“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.

 

Notes:

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.

 

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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 , ,

The charisma of Corophium, the mud-shrimp

The level of the salty, sediment-laden water in the Upper Solway is dropping with the ebbing tide, turning increasingly brackish as the waters of the rivers Esk and Eden dominate. The edges of the saltmarshes stand proud above glistening mudflats that are sweeps of ochre, sienna-brown and grey; the smooth glossiness of the upper slopes shades down into roughness, speckled with stones and weed.

 

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‘Others have been here before me …’

 

That smoothness, as seen from the comparative safety of the saltmarsh, is an illusion, for if I step – squelch, slide – out onto the glutinous surface and look down, the surface is pockmarked with tiny holes and the wriggling trails of wandering creatures. Other animals have been here before me: there are bird footprints – the precise three-toed prints of waders, the webbed prints of gulls and aggressively sharp footsteps of oystercatchers; rough-edged holes where beaks have probed; and a line of paw-prints of an otter which has trotted from low-water mark to leap up onto the short, silty grass of the saltmarsh.

 

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Trails and holes

 

Some of these are signs that animals have been busy on the surface while the tide is out, but the minute holes hint at other animals that are here for much longer periods, burrowed down below. For to live on this apparently featureless and changeable shore means there is nowhere to hide – except within the mud.

To find the mud-dwellers I can search for where the density of holes is greatest or, since waders are specialists in finding their prey I can be guided by their footprints and probe-marks – and use a spade.

The divot is heavy and sticky; at the top are sections through U-shaped burrows opening to the surface. Each is the home of a tiny pale brown mud-shrimp: mud-shrimp – a uninspiring name for a small animal that is so beautifully adapted to where it lives – the crustacean, Corophium volutator. It is not as iconic as a polar-bear, nor as obviously charismatic as a curlew – yet, as the ‘keystone species’ of the mud-flat, it has its own special charisma.

 

campfield corophium in burrows

Burrows and (marked) individual mud-shrimps

 

The elegance of limbs

Unlike shrimps in rock-pools or cooked and ‘potted’ in butter, Corophium belongs to a group of related animals, the amphipods, that are dorso-ventrally flattened – from top to bottom – rather than laterally, from side-to-side. Also unlike shrimps and lobsters, it doesn’t have a carapace – its head and the middle segments of its body aren’t covered by a single curved piece of armour but all the segments are visible from above. I place some of the mudshrimps in water in a pie-dish. With a hand-lens it’s easy to see how different parts of its body are perfectly adapted for different functions. There are flexible joints between the segments so that – lacking a carapace – the animal can straighten or flex its body; each segment has a pair of jointed limbs, and groups of adjacent limbs are modified in size and shape to carry out different functions.

At the head end the appendages are adapted to ‘read’ the surroundings, and find and deal with food. The two pairs of long, flexible antennae that are so characteristic of Corophium  have a sensory function, but the second pair are also used as rakes to pull food towards the mouth. Behind the antennae and on the underside of the body, are small ‘feeding limbs’ with different sizes and shapes –the maxillae, maxillipeds and gnathopods (‘jaw feet’) – all specialised for separate roles in the capture, handling and ingestion of food.  Inside the mouth (unseen by my lens), a pair of hard mandibles act as macerating-machines.

Some of these feeding limbs have a second function, too – they have small thin-walled flaps of gills at their base to take up dissolved oxygen from the water.

corophium in tray april18

Corophium: note the long second antennae

 

Under the middle section of the body are the legs, the pereiopods (‘transporting feet’), by which Corophium crawls on the surface of the mud, and further back, tucked beneath the abdomen, are small, feather-like limbs, the pleopods (‘swim feet’). The pleopods beat like paddles when the Corophium swims, or they can beat more slowly to send a current of oxygenated water over the gills. I am happy to be re-visiting old friends – it was watching how these pleopods beat perfectly in unison that so captured my imagination so long ago.

At the back end of the body, a broad flat telson and a couple of leaf-like uropods form the tail fan, a small version of a lobster tail: if the abdomen is suddenly flexed forward, the fan acts as a paddle that drives a current of water forward – and the animal backwards: a useful method of escape from a predator.

This then, is what a live Corophium looks like under a lens.

Synchronicity

In retrospect I realise that Corophium set me on the road to becoming a research scientist. When I was an undergraduate in London, the field-trip for our marine biology course took us to Swansea and the Gower for ten days, where we were offered a range of short projects to help us learn about research: the constructing of hypotheses, the practicalities of ‘materials and methods’, the gathering and interpreting of data. This brought, too, the realisation that the lives and activities of intertidal animals worked to a different schedule than our own, their lives governed by the shifting clock of the diurnal tides: depending on your project, evenings might be spent in the lab, not in the pub. I chose to investigate how Corophium responded to the falling oxygen levels in its burrow – did it become quiescent and sit out the low-tide period, or did it pump the water in its burrow more rapidly over its gills?

So how do you watch an animal that lives in a burrow? You fill a narrow glass chamber with muddy sand from a Corophium colony, and hope the animal will construct its burrow next to the glass… You fill the chamber with seawater of different oxygen concentrations, you hope you can see the delicate pleopods and count their rate of beating … A short project, naively simple through ignorance, yet a mixture of logic, planning – and hope. As the lecturer in charge drove me back to the lab one evening, he asked, ‘Do you really enjoy doing this?’ Yes, I really did!

(What were the results and conclusions of this research? I can’t remember. All I remember is the delicate, synchronised beating of the pleopods, and the animal’s elegant, questing antennae.)

I didn’t go on to research the physiology of marine animals but, years later, when I moved to Glasgow University, one of the other lecturers in the department was Peter Meadows, whose early research, in the 1960s, had been on the burrowing and feeding behaviour of Corophium (1).

Mudflats might look fairly uniform to us, but Corophium swim about and use their antennae to test the nuances of the size of sediment. Peter Meadows had written that the animal is ‘apparently quite deliberate’ in choosing where it burrows: some patches of mud are perfect, others are rejected like Baby Bear’s porridge. The sediment must be not too fine or the burrow might collapse, and not too coarse. Most important, the particles must be coated with organic matter – a slimy biofilm of bacteria, microalgae,  and other organic material: a larder as well as a building block. Having found the right conditions, the shrimp burrows into the mud using its antennae and pereiopods, and stabilises the compacted particles of the walls with a sticky secretion (2).

Dimensions and planes

Our own lives are carried out on the surface of our world; few humans penetrate above or below that single plane. But an animal that burrows in the intertidal zone, has an extra freedom – to pass through that plane in either direction, from solid to liquid, liquid to air, depending on the tide; to live, crawl, swim, mate, feed, in three dimensions.

There is, too, the extra dimension of time. For an intertidal animal, time is synonymous with tide. There must be periods of waiting, when the animal keeps a low profile, hiding from predators, ‘house-keeping’, digesting, defaecating – and anticipating the return of the water that brings fresh oxygen and food (and sometimes, sex and procreation).

