Not everything in conservation goes smoothly. As I am learning, sometimes there can be unexpected failure.
In October 2017 I signed up to a marine conservation project set up by the organisation of Capturing our Coast, The project, Spermwatch, involves mapping out 150 metres of beach in three consecutive segments (transects), walking along them at the low tide line on specific dates, counting lugworm sperm puddles, noting these findings and other observations, then submitting them online through a simple survey tool. The project aims to collect as much data as possible to assess which environmental factors influence lugworm spawning, about which little is known. Lugworms are an important food source for fish and seabirds.
I had seen fishermen many times on our local beach, so I felt sure I’d have success, as fishermen use lugworms as bait, don’t they? This was, as I found out later, fallacious logic. And I am not a fisherman.
I set up the transects with the help of a mapping app on my phone, printed and laminated all the information I needed to take with me, checked the low tide times and listed the dates I could manage to do the survey. I was really quite excited.
A lugworm sperm puddle is a whitish puddle, looking very similar to a bird poo. It would be found near a lugworm cast, an extrusion of sand from a lugworm burrow, on the surface of a sandy beach. A cast looks like the squiggly pile made by a cooked strand of spaghetti dropped to the ground. My Italian heritage well qualifies me to use this simile. I’ve dropped a lot of spaghetti in my time. The male lugworm comes to the surface to deposit his sperm near the entrance of a female lugworm burrow, to be washed in by the rising tide to fertilise her eggs. All very courteous, no touch, and reminiscent of some courtly fin-de-siecle salon dance. Only with sperm.
My first survey date happened to fall on a weekend when one of my sisters came to visit. I informed her the night before that we would be going on Spermwatch -hastily explaining what it was, before she repacked her bags to escape from some dark rural Suffolk ritual she’d never heard of. The next day my long-suffering and loyal wife, sister and I set off to the beach, on a cold and windy morning. We looked, and we looked, and we looked. Nothing. Zilch. Not a sausage. Not a single cast or sperm puddle. Not even a bird poo.
We returned to the warmth of home and hot tea, wondering if maybe male lugworms don’t like cold and windy weather. I’m sure I’d think twice before emerging from my safe tunnel to ejaculate on a cold beach. It’s understandable.
So, comforted by this explanation, I planned the next survey. Even more exciting as I would be doing this Spermwatch with my friend Jonny. We’re Mates you see.
Jonny and I set off along the beach at the appointed time, and again, by the end of the first transect, nothing seen. We approached the fishing line of a fisherman, stretching obliquely across our path. As we needed to walk right up to the line and continue the other side of it, and as, presumably, fishermen don’t like seeing people appear to be about to snag their lines, I went up to the elderly man at the mechanical end of the line (the rod I am told -I am not a fisherman) to explain our purpose. He was very old and it was very windy, and it took some time before he understood my explanation of our intentions -very carefully phrased in polite terms, and avoiding all use of the word “sperm”, in case Jonny and I should otherwise find ourselves having to explain ourselves to the local police.
“Lugworms!”, he exclaimed. “You won’t find any lugworms ‘ere. No lugworms between North Norfolk and Ipswich. I’ve fished this beach since the 1950’s. Terrible fishing, Look, all I’ve caught is a coupl’a small dab”. He pointed to two very unhappy looking, small dab listlessly contemplating their demise in a bucket of seawater. “Its all the fault of the Common Market”, he went on. “The Dutch came in and took all the fish away….” his bitter tirade against all things European continued. I managed somehow to close the conversation and escape, thanking him for his time, and leaving him to collect more small fish in the cold.
Jonny and I abandoned the survey and I sadly concluded there was no point in continuing the project. I love the beach and continue to walk there most days with our dogs. Still no lugworm seen. But at least I’ve avoided the headlines in the local press: “Retired local doctor with Jonny claims to be seeking sperm on beach”.