Merse-bergs and Mudshrimps

The samphire, Salicornia, looked grey and wizened, worn down by the winter and there were still traces of snow on Criffel’s northern slope. It was a cold, windy day in March on the Solway Firth, and I was heading out onto the merse and mudflats of the River Nith with Adam Murphy and Andy Over, both Reserve Officers at Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve. We were on an ‘expedition’ to look for Mudshrimps, Corophium volutator, at Scar Point, on the east bank of the River Nith. The Point is also known as Fishermens’ Bush (it’s a favoured spot for fishing when the tide flows in) or even Phyllis’s: Phyllis Laurie, who died in 1942 at the age of 72, lived nearby and according to the Solway Firth Partnership’s little booklet Tide Islands and Shifting Sands, was a “character” who was “feared by local children”. She owned a horse and cart, and the story has it that if she became incapable of driving after visiting the pub on a Saturday night, the horse always knew its way home. Phyllis might be pleased that the Point has been given her name – but perhaps less impressed that her name also distinguishes a nearby creek across the mud.


Adam, in his thirties and with a reddish-brown beard, strode out onto the merse, and Andy – older, shaven-headed, recently arrived at Caerlaverock from ten years with SNH on Harris – kindly held out a hand whenever creek-jumping required longer legs than mine. As we walked across the merse Adam pointed out the partly-exposed gnarly rhizomes of sea-aster, the fleshy spikes of arrow-grass and the shiny leaves of two species of scurvy grass,  amongst the thin film of sediment on the short ‘turf’ of salt-tolerant Pulcinellia.

When poet Norman Nicholson wrote about the saltmarshes on the Solway’s English coast in the 1940s, he was writing during a time when iron-ore smelting and steel-making around Workington were important parts of the West Cumberland economy. He was attracted to the marshes even when “as around Workington and Maryport, they are soiled and smeared by smoke and scum from the iron and steel works.” The residues of industry affected even the white flowers of scurvy-grass – “Many people despise this plant, perhaps because … it gets clogged with coal-dust as in Workington Harbour, or with red ore-dust in the iron country.” Those industries are long-gone and in March the scurvy-grass flowers were “a welcome mass of white”, and the surfaces of the saltmarshes unsullied. Adam told me that sailors used to eat it as a source of vitamin C. Norman Nicholson noted, “It must have been nearly as unappetising as boiled cabbage” (1)

We found otter spraint, glittering with fish-scales, and discussed whether it smelled of violets (it did not, but was not unpleasant); and wind-blown mermaids’ purses, the square matt-black egg-cases of the Thornback Rays which are common in the Firth. The north-westerly wind was ferocious and cold, blowing our words away and tearing the pages of my notebook. Five Pink-footed Geese came beating across the flats, heading slowly into the wind, their wingtips almost touching the mud. The edge of the merse was ragged and unfocussed, a perfect example of the estuary’s give-and-take. Little troops of samphire had boldly marched out during the previous summer, and had gathered new ground around themselves before losing heart and shrivelling.

Just beyond the saltmarsh’s edge the mudflat was stippled with tiny holes, and conical mounds of mud, a couple of millimetres high, betraying the openings of the Mudshrimps’ burrows. I dug the spade into the mud and lifted it gently so that the divot of mud broke apart but remained on the blade, and Andy – who was unfamiliar with Mudshrimps – exclaimed at the burrows that were exposed, some caught in section, others clearly U-shaped. In one of them, a small Mudshrimp wriggled, its antennae waving. The burrows were barely two centimetres deep, and the shrimps seemed small. Further down towards the falling tide there were drifts of empty shells of Cockles and pink Baltic Tellins, and here the Corophium burrows were densely packed and deeper, the Mudshrimps larger, many at their full size of about one centimetre. The spade came free of the mud with a loud gloop-ing, sucking sound, water spurted from the burrow mouths, and Mudshrimps seemed to explode out, then crawl away. They are defined by their long antennae, nearly as long as their bodies. We watched a shrimp burrowing, and it appeared to sink into the sediment, so rapid was its activity. Here the shrimps had burrowed deeper, some of their tubes reaching down five centimetres, and there were fine burrows containing slim brown polychaete worms, the Ragworm Hediste, too.

The mud on the spade was pale, and below 15 centimetres or so was interwoven with orange-brown fibres, possibly the decomposing roots of former plants. Andy collected some of the mud in my kitchen sieve, and swirled it in a shallow pool before tipping the captured objects into the white enamel pie-dish. Mudshrimps swam about, testing the meniscus and the bottom of the dish with their long, sensitive antennae. We watched them, entranced; they seemed so small and delicate – and yet they can burrow, so very quickly.

Further out on the mudflat were scattered islets, new “lumps of merse” as Adam called them, now stabilised by thin patches of grass; he had watched how the merse had grown outwards in just two seasons. Now, at a low Spring tide, the estuary’s width was obvious and Adam explained how the river channel had shifted over to the western side, leaving great sloping mudflats here on the East. But deep crevasses were carved through the central whale-back of mud, as though the river was trying to break back through again to nibble at the newly-accreted merse. At Campfield Marsh on the southern side of the Firth I had seen metre-high towers at the seaward side of the marsh, capped with vegetation but with steep bare sides. Some of the towers and hummocks had collapsed and were being smoothed and re-distributed by the sea. Here too at Caerlaverock the tides had picked away at the lower tier, shifting the mat of vegetation and exposing compacted sediment and a sharp ‘cliff-edge’. Columns of merse had been isolated. “We call them merse-bergs,” Adam said. “If you’re out here on a quiet day, sometimes you hear a rumble, a bit like thunder – and then you realise that one of the bergs has collapsed.”

Growth-rings in trees, fish-scales, stromatolites and oyster-shells: they are the sequence of responses of living organisms – plants and bacteria and animals – to diurnal and seasonal changes in their environment. The bodies of the bergs and towers of the saltmarsh are not alive, but where they have been sliced open by the tides their inner structure is exposed, striated with subtly different colours and textures, bands of jagged white shell fragments and rounded pebbles between the layers of silt, a record of particles that have been swirled into their environment throughout the years. The marshes and merses erode and accrete, the removal and deposition of sediment changing with the weather and the tides, the seasons and the years and on geological timescales.

(1) Norman Nicholson (1949) Cumberland and Westmorland. London, Robert Hale

Posted in conservation, mud-shrimps, mudflats, saltmarshes | Tagged ,

A Solway small-holding

Yesterday I stood leaning on the pitchfork by the glowing ash-pile, just looking around at the trees and the hedges and our sheep. Two weeks ago, on a blue, still morning, there had been a sound like a gun-shot from our wood and the rooks all leapt into the air, shrieking and shouting. My husband went out to remonstrate with (presumably) someone who was shooting into the rookery – and found an enormous branch had cracked off from one of the Scots pines. Luckily no human or other creature was hurt, although some of the smaller trees had been hit. Hence the bonfire out in the field, to burn the brash (the sap-sticky logs have already been sawn and split, and will dry out for at least a year before being used on the wood-burner.)

We run a small-holding of about 2 hectares, in NW Cumbria and looking across to the Solway Firth: woodland, hedges, vegetable and flower garden, pasture for the 6 Hebridean sheep, and a beck which rises from a spring just outside our land and runs through the pond that we created. Our small wood is at least 160 years old, presumably having been planted at the time our Victorian house was built, and has a mixture of native and non-native trees, including a very tall and increasingly straggly redwood, its trunk pitted with woodpeckered holes (where, my birder brother-in-law assures me, wrens might huddle together in the winter).

The previous owner (and the original Victorian owners – they had carriages not cars) kept horses, and the pasture-land had become rank and full of docks; a narrow strip alongside the wood was damp and dull.

After we moved in eighteen years ago we, and two kind and energetic friends, planted many more native trees – including alders, hornbeam, willow, birch, oak, Scots pine, guelder rose, hazel – singly and as a copse, and thickets of hawthorn, blackthorn and wild rose, in an attempt to make the local woodland and garden birds feel more at home, and migrant warblers and other birds to stay.

Some years later chiffchaffs came, and a pair of blackcaps; there are 2 pairs of breeding nuthatches now, a tree-creeper, and Great-spotted woodpeckers, amongst others. We also planted a windbreak in the field, of suckers from the wild cherries, and a mix of other trees and shrubby bushes – all fenced to keep out the sheep, who always enjoy a bit of novelty in their diet.

But a couple of years ago, there was a threat that a limestone quarry might open at the top of the hill behind the house, creating dust and noise and destroying some old woodland in the process; United Utilities had started mutilating West Cumbria in the construction of a new water pipleine for West Cumbria (hundreds of tonnes of concrete are being poured into a new reservoir on the other side of the hill as I write) – and my despair at the effect that this would be having on the wildlife surrounding our village kept growing.

So, last year, we sold 4 of our 10 sheep – the Herdwick ewes, since they were in good condition for breeding – and  planted up a third of a hectare of pasture with native trees. But it was the year of the Beast from the East, which was followed not long after by – unheard of for this area! – six weeks of drought. I don’t like tubular tree-guards, and we’ll remove them when each tree is sufficiently tall and robust to look after itself, but the tubes ensured a warmer, damper micro-climate around each sapling. By scooping water from the dribbling slimy beck with a bowl and into buckets, we managed to keep the trees wet enough in the drought so that we only lost about 8 percent. The survivors are already looking good this Spring, and we recently – with the ‘help’ of our grand-children – planted hawthorn slips to make a hedge along one side.

We’ve learnt a lot about managing woodland during our time here: when to trim branches so that light can reach the smaller species or the wild violets and cowslips; when and what to plant. We pollarded a big old ash by the pond, partly because it had a crack between two branches, but also because it was throwing so much shade that there was no chance that dragonflies would stay.

I managed to persuade my husband that the grass in the wooded areas doesn’t need to be cut like a lawn! At the moment the floor of the old wood is a white froth of cow-parsley, mixed with the deep purple of self-seeded Honesty and a jumble of pink- and white- and blue-bells, all of which are now the ‘Spanish’ type (although I’m sure they were ‘English’ when we first moved in). This has been a good year for celandine and dandelions – and also for cuckoo-pint, whose pale sheaths and glossy leaves have proliferated in every shady patch. Earlier, there was a carpet of snowdrops, followed by daffs – both species seem to proliferate naturally as well as with some help from us (splitting and re-planting clumps when they’re ‘in the green’).

