Farming For Freshwater: Saving Farms And Pearl Mussels Through The KerryLIFE Project

What does it take to make farmers care about biodiversity?

Not much, is the answer. They already care a lot.

In which case, what does it take to make them do something about it?

The Freshwater Pearl Mussel

In county Kerry, in the south west of Ireland, you will find two rivers named the Caragh and the Blackwater. Most Irish people have never heard of these rivers. They run mostly through farmland and forestry in a sparsely populated, mountainous region. Though they are beautiful, they are not famous. They contain the two largest Freshwater Pearl Mussel populations in the entirety of the country.

These freshwater mussels, much like the rivers which are their home, are not very well known. They do hold an unexpected record though – with a lifespan of up to 140 years, they are the longest lived animals in Ireland. They’re also vital to freshwater ecosystems. As filter feeders, they improve the water quality of their habitats, boosting native biodiversity. Yet while these mussels were once abundant in rivers across the country, they are now on the verge of extinction – no population in Ireland is currently considered viable.

Productivist farming, encouraged by decades of agricultural policy, is a major cause of the freshwater Pearl Mussel’s decline. Intensive forestry takes some blame too, but in Ireland, farms are more common than forests. The big problem here, is sediment. Mature Pearl Mussels can’t tolerate high levels of sediment in the water, and young mussels are easily killed by even moderate levels of sediment. Their population decline is largely due to sediment and fertilisers washing off of land and into rivers.

The Caragh, image: Breandán Ó Caoimh

Decades of economic incentives from the EU and Irish government have driven Irish farming to become increasingly mechanised and intensive. Farmers receive grants and payments to supplement their income – but these payments depend on the farmers following guidelines and meeting quotas. For decades these payments have incentivised more fertiliser use, more animals per acre, and more mechanisation. We call this framework of incentives ‘productivism’. For the Pearl Mussel, productivism has been exceptionally bad news.

The Farm

If you’re imagining greedy, evil farmers making bags of money and laughing while the poor mussels suffer, you’ve got the wrong picture. As a professor of mine once said, there are three types of farms in Ireland: large, specialised, and struggling. The last type is by far the most common.

Only one quarter of all Irish farms make enough money to be ‘economically viable’ – that is, making enough money to keep the people who live and work on the farm out of poverty. For the other 75% of farms, farm families (because most farms don’t only have ‘farmers’ – they’re sustained by the work of a whole family) earn less than minimum wage. The family farm is increasingly a part-time enterprise, squeezed in around other income-generating activities.

Off-farm work has always been part of small-farm economy. A sheep farmer, after all, can produce wool, meat, and milk. Instead of selling those raw outputs, why not start a cheese business? Or a woollen mill? And the farm is quiet in winter – you might as well pick up a part time job in the off-season. But as farming becomes less lucrative, families have to rely more and more on these off-farm jobs, and many end up exiting farming entirely.

For those who cling on, money is a massive struggle. This is particularly true for small, upland farms such as those around the Caragh and the Blackwater rivers. As a business, farming simply doesn’t make sense.

Yet farming isn’t really a business. Rather, farming is not just a business. It’s also a cultural practice, a source of identity. Almost all Irish farmers were raised on a family farm. Maintaining the family farm is a way to connect to a deep sense of heritage and belonging. What it means to be a ‘good farmer’ is complicated, but it goes beyond maximising production. Farmers care about their land and its ecosystems. They care deeply about honouring the work of their farming ancestors and passing a healthy, viable farm on to their descendants. These people are not wantonly destroying the environment for fun and profit, they are struggling to make ends meet while continuing to do the work which gives them meaning, identity, and community.

The KerryLIFE Project

If productivism has been a disaster for both farmers and Pearl Mussels, then there must be an alternative. Finding this alternative is the motivation behind the KerryLIFE project. This project worked with farmers around the Caragh and the Blackwater, helping them change their farming practices to conserve and improve Pearl Mussel habitat. This pilot programme ran for 5 and a half years, culminating in 2019.

I was lucky enough to be a research assistant on the project in summer 2021. Reviewing the interviews with farmers who took part, and looking at the final reports, something very important emerged: farmers care about the environment. Protecting habitats on their farms, in fact, is their second strongest motivation behind their farming decisions. But their first motivation is survival.

With the KerryLIFE project, those two motivations weren’t in conflict any more.

