E ver wonder why the Romans invaded Great Britain? Overwhelming imperialism? Possibly, but there were several more pragmatic reasons for the Caesars to show up just in time to get clobbered by Boedicia. One of the most likely is the natural Scottish freshwater pearl. According to Iain Sime, Freshwater Advisory Officer of Scottish National Heritage, “Roman historian Suetonius refers to Julius Caesar’s preference for British pearls as one of his main reasons for invading the country.” Sime reported this statement in the context of research into historical refer- ences to the pearls in an effort to discern the pattern of their decline. Half of the world’s population of the rare mussels which produce the pearls is in Scottish rivers. However, these mollusks have declined to the point that the identity of these rivers is “being kept secret to try to protect them.” While pollution is thought the likeliest cause of the endan- germent, illegal fishing persists in spite of fines of up to £5000 ($9,980.49 on 4/10/08) for each mussel damaged and since 2004 this can be also be expanded to include a term in prison. Since the mussels have been given “full envi- ronmental protection since 1998” and their meat is non-edible anyway, those taking the rare mussels are immediately known to be poachers. And poachers have found themselves the targets of more and more private individuals since a crackdown dubbed “Opera- tion Necklace 2000”. Unfortunately, despite both public & private efforts,
the mussels “are now extinct or about to die out” from between 70% to 99% of the Scottish rivers where they once thrived, reduced from 160 rivers to less than a dozen. The lives of the mussels are challenged by their very nature. They are the fa- vorite food of returning sea trout and salmon, and it is estimated that of the 210 million offspring a female mussel may produce in her lifetime, “only two reach maturity.” With estimates of full extinction within fifteen years, the next efforts focus
on cutting off the market for Scottish freshwater pearls. Jewelers have been offered an opportunity to voluntarily register their freshwater pearl inven- tory and be issued licenses to continue dealing in pre-1998 pearls, the same terms under which products from other endangered species, like tortoise shell and ivory, are still legally traded. The next phase would include fines or jail for those jewelers not so registered and licensed found to be trading illegal
pearls. In spite of only this, in the first year after the voluntary steps were es- tablished, only two of the thousands of jewelers in Britain had applied. Caesar’s regard in 55 BCE was shared by Alexander I, the 12th century king of Scotland, who “was said to have the world’s best collection of freshwater pearls.” The largest pearl ever found in the British Isles, the Kellie Pearl, was found in Aberdeenshire and now adorns the Scottish crown. Iain Sime’s research supports the idea that the decline in Scottish mussels began as recently as the Victorian era’s Industrial Revolution. Let’s hope all the steps of conservancy are sufficient to reverse the threats toward these remark- able creatures which produce not only the irregular “Baroque” pearl, but also the more-highly-prized pear-shaped and perfectly round variety, in shades of pure white, ivory, and pink hues. We can do more than just hope, though. Since the Scottish freshwater pearl will always be among the most treasured of gifts to bring back from a visit to the Auld Country and every year many of us make the journey, consider seri- ously a personal pledge to deal only in pre-1998 items.
Thanks to Kathy Schultz for passing along information which was used to put this article together from BBC, The (London) Independent, www.karip-
earls.com , and