The newest woodland was planted on a pasture which has for decades been fertilised by horse- then sheep-droppings, and kept well-grazed. A range of grasses grew up last year amongst the saplings, plus chickweed, creeping and meadow buttercup, and some milkweed. We had to cut the grass at the end of the summer and remove the cuttings – this was during the hot dry weather when the flies swarmed and I spent the time whining, raking and sweating – but already this year we’re seeing many more milkweed growing and I’m hoping the grey furry-leaved mulleins and foxgloves that I retrieved from inappropriate places elsewhere (the gravel path, the veg garden) will flourish in their new sites.

The pond has evolved with time. When you think of the Lake District you think of volcanic rocks and slate, but that massif is fringed with limestone – and our village sits at the base of a low plateau, where the rain gathers in sink-holes and flows into aquifers, eventually emerging as springs where the limestone meets the harder rock. Our beck is surprisingly ‘flashy’ during heavy rain in winter – very soon the percolating water explodes out of the ground and flushes silt from the field behind us into the pond; then still rising, spreads out onto the mini-floodplain of our field, before finding its way back into the water-course again.  The volume and speed of the water that comes down is spectacular.

But that hasn’t happened this winter, and there has been very little heavy rain for weeks. Last week shingle banks were showing in the River Derwent in both Cockermouth and Keswick (seeing the water so low, it’s hard to believe how high the river rose during the floods of 2009 and 2017, over-topping the defences) and already our pond is so low that it is fringed with mudbanks, and much of the weed is no longer floating but resting, humped, upon the mud. I don’t know how the tadpoles and caddis-fly larvae, the whirligig beetles and various snails are faring – they are scarcely to be seen, presumably finding refuge amongst the water-forget-me-not and watercress and mint; even the base of the reed-bed looks dry and the reeds themselves are not growing as fast as usual for this time of year.

Perhaps there are no longer tadpoles anyway; for several mornings it was apparent that something had been rooting in the water-forget-me-not, patches of which were left floating, roots pointing to the sky. Our trail-camera picked up a male mallard arriving in the dark and leaving at dawn: mystery solved (but see note below, three weeks later). One year a female mallard made her nest on the small island in the pond but it wasn’t a wise move to nest within site of a wood that is so aurally and visibly beloved of corvids – there are about 40 rook and several jackdaw nests, and there is a crows’ nest at the top of the field – and of course the constantly vigilant magpies patrol the hedgerows. The duck eggs didn’t last long.

Last year the introduction of more light to the pond paid off, because it was finally visited by a large yellow-and-black hawker dragonfly and several red-bodied damselflies. But there’s not a chance that they’ll come to stay this year unless the water level rises – and now, in this period of lush growth, the vegetation upstream on the plateau will soak up any rain that falls.

As I stood beside the ashes of the bonfire, which occasional flurries of wind sparked into life, I was trying to remember all the birds and animals that have visited since we have been living here, and I hope that what we have been doing – in the wood, the pond, the fields and hedges and the garden itself – has helped to make them feel welcome and at home. Hedgehogs have bred; an otter visited when the frogs were mating (betrayed only by its pawmarks); bank voles burrow everywhere and a red squirrel visited (but we must have been found wanting because it left after three days). There are pipistrelles, on whom I eaves-drop with the bat-detector, and frogs and toads.

As for birds: 3 species of tit live here and long-tailed tits visit; chaffinches, greenfinches (fewer these days), goldfinches, and recently a pair of bullfinches; the usuals like robins, (lots of) blackbirds; dunnocks; goldcrested wrens and (never-ordinary) wrens; a pair of song-thrushes, and a pair of mistles; the tree-creeper(s), nuthatches, house- and tree-sparrows; the corvids; the Great-Spot… A sparrowhawk hunts frequently through the garden, sometimes sitting on the sandstone gatepost by the kitchen window, glaring around with glittering yellow eyes; a collared dove provides the occasional good meal, but the wood-pigeons are too heavy for him to take on. Last year a buzzard learnt to snatch rooklings from their nests and, dropping down through the trees, tore at their flesh and feathers on the floor of the wood. In the cold spells, siskins and bramblings cluster round the feeders.

And then there is the song of the chiffchaff and the blackcap, and the twittering of the swallows and house-martins, the night- and dawn-calling of the tawny owls …

Except there isn’t. This year, as last, a chiffchaff returned and made me briefly, almost deliriously happy; but he left despite my daily exhortations to stay – presumably no mate came to keep him company. The barn owl hasn’t been seen for at least two years; the work on the water-pipeline seems to have scared the hares away; the local tawnies haven’t been heard for at least 8 months; only 4 swallows have (finally – 3 weeks late) returned, of which only one pair is probably ‘ours’ and will nest in the hayloft; so far I have seen only one house-martin. The heron that used to visit hasn’t been seen since last summer. The hedgehogs began to shuffle around in day-time last year, and were later found dead – a sure sign they had succumbed to some infection. Spotted fly-catchers nested in the Clematis montana for a few years when we first arrived, but they didn’t return one summer and I have never seen one again.

It is so easy to become upset and depressed at what we have lost and are losing, and some days it is very hard to be positive, especially in the face of such global losses and anthropocene-induced extinctions. But then I make myself stop and watch and listen, and make a tally of what we do have; think what we – perhaps – have managed to accomplish, in looking after our ‘neighbours’ and making them feel that our land is, actually, theirs too. And I have to hold on to those thoughts, and rejoice in the sound of even that single pair of swallows, chattering to each other excitedly as they swoop around the barn and yard, as they come back home for the summer.

Update, May 29th 2019.


Yesterday a female mallard and nine ducklings swam and scuttled down what remains of the beck. That male mallard flying in after dark must have been coming ‘home’ to visit her – somewhere near the pond she had, after all, had a nest. What a brave little female – and what a triumph to have kept that nest and eggs so well hidden.

Posted in conservation | Tagged , , ,

Tidal Power proposals on the Solway: an update

Out on the Firth

When I first blogged about this topic, back in October 2015, I explained why the Solway Firth is being considered as a suitable estuary for the construction of tidal power schemes, and the basic ideas and technology behind the schemes. Please do read that post first, if you have time, as the background of the companies – and the people involved – also provide good stories.

This post is a short, factual update – two of the original players have (probably) departed, and one (or two?) new players have entered the pool. The B-word has, of course, played havoc with decision-making, and as a result, with financial backing.

Barrages and weirs

  1. North-West Energy Squared.

A system of barrages (sorry – ‘gateways’) across estuaries in the NW of England, including across the Solway Firth from Workington to Kirkcudbright; read the earlier blogpost for details of the plan, and the CEO’s comments.

NWE2’s uninformative website no longer exists, though the company is still listed and took on 2 new directors in September 2018.

Note: ‘barrage’ is now a dirty word in the context of estuarine power generation – it’s considered an outdated and disruptive technology, very expensive to construct, with too many problems relating to environmental changes and remediation.

 2. Solway Energy Gateway

The idea of an ‘electric bridge’, proposed by Nigel Catterson, across the Firth between Bowness and Annan, along what has been called a ‘brownfield site’ (Arup) – the line of former Solway viaduct.

This would be a ‘weir’, fixed to the sea-bed and with 6m vanes which can be raised or lowered, creating a difference in head (see my earlier post for an explanation); the vanes could be dropped flat at slack tide. Power would be generated via Venturi turbines .

SEG also plans also to construct a foot- and/or cycle-bridge across the Firth – this idea has met with considerable enthusiasm in public consultations on the Scottish side. Nigel Catterson is working with Scottish councils. It has also been suggested that the scheme could contribute to flood defences of Carlisle.

Note: The bidirectional turbine technology is as yet untried in sediment-laden fast-flowing tides. At lowest Spring tides, there small amount of water in the channel is mainly from Rivers Esk & Eden – though the ‘weir’ would hold back water (salt and fresh) to create a head of pressure.


Russell lagoons are U-shaped, joined at each end to the coast

Ullman offshore lagoons are circular (‘doughnuts’), free-standing in the estuary

  1. Tidal Lagoon Power

TLP’s original proposal was for 6 Russell  lagoons – Wales (Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Colwyn), Bridgewater Bay, and the Solway (Workington-Dubmill Point).

All emphasis has been on Swansea, the smallest:  Charles Hendry, in his January 2017 review of tidal power for the government, strongly recommended the Swansea project should be funded and built as a ‘pathfinder’ – ie allowed to run for 5 years, with its financial viability and its effect on the environment being monitored, before decisions were made about further schemes.

Despite the Environmental Impact Assessment having been carried out, and the supply-chain companies being on board, the Westminster government continually dithered about granting approval or approving the Contract for Difference price. In June 2018, Minister Greg Clarke stated the project would be too expensive, and would not give value for money, and so the government would not back the scheme.

The Welsh government is still keen to support the Swansea scheme and other players – financial and constructual – have come forward (December 2018). And TLP announced this month (February 2019) that it plans to go ahead without government backing, by signing Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with other companies. TLP also has a new plan, to float solar panels in the lagoon, increasing power output by an estimated one-third.  As reported by the Guardian‘s energy correspondent Adam Vaughan, ‘The plan is to secure enough signed PPAs by the end of the year to enable a final investment decision in early 2020, with construction starting shortly afterwards. If that timetable were met, the project would be generating power in 2024 or 2025.’

But whether or not the Swansea lagoon will ever be built is still far from clear.

Tidal Electric (see below) submitted a response to the Hendry report, in favour of their own offshore lagoons

Note: Should Swansea ever go ahead, and be deemed successful as a ‘pathfinder’, Tidal Lagoon Power would then most probably focus attention on building another Welsh lagoon, eg Cardiff Bay.

TLP’s Solway project is now unlikely.


A new suggestion since my 2015 blogpost: a Russell Lagoon.

These notes are from my conversations with Michael Osborne, Director, ARUP, Whitehaven. October 2018 and February 2019.

The wall of the proposed coastal tidal lagoon could be 18km (12 miles) long from just North of Maryport to Mawbray, effectively around the outside of the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone.

The emphasis would be on local sourcing of rock materials. Ideas include: the bund core of waste slate from a quarry near Askam in Furness; outer rock armour – slate blocks or granite blocks from Askam in Furness or Kirkmabreck quarry near Creetown; inner rock armour might be red sandstone possibly from a quarry near Maryport – sandstone is more easily colonised by algae and marine animals. The water off Allonby Bay is fairly shallow so the wall would not need to be too large, but the deeper channel just NW of Maryport could be where the bi-directional turbines are sited.  The grid connection would be inshore of Maryport. .

