I’m standing in the middle of the Solway Firth, wearing a pair of waders two sizes too big for me, and trying not to topple face-first into the muddy river water. The water is already flooding around my chest when a sudden surge of water threatens to whisk my legs away.
Just as I start to loose my footing, I feel a hand grab on to my belt. ‘Don’t worry,’ says local fishermen Mark Graham. ‘ I’ve got you.’ I’m grateful. If his reactions hadn’t been so quick, I might already be bobbing out towards the Irish Sea.
ON THE EDGE
I’ve come out with the local haaf-net fishermen to experience the fierce tides that tear up and down the Solway Firth and help to shape the Solway Coast AONB. It’s a 115 square km stretch of land on the Northeastern coast of Cumbria, separated at its upper end from Southwest Scotland by a stretch of water called the Solway Firth.
Because it’s so flat, it’s often forgotten about, and hikers walking the Hadrian’s wall path (it’s western end stops at Bowness-on-Solway in the northern part of the AONB) are frequently advised to leave it out because there’s ‘nothing there’.
But, what they do have is plenty of sky (‘Gives us the best sunsets in the world,’ claim the local taxi drivers) and an expanse of land beautifully framed by the Lake District to the south and the Scottish mountains to the north.
And, because there are so few tourists there, the habitats – endless cattle farms, sand dunes, salt marshes, peat bogs and raised mires (an unusual ecosystem of mosses which live off rain and insects caught by specially-evolved plants) – are brimming with wildlife ranging from dragonflies on-shore to dolphins off-shore.
The gateway to the area is Silloth, a faded Victorian resort town with a six-strong fleet of sustainable shrimping vessels and a small working port (May was apparently a ‘busy month’ according to the shipping news in the local paper with ‘nine vessels visiting the port’ unloading all sorts of cargoes including fertiliser from the Black Sea, molasses from Dunkirk, wheat from Rostock, and paper pulp from Northern Spain).
Four hundred years ago the goods passing through the area weren’t so well documented. Sitting on the ‘debatable lands’ between Scotland and England, the Solway coast was a lawless region roamed by the border reevers (or robbers) who would slip between countries running protection rackets and stealing cattle.
Famous reever clans included the Armstrongs, the Johnstons, the Moffats and the Grahams (historically it was legal to shoot a Graham on sight). A descendant of one of these Grahams is the man holding onto my belt, and stopping me from being swept out to sea.
He’s the secretary of the haaf-net fishing association, and is currently involved in a battle to keep this traditional method of fishing alive. ‘We’re living archaeology,’ says Mark Graham. ‘There are not many things that have been carried on unchanged for 1,000 years. People have been fishing like this since Viking times’.
HAAF WAY THERE
Haaf-net fishing involves fishermen walking out into the murky Solway water with a netted frame and waiting for a fish to swim into it before flipping up the net, taking out the fish, knocking it over the head with a wooden mell and popping it in a bag slung over their shoulders. The men go out in all weathers and stand in the water for hours.
‘It’s fishing with a difference,’ says the new landlord of The Hope and Anchor pub in Port Carlisle, Dougie Hill who is already hooked on haaf-netting and recently caught his first fish. ‘The difference is it’s cold, wet and miserable,’ he jokes. Mark Graham agrees. ‘It’s not for nancy boys. It’s a manly pursuit and you’ve got to have some bottle.’
The skill, practised by local men from bin men to lawyers, is handed down through family members and friends. It requires an accurate knowledge of the sandbanks and tidal patterns as the men often walk more than a mile out across the Solway river bed – dodging treacherous sinking sands on the way – to get to their fishing grounds.
Get it wrong, and the tides, which races in faster than a galloping horse, can cut off the path back to the shoreline and leave fishermen in the drink. ‘We had two who went for a little swim earlier in the week,’ says Graham.
But the tides aren’t the biggest threat to the fishermen, says Graham. He believes the hobby is being ‘restricted to death’ by the local environment agency who issue a limited number of licences each year and decide when fishing is allowed – currently only from June to September on weekdays from 10am to 10pm.
This doesn’t allow working men enough time to fish, believes Graham and is leading to the hobby dying out. ‘Only half of the licences were taken up this year. That’s about 55,’ says Graham. ‘People just can’t be bothered any more.’ And for this reason, two haaf-netters are currently applying to the high court for a judicial review of the restrictions.
The environment agency’s Fisheries Team Leader for Cumbria Keith Kendall says these restrictions have been introduced because there ‘are insufficient numbers of salmon and sea trout spawning in these Rivers in order to meet conservation requirements’.
He says they form ‘part of a package of measures that apply to both nets-men and anglers’ and says ‘prior to the introduction of these regulations, the Solway haaf net fishery was killing twice the number of fish as the combined rod fisheries of the Eden and Border Esk’ – 2006 records show that 2,910 salmon and sea trout were caught by haaf-net fishermen in 2006 and 1,872 by rod fishermen on the Eden river.
But Graham and others believes the river is at or near salmon-carrying capacity and says the agency don’t have the correct fish-counting equipment to monitor the proportion of fish being removed by the fishermen.
Instead, he and other local fishermen believe the environment agency are being encouraged to restrict the haaf-net fishing by the wealthy estate owners who own the fishing rights further up the river.
‘If you’re a riparian owner and you’ve got a business on the river the only way to increase the value of your assets is to make sure more fish are going up so you can charge more for the rods per day’, says Graham.
