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factual
OPEN COUNTRY
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Open Country
Sat  6.10 - 6.35am
Thurs 1.30 - 2.00pm (rpt)
Local people making their corner of rural Britain unique
This week
Saturday 19 August 2006
Listen to this programme in full
The Cairngorms
The rivers and streams of the Cairngorms were once home to the world's largest population of freshwater pearl mussels, but their numbers have declined dramatically, due mostly to heavy overfishing in the past. Now, the fight is on to bring back the pearl mussel, but as Iain Sime of Scottish Natural Heritage explains its extraordinary and risky lifecycle, the difficulties become self-evident.

Out in a secret location on a stream in the Cairngorms, he and Helen use glass-bottomed buckets to search the waters for the first examples of a reintroduction programme in this habitat where once they flourished. While pollution might be to blame for the mussel's demise in other parts of the UK, here in the Highlands there are few sites where the blame cannot be placed on sustained pearl fishing.

Lionel Maine, head ghillie on the Strathspey Estate, rows Helen out onto the River Spey, to see where pearl mussels could once be found in their thousands. But the heavy plundering of the waters in the past, and the mass of rununculus weed in the waters nowadays, mean that pearl mussels are few and far between.

Lionel recalls the tinker families who would come fishing for a few weeks every year, armed with hazel sticks and jugs, sending their children into the icy water to fish for mussels, then moving on to other seasonal work. Later, though, more and more people caught on to the potential profit lying on the river bed, and the days of the freshwater mussel were numbered.

Fishing for freshwater pearls was made illegal in 1998 but thirty years before that, ghillie Allan Irvine from the Tulchan Estate would spend his summer afternoons fishing the Spey for the handful of mussels which might provide him with pearls.

He knew by touch and by sight which mussels might be the ones to open, and remembers the pleasure of diving every day into the clear, gravel-bedded waters in search of his quarry. And still, he says, he keeps an eye open for pearl-bearing mussels on the river banks, even if he's no longer allowed to open them up.

Allan would sell any pearls he found to Cairncross Jewellers in Perth, one of only two jewellers still allowed to trade in freshwater pearls from their existing stock. Helen visits John Lochtie, the present manager, who shows her the magnificent Abernathy Pearl.

Affectionately known as Little Willie, in honour of William Abernathy, who found it in the River Tay, the huge pearl has been on show in the shop since 1967. This is the prize of freshwater pearls and goes some way to explaining the fascination with pearl mussel fishing.

And that fascination continues to this day. Alan Stewart, Tayside Police Wildlife and Environment Officer, still finds stacks of empty mussel shells piled on the river banks, evidence of continuing and illegal pearl fishing. No one knows where the market for them is, but however hard people like Iain Sime might try to protect them, it will be a decade at least before anyone knows if the Scottish freshwater pearl mussel is on its way back.

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