This coming and going of the sea, and the behaviour and activity of these marine creatures – and of all the animals that depend upon them – are influenced by the moon and sun, on a daily and seasonal schedule.

 

Now, in late April, I walk out onto the shore below Campfield saltmarsh; the water of the Firth has shrunk to a grey ribbon between me and Scotland, and rainclouds are sweeping in from the West. The surface of the mud is squiggled with trails, and I squat down to watch mud-shrimps as they part-crawl, part-swim in the shallow film of water that remains on the surface of the mud: the moon has sent the signal that it is the time for mating, so most are probably males, searching out the burrows of females.

Food-chains and feeding

Fortunately for them there are few waders around. The upper reaches of the Solway Firth have multiple conservation designations (3), reflecting the enormous importance of the mudflats in providing food for local and visiting waders such as dunlin, knot and redshank. Corophium and the mud-snail Hydrobia are special favourites, and the birds scurry hither and thither, following the falling tide, rapidly probing the mud.

But to think of the Corophium colonies merely as unwitting suppliers of thousands of tasty snacks for visiting birds is too simple: we have to turn the idea on its head – the invertebrate animals and single-celled organisms, the algae and bacteria are the core of the life of the mudflat, and without them the ‘mudflats’ would be a sterile shifting slurry of mud and sand, washed this way and that at the whim of storms and tides.

The shrimps themselves feed in several ways: by using their mandibles to scrape and gnaw the biofilm that coats the sediment particles; by raking around the burrow-mouth with their large second antennae; and by using bristles on their gnathopods to filter and sort organic particles like diatoms from the water circulating through their burrows – the pleopods may pump 25-100mls of water per hour through the burrow (1). Look again at the contrasting colours of the mud on the spade. The deeper mud is black and anaerobic, containing little oxygen, but around the mud-shrimps’ burrows it is pale and yellowish-brown, oxygenated by the animals’ activity.

 

border marsh corophium tubes2

A foreign shore?

Corophium are almost unknown, rarely seen – for why would anybody bother to venture out onto a sticky muddy shore?

Indeed, to most people mudflats and saltmarshes are probably as foreign as another country and, as David Attenborough has said, “No-one will protect what they don’t care about; and no-one will care about what they have never experienced”.

For a while, now, various people have been arguing that we ‘need new words’, simpler concepts to talk and write about the places that we share with other organisms (4, 5). Richard Mabey, writing about barn owls, found he was constructingextravagant phrases. …  I was rather pleased with my poetic metaphors….” Then, delightfully, he saw that he should think of the owls as his neighbours. “For much of my working life I have been trying to find way of talking about other organisms that neither reduces them to mechanical objects nor turns them into sentimentalised versions of ourselves. Neighbours are fellow creatures, but independent souls. You share their territory (their parish) and often their fortunes, but you can care about them in full knowledge they may not even recognise you.”(6)

We can think of Corophium as the engineers of the mudflats, through their feeding on biofilms, their burrowing and ‘bioturbation’ of the sediments, but they are so much more than ‘mechanical objects’ or food for wading birds. We may not share their territory but we can visit them, physically or in our minds, and perhaps this will help us to care about these important creatures – and their neighbourhood.

 

  1. Peter Meadows & Alison Reid (1966) Journal of Zoology, 150, pp 387-99.
  2. Rachel Hale: The 3-D structure of Corophium burrows;  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z75cJSLLgz
  3. http://www.solwayshorestories.co.uk/shore-stories/sac-spa-sssi-and-more-the-acronyms-stories
  4. George Monbiot: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/09/forget-the-environment-new-words-lifes-wonders-language
  5. eg Mark Cocker https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/06/death-naturalist-why-new-nature-writing-so-tame; Peter Reason https://peterreason.net/2015/09/18/on-nature-writing-the-cockermacfarlane-exchange/
  6. Richard Mabey: https://www.littletoller.co.uk/the-clearing/owl-winter-richard-mabey/

 

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

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

Saturday May 19th 10am-4pm; RSPB Campfield, Bowness-on-Solway, CA7 5AG

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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 May 19th, 10am-4pm

Booking:  through Cumbria Wildlife Trust, either by phone 01539 816300 or email mail@cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk . 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 Writing | Tagged , , ,

The secrets of saltmarsh stints (The Solway saltmarshes 3)

The saltmarshes of Skinburness & Calvo, Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats and Burgh on the Upper Solway are divided into stints. The stints are privately owned but unfenced, and so the marshes are ‘shared grazing’ – the letting of which is auctioned annually. It sounded simple, but after I’d met Eileen Bell (*), Secretary of the Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats Marsh Committee, I realised I’d been naive.

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modified from Google Earth

That day, I drove along the edge of the Firth under an orange-yellow sky, its dusty light louring over the flatlands (**); the red ball of the sun showed fleetingly through the hurrying clouds. But the forecast rain hadn’t appeared, and when I reach Eileen’s house she at once suggests we get booted up and go out onto the Marsh.

We head West in the Land Rover through the village, and down a lonnin past the barns and red sandstone of Orchard House (“That’s where I was born and brought up”), past  another farm by a large pond where mallard and a moorhen scull undisturbed. That farm was hers and her husband Willie’s, but they have handed it over to their younger son, Edward; their other son, Richard, has the farm across the road. Eileen’s family have lived in this area for three generations; she tells me her paternal grandfather “worked tirelessly for the Marsh”.

We park by a gate that leads onto the Marsh. The entrance has clearly been a favourite gathering-ground for cattle, as it is poached by their hooves to a slurry of ankle-deep mud. Clinging onto the fence we teeter round the edge and onto the close-cropped turf. The Firth is barely visible, a distant sliver of silver.

The Marsh is bordered by the River Waver and the River Wampool where they open into Moricambe (or ‘Hudson’) Bay, and its extent is much greater than I had previously imagined. There is no sign here of the creeks that carve deep muddy fractals through the outer edges.

Eileen explains that the Marsh is actually made up of three separate parts, Saltcoats, Middle and Wylie. Although well-grazed, the landscape is not monochrome, but a palette of greens and ochres. “You see over there,” she points, “it’s different from this top part. The green colour changes, it’s a different sward, a paler green – that’s because it’s more tidal, the big tides cover it.”

By the gorse-covered raised ground at the top of the Marsh there are large tree-trunks that have been carried in by the overtopping tides.

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New fencing on Saltcoats Marsh

Further along we come to a new fence – actually a trio of fences in close parallel lines – that heads out towards the Firth. The inner fence is higher and looks more robust, and Eileen tells me that it’s made of high-tensile wire, while the flanking fences are of barbed wire. It’s not just to keep the cattle separate, but to stop them coming into physical contact, a measure supposedly to stop the spread of TB (TB, apparently originating in imported Irish cattle some years ago, is now present in parts of Cumbria.)

The Marsh is a SSSI and qualifies for Higher Level Stewardship payments, which have helped towards the cost of the fencing. The whole marsh is fenced, even at the water’s edge. “Burgh [Marsh] isn’t fenced – but it’s all fenced here, so the cattle are less often mired.”

