 500kg per gatherer. The horses were themselves replaced by motor vehicles in the 1950’s which further increased the daily catches and led to daily quotas being introduced.
The Burry Inlet Cockle Fishery Order came into operation in 1965, to support the local cockling industry which was under pressure due to the fluctuation of cockle stocks and the lack of any formal regulation. The 1965 Act deemed that anyone collecting more than 8kg was engaging in commercial fishing and therefore required a licence. They were, however, still required to gather by hand using a rake and a riddle as the Burry Inlet is an internationally recognised site for waders and other wildlife.
In 2002, the Burry Inlet cockle stocks suffered from the first of a series of unexplained recurring annual mortality events, which have led to local gathers fearing for the long-term sustainability of the industry. However, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), which has regulated the Burry Inlet cockle fishery since 2013, said it was sustainable as long as the number of licence holders was closely monitored.