GAMEKEEPERS and ghillies are teaming up with wildlife crime officers in a bid to halt the theft of freshwater pearl mussels in Scotland.
The illegal fishing of these bi-valve mussels, Margaritifera margaretifera, is threatening the species.
They are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and are often found on the bed of salmon rivers where they can live for up to 80 years.
Seventy two of Scotland’s rivers support reproducing populations and represent some of the world’s most important sites for the survival of the mollusc.
But the population is now critically low, particularly as they are threatened by pearl fishers hoping to find the precious white pearls, for which they are famous, inside the shells.
Pollution is also a cause of their decline and a case in March saw directors of A & C Construction fined £11,000 for causing irreversible damage to hundreds of pearl mussels in the River Lyon while working on the Inverinian Hydro Scheme.
Now the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has signed an agreement with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in order to build intelligence that can help tackle illegal fishing.
Gamekeepers and ghillies often work around the remote rivers containing mussels and guidelines have been set out to encourage confidential reporting of suspicious activity to police.
Amongst activity they will be looking out for is wild camping sites by rivers containing mussels, suspicious vehicles, people wading through mussel rivers or individuals using glass bottom buckets to survey beds.
Keepers and ghillies will also have their eyes peeled for piles of discarded shells although it is understood many modern fishers dispose of shells away from the banks.
SGA Chairman Alex Hogg said: “This is a really important initiative and the SGA is delighted to offer the assistance of its members. Many of them are working these rivers and I know some have contacted Police before when they have seen suspicious activity.
“This agreement gives people the information to help and gives them the confidence that they can engage freely with the Police, knowing the information will be treated confidentially.
“I would encourage as many of our members as possible to get involved for the good of the remaining freshwater pearl mussel stock in Scotland.”
Charlie Everitt, Investigative Support Officer of NWCU said it was important that wildlife crime officers engaged with those who could offer vital information.
“We recognise that the only way we can start to identify illegal pearl fishers is with the help of the rural workers and the NWCU are very grateful for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s support and assistance of their members.
“Pearl fishing can happen in some of the remotest parts of Scotland and the only way the Police may ever hear about it is if members of the public working in those locations inform them. This is why we are appealing to ghillies and gamekeepers who work on the land around rivers containing freshwater pearl mussels to please contact the National Wildlife Crime Unit if they see any suspicious activity – however small or insignificant - that may be related to illegal pearl fishing.”
NWCU have also enlisted the help of members of Scottish Land and Estates and the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards.