Scheme pays farmers to work with nature and the freshwater pearl mussel

Glenbeg Lake in Co Cork’s Beara peninsula, has one of the country’s largest identified remaining Pearl Mussel populations.

There are only seven other locations nationwide (three in Kerry, one in Donegal, two in Mayo and one in Galway) with large identified populations of this species, and all populations outside these areas are nearing extinction.

Glenbeg, a spectacularly scenic freshwater glacial lake, was the fitting venue where dignitaries recently attended the launch of a new national conservation initiative, the Freshwater Pearl Mussel Project. They included Agriculture Minister Michael Creed.

This initiative aims to save the pearl mussel from extinction.

Glenbeg Lake is part of the catchment of the Ownagappul River, an area estimated to have about 200,000 pearl mussels, mostly concentrated in the main channel of the river.

As part of the Freshwater Pearl Mussel Project, farmers in the Ownagappul catchment area can access monies through European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) funding, if they are willing to manage water on their lands as required by the mussel conservation programme. The lands affected are those surrounding Glenbeg Lake, the Ownagappul River, Bawers River, and Lough Fada.

Although this event marked the official launch of the project, a project team was first selected in 2018.

More recently, farmers’ information and consultation evenings were organised.

Project Manager Dr Patrick Cushell, from Kenmare, stated that the meetings at the Caha Centre, Ardgroom, had a bigger turn-out than any other centres, which showed the level of interest in Beara in the project.

The biggest threat to the mussel is silt pollution.

In order for the project to be successful, any farmer that comes on board will be rewarded for maintaining and managing lands in a way that will sustain the freshwater pearl mussel population. This entails ensuring that water flowing off the Caha Mountains into Glenbeg Lake and surrounding rivers is as silt-free as possible.

Advisor Diarmuid O’Sullivan stated: “Anything that will redden the earth is to be avoided”. He also said it’s all about “protecting what’s here, keeping an already natural environment pristine”.

It’s about going with nature and avoiding intensified farming around the lake. Water flow is important to the mussels. They don’t pick these areas by accident, it’s because they need very clean water to survive, some are up to 140 years old.

Sean Sullivan, a pilot pearl mussel farmer for the Ownagappul area, is positive about the project, having visited its counterpart in Glencar, Co Kerry.

He said: “The difference between this EIP scheme and previous schemes is that, rather than being told what to do, you have input in this.

“You work alongside the team, without any threats hanging over your head."

He estimates that the Ownagappul catchment encompasses around 100 landowners. ‘It’s roughly about 80% commonage, and the rest, farms. The scheme won’t be viable for everyone. Only a certain percentage will be interested. If you only have one share in the commonage, it’s not an incentive, as you still have to pay your farm planner.’

So why would farmers buy into the scheme? Sean explained: ‘It’s an environmental grant with two stems. The first is a result-based payment on a score of one to 10.

“If your land scores four, up to the first 15 hectares, its €68 per hectare. If you score seven, it goes up to €101 per hectare.

“A score of 10 increases it to €225. There’s no great difference between eight, nine, and ten, because they class eight as good, so the onus is on the farmer to climb the ladder and reap the benefits that are there.’

Better quality habitats will have higher scores and therefore higher payments.

It’s not about the amount of land you have, it’s about the quality of the land.

Peatland and natural woodland score well.

Water drains, under-grazing or over-grazing activities that cause changes in river flow are taken into account. Slurry and fertiliser applications result in lower scores.

The second payment stream is for supporting actions, and includes subsidies towards water troughs, bridges, and fencing, all deterrents from cattle poaching the riverbanks. ‘They don’t want cattle crossing rivers uncontrolled.’

Sean said: “It’s not going to affect cattle, as such, because there is no-one over our way severely overstocked.

“Decreasing stock isn’t part of this scheme, it’s about managing the water into the rivers. Sheep won’t do much damage."

On the whole-farm assessment part of the scheme, Sean said: ‘Tara, the catchment officer, spent a few days in my place, walking the plots. She checked all waterways and drains. They don’t want fresh openings, only well-filtered flows. Green land is an issue, they won’t pay for that.’

When asked how many farmers were going to take part in the scheme, Sean said: “It’s not for me to say, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s a step in the right direction to help farmers survive.” Landowners have until next Tuesday, April 30, to submit Expression of Interest Forms.

“This is green to us, there are still a lot of negotiations to happen yet. ‘Tis about going wild and natural. It will suit some people and it won’t suit more. It’s unfortunate, however, that it’s cutting out landowners that are away from the river.”

He said: “The launch was a great day in Ardgroom, a boost to the place, which put us on the map. I think it was one of the first times we’ve ever had a Minister doing anything in the village. EIPs are the way things are going now, Minister Creed himself said that the environmental spend is going to increase.”

When addressing the Minister at the event, Sean said: “this is going a long way to stop the pearl mussel from extinction, and it’s a help to stop the farmer from extinction.”

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