In the Victorian era they were sold for
a king's ransom. These are the rare black freshwater pearls that poachers
used to keep a keen eye out for along stretches of the Rivers Ehen and
Irt in West Cumbria.
Now in the 21st century parts of the River Ehen valley are being turned
into a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The new SSSI status is to help protect the unique freshwater mussel, which
in the past produced a freshwater pearl for the Queen. The freshwater
mussels on the River Ehen are said to be the only ones breeding at the
moment in Britain and each mussel can live to be 120 years old.
It is illegal to kill or damage the freshwater mussels. The even rarer
black pearls that grew in mussels on the River Irt are thought to have
led to the mussels vanishing from the River Irt.
Dr Parkers history of the Gosforth District states: "The locally
famous pearls of the Irt appear to have been known to the Romans. Tacitus
and Bede mention British pearls andCamden saysof the Irt "In this
brook the shell fish eagerky sucking in the dew, conceive and bring forth
pearls, or to use the poets words 'shell berries'. These the inhabitants
gather up at low water and jewels buy them." About 1695 a company
was formed to search for pearls in the Irt and Thomas Patrickson of HowHall
Ennerdale is said to have employed people to gather £800 worth The
pearls are still to be found by careful searchers.''
Because the mussel's eggs are at one stage carried inside trout and salmon
the SSSI change could help protect the trout and salmons' environment.
But SSSI status could also bring extra requirements on farmers and landowners.
Explaining the planned SSSI, Alan Stewart, Conservation Officer for English
Nature said: "We will be seeking to designate three rivers in Cumbria,
The Derwent\Cocker, the Ehen and the Eden. We are at the stage of contacting
landowers, local councils and the angling associations.
"There has been a survey done this year of the mussels and the bulk
are between Ennerdale Lake and the confluence of the River Keekle, so
that is the area we seek to make an SSSI.''
He conceded that the Keekle carried the treated outflow from Cleator sewage
works into the River Ehen.
Mr Stewart added: "the new designation could help bring pressure
to bear on North West Water.''
A spokesman for North West Water said : "We have had no failures
this year to meet the standards laid down at Cleator. We comply with the
standards set down by the Environment Agency. Our discharges are fully
Mr Stewart said the main effects of the SSSI would be threefold; Any planned
development would have to be referred to English nature for consultation,
landowners would have to notify any works that may affect the riverbanks
and grants could be made available for works that benefit the natural
habitats on the river.
English Nature have their area offices at Blackwell, Bowness on Windermere,
A member of the Egremont Anglers Association said: "The Ehen could
even become a special European Sensitive Waters area.'' He said the level
of fish stocks on the River Ehen "were poor and any such conservation
protection such as the SSSI was to be welcomed''.
In 2003 the Environment Agency stated
they planned to assist the musels to reproduce by moving examples from
site to site...Whether thos also spreads viruses or infections one wonders..The
Agency stated :Enjoying one's own space may suit some, but for pearl mussels
it is having a devastating effect. For this rare species, living together
is essential to successful reproduction, as sperm released into the water
by males is filtered by the gaggles of females that share their living
However, due to a number of reasons, pearl
mussel populations in English rivers have become fragmented. Many now
live near-solitary lives on empty beds, their sex life a long-distant
memory. As a result, while the species continues to thrive in Scotland
and Ireland, the numbers of English and Welsh pearl mussels is dwindling
find out more check out their information.
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