Yes, you can pick mussels off the beach in the UK.
However, you need to be very cautious!
In the UK, the general rule of thumb is that you should avoid harvesting them during any month that doesn’t have an ‘r’ in it.
So, refrain from collecting them in the warmer months of May, June, July and August.
The reason for this is that algal blooms are more likely to be present during these summer months and as mussels are filter feeders, they can ingest these algae, which can be toxic to humans if we then go on to eat them.
The 5 golden bivalve rules
These are unashamedly stolen from John Right’s book – Edible Seashore and are a great set of rules to keep in mind when foraging for filter feeders (bivalves).
It’s also a great book to grab if you have an interest in coastal foraging.
1. Consult the locals
Talk to local fishermen and check with local authorities about the water quality in the area where you are looking to pick mussels.
2. Only collect from obviously clean areas
This sounds fairly obvious, but it needs to be said…don’t collect from narrow estuaries, harbours, marinas, or outflow pipes.
Mussels are filter feeders, so use your common sense on this one.
3. Only collect shellfish (mussels) when there is an ‘r’ in the month
Whilst not relevant to every situation, this rule does have good reasoning behind it.
If the month doesn’t have an r in its name, then it is one of the summer months and is when the mussels are most active (filtering lots of water), as well as the warmer water causing algal blooms and more bacteria being in the water.
As mussels are filter feeders, the above does not exactly help matters.
The mussels are also not at their peak condition at this time of year, so all things considered this old adage has a bit of truth behind it and you are usually best off waiting for the cooler months (with an ‘r’ in).
4. Always thoroughly cook the mussels
Unless you are 100% certain that your mussels have come from grade A waters, the only way of being sure that you have killed all bacteria and viruses is the cook the mussels thoroughly.
Cooking will not however remove any algal toxins, which is why you need to be very careful about the time of year you collect and know the waters.
Simply put, don’t eat mussels raw unless you are 100% sure of the water quality and even then you are risking it.
Cooking your mussels minimises the risk.
5. Always check for signs of life before cooking
Check that the mussels shut when you tap them on the side of the cooking pot. If not discard.
Equally, once cooked, only eat the ones that have their shells open.
Can you take mussels from the beach legally?
Yes, as long as local bylaws allow, you can take mussels from the beach in England and Wales without having to worry too much about permissions.
You still need to make sure that you collect them from an area where they are regularly covered by the tide (known as the intertidal zone), and ensure that the water quality is good before harvesting.
It gets a bit more complicated in Scotland as technically all mussels are owned by the Crown.
If you are following the rules, then you should seek permission from the Crown Estate before gathering them.
In reality, if you are just harvesting mussels for your own use, then you are very unlikely to find yourself in trouble and the collecting of wild mussels for personal use is generally tolerated.
Oysters are a different matter though, so it may be a good idea to follow the rules in Scotland if you are collecting these.
How do you harvest wild mussels?
Check with your local authority to see if any kind of license is needed.
Once you know you have permission and once you have found some, whether that be on some rocks or other structure, it’s as easy as getting hold of one and gently twisting it off.
Try not to dislodge the others in the process and just select the mussels that you want.
Is there a size limit on mussels?
This varies depending on the area and local authority, but generally speaking, the minimum in the UK is 45mm, which should be taken along the longest section of the shell.
Any smaller than this and you are damaging the next mussel generation and there is not going to be much meat inside either, so keep your collecting to the adult sizes.
How do you clean mussels from the beach?
An alternative method for processing mussels is soaking them in salt water for 20 minutes and then discarding any that float to the surface.
As mentioned below though, live mussels can potentially have air trapped in them, so this method errs very much on the side of caution.
You can then also tap any open mussels on the side of the pan/bucket etc and they should close up.
If not, then they are dead and should be discarded.
You can use a knife or similar utensil to pull the mussel beards away, leaving you with some nice, clean mussels ready for cooking.
Are some mussels poisonous?
They can be if they are filtering in unclean water and have picked up toxins.
This is why you need to be confident of the water quality in which the mussels you are collecting have been living.
Are mussels a healthy seafood to eat?
Yes. Mussels are considered a healthy seafood to eat.
They contain many beneficial vitamins and minerals including:
> Protein – Mussels are a high-quality, high-protein food, with similar levels to that of red meat.
> Iron – Mussels contain a healthy dose of iron, which is known to be good for your blood system.
> Vitamin A – which is great for your skin, immune system and eyes.