Michael Osborne recognises the importance of the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone. ‘It includes the sea-bed, and we must respect that – otherwise what would be the point of the designation?’

Note: this coastal lagoon option leaves Maryport harbour entrance and the mouth of the River Ellen open (unlike the Tidal Lagoon Power scheme); goes outside Allonby Bay MCZ; and the scheme could reduce the current rate of coastal erosion. This concept of a coastal tidal lagoon has been raised through the Maryport Delivery Plan.

This proposal currently has no financial backers. Michael Osborne thinks that the way forward for tidal power in general is for the government to support renewable energy schemes, including tidal, as a matter of policy. Regardless of policy tidal energy projects should be competitive with other energy sources.

The Labour Party have indicated an interest in renewables including wind, tidal and wave power.

3. Tidal Electric Consortium

A new suggestion since my 2015 blogpost: an Ullman lagoon (CEO of Tidal Electric is California-based Peter Ullman.)

Dr Amir Eilon (the sole Director of Ullman Offshore Lagoon; the rest of Tidal Electric’s Board are based in the US or Switzerland) has given two presentations to the Solway Firth Partnership in Dumfries, the most recent in association with syndicate members from Ecotricity and DEME (Dredging Environmental & Marine Engineering; Belgium)

Eilon has previously also discussed ideas for a Russell lagoon in the Solway (see ARUP, above).

This second presentation in December 2018 focussed only on the proposed Ullman lagoon – either off Hesten Island (D&G) or off Allonby Bay MCZ; the power generated would be onshore-d to Cumbria, where the existing grid has capacity.

The circular wall, 16km in perimeter, would be constructed of geotubes covered by locally-sourced external rock armour, with sluice gates and turbines in a block. The plan is for 55 turbines, producing 388 MW; the estimated cost of approximately £710m depends on rock source/price, turbine price etc – in other words, on several currently known unknowns.

Ovals indicate possible lagoon sites in the Firth (from Tidal Electric’s presentation slide)

As for siting, if the lagoon is constructed in 10m depth of water, fewer and bigger turbines are required; if in shallower water, for example 5m, 100-150 smaller turbines might be necessary. From the geological point of view, the English side is better, because of the sandstone bedrock, but it is also more exposed (and next to the Allonby Bay MCZ); on the Scottish side near Heston Island, the sea-bed is more pitted but is more sheltered.

Since the lagoon is not connected to the coast, there is no access other than by boat (‘We don’t do tourism’), so there would be no H&S constraints with regard to visiting tourists. The wall would therefore be cheaper to build, have a much lower profile and therefore much less visual impact than the wall of a Russell lagoon.

Note: The syndicate will not commit to further work on the project unless they receive assurances that the government is willing to support tidal power generation. Eilon was supposedly meeting with the UK government’s Energy Minister in January 2019, but that meeting has now been postponed until March. Interestingly, Tidal Electric’s website now refers to this as a ‘Scotland’ project, (rather than a Solway project, as previously): make of that what you will!

A general point about timescales

Even if a lagoon, of either sort, should be given approval tomorrow – the time to power generation is in the region of about 7-8 years.

Scoping, modelling, working out risk mitigation, gaining the necessary permissions, public consultations, planning applications, agreeing Contract for Difference price with the government and so on would take 3-4 years.

The actual construction phase – requiring movements of large amounts of material by land, rail and sea; dredging; cable-laying; building the walls and turbine housing; building onshore works and offices; environmental remediation etc – would take a further 3-4 years.

And my personal view

It is such a startlingly obvious idea, to capture the mighty energy of the seas that surround our islands – the waves, the predictable tidal flows – and to convert this into the electrical power that we will increasingly need (imagine all those electric cars). The technologies and designs are challenging – for unstartlingly obvious reasons – but are exciting and always advancing.

Until fairly recently I believed that nuclear power should also be part of the portfolio, partly because West Cumbria already has such a concentration of nuclear expertise, and the influx of jobs and the continuing necessary financial support would be vital for the area’s economy: but my opinion has changed (as has, it seems, the government’s, although for different reasons – the new nuclear build proposed for the Moorhouse site has been cancelled).

Wind, water and sunshine could together provide a smoothed-out supply of energy for our use. But we also need the technology to store the electricity and release at peak demand; we need large-scale technology to split water to release hydrogen, which can be burnt – cleanly – to generate power.

All this is possible, even though as a country we are coming to it much too tardily and with only a fragmentary long-term plan. We should be concentrating our research and resources on adding tidal and wave power to our portfolio. More than ever we need to stop using fossil fuels to provide energy. The current extremes in climate breakdown hint that we may already be too late.

So: power must be generated where there are ‘big tides’.

But in the Solway Firth?

I swither.

The Solway is so ‘unspoilt’ by humans, and most of the changes that occur are natural, the result of interactions between storms and tides and rivers.

So I hate the thought of the years’-long, major, disruptions to the Firth of constructing the lagoons: the noise, both air-borne and water-borne; the traffic on land and sea; the dumping of rocks; the hauling of cement; and around it all, the swirling sediment.

I swither again. I remember how the Solway’s margins – the mudflats and the saltmarshes – have changed over thousands of years, and I think that the Firth and its non-human inhabitants will, eventually, adapt.

And yet … This ‘intervention’ would be so dramatic, a mere eye-blink in geological and evolutionary terms, that it would require the Solway’s creatures – the salmonids that pass through to breed, the fish that browse on the sea-bed, the micro-organisms and invertebrate animals that live on or in the mud and sand and rocks, the algae and saltmarsh plants – to survive and feed and breed despite ‘the storm’.

Already the numbers of so many of the creatures and plants with whom we share this space have plummeted. For many more, in this precious and protected finger of the sea, this disruption could be the final straw.

NIMBY-ism? No: it’s not my backyard, is it? It’s their’s.

I cannot swither any more.

Posted in renewable energy, tide & wind | Tagged , , ,

Where ships meet …

Goldilocks would have liked the tanker Zapadnyy’s cargo: molasses, at just the right temperature, not too hot and not too cold. Transporting molasses is tricky – it must be kept fairly fluid, so heating coils warm it to 24oC in the ship’s hold. If the molasses is too cold, it is impossible to discharge, but if it’s too warm it undergoes a Maillard reaction, an exothermic reaction which turns it into caramel. Eddie Atherton told me that “it’s like coke! I’ve seen people having to take a jack-hammer to it to release it.”

The Zapadnyy, molasses cargo discharged, at the port of Silloth

Eddie, now retired, was Production Manager at Caltech-Carrs Milling, based at the Port of Silloth on the Solway and it’s there – to Silloth – that Zapadnyy is bound.

She’s my favourite ship on the Solway, a ship whose erratic behaviour collects stories. I first heard about her in connection with some emergency welding that had to be carried out on the dock, and all the Silloth pilots have stories to tell about her.  “She’s unmanoeuvrable!” (Bill Amyes); “It’s anybody’s guess which way she’s going to go” (Ed Deeley, pilot and former Harbour Master); “She’s got such a broad beam. It’s like trying to steer a coracle” (Chris Puxley, pilot and former Harbour Master).

Ships longer than 50metres going up the Solway Firth to Silloth must take on a pilot from just off the Port of Workington. It’s a 90-minute voyage with known and occasionally unknown hazards: the Admiralty chart shows uncharted areas and ‘Changeable depths’, and the pilot and ship’s Master must negotiate the English Channel  – limited to the North by the Workington Bank – then pass through the Maryport Roads followed by a wiggle North/North-East through the shifting channel off Allonby Bay (see Piloting a ship to Silloth for more stories).

This afternoon, Sunday 13th January, Zapadnyy is due in to Silloth, and Workington’s Harbour Master, Russell Oldfield, has offered me a trip out to the ship on the pilot boat Derwent. At breakfast time, I watch Zapadnyy’s red icon on the live shipping website, making her way up the Irish Sea, turning East into the Solway, and slowing and anchoring off Workington just after 9am.

The Marine Traffic website gives all her details, her tonnage, her deadweight (weight including cargo), her length and breadth (77m x 14m) and more. She’s an old ship, built in 1988, and she’s registered in Belize – but I know that she has a crew of Russians and Ukrainians who, despite political differences, apparently co-exist amicably in this confined space.

The Solway’s English ports – Maryport, Workington, Whitehaven and Silloth – can only be entered at High Water and only, in Zapadnyy’s case, during daylight, so now she must wait off Workington for the late afternoon high tide.

But the wind has got up and the rolling brown waves on the Firth are streaked with white. The forecast is bad – a north-westerly wind, Force 5 or 6, increasing Gale Force 7 later in the afternoon. Tim Riley, pilot and Silloth’s current Harbour Master, phones me at midday – none of us will be going anywhere today.

I watch online as Zapadnyy’s icon swings round to the South-West and increases speed, direction 200o. She will sit out the gale elsewhere, heading out into the Irish Sea and then sheltering off the Isle of Man overnight: no shore time for her crew tonight.

Monday January 14th: the wind has moderated and I see that the tanker is back off Workington, speed 0.0knots – her crew waiting, again.  The next high water at Silloth is at 1702h; pilot Tim will need to board Zapadnyy at about 1500h, so the Derwent will be setting out to meet her at about 1430h. At Workington’s Harbour Office I’m directed towards the far end of the dock where the Derwent is moored.

Pilot boat and harbour tug Derwent by the dock gates at Workington

Since I last wrote about the port (see Solway Shore Stories) there have been many obvious changes: the green bund of plastic-wrapped bales of Solid Recycled Fuel destined for Latvia has disappeared, as has the pyramid of incoming gypsum. The main cargo entering the port these days is timber and wood-pulp for the paperboard mill Iggesund: stripped tree-trunks are piled like small mountains, new ‘Wainwrights’ in the making. Black plastic pipes for West Cumbria’s new water supply wait to be transported to the scarred countryside. The port still receives cement, but the hoped-for container traffic did not happen, and the two enormous Nelcon cranes, iconic reminders of the port’s glory days, have been sold and are due to be taken away. The quays look empty and tidy, waiting for new business.

The Derwent’s deck lies fifteen feet below me, for the dock gates are open and high tide is still two hours away. Russell Oldfield is washing the deck. Despite my willingness to do so, he insists that I should not climb down the quayside’s metal ladder, and directs me to the far side of the dock next to the RNLI station (from where I drove the previous lifeboat, Sir John Fisher, two years ago) and the fretted metal ‘safety steps’. Oily water sloshes to and fro beneath them, and green and grey shadows shift and shape-change in this underworld amongst the concrete piers.