That’s important. Eileen says she can remember her father having to dig cattle out of the creeks with ropes and spades. “Before it was fenced, cattle would get out onto the sand at the Wampool. I’ve crossed the Wampool to Anthorn! The cattle were out on the sands, one night after supper, and we had to go down and get them. We herded them to the other side, and then we had to get permission to put them in a farmer’s field that side. And then we had to go back with a wagon in the morning and get them.”

The Bells breed pedigree Friesian cattle, and Eileen and her husband Willie were founder members of the British Friesian Breeders’ Club. As we drive round to our next stopping-point, we talk about the impact of the 2001 epidemic of Foot-and-Mouth Disease. Even now, Eileen clearly finds it a very difficult topic. “We’d built up the herd over forty years,” she says. “They all had to be killed, two-to-three hundred animals. I remember Willie bringing the bull – he was a big bull and no-one else wanted to do it – out of his pen to be shot, I think that’s when Willie lost heart… But we had some semen stored. And then other members [of the Friesian Breeders’ Club] started getting in touch when they heard what had happened. We were offered brilliant stock – it brought a lump to your throat to think they’d give you such stock.”

She goes quiet for a while, then we turn down another lonnin and arrive at a field where there is a cattle-crush and large metal cattle-pens, built a couple of years ago.

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Cattle-crush and pens

Now, in October, the cattle are due to be brought off the Marsh and, as she points out, “You’ve got to have somewhere you can bring the cattle in”, so they can be sorted and dispersed. Some will be sold, some will be used for breeding, some will be fattened: the Bells’ heifers will go off to be served by their pedigree bull.

During the winter months the grass is kept down by geese – barnacle geese, over-wintering from Svalbard and Greenland, often come over from the WWT’s reserve at Caerlaverock on the Scottish side of the Solway to graze. “And if the grass doesn’t look good they’ll come into the barley fields – and I usually let the farmer know so he can chase them off!”

Our next stop is on the edge of Middle Marsh, nearer to the village. Young steers come galloping across a field to snort and snuffle by the gate, perhaps hoping that our Land Rover, with sacks in the back, means food. We squelch down a track between two hedges, one trimmed to almost suburban neatness, the other rich with red, wizened haws and deep-purple sloes as large as damsons. A heron extends his neck and lumbers into the air.

Again, the Firth seems far-distant and scattered cattle are indistinct specks. There is no sound other than the faint hissing of wind in the grass. Eileen tells me how she has always loved being out on the Marsh, by herself and with the children; her face lights up as she points out several hundred starlings, previously hidden, which have lifted off the grass and now perform a small murmurration before settling again. And now, too, the yellow-orange sky suddenly clears, and the sun is warm on our faces: colours brighten and the Marsh seems more alive.

Picking our way back to the lonnin we pass large circular water-troughs by the gate, and though the grass is now wet enough that the cattle don’t need to drink, nevertheless the ground has been churned to sloppy mud, through which a quad bike and a very muddy border collie are splashing towards us.

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The Herd heads out on his quad bike

Eileen introduces Steven, the Marsh Herd – he tells her that he’s decided to move the cattle off a couple of days early because big tides and high winds are due (ex-hurricane Ophelia is blasting in towards the West). Eileen tells me later that Steven “is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He’s disabled, but he knows the cattle, he learns who they belong to.” The Marsh Committee pay the Herd and “He does everyone’s cattle. And if he has a problem he shouts for help.”

Later, from Eileen’s house, where we are having tea with scones and bramble jelly, we can see the distant cattle starting to move westward in a line. I can just make out the quad bike chivvying them, darting round them like a border collie. One beast with divided loyalties breaks away and heads back towards a group that hasn’t yet started to move; Steven circles and sets them moving, galloping after the others. “He’ll be moving them to the pens I showed you. There’s a big ditch down the middle of the marsh, but there’s a bridge, and they’ll know where to go, they’ve been out there since May.”

The owners of the Marsh’s stints meet once a year, and decide who will be on the Committee. At present, Eileen is Secretary (“I like it, I get to meet all the people. I was thinking the other day, I might just carry on until I’m eighty – if no-one else wants to do it!”), Willie is Chair, and their son Richard and two others make up the other members.  Eileen says, “I first got involved when I was about nine! I was given the balance sheet to type out. We did it with carbon paper in those days. Mum would do a lot of the writing” – she shows me a book filled with neatly written notes – “and my sister was Secretary in 1974.”

The area of the Newton Arlosh saltmarshes is 440 hectares (about 1100 acres). So, what size is a stint?

‘Carrying capacity’

I now discover that a stint isn’t a set area. And the measure depends on the grazing offered. “One stint can be let as a ‘stint-and-a-half’ because of the abundance of grass.” Eileen laughs and shakes her head at my expression. “So if I have three stints, I let them as four-and-a-half. But it’s a temporary measure, it depends on the grass.’

In other words, as  Winchester and Straughton explain in their interesting paper on ‘Stints and sustainability’, stinting refers to the ‘carrying capacity … a notion of the total number of animals that should be allowed to graze there.’ Further, ‘once calculated, the total number of animals which could be supported would be apportioned between those having a right to graze.’

Knowing the ‘carrying capacity’, the number of species and livestock that can be grazed on each stint can be varied depending on circumstances (such as the abundance of the grazing).

On Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats, two cattle are permitted per stint. They must be heifers or bullocks – cows in calf are not permitted not only because of the danger of contagious abortion, but also because it would be difficult and time-consuming to deal with an awkward calving out on the Marsh. Eileen checks her book, and tells me that this year the available stints have been let to 12 farmers, with from six to 63 head of cattle. No sheep are permitted on the Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats Marsh.

The Marsh Committee of Skinburness & Calvo Marsh, in contrast, allocates either one head of cattle, or two ewes and four lambs, or four geld sheep per stint (and after August 1st, this changes to four sheep or four lambs per stint).

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Sheep on Skinburness & Calvo Marsh at high tide

At Burgh Marsh, the grazing is not as good, so the allocation is only one head of cattle to a stint – although in 1794 William Hutchinson stated that it was

burgh marsh from hamilton

(from The History of the County of Cumberland, by William Hutchinson, 1794)

There was a time when the Solway salt-marshes were extensively used for over-wintering Fell sheep and ‘saltmarsh lamb’ was much valued, and the rent would pay the Marsh Herd’s wages, but this seems to have all but died out.

For all these Marshes, the stints are auctioned annually on an evening in late March, and this year’s ‘stinting day’, when animals may be brought graze, was May 1st or 2nd. Animals must be gathered in from across the Marshes and removed, with the help of the Herd, in mid-October. But since these saltmarsh graziers are dealing also with the Solway Firth, those start and finish dates are dependent also on the tides and weather. Ultimately, the Firth is in charge.

“I’d rather not disclose.”

