Farmers received an average payment of €2,000 under the Pearl Mussel Project last year.
The annual report for the project for June 2019 to June 2020 shows that the lowest payment received by farmers was €300, with the maximum at €10,000.
In December of 2019, the first payments under the project began to issue, with over €600,000 paid out to 300 farmers.
As of June 2020, there were 454 farmers in the scheme, the aim of which is to protect the rare shellfish – the freshwater pearl mussel.
Farmers can complete a range of voluntary actions which protect the habitat of the mussel and get paid based on the results.
Farm scoring, where advisers walk the land and score habitats between <4 and 10 (excellent) for payment, took place between 1 June and 15 August 2019.
Each approved adviser walked the land of each private farm or commonage they had been assigned to and submitted scorecards via an online map.
“As this was the first year of habitat scoring, the Pearl Mussel Project team verified the scores on approximately 60% of all farms. All private and commonage lands were subject to a desktop verification by the [project] team.
“A total of 1,798 habitat plots were assessed during the 2019 scoring period,” the annual report said.
The overall average habitat plot score was 6.3, with scores rounded to the nearest whole number for the purpose of payment.
The scores varied according to the habitat being assessed from an average of 5.6 for grassland, 6.8 for peatland, and 7.4 for woodland.
Considerably more grassland plots scored <4 than peatland or woodland. Plots receiving <4 do not receive a payment and also impact the rate at which other plots are paid on, as they take up the highest payment bands.
Grassland is traditionally the most intensively managed of the three habitats and generally represents higher risk of negative impacts on water quality.
It is hoped that the incentive of higher results-based payments, the availability of supporting actions and additional supports from the project team (for example environmental workshops) will see an increase in grassland plot scores over the lifetime of the project.
Whole-farm and commonage unit assessments capture the overall risk of impacts of the farm or commonage to water quality.
The whole-farm assessment considers the condition of watercourses (flow, buffer zones and damage), nutrient balance on the farm or commonage and, where applicable, farmyard management.
A total of 248 whole-farm assessments were carried out and 36 commonage unit assessments. The result of the assessment is expressed as one of four categories: excellent (1.2), good (1), inadequate (0.6) and poor (0.3).
Some 60% of farms were found to be good, 12% scored excellent, 25% scored inadequate and 3% scored poor.
Reduction in CO2
The project has facilitated a wide range of scientific research to evaluate the ecosystem impacts of the programme, including collaboration with the EU INTEREG Carbon Connects Project and supporting two PhD students.
The Carbon Connects Project is modelling carbon gain on one of the participant farms in the Owenriff catchment in Co Galway.
Initial modelling results suggest a reduction of up to 6t of CO2 per hectare per year between low- and high-scoring peatland.
The relationship between score and CO2 demonstrates the multiple benefits being captured in the scorecards, from which Pearl Mussel Project payments are derived, according to the annual report.
Monitoring of the populations of the mussel is generally carried out every four to five years and surveys were completed on the Bundorragha and Dawros Rivers in 2020, with the results expected in the coming months.