Speech by Dr Patrick Crushell, PMP Project Manager at Official Launch of the programme, In Ardgroom, Co. Cork

SAM 7567

Minister Creed, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted that so many of you could take time out of your busy schedules today to join us for the launch of the Pearl Mussel Programme. It is also great to see so many of the people from the Ardgroom area here - I think there were proportionally more people attending our meetings here than in the other catchments, suggesting a good level of interest in what we are aiming to achieve in this project.

Luckily the weather has held up – the last time I was up here it was fairly windy and I am not sure the tent would have stayed standing!!

I think it's appropriate that we have the launch at this fabulous location. It is the perfect setting as it demonstrates the typical natural landscape that persists in all of our 8 catchments from west Cork to Donegal included in the Pearl Mussel Programme. And I'll explain this later but it's no co-incidence that these unspoilt natural areas support the largest remaining populations of Freshwater Pearl Mussel in Ireland.

When we started working on the Programme, last May, I remember meeting  a well known and respected environmentalist who has been involved in a lot of similar projects to ours, and I remember him saying to me 'Freshwater Pearl Mussel is it? Well good luck with that one, don't envy you as it's going to a hard sell!!...' I presume he was referring to the non-cuddly nature of Freswater Pearl Mussels – they are no Kuala or Panda... and there’s no denying that. But what the Freshwater Pearl Mussel does have, is a fascinating life story that is intertwined with natural pristine landscapes. I’ll try and briefly summarise this extraordinary life story for you:

The mussels independent life starts as a microscopic larvae that is released into the water column by adult female mussels that spend their lives on the river bed. From here these tiny larva need to latch onto the gills of an unsuspecting salmon or trout within a day ... or they will die. Those that have this good fortune develop further while they are carried around by the fish for a year or so before they then drop of as tiny juvenile mussels. At this stage they fall onto the bed of the river, where again, if they have good fortune and land on clean gravel / sands, they bury themselves into the river bed where they grow as juvenile mussels for a number of years. When they are large enough to withstand the flow on the bed of the river they emerge, and then live out the rest of their lives as adult mussels, filtering up to 50 litres of water per day for the next 140 years ! As you can gather there are many many natural obstacles for the mussels to overcome before they reach this adult stage, but despite the odds, Freshwater Pearl Mussel populations have survived for thousands of years in Irish rivers... It is only in the last 40 years with land intensification that we have seen serious declines. Most Irish populations are now on the verge of extinction, dominated by large adult mussels with few or no mussels making it through the juvenile stage.... So they are Ireland’s longest living animal, and to put that in context, individual mussels present in the Ownagappul River here have been present since the 19th Century, and it is possible that their grandparents were falling off the salmon or trout (at the very same spot that their descendents now live) around the time that O’Sullivan Bere left Beara on his long march up the country in the early 1600s!!

Pearl Mussels are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment, and require very stable natural conditions to complete their lifecycle. Any slight changes in the environment can lead to serious declines in the population. The mussel depends on the land within the entire river catchment to be of high environmental condition. It is a credit to local farmers and their ancestors that the mussel and the intact landscape that it depends on survives. This survival is directly related to way farmers manage and have historically managed their farmland. Sustaining the right conditions for freshwater pearl mussel has the added benefits of supporting a great range of biodiversity and provides other critical ecosystem services to local residents / communities and wider society such as:

  • Clean water;
  • Flood alleviation;
  • The intact peat soils storing carbon which contributes to reducing effects of climate change; and
  • Natural landscapes which are well recognised as improving the quality of life and wellbeing, and of course contribute to sustaining a growing tourism and recreation industry.

The Pearl Mussel Programme will reward farmers for farming their land in such a way that the mussel population survives and that local ecosystems continue to provide these important and valuable services.