> B12 – an essential vitamin for your heart and overall health.
So yes, all in all, mussels are a great addition to your diet and have many health benefits.
How can you tell if mussels are fresh?
Assuming you have collected them from a clean water area, then follow the below.
If any float discard them and then tap any open mussels on the side of the pan/bowl and they should close. If not, discard these also.
Once cooked, eat only the mussels that have fully opened.
If you follow the above you shouldn’t go too far wrong, but do make sure to check out the 5 golden rules towards the top of this article.
Can you pick mussels off rocks?
Yes, you can pick mussels off the rocks; that is where you are most likely to find them.
One of the best times to collect them is a low spring tide when the water drops considerably.
You obviously need to be very wary of your surroundings though and take all necessary precautions.
Can you pick mussels in June? Can you eat mussels in the summer?
Although you technically can pick mussels in June in the UK, it is not advisable.
Remember the advice of not picking mussels when there isn’t an R in the month.
So May to August.
The reason for this is that the mussels are generally in poorer condition due to spawning during the summer months, as well as the warmer weather usually bringing in the algal blooms.
These can then be taken in by the mussels filtering system, with the risk of this toxicity then being passed on to you when you eat them.
It must be said that this risk is low, but it is a risk all the same.
So the safest bet is to keep it to the colder months when the mussels are in better condition and the algal blooms have disappeared.
Do mussels float in water? Should I discard mussels that float?
They can do if they have air trapped in them, however, they will usually sink.
There is an old method of checking mussels whereby they were soaked in water and if they floated they were discarded as they were thought to be dead, but as you can see, this is not always the case.
Live mussels can float too.
This does provide a belt and braces approach though.
How do you open mussels?
If you want to open up live mussels for cooking via an alternative method, such as frying them etc, then, as long as they are large enough, you can open them up with a knife as shown in the video below
Can You Pick Mussels Off the Beach in the UK? Yes, you can! But you need to be aware of the risks.
Follow the 5 Golden bivalve rules above and treat your harvest with care and you shouldn’t go too far wrong.
If you are interested in coastal foraging, then be sure to also check out our popular article on Limpets, which can be found here.
Also, I would recommend taking a look at John Wight’s book (River Cottage), Edible Seashore.
It has lots more info and facts for the coastal forager to get their teeth into.
You can find a copy here.
Other mussel FAQs
When is mussel season UK?
The mussel season in the UK runs from September, through to April.
These are the colder months of the year.
Remember the old adage about not collecting/eating mussels when there is an ‘R’ in the month.
Do you eat the whole inside of a mussel?
Yes, you can eat the whole inside of a mussel. Even the black bit!
All of the insides are edible, so, as long as the mussel is fresh, don’t think too much about it and enjoy the flavours.
What is the black stuff in a mussel?
The ‘black sack’ is the undigested plankton and other microscopic creatures that are still within the mussel’s digestive tract.
As long as you are collecting from a clean area, then this black stuff is perfectly safe to eat and just adds to the flavour.
Don’t think about it too much and get stuck in!
Are mussels freshwater or saltwater?
In the UK, there are both freshwater and saltwater varieties, although similar, they are different species.
Saltwater mussels (Mytilus edulis) are usually found on rocky shores, submerged structures and occasionally attached to seaweed.
This article focuses on the saltwater variety (UK).
There are however multiple freshwater mussel varieties in the UK.
> Duck Mussel (Anodonta anatina)
> Swan Mussel (Anodonta cygnea)
> Painter’s Mussel (Unio pictorum)
For more info on the freshwater mussel varieties (UK) the Nature Spot site has some good info here.
Is it cruel to cook mussels alive? Do mussels feel pain?
This is a matter of opinion.
Although some would argue that it is cruel to cook anything alive, the fact is that unless you intend to eat them raw (in which you will kill them by eating), in order to eat them in the standard way, you need to cook them somehow.
What happens if you eat mussel beard?
Nothing happens! Mussel beard is edible, if not that tasty, so don’t worry if you eat any.
However, the best bet is to clean them off beforehand.
Do mussels have eyes?
No mussels do not have eyes as such, but they are thought to have sensors that can tell the difference between light and dark, so as to be able to close up if they feel threatened.
Collecting mussels bring with it its own set of dangers, both from environmental conditions, such as tides, wind, sun etc as well as the risk of getting it wrong and giving yourself food poisoning etc.
Please treat the above as a general guide only and cross reference with other trusted information sources, before you harvest and eat any mussels.