Under the quay

The cabin of the pilot boat – which is also the harbour’s tug – is surprisingly roomy and warm, and coxswain Phil Scattergood lifts a hatch to show me that there is a larger cabin below, with bunks and a ‘head’ (toilet). Then Tim and coxswain Ian Cormack arrive onboard, and immediately we are off, heading out of the gates and out to sea.

Dozens of cormorants perch on the railings of the breakwater, black as crotchets on a stave; a syncopated tune that falls off the edge of the page, its notes flying, as we roar by.

Out past the breakwater the swell is noticeable, and the view from the windows is bleared and distorted by blasts of spray as the bow plunges and slams into the waves.

Zapadnyy is visible now, idling under motor, her bow pointing West, but she is of course expecting us, and as her captain and Phil talk on the radio, smoke puffs briefly from her funnel and she slowly turns around, wallowing gently, waiting. She has come up from Avonmouth, where she took on her cargo of molasses from a bigger tanker, but she is not fully-laden for her red-brown hull is partly visible.

Phil slowly brings the Derwent along the starboard side, in the lee of the north-westerly wind; two of the crew are waiting to welcome Tim and – it happens so quickly that I miss taking a photo at the crucial time – Tim has climbed the short rope ladder and is aboard. Russell is laughingly sympathetic that I’ve failed to see and record the ‘pilot transfer’, the main point of my trip, and he and Ian say that Tim must be ‘camera- shy’. But Zapadnyy’s crew, rolling up the ladder, make up for my disappointment with their broad smiles.

In seconds, we’re going astern and the tanker is under way: the meeting of ships and humans of different nationalities, briefly united by the sea, has been terminated.

We loop away, and now Russell sits at a computer and Phil, watching another screen, steers us along a pre-ordained course towards the West. Under the terms of its licence to dredge, the Port has to check the movements of the dredged material where it has been dumped in the designated ‘Soil Grounds’ in the Firth, so now the boat’s sonar measures and records the depth along the current course.

I watch, and feel, the rise and fall of the waves, and a guillemot takes off in a flurry of wings and running feet as the sun’s rays suddenly fan out from a hole in the cloud, gilding the surface of the sea.

Sunlight gilds the Solway

The dark prow of St Bees’ head stands out to the West, and the low coast around Workington is busy with turning wind-turbines and plumes of steam from the factories. A dark-grey catamaran, one of C-Winds’ service boats for the Robin Rigg windfarm, passes us in the distance, moving fast towards the port; its skipper is on the radio asking for permission to enter. Zapadnyy is disappearing up the English Channel, her green-and-brown hull merging with the coastline. The Derwent turns and heads back to port, leaving a spreading vee of frothing white water astern.


Zapadnyy heading up the Firth in the darkening day

Driving East along the coast road, I catch glimpses of Zapadnyy in the distance as Tim guides her through the channels up to Silloth. A smirr of rain hides her as she passes in front of Criffel, but soon she is slowly passing the harbour entrance, losing way, idling – waiting.

Someone comes down from the Harbour office to check the tide-gauge by the dock gate: he waves at me and shakes his head – not enough water yet for the tanker to make her entrance.

Fifteen minutes pass, and then her masthead riding-lights appear above the wall and she approaches gently, gently, delicately turning into the difficult entrance, sweetly gliding through the outer dock and setting the anchored shrimp boats swaying; gently through the narrow entrance of New Dock, and safely into port. It’s almost dark now, lights from the the warehouses glittering on the water and scattering as Zapadnyy manoeuvres to her own special place.

Her entrance was perfect.

But it has not always been so trouble-free. One of the photos on the Marine Traffic website shows her elsewhere with a spectacularly damaged bow. And here at Silloth, where wind and counter-currents at the harbour mouth make for a very difficult entry, she has on occasion rammed the dock wall – the incident when emergency welding was required – and, worse, on Ayr pilot John Munro’s watch, grounded outside the harbour on a sandbank.

The day the Zapadnyy got it wrong. September 13th 2016.
Photo thanks to Danny Ferris, Solway Shipping

On that occasion, she had to stay put (much to the delight and interest of ship-watchers close by on the shore) until she could be hauled off on the night’s high tide.

This evening, though, she arrives quietly and calmly. The harbour staff in hi-vis are waiting on the quay, ready to secure the ropes and hawsers. She is declared ‘all fast’.

The crew wave to me again, and then busy themselves with their well-practised tasks. They will spend tomorrow at Silloth – there should be time to go ashore – and then Tim Riley will guide them back down to Workington on the falling evening tide.

Meanwhile, the pipe will be connected and warm molasses will start to flow, to be stored then mixed in the harbour-side factory to make Crystalyx for sheep and cows. Zapadnyy may be difficult to steer but, as pilot Ed Deeley says, “She’s got a very competent bridge team as well as a very good echo-sounder! And she’s the only vessel that manages to keep molasses in a good state.”

Posted in coastal heritage, ports, ships | Tagged , , , , ,

Port Carlisle: canals and ships and trains

When the tide is out, Port Carlisle’s former life is laid bare in stark, dark shapes.

A line of rotten wooden stumps, marching out across the mud, scarcely hints that here was once the steamer pier.

wharf steps & egret

Posts of the steamer pier, the dock, and the coaling wharf

Out beyond the whale-back of mud and stone in the centre of the dock is a long, stone wharf, a jumble of straight lines and ragged edges: red sandstone blocks, their intertidal surfaces dark with fucoids, greened at the high tideline, and speckled with yellow and grey lichen – the coaling wharf, disconnected from the shore, disconnected from the sandstone quay, disconnected from the village.


The coaling wharf (and ‘garden’)

To reach the wharf I squelch across mud and shelly sand, noting the footprints and beak-probes of waders; I climb over fallen blocks of dressed sandstone, coated green with Ulva, up onto what was the working surface of the wharf – and find a wild garden of blazing yellow gorse, grass and pink thrift.


There is a wall of part-dressed red blocks, some shifted by the tides, and granite bollards, pale speckled grey, geologically incongruous  – fallen sideways, unmoored. Sandstone steps, green and slimy, lead down to the muddy seabed of the dock. I find strange shapes of flattened metalwork in the stone, bolts that are twisted and rusty, decayed wooden fenders, and dislodged sandstone, the edges of the wharf no longer neat and protective. And a strong sense of the past, a place of bollards and hawsers, where boats came up from Liverpool, picking the right tides to negotiate the Firth’s notorious sandbanks; and tied up to collect or deliver coal and goods and people, that were then transported up the canal to Carlisle.

The eastern, seaward side slopes gently towards the water, a shore of mud, red clay and shells, from which pebbles have been scooped and thrown up onto the wharf.

Standing on top of the wharf I look North across the Solway to Scotland and the sheds of Eastriggs munitions depot, that are low and an unnatural pale-green, failing to be inconspicuous. To my right is the vast Rockcliffe marsh at the head of the Firth, barely visible beyond a low headland that anchors the shiny mud of the low-tide bay in place; intersecting lines of mud and sand and water, silver, pewter, ochre, where  oyster-catchers and two curlews pipe and forage. And here on my left, across the dock, are the houses of a port that was once an insignificant place known as Fisher’s Cross.

That dark mound in the centre of the dock, that rarely gets covered by the tide, is not a merely a heap of pebbly sediment, swirled and dumped by the tides: originally built as a stone breakwater, it forced a splitting of the ebbing and flowing tides, to reduce the silting of the harbour. Beyond it, the red sandstone of the quay where ships once unloaded passengers and goods, is still visible.

The tide is coming in fast now, the wave-fronts creamed with brown froth, and I pick my way back across the mud, where the mouths of tiny burrows spurt water with each footfall. The mudflats are home to a rich community of animals. Winkles crawl amongst the pebbles and spiralling fucoid fronds, and the empty valves of pink tellins and chalky grey clams crunch underfoot. A Little Egret, shocking in its whiteness, flaps slowly along the shore.

I find a few ragged-topped wooden stakes, blackened and soft, which hold memories of the narrow rail track along which horse-drawn wagons teetered to the wharf.

The quay by the village is disrupted by a gap, through which a sluggish stream of water trickles across the mud at low tide. Here is the ghost of the sea-lock that marked the end of the Carlisle canal.

Little remains except the sandstone walls, and it’s not easy now to imagine the two lock-gates with their associated wheels and handles. Between 1823 and 1853 the canal was the route to the Solway, and thence to Annan, Liverpool and Ireland, for ships carrying goods from the warehouse at Carlisle, and for goods and coal in the other direction, brought up along the coast. Laden barges and ships travelled in both direction along the canal, being swung round in the now-overgrown turning circle by the lock. High walls of dressed stone are almost hidden by shrubs and dangling ivy.

People travelled, too, mostly away from Cumberland – to Scotland, the Isle of Man or Ireland or further, emigrating from Liverpool to America. The jagged line of stumps, like broken teeth, to the West of the port are all that remains of the steamer pier, which was built out into the Firth so that arrivals and departures would not be limited by the tides. Outgoing passengers and sight-seers crammed onto passage-boats that left the Carlisle basin and travelled along the canal, the schedule timed to rendezvous with the steamer.

bath house

The bath-house today


The former Solway Hotel and the Steam-Packet Inn offered shelter and refreshment; a bath-house with heated sea-water pumped from the Firth provided ‘spa’ facilities, and the Wesleyan Methodist chapel on the outskirts looked after people’s souls.


All ports require a Customs House, preferably large and imposing, and new local housing was equally smart: a terrace of elegant Georgian houses – now Listed – each with individually designed fan-lights above the door; a house with a sandstone Roman altar embedded in the stone-work; a Wesleyan Methodist chapel.


Port Carlisle had style, it had stunning views, it was busy, a tourist destination and a stepping stone to the New World. By 1854 it even had a railway station.  The canal’s working life had been relatively short, and eventually uneconomic. It was filled in – and railway tracks laid. At first steam trains carried passengers and freight. When that too proved a financial embarrassment, passengers were pulled in the horsedrawn ‘Dandy’ along the rails between Burgh and the Port. But finally, after a range of transport methods had been tried and failed, the line closed and was dismantled.

station platform

Station platform

Back in the village I wander round a weedy, grassy rectangle, kicking weeds from the low brick-edged platform which is all that remains of the station terminal. The station house itself has been converted into a private dwelling.