Eileen smiles to take the edge off her refusal. I’d asked how many stints there were on Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats Marsh. When I probe a little more, it seems that the availability of stints affects the price, so the numbers are not disclosed even at the auction! “One time the prices got really high, but they’ve settled back down now,” she told me. Certainly, back in 2011, the rent rose to as much as £110 per two-cattle stint on Newton Arlosh; it seemed that word had got around that cattle did well there because the grass was rich so no expensive fertiliser was needed (as might be the case on inland pastures) and the salty grass reduced the likelihood of infection by parasitic worms.

hope's catalogue2017

Hopes of Wigton are the auctioneers, and I asked Betty Graham, an acquaintance of mine who works there, if she could explain the secrecy about the number of stints for auction.

She laughed, and told me, “It’s a strange rule! We’re never allowed to tell anyone on the night how many stints we’re auctioning. We can give little hints, like ‘not many left’, or ‘we’re down to the last few’ … On Newton Arlosh, we auction them in lots of ten, it’s twenties on Skinburness & Calvo…”

Moreover, the number of stints to auction changes every year. “It depends. Some owners” – like Richard Bell – “graze  their own, but others let them. Some of the stints have been passed down for generations. A lot of the owners are, shall we say, senior citizens, but there are some younger ones too. The number is set by the separate Marsh Committees. We don’t know until the night!”

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from Hopes’ 2017 catalogue

_____________________________________

*Eileen Bell was a contributor to the ‘Remembering the Solway’ oral history project; the recording of her memories will be deposited in the Carlisle Archives

** This NASA visualisation shows how Hurricane Ophelia picked up Sahara dust and smoke from the Portuguese wildfires and spun it up over Britain and the Solway

 

 

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

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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.

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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):

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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!”

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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 , ,

The Solway saltmarshes. 1

 

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Dawn over Calvo Marsh (photo: Ann Lingard)

At first light on a Sunday morning in late September, Norman Holton sat on the edge of Campfield Marsh near Bowness on the Solway. On the Scottish side the starlings were, as usual, gathering in great wheeling clouds, and as usual there were several sparrowhawks flying above them, attempting to pick off a few for breakfast. This time, though, the starling-cloud spiralled round and round, and the mass of birds coalesced and flew across the Solway. Norman estimated that there were two million birds: “They were flying low, about 10 feet above the water, coming straight towards me. I couldn’t see the ends of it, from Cardurnock to beyond Herdhill Point, the flock was so wide. It must have taken 10 minutes to pass over – it lifted slightly to pass over the marsh, flying right over my head. The noise! And the wind of their wings, the draught! I was absolutely plastered in crap. But it was fantastic – the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up just telling you about it!”

(Photos taken from a gyroplane flight: see The design of the Solway, an aerial perspective)

Norman Holton [*] was Senior Sites Manager of the RSPB’s Cumbria Coast Reserves until 2016, and not one to exaggerate about bird numbers. The Campfield Reserve, based at North Plain Farm, and situated between Anthorn and Bowness-on-Solway, has 2 miles of coastline and about 50 hectares of saltmarsh, as well as about 500 hectares of arable land and raised bog, and it is host to thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of wildfowl and wading birds. But on the day I first met Norman, back in 2004, the tide was well out and the bird-flocks had dispersed to feed across the miles of glistening sand. Our wellies made perfect prints in the overlying layer of mud as we, too, left the saltmarsh and walked out into the estuary.

There was food all around us: small shore crabs scuttling; patches of tiny black flecks that were snails, Hydrobia; the surfaces of shallow pools suddenly churned by the skittering of minute fish and gammarid shrimps; sandy coils ejected by lugworms; minute holes made by burrowing shrimp-like Corophium; and the empty shells of cockles and pink tellins that, when alive, had burrowed in the sand near the low-tide mark.

Even though the Scottish coast was only three miles away across the Firth and houses and cars startlingly clear, the space and emptiness – and silence – were almost overwhelming. Sheep and cows were grazing the marsh in the distance, the sun was a pale disc above the haze, and for a while, until the tide turned and the birds returned, there was peace; a privilege.

sheep and cows saltmarsh

Grazing stock at Campfield Marsh (photo: Ann Lingard)

If you stand on the bridge at Boustead Hill, between Drumburgh Moss and Burgh by Sands, and look North-East, the salt-marshes of Burgh and Rockcliffe are pale green and deceptively smooth. Cattle are grazing or dozing, and beyond them lies a gleaming sliver of water in the channels of the Esk and Eden; there’s little movement except the speeding rectangles that are lorries on the distant motorway near Gretna – it’s all very domesticated and safe. But common sense as well as the notices warning of quicksands and dangerous currents will tell you that it’s probably not a good idea to wander on the sands here at the head of the estuary, that the sea will come charging in when the tide turns. Of course you could hurry to the safety of that smooth green saltmarsh … Norman spoke about a day on Rockcliffe Marsh when the tide came in fast, quickly rising to cover the grass; grabbing his tripod and telescope he hurried back towards his car, trying to watch for hazards in the turbid water – and fell into a deep creek. “It was February, freezing cold,” he said, “it took me ages to get to the car and I had no dry clothes.” “So what did you do?” “Put the heater on high, stripped off and drove home in my underpants.”

However, on a warm August day at Campfield he led me across the saltmarsh, stepping over deep potholes, jumping across creeks, and following the cattle-trails that divert around the meanders and oxbows of the water-courses; it is certainly not a smooth, safe surface.

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Accretion and erosion after the winter 2015 storms (photo: Ann Lingard 2016)

 

The topography of marsh is always changing, a balance between water and plants. Norman pointed to a metre-high tower, capped with grass but with steep bare sides: some of the towers and hummocks collapse, while elsewhere the sediment builds up, the amount changing every day with every tide.

 

 

Despite the mutability of the lower reaches, if you look carefully at the marsh and its surrounds you can see that there is a logic to the structure. The single-track road is built on a raised beach, and the marsh steps down from it in three tiers. At the top there is gorse and tough creeping couch-grass, thistles, clumps of pink-flowered rest-harrow, and low purple asters; damp hollows are filled with rush, Juncus, and sedge. Walk towards the sea and you step down a small “cliff” of sand onto the next tier, where the salt-tolerant grass, Pulcinellia maritima, is like shiny wire, and there are low broad-leaved plants like silverleaf. The vegetated cushions, speckled with pink thrift, taper down towards the sand and there, at the edge and marching outwards towards the sea are the “pioneer species”.

Solitary, upright, their limbs pointing defiantly upwards, they appear intrepid and surreal. I had a distinct impression that they would advance a few centimetres, triffid-like, the instant I looked away. Some had gathered a little sand around themselves to form an embryo island, some of the islands had accumulated a tuft or two of grass; each island would consolidate and grow and the marsh would spread outwards. The plants are samphire or glass-wort, Salicornia, pale-green and fleshy. Norman said he used to fry them in butter and eat them when he was an impoverished RSPB worker on The Wash, and he picked off a piece for me to try. It was juicy and salty and delicious. I was an instant convert.

