Found on rocky shorelines across the UK, the common limpet is an almost guaranteed find for the shoreline hunter and is a handy addition to any foraging trip.
With that in mind, let’s look at some limpet facts…
What are limpets?
Limpets are small, cone-shaped creatures that live on rocks in the inter-tidal zone.
They are usually spotted at low tide clamped to rocks and should you try and pick one up, will nearly always clamp down and become immovable. They are seriously impressive in this regard.
In this clamped state, they don’t really do a lot, but once the tide returns, and they have submerged once again, they ‘spring to life’ and start going about their business of feeding on their chosen home.
There are two main types to be found in Britain, the common limpet and the slipper limpet.
Today we will focus on the common limpet.
What do limpets eat?
At high tide, the limpet feeds by slowly moving around its chosen rock, feeding on algae and similar vegetative marine life.
Although classed as herbivores, they are also thought to eat small creatures like young barnacles etc.
What is the scientific name for limpets?
The scientific name for the common limpet is patella vulgata.
Patella vulgata are the European common limpets and as the name suggests – are of the Patella genus
These are marine gastropod molluscs and are in the Patellidae family.
Can you eat common limpets? Are common limpets edible?
Yes, you can eat common limpets providing you follow the advice below.
Although I can say with confidence that there are certainly tastier wild treats to be had, the limpet is certainly worth knowing about from a wild food perspective, even if that said food does sometimes resemble the texture of pencil rubbers.
Are limpets healthy to eat?
Yes, as long as they were a healthy limpet when you collected them and you have stored and prepared them correctly, limpets are a high protein snack, with many many other vitamins and minerals to boot.
Do limpets have eyes?
Yes, the common limpet has a left and a right ‘eye‘, but there is little research on what they can actually view with these.
They also have two antennae for feeling their way around and sensing. The combination of the two helps them build up a picture of what is around them when hunting for food.
Can limpets swim?
Juvenile limpets spend the first part of their lives as free-swimming planktonic creatures and therefore do technically swim.
Once they mature though, they find a home that they like and stay put.
Fully grown limpets do not swim. They use their foot to travel across surfaces.
Where are limpet shells found?
The common limpet can be found in coastal areas all over the British Isles
They are not usually hard to find and are generally located in shallow water, on rocks or cliffs that are within the intertidal zone.
What is unique about the intertidal coastline?
The intertidal coastline or intertidal zone is unique in the fact that it is submerged by seawater around 2 times a day.
It is essentially the section of shoreline that is between the high and low watermark.
This area is fully submerged at high tide and then dry again at low tide.
Creatures and plants must therefore be able to survive in both of these states.
This makes for a special environment that supports many different creatures including limpets, starfish, sea anemones, sea stars, mussels, winkles, crabs and many more.
How do you identify a limpet?
What does a limpet look like?
The common limpet is cone-shaped and easy to identify. There will often be many limpets attached to one rock, in varying sizes.
Their shape and ability to tightly attach themselves to rocks allows them to remain in place – even whilst getting pounded by strong waves.
Do limpets bite?
No, well they wont bite you anyway.
Limpets have a super tongue which they use to feed with. This is known as a radula.
The radula is similar to a tongue, but has rows of tiny ‘teeth’ attached.
As you can probably imagine, this radula is extremely tough, as it needs to be able to scrape food off rocks when feeding.
Indeed, UK engineers discovered that the teeth attached to this are made from the toughest biological material that has ever been tested.
Limpets will generally stay in a localised area and not stray too far from their home, which they will always come back to when the tide goes back out.
Over time, this can cause an indentation on the rock which is known as a ‘home scar’.
The limpet clamps down on this section of rock, using its powerful ‘foot’ and remains there until the tide comes back in and it’s ready to move and feed again.
How do you forage for limpets?
Common Limpets can be collected all year round.
Ensure that the area you intend to forage from has a regular and strong tide to ensure that the limpets are regularly submerged.
Also, check that the local area has good water quality and is free from pollutants.