The Port’s former life is imprinted in large detail on the landscape and the shore. It’s not too difficult to imagine the comings and goings, the excitement of a new vessel’s arrival up the Firth; the driving rain and fast-ebbing tides that kept ships stalled across at Annan; the passage boat’s arrival at the final lock, laden with sight-seers, emigrants, and their baggage; the wet, impatient, hungry, passengers drinking in the pubs; the racket of the crane and laden shaky wagons; or the soft light of a tender Solway day encouraging walkers to stroll along the road.


But it is the small details that stay in my mind: letters ‘JW’ precisely engraved in a block by the canal; rusty bolts; flattened metal shapes found both on the wharf and on the quay; the zoned colours of sea-weeds, weathered and wave-washed sandstone and lichen; the glistening mud speckled with stones; the single dark pockmark on each dressed block where pincers lifted it into place.

As the tide flows into the vacated basin of the port, the place is again populated, with hundreds of gulls and ducks, sitting quietly on the silvery surface of the water, enjoying the ride.

port carlisle3 nov16.JPG

The incoming tide

And now …

This is not a sad place. There may no longer a busy-ness on the streets and quay, but the inner life of the village is full of pride and warm memories. The lady who lives in the former Bath-house once invited me inside to look at its original features; friends have been given impromptu conducted tours along the quay, and recently villagers and other local people took party in the ‘Remembering the Solway’ oral history project, meeting regularly in the Methodist Chapel: their reminiscences were recorded and transcribed, and in the accompanying film Daphne Hoggs remembers learning to swim in the harbour, and how she and her friends would swim from the central ‘island’ to the wharf steps.

In the related ‘Port Carlisle Heritage Project’ run by the North of England Civic Trust, the villagers explored the Port’s history, and illuminated it for visitors with helpful information boards.

It’s a place where people get on with their daily lives, yet are able to delight in their village’s very special place on the edge of the Solway Firth, a stepping-stone between land and sea and distant countries.


Where to find out more:

David Ramshaw’s history of The Carlisle Ship Canal, 2013, P3 Publications, ISBN 978-0-9572412, is packed with photos, newscuttings and maps. david ramshaw book cover


Remembering the Solway oral history project. In the film,  Daphne Hogg remembers her childhood, and swimming at Port Carlisle

The Port Carlisle Heritage Project: Ruth Lord gives an illustrated talk about the Port and the project

The ‘Dandy’ is now in the National Railway Museum

Posted in coastal heritage, coastal history, industrial heritage, ports, ships | Tagged , , , , ,

Tracking Triops, the elusive Tadpole Shrimp


Triops cancriformis adult (photo thanks to Larry Griffin)

In August, after the long weeks of cloudless blue skies, and heat that shimmered over the cracked mud of the merse, the rain came. The jet stream had looped into another orientation, and the rain fell day after day for a week. Dr Larry Griffin emailed me: “the rain after the heat has brought the eggs out of stasis in at least two pools” and so he was ready to take a small group to have a look.

Larry is the Principal Species Research Officer at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Caerlaverock Reserve on the north coast of the Solway Firth, near Dumfries, and Caerlaverock is one of only two places in the UK where the rare and elusive tadpole shrimp, Triops cancriformis, is – occasionally – found. [1]

The modern story of Triops is a story of discovery and loss and re-discovery. But this is an animal that has scarcely changed since the Triassic period – its fossils date back two hundred million years. It is a freshwater Crustacean, belonging to the Order Notostraca, and looks very similar to (but is unrelated to) a small horseshoe crab as it trundles around on the bottom of a pond: its head and thorax are covered by a carapace, like a shield, so that from above its legs and mouthparts are scarcely visible.

Was it always the case that Triops lived, fed and bred in freshwater pools? This is a dangerous life-strategy yet despite, or because of, this danger the animals evolved a means of surviving when the pools dried out. Today, they are found only in ephemeral pools in the New Forest and on the saltmarshes (merse) and wet pastures around Caerlaverock. They can live for two to three months, or until the tide inundates the merse – and when the pools dry out under the hot summer sun, the adults die and disappear. But in the drying sediment their eggs live on, yet ‘switched off’ in a state of diapause.

When the rain comes and the pond re-wets, the eggs are stimulated to hatch – and the larvae feed and grow very quickly, so that adults are ready to lay eggs within as little as two to three weeks from hatching. As Larry says, “They can flash in and out of existence – it’s just luck whether you find them. It needs an inquisitive person … in the right place at the right time, who thinks ‘Oooh, what’s that?’ ”

This explains why the Triops’ story has been so exciting and challenging; for me even more so because this special animal survives just across the Solway from where I live, and I now have a chance to see the creatures alive, rather than – many years ago – pickled in formalin in an undergraduate Invertebrate Zoology class.

It was more than 100 years ago that Triops (then known as Apus) was found on the merse, by F. Balfour-Brown. Forty years later, in 1948, in a paper to Nature, he wrote (or narrated – the style of scientific writing was much more like story-telling than it is now):

“In September 1907 I discovered two shallow grassy pools on the Preston sea merse, near Southwick, Kirkcudbrightshire, in which Apus was present. In one of these it was so abundant that when I raised my eleven-inch ring net out of the water it was half full of specimens, mostly full-grown. I searched many other pools in the same area but without finding it and, returning to the same pools a few days later, I found the edges covered with the shells and very few specimens left in the water. The gulls had discovered this mass of food and had destroyed most of the Apus. I have visited the area many times during the last forty years but not until this month, working the merse near the mouth of the Southwick burn, have I again seen Apus. My son found three specimens in a pool which then yielded us about thirty or more, and several other pools near the first produced small numbers, mostly immature.”

These pools were subsequently lost through erosion of the merse, but Tadpole Shrimps were found again, nearly 20 kms away, in 2004.

Larry grinned as he told me about his own discovery. “I’d been out looking for natterjack tadpoles, it was quite a late season. I thought I might as well have a look in that pool – and there they [the Triops] were, tons of them!”

He wasn’t immediately sure what he had found, until he took some of the animals back to the lab. “It was a gradual dawning… I was looking in the back of a Collins book, I think it was – there was a drawing, a silhouette. And then I had a memory of someone from the RSPB, who had been talking about trying to introduce them somewhere – and then it was ‘hang on, this is that incredibly rare thing’!”

Collaboration with Dr Ruth Feber [2], from Oxford University’s WILDCru, and Professor Colin Adams of Glasgow University’s Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Natural Environment (SCENE), and their colleagues, led to discussions, then further investigations and research at WWT Caerlaverock.

Colin and colleagues collected sediment from the bottom of 86 ponds at Caerlaverock. It was known that the eggs or cysts needed to be desiccated to enter the quiescent, diapause, state, so samples were dried out and then incubated in fresh water at 20oC. Samples from just two ponds produced living larvae (nauplii). And then, “During the preparation of this [scientific] paper, on 29 July 2010, a population of c. 100+ adults of various sizes up to 3cm were discovered by chance in another ephemeral pond 80m west of the original 2004 site on the Caerlaverock upper salt marshes. This pool was largely created by tractor wheel ruts and cattle movements in an area of gorse (Ulex sp.) and rushes (Juncus effusus).” [3]

As a result of this serendipitous discovery, just three ponds at Caerlaverock were found to be home to Tadpole Shrimps!

It’s thought that eggs are spread in several ways – through the guts of animals, on the feet of cattle, deer, or geese, “Anything traipsing around, really,” Larry says. This includes the tyres of tractors and quad bikes, and because the Tadpole Shrimps are hermaphrodite, “It just needs one egg, and after it hatches and survives, you could then get hundreds.”

Sometimes the shrimps themselves have been found, other times it has been the presence of the eggs in washed and filtered sediment samples. Larry reckons there could be stores of eggs of different ages in some of the sites. “I feel a lot better knowing that it’s not just in the one pool!”

dried mud samples

Dried mud samples in the lab

He has collected mud from the ponds, as a safety precaution and also as part of his research. There’s a shelf in his office piled with polythene bags that contain mud-samples dating back to 2008. “I wet them every September – so far, they’re still hatching out. This year will be the tenth year [to test them].”


Larry uses tanks of de-chlorinated tap-water, bubbled with air for a day to oxygenate it, then throws in the mud-sample containing eggs. “It’s really low-tech! I feed them on fish food and a bit of sea-weed to provide some iodine. They show good behaviour! They learn that when I come into the office, I’ll feed them. They come up to the surface – and I sprinkle the food on the surface, and they turn over and swim on their backs so they can take it with their little legs.”

The adult shrimps lay their eggs in little scrapes in the mud. From an egg less than 0.5mm diameter, an adult can grow up to 7 cm long when reared in the lab. It reaches maturity by passing through several larval stages, each of which grows then moults its skin, or exuvium, before passing on to the next stage.

How often does Larry find the Triops out on the merse? “Most years. It depends on the weather, but if conditions are right, you can easily see them crawling around. One clue is the exuviae, you find them wind-blown at the end of a pond.”

When Larry emailed me after the rain, it was because he had seen these papery skins at the edges of a pond and found some nauplii. But finding a date for even our small group of privileged people to join him proved impossible – and the pools dried out again. This was not to be the year when I would see living Triops in the wild.

Are they living on the other Solway saltmarshes, at Rockcliffe, say, or at Campfield or Newton Arlosh? After all, these are no distance as the goose flies (and large flocks of geese do fly between these sites).


Barnacle geese at Caerlaverock, February 2016

People have looked, and Bart Donato, of Natural England, who has a great interest in Rockcliffe, says the shrimps have never been found there. But it needs someone to be there at exactly the right time, someone who can recognise what they are seeing.




Now, though, there’s a new molecular diagnostic technique available, to test environmental samples for a range of ‘eDNA’ – fragments of genes that are species-characteristic and which may have been left ‘lying around’ in the environment. Graham Sellers from Hull University has recently developed this ‘DNA bar-coding’ technique for Triops and, working with Larry, has established the existence of the shrimp in six ponds at Caerlaverock. [4]


Location & condition of Triops egg-banks: Fig 4 from the paper by Sellers et al 2017 (see below)

Perhaps this technique can now be used for pools on the other Solway saltmarshes?