 

On the seaward side of a small green island is a mat of a surprisingly spiky plant, Spartina anglica. Spartina, too, is a pioneer and in more than one sense, for the genus is an import from America.

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Spartina on the right-hand side

 

“It’s an absolute pain,” Norman told me. “Once it gets a foothold it spreads and spreads.” The seeds come in on the rising tide, and get deposited as the tide goes out; they germinate and grow and trap silt, raising the level of the marsh.

Later we found perfect unblemished mushrooms, but the most exciting though inedible find was a crumbly, grey deposit, thumb-sized, that glitters with fish-scales when I picked it up. Otter droppings! I’ve been told (by an otter-spotter) that otter spraint smells of violets unlike that of mink which stinks – and it certainly smelled sweetish, although “violets” didn’t instantly come to mind.

Down the coast, the sea nibbles away at the dunes, sea-walls and shores. The northerly longshore drift and storms that stir up the shallow Solway ensure that at high Spring tides or when the wind is driving the water up the Firth, the waves deposit their load of silt on the saltmarshes. A so-called “mucky tide” may deposit a few centimetres of sandy silt, and thus the potholes gradually get filled in and vegetated, the meanders get cut off – and the grass becomes salty and unpalatable, ungrazed until the next rain.

It’s astonishing to realise that the Solway marshes have been grazed for over 1000 years. Grazing has made them the globally – not just locally – important places that they are, the place where “the world population of barnacle geese”, as many as 30,000 birds, overwinters, for example, and because of this the marshes have a string of initials after their names: SSSI, SAC, NNR … all those somewhat distancing though extremely important conservation gradings (see The Acronyms’ Stories).

 

007 summer shower cattle John R flickr

“Summer Shower – Grazing cattle on Campfield Marsh.” John Rogers

(My grateful thanks to John for permission to use this image)

In 2001, during the Foot & Mouth crisis when the grazing stock was “cleared”, the Solway’s salt-marshes changed dramatically. Brian Irving, Manager of the Solway Coast AONB which includes the Skinburness marsh near Silloth, 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,” and he enthused about the overall orange hue, the buttery-yellow, the coppery tones of the fescue, and the pink drifts of thrift.

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Thrift at Campfield. (With thanks to Judith Rogers)

Most of the marshes are predominantly common land whose area is divided into “stints”; a Marsh Committee allots each grazier a certain number of stints, each of which may carry a set number of cattle or sheep. The animals roam free, the stints are not limited by fences – except around the RSPB Reserve, where a neighbour’s Texels, probably muttering about their right to roam and humming “the other man’s grass is always greener” were that day chomping at the turf. However, they casually, without quite appearing to capitulate, wandered back towards their home stints when they saw us. Campfield is grazed by up to 100 beef cattle between May and October; in theory the stocking density is 0.6 units per hectare, the optimum to get the sward “into condition” for feeding and nesting birds and to minimise trampling of lapwing and redshank nests.

Norman told me that his system for managing the grassland was simple: “When I came here 12 years ago my complete knowledge of farming came from ‘The Archers’. But with the help of the local graziers we’ve learnt to balance the birds’ needs with the cattle’s needs. Basically, when the grass is up to my ankles it’s about right, below that I need to take a few stock off. Managing the grass looks very scientific, but in the end, it’s how far it comes up your wellies!”

 

Redshanks prefer tufts of grass to nest against; lapwings like to nest in open areas; roosting waders prefer short grass so they can watch for predators when the tide pushes them off the mudflats. The diversity and number of birds that come to the Solway coast is astonishing, and sightings are well-logged on many websites and blogs – for as well as the expected waders like dunlin, knot, red- and green-shank, godwits, curlews, oystercatchers, and the species that prefer the fields and wooded fringes like the plovers, tree-sparrows, linnets and so on, there are sightings of cranes, spoonbills, egrets, red kites, short-eared owls and ospreys. While Norman and I searched the edges of the small pools on the upper tier of the marsh for natterjack toadlets, a green sandpiper swooped down to the water, and a ruff had been seen the day before.

Then there are the geese. Their arrival is an event of local importance, something to anticipate. “Are the geese back yet?”: everyone is listening for their honking and calling; looking upwards, away from the flickering masses of knot and dunlin skimming over the sands and the black-and-white binary flashes of the oystercatcher flocks, hoping to see geese circling to land instead of passing over in a V.

In mid-September, the first of the Pink-footed geese start flying in from Iceland; most carry on to The Wash and Martinmere from Iceland, but a couple of thousand remain on the Solway. Those who went further South start moving North again in the New Year, and from mid-January to mid-March you can see them in vast numbers on the salt-marshes and fields. Barnacle geese from Svalbard arrive on the Solway in early October, and they stay, right through to the end of April and early May.

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Barnacle geese on a  field next to Campfield Marsh

It is during that period, from mid-September to April, that the grasslands and the carefully-managed sward on the saltmarsh are especially important as they provide grazing for the geese that are escaping the Arctic temperatures of the far North.

 

But you don’t have to be a “birder” to fall under the spell of the salt-marshes – even here, where the Firth is narrowing down, constrained by its banks at the top of the estuary, it seems to be the sense of spaciousness and wildness that exerts the strongest emotions.

“It’s the wilderness … to come back to the Solway and sit on the saltmarsh at dawn … Everything has got its place. The birds start to fly off the sands, the golden plover first, then curlew, godwit. Every dawn is different because of the tide – the different height, different wind, it’s very variable. It’s rare for there to be the same conditions from one day to the next. I love the dynamism of the tides and the wildness of the marsh. On the seaward edge there are no street-lights, you can’t hear any traffic. Even after all this time it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” Brian Irving told me.

John and Judith Rogers’ house overlooks the Solway, and the salt-marsh’s character is part of their lives: it can be “transformed in moments by a storm sweeping in from the Irish sea: the wind picking up – hail showers sweeping across, pushing the tide relentlessly into the creeks and channels and overflowing, even on to the roads… But all this can change again within the hour. The tide goes out, the clouds disappear … sunlight sweeping across the mud flats; highlighting swathes of golden gorse; catching the sudden glint of gulls and flocks of waders wheeling back and forth …”.

And Brian Hodgson, a wildfowler (see The Wildfowler’s Story), told me, “I just like being out here and being part of it, the early morning, the solitude of it.”

norman head

In memory of Norman Holton.

“If I was a cow, I’d be happy on the marsh! It’s just the best place to be”

(Photo: Ann Lingard, 2004)

 

***

[*] Norman Holton died in the autumn of 2016; a great ‘Solway man’, he continues to be very much missed by his many friends and colleagues.

***

This is the first of a series of posts about the Solway saltmarshes. The second is about the ever-changing (and growing) Rockcliffe Marsh at the head of the Solway Firth.

The first version of this article was published in Cumbria Life in 2004; I have since updated it with extra information and photos.

RSPB Campfield Reserve, tel: 016973 51330, is a reserve that is open to all. The Solway Wetlands Centre is also there, with an information area and a comfortable room in which to sit and drink coffee!