But asked if the riparian landowners are putting pressure on the environment agency to restrict haaf-net fishermen, Harold Tonge, Chairman of the River Eden and District Fisheries Assocation, whose members fish the waters upstream from the haaf-net fishermen, says, ‘Of course not.’
Adding: ‘You have to look at the bigger picture’. He sees the argument between river fishermen and haaf-net fishermen as simply ‘a symptom’ of a wider decline in world-wide salmon and trout numbers due to a range of reasons including over-fishing, pollution, fish farming and global warming.
‘When there were more fish there weren’t these arguments’, says Tonge. To remedy the situation he believes DEFRA needs to increase water quality and linke up differing policies across the UK and Ireland to take account of the migratory nature of salmon.
But Graham says, ‘If I thought for I was endangering the fish stocks in the Solway I wouldn’t fish’. Adding: ‘We’re the endangered species,’ says Graham. ‘We’re the ones who need conserving. We’re part of the fabric of this area’s cultural heritage.’
Solway Coast AONB Manager Brian Irving (who has a PHD in British fish palaeontology) who is a rod fisherman himself agrees and is supportive of the haaf-netter’s plight, believing the new restrictions are unnecessary and the environment agency are approaching the problem from the wrong angle.
He suggests the ‘intensive farming of salmonoids in the UK is creating the crash in the wild population’. Adding: ‘It completes the circle for me’. He points to their transferral of lice from fish farms to young, unresistant fish attempting to return to the sea.
And, ‘the amount of bait fish taken out of food chains to create fish pellets’. It is an ‘absolutely horrendous’ equation, says Irving. ‘It takes three tonnes of these fish to create one tonne of salmon,’ and ‘diminishes stocks of wild salmon and wild birds’.
WARTS AND ALL
Back on dry land Irving and his team are also working to protect the natterjack toad, a rare amphibian who lives in sand dunes and salt marshes. Thirtyfive of its 55 colonies are found within the larger Solway coast region and thanks to the AONB’s work numbers are increasing.
‘It’s its own worst enemy,’ says Irving. ‘They’ll only breed in ephemeral pools rather than permanent bodies of water. So they produce a string of eggs but in a couple of weeks the pond’s gone, it’s dried out.’
To help them along, Irving has taken to scooping up the eggs in a bucket and moving them somewhere more suitable. And volunteers have also been working to create more toad-friendly habitats by digging pools, clearing scrub and placing objects around ponds for the amphibians to hide under.
Meanwhile, just off the coast of the AONB, there are marine mammals in abundance but not many people know they’re there. Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Shore to Sea project officer Catherine Hooper is attempting to put this right by teaching local people what to look out for in the ocean.
Harbour porpoises, basking sharks, and bottlenose dolphins have all been spotted off the Cumbrian Coast, and various different whales (including fin, sei, minke and pilot) have become stranded on the shores –’Sadly they only tend to come in when they’re ill or injured,’ says Hooper.
I spend a couple of hours with her in Silloth trying to spot the resident population of porpoise. ‘You’re looking for a small black triangle looking as though it’s going round and round on a tyre,’ says Hooper, ‘Or a footprint, the still piece of water the porpoise leaves behind when it goes back under water,’
Hooper believes the smallest UK cetaceanis underrated. ‘They’re shy and don’t put on the acrobatics of dolphins,’ says Hooper. ‘But they’re still beautiful creatures.’ And, if you get close enough, you can here them exhaling air. ‘That’s why they’re called puffing pigs,’ she adds.
She believes the reason people go to places such as Scotland or Cornwall to view marine mammals but don’t think of coming to the Cumbrian Coast is because it has ‘a bit of an image problem’. Adding: ‘People view it as dirty and industrial [Sellafield is not far away] but it has started to get cleared up,’ she says. ‘And it’s a lot better than it was’.
Local B&B owner, Garry Griffiths, believes more needs to be done to publicise the Solway region. ‘We’re like the Lake District’s poor cousin.’ Adding: ‘I’m not being funny but half the people in England don’t even know Cumbria has a coast.’ He thinks the way forward would be a development such as a barrage or marina to capitalise on the area’s waterfront.
But Brian Irving, who is already concerned his area of Cumbria is becoming Britain’s wind farm dustbin, believes it’s natural assets are attractive enough. He talks of sights like its ‘massive skies’, ‘huge flocks of birds at high tide’ and ‘barnacle geese flying across the moon’. Adding: ‘This area doesn’t need to be developed. It needs to be discovered.’
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Top tips for squeezing the best out of the Solway Coast
Where to start your explorations
‘At our new one-million-pound Discovery Centre. It reveals where everything is in the AONB and gives people a chance to understand the issues surrounding the area,’ says Brian Irving Solway Coast AONB Manager.
Where to get a taste of the Solway Coast
‘Look out for the wild salmon or trout caught by the haaf-net fishermen on the menu at the Hope and Anchor in Port Carlisle, the King’s Arms in Bowness-on-Solway or the Highland Laddie in Glasson,’ says Mark Graham haaf-net fishermen
Where to spot marine mammals
‘From the benches on the sea wall Silloth. Look for the birds. Wherever there are birds, there will be fish and, as with any cetatean, that’s where the porpoises will be,’ says Catherine Hooper, Shore to Sea project officer
Where to hear the natterjack toads
‘Go down to Grune point (an hour’s walk from Silloth) on a summer’s night, towards twilight. As long as there’s plenty of water in the ponds you’ll hear the males calling out for a female. The sound can carry up to 2 km,’ says Graeme Proud, Solway Coast AONB Volunteer Coordinator