It would be exciting, and a relief, to find that the story of the rare and elusive Triops can be expanded to a few more chapters: that this enigmatic survivor will remain an important addition to the ‘shrimps’ of the Solway.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping for a hot dry summer in 2019, followed by a spell of rain …



1.Triops cancriformis is classified as Endangered, listed as a priority BAP species, and specially protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

2. Ruth Feber et al. June 2011. Ecology and conservation of the Tadpole Shrimp, Triops cancriformis, in Britain. In British Wildlife, p334

3. Colin Adams et al. 2014. Short range dispersal by a rare, obligate freshwater crustacean Triops cancriformis (Bosc). In Aquatic Conservation: Marine & Freshwater Ecosystems. 24: 48–55

4. Graham Sellers et al. 2017. A new molecular diagnostic tool for surveying and monitoring Triops cancriformis populations. PeerJ 5:e3228; DOI 10.7717/peerj.3228

Posted in conservation, saltmarshes, wetlands | Tagged , , ,

“What’s the point of them?”

I was handing round photos of various colourful marine worms – polychaetes with euphonious names, Lanice, Sabellaria, Pectinaria and Arenicola: like the names of operatic heroes and heroines, to be sung aloud.

It was still early – the best low tides on the Solway Firth are always early – and we had been paddling, peering and pointing, amongst the sculpted neighbourhoods and high-rise apartments of the honeycomb worm reefs at the bottom of the shore. We had used a hand-lens to admire the delicate precision with which these Sabellaria had constructed their tubes of sand-grains; compared them with the single, scruffier tubes of mason worms, Lanice; and had talked about the surface coils of sand above the mid-shore burrows of the lugworms, and how all these different species had developed and fed.

We had seen the external evidence of these creatures’ homes, but of course we had not pulled out the occupants.

So I handed round the photos, of the worms’ multi-segmented cylinders; the haemoglobin-rich, fat-bodied Arenicola; the crown of sensitive tentacles with which Sabellaria had reached out to seek and pick up sandgrains.

“But what’s the point of them?” a young woman asked. “Of the worms. What are they there for?” She appeared genuinely puzzled.

I was stunned: I looked out across the Firth to Scotland for inspiration, but the rounded bulk of Criffel provided no clear answer, though I tried.

“They’re not there for a purpose, they don’t just exist to be eaten by other animals … they’re each beautifully adapted to live a particular type of life, in a particular place. To be themselves…”

I could have given all kinds of reasons why polychaetes are special; I could have told her that there were species that attached to rocks, or burrowed in the sand, or – fierce predators – scurried across the surface; or shone with bioluminescence in the dark; or swarmed and mated at a particular phase of the moon. I could have told her that ‘worms’ had been on this planet millions of years longer than we had; that they were so special that July 1st has been designated International Polychaete Day. I could even have burst into song, like a confused Orpheus without his lyre: “Harmothöe! Aphrodite!”

But that was not why she’d asked the question.

On that still, blue morning in the carpark, when everyone’s attention was turning to thinking about breakfast, I could only reply with more questions:

“What’s the point of mussels – or oarweed? What’s the point of us?”

She shrugged, and smiled.

But that shore-walker’s question, “What’s the point of them?” remains with me, and keeps me awake at night, indicating as it does the perceived gulf between ‘them’ – the more-than-human, as Mark Cocker calls the creatures with which we share this place – and ‘us’.

It’s a surprising question, that will, I hope, help me find new purpose, and new ways of showing and discovering, on my guided shore-walks and saltmarsh writing days.



There is more about the honeycomb worm reefs of Allonby Bay’s Marine Conservation Zone on Solway Shore Stories and elsewhere in this blog.

Some ‘fun facts’ about polychaetes (marine bristle worms).

Low-tide guided shorewalks and saltmarsh creative writing on the Solway shore.


Posted in Uncategorized

Recording the Solway’s amazing nature: a guest post by Deborah Muscat

Why we need to pay attention to the other living species with whom we share this area, and identify and record them. My thanks to Deborah Muscat, Manager of the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre based in Carlisle, for writing this guest post.

In mid-April Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (CBDC) and the Solway Coast AONB launched the Solway Nature Networks as a small project to encourage people to tell the CBDC what nature they had seen on their walks and travels around the area.  So why are we doing this – surely everyone knows what nature there is on the Solway?

First, a bit about me. I have some very early memories: one is looking at wiggly things in a hole filled with water in a tree, another is poking snails to make their eyes go in.  Cut to fifty years later and natural history still makes me excited – just as it did when I was four.

Having lived here for many years I have explored both the Solway coast and the plain.  I know that we live with wildlife that my friends in the South can only dream about; Hares, Natterjack toads, Curlew, Grey Partridge, Corn Marigold, Mudwort (more about these later) etc. But, because we have so much wildlife it becomes commonplace, and that is when it starts to become overlooked.

This was brought home to me when I started to work in Tullie House Museum for the CBDC, a small organisation that few people have ever heard of, but one that has a unique insight into 150 years’ of Cumbria’s natural history.

A wildlife (or biological) record consists of: what was seen, where it was seen, when it was seen and by whom.  Currently, CBDC has over 2.2 million individual records from the whole of Cumbria, and they include flowers, ferns, trees, seaweed, snails, worms, butterflies, beetles, flies, fish, to name but a few. But digging deeper into the data, it was clear that apart from information about birds and toads, CBDC receives only a few records from the Solway area each year.

Why does this matter?  All decisions about land use, management and development must consider biodiversity and this is where biological records are vital.  Increasingly makers look at dots on maps to discover the presence or absence of a species. However, an absence of a dot does not mean that something isn’t there!  But if decisions are made this way then we need to make sure that we record our wildlife so as to put the dots on the map.

This leads me on to another issue.  Observations of common species like the brown rat are not noted down; sightings of rare species like red squirrels are always recorded.  This skews our view of what is really out there.  Take the rat as an example.  According to the National Biodiversity Network Atlas, an online source of information used by Government about the distribution of species in the UK, there are two records of Brown Rat on the Solway Plain.  Experience tells me this is not true!  The Atlas also shows a similar number of House Mouse records.  Once a common sighting, few ecologists have seen a House Mouse recently and it could be becoming extinct without us even noticing.  Thus we need to start recording the common species as well as the rare and interesting ones.

It was this last fact that started to make me feel guilty – I hadn’t sent a record to CBDC for  years.  So, inspired by our new Solway Nature Network project I too have started to take a note-book and camera with me on my local walks.

I know a bit about wildlife but I am far from being an expert.  Like a lot of people I rely on photographs, books, other people and the internet to find out what I am looking at.  But even with my basic knowledge I am finding out what a remarkable place the Solway is.

Anyone travelling by Dub Mill at this time of the year will see a field yellow with flowers. These are corn marigolds (Chrysanthemum segetum), a species which was probably introduced to the UK in Neolithic times with grain from the Mediterranean.  Once an abundant sight in the cornfields of Britain is becoming rare.

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Corn marigolds (photo: Debs Muscat)

Similarly, the nationally scarce Mudwort (Limosella gallica) thrives in the Summer on the dry muddy edges of Edderside pond.  Found on only 6 sites in Cumbria this small unassuming plant is disappearing as UK ponds are not allowed to dry up, or are lost altogether.

Many people are aware that the traditional Bluebell (Hyacynthoides non-scripta) is also in decline as it hybridises with the larger Spanish Bluebell grown in many gardens.  Here on the Solway Plain most of the ones we see are the native variety.  This fact inspired one of the new Solway Nature Network volunteers to go out and map the Solway’s bluebells, especially those on the banks at Crosscanonby.

The more volunteers we have the more eyes there are to spot rare and unusual wildlife. One such plant is the endangered small-flowered catchfly (Silene galica). I spotted this in New Cowper several years ago.  It had previously been seen in Silloth in 1877.  The catchfly has now almost disappeared from Northern Europe, and I have not seen it since in New Cowper as the field was reseeded with more vigorous clover and rye grass.  However, the catchfly could still be lurking in sandy soil around the edge of a field close by.

Having rediscovered the four-year-old in me I am always looking under stones, logs and leaves for “bugs”.  It is surprising what has turned up. On a dog walk at very low tide near Mawbray I picked up some sandstone. Underneath I spied something that looked like a woodlouse.  It turned out to be a waterlouse (Sphaeroma serratum). As it was only 0.5cm long I am not surprised that it is not something anyone had recorded before.  Because I am not a waterlouse expert I needed help from someone who is.

Fortunately, CBDC is part of a network of wildlife recorders and museums and we can usually track down someone who will confirm what has been found.

Indeed, a little brown thing, about 1 cm tall that I discovered on a leaf in Flimby Woods took a year to identify.  I found out from a gentleman in Scotland that it was a chocolate tube slime mould.  A Google search followed and to my astonishment I learned that a slime mould consists of several different types of single-celled organisms that exist as slime on decaying plant matter.  When the food starts to run out or conditions are not right these single-celled organisms begin to move and join together to create the reproductive structures that I had found.  I then read that there are scientists currently studying the slime mould “decision making” algorithm which is described as “a tendency to exploit environments in proportion to their reward based on previous experience”.  Apparently this is similar to the algorithm used by Amazon when it finds items that you might like to buy based on previous searches!

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Stemonitis, the chocolate tube slime mould (photo: Debs Muscat)

More recently a shiny black beetle caught my eye.  Looking closely at the indentations on the wing cases and the shape of its “feet” I decided it could be the rare Chrysolina oricalcia, one of the leaf beetles.  This time I sent my pictures to John, a reknown beetle expert in Whitehaven.  He agreed with my identification and followed it up with “this beetle has not been seen in Cumbria since 1835.”

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The beetle Chrysolina oricalcia (photo: Debs Muscat)

The more I look the more I am inspired to look again, and the more I learn – just as when I was four.  We really do live in a place that is home to some amazing plants and animals.  Our area is special and we should be proud that we haven’t lost as much of our wildlife as other parts of the UK.  However, we still need to know more about what is here to keep it that way. 

So why don’t you rediscover your inquisitive inner child and join the Solway Nature Network volunteers to find out about the wildlife on our doorstep?

To join in or find out more contact CBDC on 01228 618717 or visit their website.


Posted in conservation, Guest Posts | Tagged , ,

Capturing a saltmarsh in words: a creative writing day on the Upper Solway

Saturday June 8th 2019, 10am-4pm; RSPB Campfield, Bowness-on-Solway, CA7 5AG


Looking across the Firth from Campfield Marsh

When you think of Cumbria you probably imagine the Lake District; you might even think of the Solway’s beaches like St Bees’ or Allonby – but it’s highly unlikely that you ever think about the saltmarshes that line the margins of the Upper Solway from Grune Point to Rockcliffe.

