Five hundred years ago an inventive individual decided that if you couldn’t catch grey shrimp from boats, then try catching grey shrimp from horses. Today, this annual tradition of shrimp fishing continues in the town of Oostduinkerke, Belgium in the North Sea, about 30 minutes north of Dunkirk, France. Sadly, where once there were hundreds of men and horses walking into the sea in eastern England, Begium, north eastern France and the Netherlands, the sole remaining place for fishing with horses is on the beach of Oostduinkerke thanks to the ideal beach and gentle sloping ocean floor.
The shrimp fishermen (called paardenvissers) and fisher-horses are a major tourist attraction these days; so much so that they get financial assistance from the local tourism board. The fishermen still take to the waters on fishing days in shrimping season wearing high rubber boots, sou’westers and oilskins, and while they love the life, they re-create this time honoured form of fishing because they appreciate the traditions behind it knowing that the shrimp are no longer abundant and fewer young people want to make a living this way.
The Brabant Gentle Giants
Once mules and donkeys were also used to fish seaweed and shrimp from the sea but today, the animals used for dragging the shrimp nets in the ocean are normally Brabant horses, or Belgian draft horses from the Brabant region of modern Belgium. These horses have small heads, short legs and massive necks along with powerful shoulders and hind quarters usually standing between 16.2 and 17 h.h. and weighing over 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms). The American Belgians are not as big but are of a similar build and after WWII, the American horses were bred to be slightly lighter and taller and today the Belgian is the breed with the greatest number of draft horses in the U.S.
The shrimp catch is regulated by the tides and takes place in the off season from April to September usually in the mornings with some days followed by shrimp cooking on the nearby promenade. During the regular season from July through August the schedule varies from morning or afternoon depending on the day and the tides. During the last weekend of June the Shrimp Festival promotes and showcases this traditional form of fishing along with a Shrimp Parade that includes the horses, fishermen and Miss Shrimp and her ladies walking through the streets of Oostduiunkerke on the Sunday afternoon.
The horses, carts and fishermen/handlers drive through town to the beach on a typical shrimp day to catch their prey one hour before and one hour after low tide. The carts are unhitched, and as John Tickner, photographer explained, “The wooden boards they use are to keep the mouth of the net open (sideways), floats keep the top line of the net at the surface and the bottom line is weighted to keep it on the bottom.”
Then it’s, “Riders up!” into their wooden saddles, and off they go complete with two large wicker baskets on either side of the horse for the catch. The horses wade into the sea and make their way, slowly and surely, through the surf that reaches the tops of their legs. Once the handler has decided that he has enough shrimp, he brings his horse back to the beach to empty the nets, sort the catch and get rid of the crabs and other unwanted creatures, and empty the shrimp into the baskets. Then, if it’s a cooking day, the shrimp are steamed and sold to the throngs of tourists waving euros for a small cardboard box of the freshest shrimp they will ever eat!
Eddy d’Hulster, who has fished the shore at Oostduinkerke for decades was quoted as saying: “There is such a love story between the horse and the fisherman, once he has a horse that works, he is married to the horse. Sometimes we say we like our horses more than our wife.”
Photo credit and thanks for Preparing the Nets Photo to John Tickner