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Perlau Taf

By TREVOR JONES, B.SC., PH.D.

MENTION of Perlau Tf nowadays conjures up thoughts of the Welsh Pop Group, who hail from Whitland (Hen-Dy Gwyn-ar-Df), but the phrase has a deeper connotation, as well as historical significance, for within living memory the Tf river has been fished for pearls. These have been found, and supposedly are still to be found, in the freshwater mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera.)

The history of pearl fishing in British rivers goes back to Roman times. Suctonius in his Lives of the Caesars contends that the presence of pearls in freshwater mussels was instrumental in inducing the invasion of 55 B.C. Nicoleii in Anglia Sacra reports that Scotch pearls were marketed in the 12th century but were not as valuable as those from the Orient. William Camden (1551-1623) recorded that pearls being traded in Britain and Ireland were to be found in the large black mussel which were peculiar to the rapid and stony rivers of Wales, Northern England, Scotland and some parts of Ireland. "Those who fish for pearls, know partly by the outside of the mussels whether they contain any, for such as have them are a little contracted or distorted from their usual shape. A curious and accomplished gentleman, lately of these parts, showed me a valuable collection of pearls of the Conway river in Wales".

Indeed, in ancient times, the Conway was one of the most notable rivers for pearls and the pearl-bearing mussel was found in abundance about one mile upstream from Llanrwst. Sir Richard Wynn of Gwydir presented a Conway pearl to Catherine of Braganza Charles II's queen which is still reputed to be in the Royal Crown. A paper by Thomas Pennant in 1777 reveals that as many as sixteen small pearls had been extracted from a single Conway mussel. The mussel was called 'cregin dilyw' in Welsh and 'kregin diliw' in Ireland 'deluge shells', for they were usually found washed up after a flood.

The existence of the pearl mussel in the larger South Wales rivers has been catalogued as follows: 1888 in the Cleddau, 1891 in the Ely and in 1902 in the Towy at Llanarthne and the Teifi at Maesycrugiau. To date, no historical reference to the presence of pearl-mussels in the Tf has been discovered but such mussels have been, and still are being caught by fishermen using worm as bait for salmon, sewin and trout. In fact, the pearl-mussel must cohabit with fish in the same water in order to complete the parasitic phase in its life cycle. The fry, or the very immature pearl-mussels, attach themselves to the gills of fish and live as parasites for some two to five weeks. Having completed this phase the young mussel detaches itself from the host and falls to the river bed to fend for itself. The mussel appears to show a preference for certain species of fish some contend that trout are their natural host. Minnows also provide an easy anchorage but it is not certain whether sewin or salmon perform the host role under natural conditions. These fish species are to be found in the Tf, whose water is deficient in lime salts another essential prerequisite for the survival of the pearl-mussel.

PearlMussel.jpg Plate I shows the pearl-mussel in its adult stage in the entire state and with the shells opened to show the mother of pearl interior. These specimens were retrieved from a pool on Pentrecwn Farm, Llandeilo in September, 1973 just a week after a severe flood in the Towy. The adult shell varies a great deal but is usually long and oval, black in colour and about four to five inches long. Pearl-mussels are also present in the Tf at numerous places and recently have always been in evidence in the vicinity of the weir at the milk factory in Whitland.

Pearl.thumb.jpg Pearls may be pink, white or brown. They are formed by an outpouring of nacre from the mantle to surround a foreign body or damaged portion of flesh. It is in this way that the marine oyster also forms its pearls. The pearl displayed in Plate II came from a mussel caught in the Tf by Mr. Watford Harris at Tynewydd Farm, Whitland in 1922. It is mounted on a ring for his wife fifty years after its capture in December 1972. It is a good speciman, pinkish white in colour, rounded symmetrically on its upper portion but slightly flattened at the base. It is 10.8 mm. in diameter and weighs, according to the Kunz gage, 35 grains. It is difficult to appraise its value on account of its uniqueness.

During the decade 1926 to 1936 a group of Scotch pearl fishers paid annual visits to the Tf during July and August When the water was low and the fishing was relatively easy. They were probably a syndicate from the Stirling area but the party also included some fishermen from Perthshire. Their itinerary was, from all accounts, well organised. They travelled widely in England and Wales and covered the rivers in a rough rotation. They retained the services of an advocate to challenge any cases of interdict brought against them in the courts to prevent them fishing, but the outcome of the action was often immaterial. By the time judgment was given sufficient time had elapsed to allow them to 'clean' up the river in question.

Fisherman.thumb.jpg Two methods of fishing were employed in the Tf. One involved the use of a dredge net drawn between two small craft which from a description given by Mr. T. H. David could well have been the Scotch 'box' a small type coracle. The other method (Plate III) required the fisherman to wade in the river using a pole five to six feet long with a cleft extremity for retrieving the quarry from the river bed. The mussels, once entrenched on the end of the pole, were transferred to a bag carried over the shoulder. The use of a sighting tube with a glass window facilitated the locating of the mussel on the river bed a variant of this device is held by the fisherman in Plate III. In the deeper pools the pole method would still be used, with the operator lying flat over the side of the 'box' craft.

However the mussels were caught, they were brought to the bank for shell opening. Small mounds of opened shells were a common sight along the Pentrehowell stretch of the Tf above the confluence with the Hydfron in midsummer; they would be removed later in the year by flood water. The Scots were extremely reticent and divulged little to the local populace about their pearl haul. Pearls were their only interest, for they discarded the flesh of the mussel and the mother of pearl shells, although the latter were being used for button manufacture at the time.

[Acknowledgement is due to Mr. Walford Harris, Whitland and Mr. T. H. David, Llanddowror, who prompted this article and, in conversation, provided most of the local information. Thanks are also due to the National Museum of Antiquities, Scotland for permission to reproduce Plate III.]
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