And yet, these are some of the most special and protected areas in our county (see for example, my piece about the conservation acronyms and their ‘stories’).

When people visit the upper reaches of the Firth, especially around Anthorn, Bowness-on-Solway and Burgh-by-Sands, they are often surprised and astonished that such scenery exists in the same county as the fells and lakes.

But this isn’t just ‘scenery’: these are places that are home to a huge abundance of living creatures. My greatest wish is that more people should be aware of and care for this area of mud and marsh, where waders and migrant birds feed, and where the inhabitants  need to be so exquisitely adapted. Not only must these plants and animals live with the changeable weather and the seasons, but also with the twice-daily cycle of the tides, and the consequent shifts in salinity and currents, and the changing presence of food and predators.

The saltmarsh by RSPB’s Campfield Reserve is, like other saltmarshes,  fretted with creeks. It’s an open – but not dauntingly vast – space, bordering acres of mud at low tide, and looking across the Firth to nearby Scotland. You can feel a ‘strong sense of place’. The sounds, the sights, the smells, even the history – how will you experience, and record them?


On this day of creative writing – fiction, and non-fiction (but not poetry, I’m afraid) – we will spend time out on the marsh, wandering, observing, examining the minute creatures that live in the muddy creeks, listening, chatting. And then we’ll go back inside, into the Solway Wetlands Centre on the reserve, to warm up, eat and drink, and each – with the help of some simple writing exercises – think about what might have inspired us during the morning.

Important information:

This event is run on behalf of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust; it’s free but, as charities, CWT and/or the RSPB would be delighted with a small donation, perhaps a minimum of £5

Where: The venue is RSPB Campfield Marsh, Bowness on Solway, CA7 5AG

When: Saturday JUne 8th, 10am-4pm

Booking:  through Cumbria Wildlife Trust, either by phone 01539 816300 or email . See also the Events section of their website.

What to wear: You will need wellies (essential) – and bring warm clothes and waterproofs.

What to bring: Tea and coffee (and cake) will be provided, but bring your own lunch. And don’t forget a pen and notebook, and perhaps a camera.

If you want to do a little preparation (but this isn’t essential): you can read more about the saltmarshes on Solway Shore Stories , and there’s more about specific saltmarsh topics on this blog.

There are interesting pieces about the ‘new nature writing’, by for example Mark Cocker  and Peter Reason.

George Monbiot writes about the ‘need for new words’.

And should you want to read about my own fiction writing (novels, short stories) please do browse the relevant sections of my Eliot and Entropy blog.  I taught creative writing classes for the Adult Education Centres in Oxford, Cockermouth and Keswick for several years.

Posted in mudflats, saltmarshes, Writing | Tagged , , ,

The Solway saltmarshes 2: Rockcliffe Marsh

“The marsh is not set in the way that the English landscape is set.”

Two lines of hoofprints, large and small, dropped down from the saltmarsh and meandered across the firm sand towards the low-tide mark, then looped back landwards. The heifers were no longer in sight; indeed only a few of the several hundred head of cattle out on the Marsh were visible, as black- or brown-and-white specks, so vast is Rockcliffe Marsh.

Wind hissed across the drying sand of the empty foreshore; an oystercatcher trilled; a heron called harshly, once, as it flapped heavily across the estuary to Scotland.

Rockcliffe Marsh is surrounded on three sides by water: it dominates the head of the Solway Firth, bounded by the River Eden on the South and a loop of the River Esk on the North.  Like all salt-marshes, it is low-lying land, jig-sawed by muddy creeks.

‘I got cut off by the tide one time,’ Imogen Rutter tells me. ‘I’d been on a transect right to the other end of the Gullery, near the pioneer marsh, and I realised the tide was coming in. I had to wade through knee-deep water to get back! It’s quite scary, the speed the water comes in, really impressive.’

Imogen Rutter was Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s (CWT) Summer Warden for 2017, employed to monitor the numbers and species of breeding birds on the Marsh. She was my guide on a quiet but overcast May morning, and we walked out along the high bank that was built to protect the landward side, then dropped down onto the Marsh.

Within a half-hour we were far out amongst the cropped turf and creeks. It would be easy to lose one’s bearings, without the distant bank to orientate oneself. There are other markers too, less easy to see on the Marsh’s slightly undulating surface: wooden posts mark the few bridges across creeks, and a dotted line of white posts marks the route for wildfowlers, where they may cross the Marsh but may not shoot. By one of the bridges, we found the scattered remnants of a gull. We poked around looking for the leg-ring and found it on a dismembered bright-orange leg: it had been ringed in Norway at Skagerrak Museum, and had died here on the border between Scotland and England.

The growing marsh

Maps drawn three hundred years ago show that Rockcliffe Marsh was little more than a small outgrowth of the border between Scotland and England. Since then it has grown and grown, extending out into the Firth between the main river channels.

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(Aglionby’s 1590 and Crawford’s 1832 maps from Annals of the Solway)

It is one of the largest saltmarshes in Britain, at about 1100 hectares, but its margins are constantly changing through accretion and erosion; one year it grew by 26 hectares. This, and the fact that it is farmed as well as (or despite) having multiple layers of protected status, makes it an intriguing and special place.

The Marsh and its considerable foreshore are owned by Castletown Estate, and when I contacted the owner, Giles Mounsey-Heysham, in mid-July, he immediately suggested we meet and he would tell me more about it. As we chatted, we looked at photos and plans, and at maps spread out on the table in the estate office. Measurements of the Marsh’s perimeter have been made since 2001, using GPS and a quad bike; more recently  the Environment Agency’s high-resolution LIDAR maps of elevations across the Marsh are being used to inform work on water-retention.


LIDAR map; loops of  Esk & Eden north & south of the marsh. Arrow shows embankment

Giles took over running the estate when he was twenty-one, due to the early death of his father; he will retire and hand over the management to his son in 2019, and in the past fifty years or so the use and management of the Marsh has undergone many changes. Since the late 1990s it has been managed both to preserve its importance as a saltmarsh and for grazing stock. Giles’ enthusiasm for the Marsh is obvious and he was very keen to take me out and show me its many facets.

So, two days later, wearing waterproofs and a helmet, I was given a ‘tutorial’ on driving a quad and then left to practise in a field while he courteously retreated to the office. I was very relieved when (clearly having observed my timidity through the window) he suggested I ride on the back of his quad instead. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve sat on a board on the back of a quad, travelling over very uneven ground on the margins of the Solway, so I knew what I was letting myself in for! But it was well worth the couple of hours of discomfort (and occasional rapid elevation) to travel across and around the margins of the Marsh.

We stopped briefly to watch two haaf-netters standing in the shallows in the mouth of the River Eden, then drove beyond the embankment and onto the saltmarsh. Although many of the creeks are small or dry, all have names.

Scanned map

We made a large looping diversion to avoid the wide inlet of Stony and Yellow Creeks, and later at Near Gulf, Giles told me to climb off and wait while he drove the quad down the muddy bank, into water that churned black under the wheels, and up the glossy brown incline on the opposite side.

A crossing was possible – he returned to collect me. Judging by the sheets of spray, the trick is to drive fast through the water. He had been telling me stories of guests who had become stuck in creeks, and he laughed (kindly) when I said that that if I’d been driving my own quad I would definitely have been left whimpering in the mud. ‘We don’t get cross when people get the quads or the pick-up stuck – it happens all the time.’

To the South was a raised carpet of gold, where the now-dead stalks of thrift had formed a glorious pink carpet not long before. This huge new area of salt marsh, consolidated by grass and thrift, had developed in the past six years. Near the mouth of the Eden, an island had recently grown and was already hazed with green.

We drove across a bridge towards the Gullery, and then dropped down onto the pale sand of the foreshore, which stretches way out into the Firth, and headed North. Opposite the mouth of the River Sark, near Gretna, another island, potential future salt-marsh, is growing. From Sarkfoot Point we could see the distant stream of lorries and cars grumbling along the motorway to the East, where Metal Bridge crosses the River Esk.

The grazing

Stock are the economic lifeblood of the castletown estate. When Giles took over the estate, there were a thousand head of cattle, “with one man on horseback to keep an eye on them.” “One farmer had been putting his cattle on for  about 50 years, but then the rules for the stocking rate changed and farmers were no longer interested.  So we started putting our own cattle on – we now have quite a big beef enterprise, 800 cattle, of which 500 are our own.”

There are also 2500 sheep in the summer, about 800 ewes – mules, Texels, and Romneys – and their lambs, although they were not out during our quad-bike expedition. We saw them later in the steading beyond the embankment, being dosed and checked amidst a cacophony of noise as they milled around in the pen, watched by muddy dogs.

Earlier, on Eskside, about 50 gipsy horses, black-and-white and brown-and-white, raised their heads to stare, then galloped away, flanked by their foals, whinnying and kicking up their heels.

There may be hundreds of acres of useful grazing, but a saltmarsh also presents problems – the hazards of sticky mud and creeks and river-banks.  Giles tells me about trapped cattle, stuck in a muddy creek by the Eden with the tide coming in. The fire-brigade, the coastguard and local helpers all worked hard to get them out. “The fire-brigade used their pressure hose to act like a lance and wash the quicksand away from around the animals’ feet.”

Since then the estate’s technique for rescuing mired animals is to bring out a quad-bike and trailer with a pressure-washer and tank of water.

‘Alphabet soup’

Back in May, Imogen and I picked our way across the uneven sward and around the creeks, larks filling the air with song, occasional lapwings whistling and diving around us.

Then suddenly, a sheet of birds rose up in the distance, wings beating heavily at take-off. Flighting, the flock came towards us – hundreds of barnacle geese, flying low over our heads, talking to each other, perhaps grumbling at the disturbance, and heading across the Eden to Burgh Marsh. And then another black-and-white sheet rose, and then another, stirring the air with their wingbeats. My skin prickled as geese flew over and around us, changing the Marsh’s character, inhabiting the air completely with their bodies and their sound.


Barnacle geese take flight

But in a few minutes they were gone. Within a week they would probably have left until the autumn, having built up their strength by grazing on Solway grass for their long flight back to Svalbard, and their short breeding-season.

Rockcliffe Marsh provides grazing for farmed mammals and for geese, but it’s not just a vast expanse of pasture. It also has many conservation designations (the ‘alphabet soup’ of acronyms): it’s an SPA (Special Protected Area), is part of the Solway Coast AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), the Solway SSSI and the SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and the Ramsar site; a new Marine Conservation Zone has been proposed for the area around Rockcliffe. (For an explanation of these off-putting acronyms – and why we should care about them, especially now, please read The acronyms’ stories.)