Farmers in the scheme received payment for completing specific projects on their farms which would improve the quality of Pearl Mussel habitat in the catchment river. They also received a regular payment based on the general quality of habitat on their farms – the better the habitat, the higher the payment.

The research team was continually surprised by how quickly farmers undertook the recommended projects. By the first of five annual reviews, the majority of farmers had completed over 80% of the actions. By the second review, every single farmer had completed over 90% of the actions in the five year plan.

The KerryLIFE scheme did more than pay farmers, however. The project also educated farmers on why certain practices were better or worse for the Pearl Mussel. The scheme employed a number of farm advisors and educators who worked with farmers to find ways to adapt the recommendations for each individual farm.

The farmers in the scheme also benefited from meeting other farmers participating in the project, discussing and exploring problems and possibilities together. Farmers felt that these discussions helped them see beyond a productivist approach to farming. Older farmers were able to remember the Pearl Mussel populations as they were 50 years ago, when farming in the area was less influenced by productivism. They shared folklore related to the Pearl Mussel – such as the fact that Mussels rising in the river foretold rain. Farmers were proud of the fact that visitors came from far afield to seek pearls from their rivers. Local legend says Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England are among those who prized the Freshwater Pearls from this region. These reflections connected their new ecologically conscious farming with a sense of heritage and local pride for the farmers.

As it happens, productivism doesn’t work very well on the farm land around the Caragh and the Blackwater. This region and regions like it are sometimes described as ‘marginal land’ – this is a vague economic term coined to soften a harsh reality: farmers here don’t make much money. Because of the contours of the hills and mountains, farmers can’t use machines the same way lowland farmers can. What works well in this environment, but isn’t very ‘economically viable’ according to productivism, is the traditional style of farming which has been practised here for millennia. Ecologically conscious practices align closely with these heritage farming practices, as farms in this region simply had no access to the modern fertilisers and mechanisation which cause so much habitat destruction.

A Kerry River, image: Breandán Ó Caoimh

At the end of the KerryLIFE scheme, the thoughts and feelings of the farmers who took part were decidedly mixed. Farmers reported that they thought more about how farming impacts waterways and the environment. They thought more about their obligation to the next generation, how their children needed a healthy environment to live in. They felt more pride in their heritage, their farms, and the habitats they provided. 80% of farmers felt KerryLIFE had a positive impact on their region.

Yet despite this, farmers were frustrated by the limits of their impact. They were acutely aware that their efforts to improve the waterways were undermined by neighbours upriver who were not part of the scheme. Farmers were also very concerned that KerryLIFE was not enough to preserve farming heritage in the region. These areas had been farmed sustainably for millennia, but in recent decades, economic pressure has driven farmers towards more productivist, less ecologically conscious practices. Concerns over the recent impact of farming on local biodiversity has led to the suggestion of the area becoming a national park.

Further restrictions on how, where, and even if they can continue farming are very scary for small communities already struggling to maintain their traditional lifestyle in the face depopulation and increasing financial strain. Even in light of these worries, most farmers felt more optimistic about the future of their farms as a result of KerryLIFE.

The KerryLIFE programme finished in 2019, but its success has become the basis of a new project. This, The Pearl Mussel Project, will replicate the work of KerryLIFE with farmers in six further river catchments, as well as continuing to work with farmers around the Caragh and the Blackwater. These eight rivers, taken together, contain 80% of the Fresh Water Pearl Mussels in Ireland.

It’s hard to know the impact of KerryLIFE on the Freshwater Pearl Mussel population at this stage. The mussels take 8 years to reach maturity, and the juveniles are difficult to observe. However, the improvement in habitat quality has been a measurable success, as has the eagerness with which farmers engaged with KerryLIFE. Neither the Pearl Mussel nor the Irish farm is equipped to survive under the productivist framework. The KerryLIFE Project offers an alternative framework which might save both.

Aífe Kearns is a writer, researcher, and educator, focusing on sustainability in agriculture and rural living. She recently completed a MSc in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development with University College Dublin. Aífe is currently a Climate Ambassador with An Taisce and the co-host of too many podcasts. You can find out more about Aífe and her (too) many projects by following her on twitter at @aifekearns.

You can find out more about the KerryLIFE project at

You can learn about the Pearl Mussel Project at

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