Freshwater pearl mussels - A species on the brink
Freshwater Pearl Mussel Project
Devon Wildlife Trust is delivering a pioneering project to conserve a rare and endangered species on the River Torridge
Once common, now rare
Freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) were formerly widespread in England and Wales, but currently, the only remaining populations in Southern England are on the Taw and the Torridge, and in very low numbers.
On top of this, these populations are in serious decline and are not thought to have bred successfully since the 1960s.
By working with local communities, improving water quality and establishing a breeding programme, this project is working to safeguard the recovery of Devon’s last remaining mussel populations and England’s only lowland populations. The ‘Restoring Freshwater Mussel Rivers in England’ project is led nationally by the Freshwater Biological Association and funded by Biffa Award.
What are freshwater pearl mussels?
Freshwater pearl mussels are filter feeding molluscs that are found in river beds; they can live for over 120 years!
The species colonised most of its current range after the last ice age (around 12,000 years ago), but are now listed on the IUCN red list as endangered.
Healthy populations require clean, nutrient poor, well oxygenated waters in order to survive and reproduce.
These mussels are an indicator species so if we can get river conditions right for them, it will benefit a suite of other species including invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals.
A fascinating life cycle
Freshwater pearl mussels have a fascinating lifecycle, of which part is spent attached to the gills of young salmon and brown trout. Over 5000 juvenile mussels have been found on the gills of a single fish.
Lack of host fish in rivers is one of the problems leading to the decline in populations. However, other factors impacting populations include:
- Habitat degradation
- Water quality issues (resulting from inputs of nitrate, phosphate and soil run-off)
- River engineering
- Historic pearl fishing
This project focuses on the River Torridge in North Devon and seeks to achieve one key aim - to safeguard the future of some of the most important freshwater pearl mussel populations remaining in England through river restoration, engagement of local communities and captive breeding.
This project is part of the Northern Devon Nature Improvement Area landscape scale programme. Other partners in the project include: the North Devon Biosphere, the Environment Agency, Tarka Country Trust and Westcountry Rivers Trust.
What’s been achieved?
During the project, an effort to safeguard future populations was trialled through a short-term captive rearing programme, using new techniques developed in Ireland. The technique involved the short-term transfer of female adult mussels that show evidence of brooding to a hatchery facility, with the hope of achieving encystment (or attachment) onto host fish, brown trout. The mussels are transferred to the hatchery during the early brooding phases and returned to the Torridge after glochidia release. The fish are then maintained at the hatchery until glochidia drop-off the following spring.
The method has been delivered over two years with successful excystment both years and returning juvenile mussels to the Torridge for the first time in over 50 years. The short-term translocation was delivered through the support of experts including Ian Killeen, Evelyn Moorkens and the Freshwater Biological Association, and under a Natural England licence.
In addition to this, work to improve habitat and water quality in the River Torridge has been a key priority. Over the project, 46km river has been surveyed and the following improvements have been delivered:
- 12.6km watercourse protected through watercourse fencing and culverts to exclude livestock
- 9.4km² habitat protected either through watercourse fencing or direct in-river improvements to protect pearl mussel beds
- 5.7km watercourse improved through either coppicing or pollarding, large and small woody debris management, planting trees or willow stakes and woodland track work
The project has delivered over 230 installations in total.
Fundraising is currently underway for an ambitious new project covering 22,000 hectares of the Torridge catchment. The new project seeks to restore stretches of the river, develop future juvenile reintroduction sites and improve habitat for fish and the endangered freshwater pearl mussel. Watch out for more to come…