We are looking forward to building relationships and trust with the farmers throughout our 8 catchments. This is an opportunity for farmers to be involved in developing a farm scheme that will work for their local area and their means of farming. At the same time, farming in these areas is under severe pressure, and this certainly came out of our consultation meetings last year where terms such as ‘part time’, ‘difficult’, ‘abandonment’ repeatedly came up – but equally it was clear that farmers in these areas also have a love and pride in their local areas and the landscapes that they manage. We need farmers to continue to manage the landscape in these areas, but perhaps, the production driven agricultural model that has dominated recent decades needs to change, and adapt to instead acknowledging that some areas are more suited to delivering environmental products rather than the agricultural products. If society values clean water, natural landscapes, biodiversity, climate mitigation, well then we should be willing to pay a premium price to those delivering these high quality outputs, and just like any other market economy, the highest reward should go to those that are providing the best product.

The results-based model that we are adapting to suit our objectives, has been developed very successfully in the Burren by Brendan Dunford and his team. We are now hoping to show that this model can be applied to other high nature value areas, where in our case, Freshwater Pearl Mussel is the key feature of interest, rather than the flower rich grasslands of the Burren.

Another team I must mention is the Kerry LIFE Freshwater Pearl Mussel Project, an EU LIFE funded project partnered by the Department of Agriculture that has been operating in South Kerry for the past 4 years. Richard O’Callaghan and his team have worked with farmers in that area and have built a solid foundation for us to build on. Being a Kerry Man, I must admit to being a bit envious of Kerry LIFE, in that they were in the privileged position of only having to work with Kerry farmers ! However, my Kerry wisdom ensured I chose a wife with strong Beara roots which offers good consolation!

We were delighted to be appointed by the Department to be trusted with developing this project, we feel we're in a great position as a team of ecologists and agricultural scientists to demonstrate how slight changes to policy can result in great benefits to both farmers and nature.

The key for us now, as we’re continuously being told, is not to mess it up! Seriously though we do see it as a great opportunity (and challenge) for us, to guide a project that has the potential to make a real positive environmental change in our local areas with long lasting sustainable outcomes.

We would like to reiterate that our Programme will evolve…. to this end we ask farmers and others we are working with to be patient, tell us of things that don’t work for you (and of course the things that do work!) as Derek McLoughlin keeps reminding me, we need both a complaints and a compliments department!!…. so I’d ask ye not to forget that.

As most of you may be aware we are a European Innovation Partnership or EIP project funded by the Department under the Rural Development Programme. We are one of 23 of these EIP projects being rolled out across Ireland. I think it's great that the Department has progressed this initiative and that rural communities throughout Ireland will benefit. We are one of the biggest EIP projects in Europe and I understand the EU commission are impressed with Ireland’s adoption of the model and the results-based approach to agri-environmental schemes in general. I'd like to thank Margaret Murray and the locally led team in the Department, they’ve been a great support to us in getting the programme to this stage. The Department has been very encouraging of us and we are impressed by their willingness for us to try new approaches.

We are hopeful that the Department will further progress the interest in the results-based approach to agri-environmental schemes, and encourage them to incorporate some aspects of this into the next Rural Development Programme.

While farmers are at the centre of the Programme we are keen to work with wider communities in our project areas, and we are eager to engage with local groups and support initiatives that dovetail with our own objectives. I'd just like to mention the local school in Eyeries and the vice-principal Micheal Lane and some of his pupils that have joined us today. Mary Catherine Gallagher and Tara Challoner from the PMP team had an enjoyable visit to the the school recently, and the student's artwork is on display below here – and I think it's clear from the drawings that there is a great appreciation of the local environment among the next generation. The day after the school visit 'twas great to unexpectedly receive a message from Seán Sullivan, a local pilot farmer we have been working with, that the topic at the dinner table the previous evening was the life cycle of the freshwater pearl mussel.

Thanks to our steering group, some of whom were able to make it today, they keep us on the straight and narrow, their broad expertise is  a great resource for us to draw on when required.

I am lucky to be supported by a great team whom I wish to acknowledge, we have Derek McLoughlin who is managing things in the west and north-west with the help of Mary McAndrew, we have Mary Catherine Gallagher and Tara Challoner who are both in the office with me in Kenmare, and last but not least the great Dr Peter Foss who's been working with me on various projects for the past 18 years.

And also, Tomás O’Conner and his team at O’Connor Pyne and Co who will be looking after the important accounting side of things and payments system.

Again, many thanks for coming along today and showing your support and I hope to get the chance to chat with as many of you as possible later in the day.


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