British seashell guide: how to identify and where to find

Britain’s seashores are littered with the shells of bivalves and gastropods. Enhance your next beach walk with our guide to some of the most common seashell finds in Britain

Sea snail shells on beach, Brittany, France

Take a closer look next time you’re walking along the seashore and you may be surprised about what you find  – a pointy top shell, a colourful periwinkle or a spired whelk.

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Each species has specific patterns and markings, and varies in shape and size, offering clues about the animals’ evolution and their day-to-day lives.

1

Auger shell

Tower20Shell2028Turritella20communis2920OS001flat_cmyk_0-fee4643

Tall, spindly cone up to 3cm long. Common anywhere with muddy sediments except for the south-east coast of England.

2

Baltic tellin

Baltic20Sellin2028Macoma20Balthica292001_cmyk_0-895cad5

Plump, almost circular shell, 2.5cm in length. Can be pink, yellow, purple and white. Common in estuaries except in the south.

3

Banded wedge shell

Banded20Wedge20Shell2028Donax20vittatus2920001_cmyk_0-bb24a97
Wedge-shaped shell up to 4cm long in shiny white, yellow-purple or brown. Common on all coasts.
4

Blunt gaper

Blunt20Gapper2028Mya20truncata2920OS001flat_cmyk-f151db5
Large shell up to 7.5cm long. Colours range from white to dark-brown. Common on sandy, muddy or stony shores.
5

Common cockle

EPSON scanner image

Fan-shaped shell with radiating ribs up to 5cm across. Widely distributed in estuaries and sandy bays – up to 10,000 per m².

6

Common limpet

Limpet2028Common2920Patella20vulgata2002_cmyk-451ee2b
Familiar conical shell in grey or white with radiating ridges up to 6cm high. Found on rocky shores.
7

Common oyster

Oyster2028Common2920Ostrea20edulis2001_cmyk-e742309

Oval or pear-shaped shell up to 11cm across. The two halves of shell are very different – one smooth and flat, the other rough and concave. Widely distributed but less common on east coast.

8

Common periwinkle

Common20Edible20Periwinkle2028Littorina20littorea2920001_cmyk-5895a98

Black or grey conical shell up to 5cm in height. Found everywhere, particularly rocky coasts.

9

Common piddock

Common20Piddock2028Pholas20dactylus2920OS002flat_cmyk-f579b0e

Large, brittle shell up to 12cm long with ridges and radiating lines. Dull-white or grey in colour. Largely found on southern shores.

10

Common Razor clam

Razor20Shell2028Ensis20siliqua2920OS003_cmyk-d703759

Unmistakable slender shell up to 25cm long – very common on sandy bays and estuaries. Often washed up in vast numbers after storms.

11

Common whelk

Common20Whelk2028Buccinum20undatum292020OS002_cmyk-4379075

Yellow-brown spiralling shell up to 10cm high and 6cm wide. Very common. Mobile, the common whelk preys on small bivalves.

12

Dog whelk

Dog20Welk2028Nucella20lapillus2920OS001_cmyk-ffa2b6f

Spired, up to 6cm long, in cream, yellow or grey. Common on all rocky coasts where it feeds on mussels and barnacles.

13

Flat periwinkle

Common20Flat20Periwinkle20OS002_cmyk-19131f3

Small, vari-coloured whorled shell up to 1.5cm – from olive-green to brown, red and yellow. Common wherever kelp occurs.

14

Grey top shell

Grey20Topshell20OS001_cmyk-4f797d0

Small whorled shell, 1.7cm across. Grey or light-yellow with brown or purple streaks. Common on all coasts.

15

Mussel

Common20Mussel2028Mytilus20edulis29202_cmyk-d6a98a8

Purple or blue shell, 5-10cm long when adult. Very common on all coasts on intertidal rocks.

16

Necklace shell

Necklace20Shell2028Polinices20catenus292001_cmyk-6b43f4a

A smooth, golden-brown whorled seashell up to 3cm high. Common on sandy shores.

17

Painted top shell

Painted20Topshell2028Calliostoma20zizyphinum2920OS001_cmyk-b430185

Conical violet/pink and brown streaked shell, up to 3cm high. Very common on seaweed-covered rocky shores.

18

Slipper limpet

Slipper20Limpet2028American2920Crepidula20fornicata2001_cmyk-a061d5b

Oval shell up to 5cm long with a large opening underneath, up to half the length of the body. Mostly found on the coasts of southern Britain.

19

Thick top shell

Common20topshell2028Osilinus20lineatus2920OS001_cmyk-a3a29ba

Turban-like spire up to 3cm in height in green, grey or black. Extremely common on the rocky shores of south-west England and Wales.

20

Thin tellin

Thin20Tellin2001_cmyk-8a6f952

Brittle, flattened shell up to 3cm long in shades of pink and yellow. Common on sandy shores.

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Illustrations ©Chris Shields