Native Oyster (Ostrea edulis) beds


Native oyster (Ostrea edulis) beds © Keith Hiscock

In shallow water (usually less than about 10m deep) on fine, muddy sand, native oysters can be found in large numbers.  Where this happens, the oysters themselves and the dead shells amongst them form extensive beds, which become home to many other marine creatures, including crabs, worms, sea snails, sponges, sea urchins, and seaweed. A range of different animals and plants have been found in oyster beds, although not all in the same place at once.  These other creatures use the oyster beds in different ways: as a surface to attach themselves to, or, in the case of small or young fish for example, as somewhere to hide from predators. 

There are a number of threats to native oyster beds, including pollution and parasites which can wipe out oyster beds, as has happened throughout Europe.  The invasion of slipper limpets has also affected native oysters, as their presence makes it more difficult for the oysters to become established.  The Pacific oyster, again introduced from abroad, can also threaten native oysters by competing for space and food.  Another introduced species, a snail called the American oyster drill, makes its home in oyster beds and feeds entirely on the young of the native oysters.

For the official habitat definition please see the documents listed below.


European distribution

The native oyster is widely distributed around UK coasts, particularly in the south and west, but large beds are now sparsely distributed.  The main stocks are found in the Thames Estuary, The Solent, River Fal, the west coast of Scotland and Lough Foyle.  The oyster’s wider European range extends from the Norwegian Sea to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and into the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Natural native oyster beds have become increasingly rare in the North Sea, and the populations in deeper waters in the southern North Sea disappeared during the 19thand 20thcenturies.


Conservation status/need

Native oyster (Ostrea edulis) beds fact

  • This is a UK BAP Priority Habitat (BAP habitats are now Habitats of Principal Importance/Priority Habitats).
  • OSPAR List of Threatened and/or Declining Species and Habitats (Region II – Greater North Sea)
  • Species of principal importance for the purpose of conserving of biodiversity under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006
  • Nationally scarce habitat


Official definition

UK Biodiversity Action Plan; Priority Habitat Descriptions. BRIG (ed. Ant Maddock) 2008 (updated December 2011) 

Descriptions of habitats on the OSPAR list of threatened and/or declining species and habitats (OSPAR agreement 2008/07).


Further information

OSPAR Commission - Background Document for Ostrea edulis and Ostrea edulis beds

JNCC - UK BAP Priority Species and Habitats

Marine Life Information Network - Ostrea edulis

Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland - Ostrea edulis

Marine Species Identification Portal - Ostrea edulis

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Ostrea edulis

National Biodiversity Network Gateway - Ostrea edulis beds

Marine Life Information Network - Ostrea edulis beds on shallow sublittoral muddy sediment

JNCC EUNIS habitat correlations table