The common limpet is an important part of the ecosystem, keeping the rock’s algal growth in check.
It is vital therefore that you do not gather too many from one area, as an imbalance can occur.
Good practice would be to take only one from each rock or immediate area, leaving the others to carry on their good work.
If there is only one on a rock, then leave it be. Do not over-collect in one area.
Fill your bucket or collecting vessel with fresh seawater and place some carefully collected seaweed in as well if available.
This will help to keep your limpets fresh.
How do you remove limpets from rocks?
A variety of tools can be used to prize the limpet away, including an old chisel or sharp implement such as a knife etc, but a rock will usually do and is usually readily available.
One thing to know when collecting limpets is that you only really get one good chance at them.
Although they will be stuck to the rock when you approach them, they are not usually ‘fully clamped’.
A sharp whack from one side will usually dislodge them.
If you do not manage to dislodge them on the first whack, or they sense you coming, they will fully clamp down on the rock and you will have a hard time getting them off the rock, no matter how hard you try.
They are unbelievably strong.
You can follow up with a second strike very shortly after the first one, but if this fails, leave them alone or you risk damaging them, as they will now have fully clamped down.
Your best bet is to go and find another to work on.
When collecting them myself, I generally have one hand holding the dislodging rock and my other hand is placed on the opposite side of the limpet, ready to catch the dislodged morsel before it disappears into the brine below.
In a good area, it is not hard to quickly collect a bucketful. Remember, do not take more than you need.
If your camp is based nearby, you can always return if necessary, or visit another spot.
Can you eat a limpet raw?
The common limpet is edible and can be eaten raw, but you’re probably going to want to cook it.
Check that the limpet is still alive, especially if it has been a while since collection.
You will see it moving, so it’s not hard to check this.
Are limpets tasty?
I’m going to get straight to the point here and say that limpets probably aren’t going to on your top 10 list of bushcraft cuisine.
The fact is that they are usually chewy, really chewy – no matter what you do to them!
The flavour isn’t bad, it’s like a chewy mussle, but the texture isn’t always great – well never great actually!
Some say not to cook them for too long, but they seem to be chewy whatever you do to them, so just expect that to be the case.
One way to combat the chewiness is to finely chop them and add them to other dishes so that they are more easily consumed.
This can be done after they are cooked and then added to a curry or stew etc.
They will certainly add a new dimension to the dish!
Caveats aside, they are definitely worth a try and can form a great addition to other foods if prepared in a certain way.
If you want to cook them on their own, try cooking them upside down, straight on the embers of your fire.
If you have the luxury, try adding some olive oil and some garlic to add some flavour and cook until the oil starts to bubble.
Remove from the shell, remove the black part if you wish and enjoy.
I can guarantee you will remember the experience.
What do limpets taste like?
Limpets have a taste of their own, but to give you a rough idea – they taste a bit like a chewier version of a mussle and are equally sweet in taste.
Can you fry limpets?
Yes. You can fry them in their shells, or for a more direct method, you can remove them from their shells, tenderise them with a meat hammer or similar and then fry.
You can fry them as is, or coat them in a flour mixture first, depending on your preference.
Safety whilst common limpet foraging
As with all foraging, there is a degree of risk involved.
Coastal foraging brings additional dangers.
Apart from the food safety side that is mentioned above, the actual collection part can be risky in itself.
You are usually stepping on or wading through rocky areas when foraging, contending with slippy, jagged surfaces and possibly waves.
Common sense goes a long way here.
Take great care with your foot placement and move slowly and deliberately.
A wading stick may prove useful.
Wear appropriate footwear, something that will protect your feet from the sharp rocks and provide you with some grip.
Avoid standing on rocks with a slimy green surface. The last thing you want is a fall in this environment.
Be aware of the tides. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment, only to realise that the tide is a lot higher than you thought, with your access back to dry land now cut off.
As with most things, preparation is key here.
Plan your route and enjoy the forage!
What’s your favourite way to eat limpets?
Let us know in the comments below.