There is an excellent blog by John and Judith Rogers on what is to be seen at the Campfield Reserve.

Posted in Foot-and-Mouth epidemic, saltmarshes, Spring & Neap Tides | Tagged , , ,

Capturing memories: the ‘Remembering the Solway’ oral history project

naomi rts2

Pupils from Kirkbride Primary School look at ‘Household Objects’ (photo: Naomi Hewitt)

‘I’ve enjoyed every single bit of it – every interview, every person has been a sheer gem,’ Jean Graham told us at the celebration that marked the end of the oral history project, Remembering the Solway. ‘And how marvellous it is that all these people are gathered here enjoying a few hours of reminiscing – and it isn’t a funeral!’

Naomi, currently Assistant Manager of the Solway Coast AONB and former Manager of the SWLP, has overseen the project since its inception about three years ago; Remembering the Solway has been one of the 29 schemes in the Solway Wetland Landscape Partnership’s four-year HLF-funded project.

‘We wanted to capture the memories of people who have lived and worked on the Solway Plain,’ Naomi Hewitt said. ‘The idea came from Sarah Hodgson of Drumburgh Farm – she waylaid me with the idea, and she persisted, she didn’t give up! Jean Graham was another great advocate for the idea.’

The unusual land- and sea-scape of this small corner of England that is tucked in next to the Solway Firth and the border with Scotland was sure to have imprinted unusual stories in the minds of those people who have lived here, in some cases for as long as 90 years.

So, more than three years ago, there was a meeting in the Methodist Chapel at Port Carlisle to make plans and, Naomi said, “We knew we had the foundations of a good project.”

They brought in Susan Child from Creative Horizons, an expert in oral and community history, and she trained the nine volunteers in how to gather oral history, how to do the recordings – and, importantly, in the ethics of carrying out recordings.

As Sarah Hodgson said at one of the planning meetings at the Chapel, “Interviewees need security, they need to know we’re not going to be rummaging through their belongings. Many of them are in their eighties or nineties and we tiptoe round until we get the opportunity to record them, we can’t just plough in.”

There is so much information, so many memories, to gather and preserve. Naomi explained, at the celebration, “We knew we were time-limited, so we decided to concentrate on on the central and North areas of the Solway Plain, from Kirkbride up to Burgh and down to Cardurnock. And being able to use the chapel was great – it’s such a great community and historical asset.”

I went to a couple of the planning and update meetings in the little white-washed room at the chapel, and ideas were flowing fast as to which topics needed still to be covered, who could be contacted and, hopefully, interviewed. There was a buzz of laughter and chatter over the coffee and biscuits. “The group had a huge amount of energy,” Naomi said.

Which of the many topics should they choose? Farming, peat-cutters, ferrymen, the WRENs who came in the War, the Anthorn Camp, the Shooting Range at Burgh, turf-cutting for (it was said) Wembley, the people who were in service, the Home Guard …?

The list was finally narrowed down to farming; the railways; peat-cutting; fishing; growing up; and the Solway itself.

The group held frequent Open Days throughout the two years so that everyone interested could come and meet their friends and hear how the project was developing. I went along on a mid-June afternoon in 2016. There were about twenty people crammed into the tiny room, as well as the recording volunteers. Cake and cups of tea were being handed out, and around the room were boards and tables with photos, scrap books, letters and several transcripts of recorded interviews; people were poring over them, exclaiming, pointing out friends or acquaintances in the photos, this sometimes leading on to suggestions for further interviewees. Susan Child was sitting in the corner feeding letters and photos into a scanner. After a while she put on her head-phones and we all settled down to hear one of the recordings, then Jean Graham, a local writer and poet as well as one of the volunteer interviewers, read three poems based on her interviews and her own experiences.

In the last year the pace has increased: there was the film to be made, the transcripts to write, the recordings to tidy up, the booklet to publish.

And finally, on July 14th 2017, the end of the project was celebrated with a lunch at the White Heather Hotel, Kirkbride. More than 150 people came, and the room – and the lengthy queue for the buffet lunch – was echoing with conversations and laughter. As Jean told me, “Some of these people probably haven’t seen each other in years – they’re not always able to get about, they’ve been isolated on their farms …”

Tables around the room were piled with memorabilia such as farm implements, peat-cutting tools, kitchen equipment and school-books.

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(For more stories about peat-cutting on the Solway Mosses, the tools and techniques, see Ask the fellows who cut the peats.)

The celebration also included a showing of the film, made by Tony Wilkinson of Red Onion Video, and the ‘launch’ of the free booklet that includes extracts from some of the interviews.

In all, there have been 46 recorded interviews, involving 53 people (some of whom were unable to do a final recording through ill-health). Each person who had been recorded received a CD of their own interview to hand down to their families, and the written transcripts will be given to the Cumbria Archives at Carlisle.

‘It was an agonising task to choose clips for the film and for the book,’ Naomi said. ‘They’re very much tasters of the wider archive. And we know the archive will be preserved for generations, though the book and CD will have a shorter life.’

There were hints that future funding may be secured to continue the project: after all, there are still several important topics that have not been recorded, like hound-trailing, ferries, ‘HMS Nuthatch’ and so much more!

We all have stories to tell, some may be dull and repetitious but others are important in reminding us of how our attitudes have changed, and how we have changed the world around us.   Many of us will be wishing, far too late, that we had encouraged our own parents to record their memories in some way. Even though aural recording technologies change, the oral stories can still be captured using the simple technology of pen and paper.

 

RTS book cover

 

Note: The transcripts will be donated to Carlisle Archive Centre by the end of 2017.

Susan Child talks about the delivery of the Remembering the Solway project, at the Solway Heritage Conference, Burgh-by-Sands 2017

Remembering the Solway’: the film, starring David Hume (peat-cutting on the Moss), Margaret Sharples (railways on the peat-moss), Geoff Hodgson (bird-nesting), Daphne Hogg (swimming at Port Carlisle), Allen Hodgson (farming and milking), Jean Graham (playing on the peat-moss)

Posted in coastal history | Tagged , , ,

Snippets 13: “A hare in a fix”

A hare in a fix (Carlisle Journal, February 4th 1881)

The polar bear on the ice-floe is the iconic image of climate change and the warming of our seas. Here on the Solway Firth nearly 140 years ago, the climate had changed in the other direction – towards a bitter winter. If ‘social media’ had existed, this hare would have been the iconic image for that time.

 

***

The hare, although presented on a plate, is not still.

Legs scrabbling, eyes bulging,

she tests her sea-legs.

The ice-floe zig-zags across the watery border

between the lands,

buffeted by waves, spinning,

so that the hare no longer knows

which is Scotland or England

(if she ever did).

 

She is immersed in noise, the sound

of wind and rushing water;

ice groans and rasps

and iron squeals against iron.

Men’s arms point like guns,

and she flattens, black ear-tips

pressed into her soft back fur.

The floe thuds against dark pillars,

tilts, swings free.

The hare, shivering, splays her legs, and

pounds her feet against the unforgiving ice.