Because the marsh is so comprehensively protected under national, European and international laws, its management is overseen by Natural England (NE) as the government’s ‘statutary body’ – and over the years NE have built up a good relationship with Giles and the Estate.

For the important question is, how can the needs of the tens of thousands of birds of different species – feeding, migrating, nesting – be balanced with the potentially conflicting requirement to raise stock, and with the international importance of the Marsh as a saltmarsh?

Management for wildlife:

At Rockcliffe it’s about the birds, it’s about the saltmarsh as a vegetation community; it’s about the geological interest in the development of saltmarshes. Many other saltmarshes have been enclosed and changed because of agricultural methods, but the Solway marshes haven’t suffered to the same extent.” Bart Donato

Giles Mounsey-Heysham refers to Bart Donato as the Estate’s “guru from Natural England”, which makes Bart laugh, but when we meet in a café near Kendal in August, it’s immediately obvious that he is really enthusiastic about his involvement.

He explains, “The marsh has been part of an agricultural system for a thousand years or so – it’s not wild, it’s not a natural marsh, but a by-product of the agricultural system set on a natural landform. Local farming systems were once dictated by local needs, but over time have become subsumed within agribusiness on a global scale – we have to try to buffer the system.”

The rôle of NE is look at and secure the SSSI designation. “We look at the natural heritage, and think what’s the right management to look after that asset …We have to look at the flora and fauna and work out what’s best to support them. As for birds, it’s not just the breeding waders but also the wintering populations, the really big flocks of barnacle geese.”

In 2004, Bart said Giles asked for his help because “the grazing régime wasn’t working.” The result was that the Marsh was put into the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, with funding for managing the saltmarsh better for birds.

Managing the grazing:

“We don’t have the magic grazing system [for the birds],” Bart acknowledged. “We probably never will because the market drives things like the time and the type of grazing stock.”

Geese “like a bowling green” but breeding waders prefer rougher vegetation, so the challenge is to balance this, to manage the grass growth to provide a mosaic. “We’re bringing the Marsh back to something more goose-y and breeding-wader-y.”

I imagine the long, muscular tongues of cattle, ripping off the grass, and the crisp snipping by sheep. Bart “was quite excited to see the horses – they take on the rougher vegetation like tufted hair-grass, they take it down, and they behave very differently [from the other stock].”

In the winter, most of the sheep and cattle are taken off. “The Marsh needs to be grazed enough to stop it growing, yet to keep a bit on it until the geese come again,” Bart says. “The winter grazing is problematic because of the marsh’s great size, the creeks and the winter tides.” Ultimately, “The tides are in control – creeks become quagmires, the pens get churned up.”

Total inundation of the Marsh also, as might be expected, has dramatic effects:

‘Both tides and weather play an extremely important role in the everyday life of Rockcliffe Marsh. Complete tidal inundations of the whole marsh occur perhaps no more than two or three times per year … When they do occur, the effect is to leave parts of the marsh under water for days particularly in the winter when little or no evaporation or natural drying out takes place. Should complete inundations take place during the [bird] breeding season, the effects can be catastrophic.’ (from Mike Carrier’s 2006/2015 report for NE and Cumbria Wildlife Trust):


The power of the storm


During Storm Desmond (winter 2015/16), the Marsh was underwater. The extent and power of the flooding is made obvious by the trunks and roots of trees, deposited across the marsh and against the bank.


The Gullery

Giles drove me out to the Gullery in mid-July. There were Lesser Black-backed and Herring gulls standing and sitting on the cropped grass all round us, and several Greater Black-backs in the distance, but as we approached the area enclosed by the electric fence, hundreds of birds – previously hidden amongst the tall grasses, thistles and rough vegetation – lifted off into the air, wheeling and screeching in a dense cloud. A fledged chick, speckled brown, scurried with extended neck into the longer grass. Fortunately I was wearing a helmet: Imogen had told me that “getting dive-bombed by gulls and pooped on is not so much fun!”


The Gullery

The Gullery has been a cause of changing concerns over the decades. Giles told me, “In the olden days I can remember when there were about three pairs of nesting gulls. By about 15 years ago that had risen to more than 10,000 nesting pairs, and the cattle couldn’t venture into the Gullery.”

When the breeding numbers were high, the gulls attacked the cattle, dive-bombing them and chasing them away, and rank grasses and thistles grew in abundance. But gradually “the cattle took it back and grazed it down” – at the same time as the gull numbers were declining.

Mike Carrier, Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Honorary Reserve Warden at Rockcliffe for 22 years, has collated all the results gathered by CWT’s Summer Wardens since 1969, the start of the Trust’s involvement in monitoring birds and vegetation. The graph for the Lesser Black-backed and Herring gulls shows how dramatic has been the fall in numbers in recent years, from the peak in the 1990s.  This is not a problem confined to Rockcliffe but has been seen nationally and in other Cumbrian sites such as South Walney Island too, the reasons for which are much discussed.

gull graph mike carrier's report

From Mike Carrier’s report for NE & CWT

The new Higher Level Stewardship agreement for the Estate provides for an additional three kilometres of electric fence along the bank, from the Esk to the Eden, which, it is hoped, will decrease access by ground-predators such as fox and badger. But this year, despite the supposedly predator-proof strands of electric fence around the Gullery, Imogen counted only 344 pairs of adults and 15-20 chicks, and noticed fox scats and short-eared owl pellets in the Gullery.

Anatomising the saltmarsh (with PlayDough)

Bart Donato had talked about the need to manage the grassland as a mosaic of ‘bowling green’ and tufts and longer vegetation.

But the HLS scheme is also about managing Rockcliffe as a salt-marsh, a mosaic of wet ground and creeks and open water amongst the vegetation, “a Swiss-cheese effect of water-bodies and big sheets of water.”

To do this, it’s important to understand how the saltmarsh forms and develops.

Rockcliffe isn’t only growing outwards, it’s growing upwards too.

At the edges, ‘pioneer’ plants like Pulcinellia grass, Salicornia (samphire) and, as at Campfield further down the coast, the alien grass species Spartina, establish a root-hold. The meshwork of roots stabilises the silt trapped by the plant and forms a tiny island. Small changes in water-currents cause more sediment to be deposited and the islands fuse. Sediment accretion raises the level of the new-formed ‘land’, plants colonise, more sediment is trapped … and so a terrace is built up and the diversity of plants increases.

The Solway Firth has famously sediment-laden tides, the sea often the colour of milk-chocolate during strong winds. When the incoming tide reaches the head of the Firth at Rockcliffe and meets the outflowing freshwater of the rivers, it deposits its load of silt. Moreover, during storms, sediment also washes down the rivers “from everybody’s fields”, as Bart says, and much of this gets trapped upstream of the ‘neck’ of the Firth at Bowness, so that above-average amounts of riverine sediment are deposited too.

Upward growth, though, is caused by ‘topping tides’, the high Spring tides that happen when the Moon and Sun are in alignment and their gravitational pull is greatest. Then, the water, “brown with muck”, creeps in through the creeks and overspills onto the Marsh. The vegetation creates at its base a layer of still water from which the sediment precipitates out. On a big tide, there’s a relatively long period of slack water at the head of the Firth, which means a longer period for sedimentation to happen; as much as 1cm of silt might then be deposited within a few tidal cycles amongst the grass and herbiage.

Near the elbow of the Esk, Giles jumps off the quad and shows me a line of fence posts. “They’re gradually getting buried,” he says, lifting his hand to indicate they were nearly one-third higher when knocked in. And as the Marsh rises, the top of the protective embankment becomes relatively lower. “We’ll probably have to raise the height of the bank again before too long.”


The sediment deposition affects the creeks and pool formation too. In the café, Bart gets out the PlayDough, and fashions a blue creek in a pink surrounding Marsh to illustrate what happens. When an incoming tide overtops the banks and spills onto the Marsh, the vegetation traps sediment close to the creek, so that levées gradually form along the banks. As the tide drops,  the water on the Marsh cannot escape and forms ephemeral pools, stretches of open water, which slowly decrease by evaporation.

At one stage in the marsh’s earlier management for sheep, drainage ditches were dug and the levées breached so that the standing water could drain back into the creeks. Now, under NE’s management, the drains are being blocked and the gaps in the banks filled, to restore the hydrology of the Marsh to its former state. Under the terms of the HLS agreement, NE have also been blocking drains, digging out wet flashes for waders, and heaping shingle into scrapes for breeding ring plover. (Ironically, when the Marsh was used for turf-cutting, gravel was dumped on the grass to make a track; this became the ring plovers’ favourite nesting-site – at that time there were 24 pairs, instead of the 3 pairs this year.)

Ungrazed, the Marsh flowered.

In 2001, the Foot-and-Mouth epidemic struck, and millions of sheep, cows and pigs were slaughtered. Giles lost most of his cattle and sheep. The Marsh was not grazed, and was later cut for hay.

Jacqui Kaye, CWT’s Summer Warden for Rockcliffe Marsh in 2001, wrote that

 “Every large creek was edged with the longest vegetation, typically tall grasses and Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris), in addition to Common Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). This gave the impression of yellow rivers running through the Marsh, as they followed the creeks. .. Further down, a lilac swathe of Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) covered a strip from the top of Yellow Creek to the Eden.  [at the Fleam] the creeks were edged with daisies (Bellis perennis), Thrift (Armeria maritima), grass which was calf-length in height, tall buttercups and patches of mid-thigh length Spear Thistles (Cirsium vulgare). … On leaving the Marsh, heading back across New Bridge the final impression was of First Field, apparently a mono-crop of the white, daisy-flowered Scented Mayweed (Chamomilla recutita), divided only by the path in the middle.”

And Brian Irving, former Manager of the Solway Coast AONB, once told me

“It was the first time in my lifetime that I saw the marshes really flower, you know. The first time in their history of grazing – an increased level of genetic diversity going on because the plants were allowed to flower and set seed, rather than propagate by roots and suckers. Stunning, the quality and texture of the marshes. A once-in-a-lifetime sight – and it was there for all the wrong reasons.”

Ungrazed, the Solway’s saltmarshes were transformed. The sky above Rockcliffe Marsh was loud with the singing of larks.


Posted in coastal history, conservation, Foot-and-Mouth epidemic, saltmarshes, wetlands | Tagged , ,