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03 September, 2014

Pearl mussel protection stepped up in Kyle of Sutherland

Surveillance of a Highland river system is to be stepped up as part of a national project to protect and monitor fragile populations of freshwater pearl mussels.

The Riverwatch scheme will launch in the Kyle of Sutherland area on 15 September.

Riverwatch schemes form part of the Pearls in Peril LIFE + project, a partnership set up to safeguard the future of the freshwater pearl mussel.

The scheme will focus on the Special Area of Conservation (SAC)-designated rivers the Oykel and the Evelix. It will, however, target other rivers in the Kyle of Sutherland area such as the Cassley and the Shin.

Natalie Young the Riverwatcher from the Pearls in Peril project, said: “The freshwater pearl mussel is critically endangered and the populations in Scottish rivers are globally important.

“Pearl mussels live on the river bed and feed by drawing in water and filtering out fine particles keeping our rivers clean. They are an important species ecologically as they keep water clean for other river wildlife like salmon and trout. And salmon and trout fishing is worth millions to the Scottish economy, so it makes sense to keep our ‘river purifiers’ fit and healthy for future generations.”

The Pearls in Peril project aims to restore river habitats and protect freshwater pearl mussels from crime.

Chief Inspector Colin Gough of Police Scotland said: “Police Scotland welcome and support the Riverwatch scheme being launched in the Kyle of Sutherland, which can help to spread information to reduce crime against freshwater pearl mussels and encourage the reporting of illegal pearl fishing. Freshwater pearl mussels are an important part of a river's habitat and are protected by law.

“Police Scotland are very happy to continue to work in close partnership with the Pearls in Peril LIFE + project by supporting their river patrols, investigating any incidents of reported pearl mussel crime and undertaking enforcement action wherever possible.

“I would urge the public and river users to be vigilant, and report any suspicious activity to Police Scotland on 101 or to Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”

And Natalie Young added: “Freshwater pearl mussels have historically been ‘fished’ for the pearl they may contain. But the mussels only very rarely produce pearls and pearl fishing can be devastating to the remaining pearl mussel populations.

“Protecting mussel populations is even more important following Hurricane Bertha-related spates and floods that scoured many river beds; dislodging mussels that were then left high and dry. In some locations the damage has been immense.”

The Riverwatch scheme launch will highlight to river users the threats to pearl mussels and the most effective way to report and reduce pearl mussel crime. Posters and leaflets containing more information about the project can be found around the Kyle of Sutherland area and in the Kyle Fisheries office in Ardgay.”

Fishing for pearls is illegal as they are protected under schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure or take pearl mussels and to destroy, damage or disturb pearl mussel habitats. This includes unauthorised modification or engineering to the river and any activities causing excessive siltation or pollution.

The Riverwatch scheme is aimed at combating illegal activities affecting the species by raising awareness of the threat to the freshwater pearl mussel, to reduce and report illegal activities affecting pearl mussels and work in collaboration with land owners, local communities, Police Scotland, Fishery Boards and Trusts and other river users.

As part of the project,16 Riverwatch schemes are to be launched by the end of 2015.

Notes to editors

Media inquiries: Jackie Webley, project manager Pearls in Peril LIFE+GB; 01224 266525/mobile: 07766 505263; Natalie Young, Riverwatcher – Life + Pearls in Peril Project: 01463 783505/mobile: 07789 793199. Email:

Fergus Macneill, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) media and PR: 01463 725021

More information can be found on the project website or by contacting the Riverwatcher on 01463 783505/07789 793199.

Illegal fishing of freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) usually occurs when rivers are low in the spring and summer generally in remote locations or areas hidden from view.

Fishing is often carried out by wading into the river, using a glass-bottomed bucket to find the mussels and a cleft stick to retrieve them. Mussels are killed and often discarded in piles on the river bank. Pearls are rarely found and many mussels are killed during the process. This has serious implications for the population and has led to the extinction of freshwater pearl mussels in many rivers. Over the past 100 years, more than a third of rivers that used to contain freshwater pearl mussels no longer do.

Contact information

SNH Media

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