Then, body too cold to melt a hollow,

she squats, past fear.

 

But when the fast-ebbing tide wedges

the floe against a sandbank,

the hare opens her eyes.

Her back legs unfold and gently catapult her ashore

onto a cold, moist island lacking green.

Leaving the ghosts of foot-prints,

she scoops out a shallow form.

Safe.

Until the tide turns.

***

 

or:

 

A gull screeches in low, head tilting,

hoping for a meal in the huddle of fur.

The hare opens her eyes and watches its flight.

“Bugger this for a shit start to the year,”

she mutters.

And stretches.

“I’ll go where he’s going, thanks.”

Scrabbling aboard the beached floe,

she kicks off.

Her back legs unfold and catapult her afloat

as the slack tide turns

and pushes the ice-raft back upstream.

Gliding ashore on the Scottish side,

she slides off onto glistening mud,

leaving deep indented footprints.

“Och aye the noo,” she tries,

in her Cumberland accent,

and she staggers stickily upwards

towards the green edgeland.

***

The explanation of why there were ice-floes on the Solway Firth and why the hare heard the noise of iron squealing against iron, is in Chapter 10 of Crossing the Moss – the intriguing Victorian and present-day story of the raised mire or ‘Moss’ of Bowness Common and the Solway Junction railway.

This was a project in which photographer James Smith and I collaborated, with support from the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership (to whom, needless to say, we are very grateful!).

The mental image of the hare on the ice-floe was too good to waste (and why she found herself there, in deep winter, raises many questions with regard to extreme cold, hibernation, food and foraging).

If, like me, you have had enough of sad and disturbing news, choose the alternative ending …

Posted in Snippets, Solway Viaduct & Railway, Spring & Neap Tides | Tagged , , ,

What’s a clay dabbin?

“The first thing people do is stroke the walls – it’s tactile, there’s something about it that makes people want to touch it.” Alex Gibbons

 

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March 2017 (before the floor was made)

 

On April 28th 2017 the first clay dabbins building to be constructed on the Solway Plain for more than a century was officially opened.

It has been an interesting story, driven along by the boundless enthusiasm of Peter Messenger, Chris Spencer and earth-buildings specialist, Alex Gibbons.

***

Last July, Clayfest 2016 – a week-long celebration of traditional building techniques, organised by Earth Buildings UK and Ireland (EBUKI), Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership, and the RSPB  – was taking place at the RSPB’s Campfield Reserve. Tents and campervans formed a small encampment behind one of the barns for, despite Clayfest being held at Bowness, on a corner of the Upper Solway coast, people had come from as far away as the USA and the Netherlands to take part.

There were talks, and tours, and workshops on the ‘rammed earth’ technique of building, and on techniques for making and using earth plasters. Chris Spencer, Manager of the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership, was running the clay dabbins workshop, using the traditional method of layering straw and wet clay to build a bird hide overlooking the pond.

I had dropped in briefly half-way through the festival, on the hottest day of the year. It was lunchtime and everyone was sitting in the shade, chatting and eating healthy-looking mixtures of vegetables and fruits but Chris immediately broke off from his more substantial lunch to give a quick tour.

In one of the barns a mound of reddish local clay was ready to be mixed into plaster; more clay was down by the developing bird-hide. “Three hundred tonnes,” Chris said. “It was dug up from near one of the ponds just along the track.”

In the ‘rammed earth’ area, plywood was being cut and screwed together to make the large arch-shaped ‘form’, into which clay would be pounded.

Further along, what looked like sandcastles were lined up in front of a straw-bale wall; books and a whiteboard suggested theory rather than practice had been occupying the time. “They do a lot of talking,” Chris explained with a grin.

Down by the pond, Chris’ group had not only been talking but had been working hard. The hide was progressing fast, the first layers of dabbins already in place on top of a low drystone wall of red sandstone blocks.

Next to it, the early stages of the Clay Dabbins House – which would eventually be an exhibition area to explain the Solway’s clay dabbin heritage – were baking gently in the sun, the layers of straw and stamped wet clay now hardened and firm, the walls awaiting a roof and inner and outer lime-plaster coatings.

In one of the Reserve’s other barns, an intriguing array of jars and earth materials were being laid out for a Clayfest demonstration, but more eye-catching was the future roof of the clay dabbins building. Here were baulks of oak which had been cut and chiselled into traditional curves; holes drilled, offset, ready to receive the wooden pegs that will hold the pieces together – a functional structure, yet sculptural and majestic.

What and where are the clay dabbins buildings?

Before we tell the story of Campfield’s little clay dabbins house, let’s look at clay dabbins buildings in general, a type of vernacular architecture found previously on both sides of the Upper Solway, but now mainly – and in decreasing numbers – on the Cumbrian side.

In a landscape formed on glacial till, gravel and mud, with very little ‘country rock’, how do you build a dwelling? You use the materials to hand – the earth and clay, and straw, and whatever trees you can fell for timbers. You need some stone too for a plinth, the foundation of the walls, lest rising-damp gradually liquefy the clay construction; perhaps the ruins of Holme Cultram Abbey or the Roman wall can provide a source, otherwise cobbles or field-stones must do. And if your friends and neighbours will help you tread and mix the clay with straw, then the walls will rise quite quickly.

‘It is conceivable that it could be done in a day, using lots of people from the village, say. People with the fitness of the 18th century, rather than someone like me who stops for an egg sandwich!’ Alex Gibbons.

The advantage of the dabbins method is that it is quick. Peter Messenger is a local expert on the Solway’s dabbins buildings, and has written a delightful and well-illustrated article with practical instructions about their repair.

 A serviceable mixture [of earth for the walls] could contain 30% (by weight) of stone/gravel (from 5mm to 40mm); 30% of coarse and fine sand; 15% silt and 25% clay. There are examples on the Solway Plain where the proportion of silt and clay in total can be as high as 80% and these walls are as hard and compact as others which have 50% of stone and gravel. So there are no hard and fast rules.”

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Sandstone plinth, layers of clay dabbin and straw

By adding straw, the whole becomes, essentially, a ‘composite material’ – the straw lends strength and prevents cracking. The amount of water added to the mix is critical (neither too much nor too little, cf Goldilocks).

The ratio of straw to mud is when it looks about right! You get in as much straw as possible, it adds tensile strength.Sand helps with the plasticity, so it’s not too claggy.” Chris Spencer

Then the well-trodden mix is lifted onto the wetted plinth, and spread and trodden again.

Peter Messenger writes that

“The layer should protrude a little beyond the line of the plinth (c. 50mm) and once a depth of c.100mm has been reached a thin layer of loose straw is spread over the surface of the lift. This will appear to be about 50mm deep but once the next layer has been laid on top of the straw its depth will reduce to about 15mm or less.”

 These interleaved layers of straw act to suck out the moisture from the mixture, and because all the layers are thin the wall can be built to its full height without having to allow intermittent periods for drying-out.

During construction, lintels for doors and windows are put in place, and traditionally the supports for the roof were wooden ‘crucks’, tied together by wooden cross-trees, often with purlins running the length of the roof.

Various materials – including turf and heather – were used for thatch, and the walls were rendered inside and out with lime-render, to prevent rain penetrating the dabbins and causing it to slump.

A few years ago, I joined one of Peter Messenger’s walking tours around Burgh-by-Sands, where several dabbins buildings (variously decaying or restored) and cruck barns remain. He showed us a typical ‘long-house’, the living end of which was separated from the byre by a cross-passage; on another house, the cement-rendering had come away to show the layered dabbins underneath. A handsome cruck barn behind a farmhouse had been recently patched with new dabbins.

An early 1900s survey found about 1500 dabbins buildings around the Solway Plain, but by the time Nina Jennings carried out her own survey nearly twenty years ago there were only about 300 remaining. Her 2003 book, Clay Dabbins: Vernacular Buildings of the Solway Plain is the classic reference book, containing entertaining stories of some of the home-owners – and Jennings herself was an extraordinary woman, who started a degree in electronic engineering, was a member of the anti-war Committee of 100, active in CND, and a keen walker and skier; she died in 2015.

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Dabbins houses in 1910 & 2006 (Peter Messenger, Interpretation Board no.2)

Peter Messenger’s own surveys have found many dabbin buildings in a sorry state of disrepair, with damaged rendering and unstable walls. The problems are caused by water ingress – “Waterlogged clay turns to mud, which slumps and collapses.”

He was instrumental in persuading Alex Gibbons, a William Morris Craft Fellow specialising in earth buildings, to move to Cumbria and become practised in restoring dabbins buildings.

They, and Chris Spencer of the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership (SWLP), realised that to help people – owners  surveyors, builders – understand how to protect and repair this special type of building on the Solway Plain, a practical demonstration would be not only useful but an entertaining (and muddy) project that could gather local volunteers – of all ages – to its heart.

And so, on April 25th 2016, the dabbin building was started, with financial and other support from a large number of organisations: it was part of a four-year grant to the SWLP from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and has been constructed on the RSPB’s Reserve at Campfield near Bowness-on-Solway.

Building the Clay Dabbin House

It’s been a wildly popular project. Hundreds of volunteers have helped, including a group of land-agents and RSPB wardens, fit retirees and conservation volunteers of all ages. “A group of building inspectors came out to do several training days – before that they had no idea about dabbins buildings,” Alex said. Chris worked especially with groups of school-children: more than 150 students came from seven local schools. “Local kids came from villages where there were clay dabbins buildings. They used their hands – hand-balling the mixture – and then forks. It was a great opportunity for them and we loved having them around. It helped that it was fantastic weather!”

The plinth of Penrith sandstone was laid, marking the base of the 4 metre by 5.5 metre building. “There’s no damp-proof course,” Alex explains. “The stones have gaps between them. As long as you use breathable materials, any water should evaporate. It’s all about being able to get the water away again.”

Mixing the clay and sand and straw is heavy work. “We used a tractor to do a batch-mix. It lifted the clay really, really high then dropped it, a big splodge,” Chris laughed. “We built it in four-inch lifts, then put a layer of straw on top. Then you immediately build the next layer on top of the straw, which binds it all together. As we got higher we put up staging, so we could raise the floor level and then just tipped the material onto it. This stuff is incredibly, incredibly heavy – so we used a tractor bucket to lift it.” The sides of each layer are sliced off flat where they slump over the layer below.

Constructing the building with the help of volunteers inevitably took longer, because it depended on availability of volunteers, of Chris and Alex – and, of course, on dry weather. As Alex said, “If I’d been building it with a team of guys that I’d trained, I reckon we could do the clay walls in three weeks  – obviously with the help of a tractor, too. It is conceivable that it could be done in a day, using lots of people from the village, say. People with the fitness of the 18th century, rather than someone like me who stops for an egg sandwich!”

By May 2016 the dabbins layers beneath the window were in place; by July the wooden window-frame had been incorporated and the timbers for the roof had been prepared (see photos above).

Some of the oak – for the wall plates, the ridge beam, rafters and so on – was sourced locally, from wind-felled trees at Setmurthy.

“We went for truss construction in the end, not cruck,” Chris explained. “Mick Read, the joiner, is a genius with oak!”

Mick, who lives across the border in Canonbie, told me that he started as an engineering apprentice, then went into carpentry making furniture, and his interest in wood led him to tree surgery, “specialising in portable chain-saw milling. It’s small-scale equipment, quite light to transport – but time-consuming and slow. Basically, I have the option of going into a woodland, selecting a tree, and then milling the wood that has a bend in it.” In other words, producing timber that has two flat sides and two curved sides.

He found the oak for the truss – the tie beam, king post, truss members and wind braces – “at the back of the Canonbie sawmill. There was a ‘firewood pile’ of oak trees. The owner said ‘Take anything you like’. He let me chainsaw it and take it away, and gave it to the dabbin for free!  I milled it at my house, framed it, then dismantled and labelled it, and brought it here.”

Mick also made the wedge-shaped pegs, and drilled the off-set holes in the beams. ‘You hit the pegs in, and the wood shrinks and tightens up the pegs. It’s quite an old way of construction.’

In August, he supervised the lifting and fixing of the truss roof timbers. As project photographer Fiona Smith and I watched, Chris and volunteers had little trouble steering the timbers into place. Chris was full of admiration: the tractor-driver “just dropped it onto the tenon on the kingpost and it fit so well we just had to give it a knock with a hammer.”

We hastily found a sprig of hawthorn and Fiona climbed up to nail it in place for the ‘topping-out’ ceremony.

topping out

Fiona ‘topping out’

Wilson Irving got a small bursary from SWLP to take part in the EBUKI 2016 festival, and has worked on the dabbins house throughout. “I came on training days, and to the workshops on making dabbin and heather thatching. I was involved more or less from the beginning. I didn’t do the drystone wall at the bottom,, but I helped with the dabbin, put on the wooden wall plates – they rest on the dabbin and spread the load of the roof. And two of us helped Alex build the gables. I enjoyed it all – but seeing the truss go up was the best bit.”

That was Chris’ favourite moment too. “It was all good! But lifting the roof timbers on was very good, it felt like it was marking a sense of completion, the mud work was over.”

Over the next couple of months, the rafters were nailed in place and the thatcher William Tegetmeir from Scarborough, “a real craftsperson” according to Chris, laid the heather thatch. The door and window were completed and the building was water-tight – but not yet weather-proof.

The rendering of the inside and outside walls

render tests rsz

Render tests

was done by Alex early this year. “The outside was done by harling – using a scoop-shaped trowel and throwing it on.  I used a limewash of pure lime putty mixed with pure clay putty – the clay is screened down and water added.” In contrast, the inside walls are smooth, with flat plaster that reflects the light.”

Then there was the floor. “The base layer [of the floor] is about four inches thick, it’s rubbish, screed – everything that didn’t go through the screen. The top layer’s screened-down mud mixed with the sand and tamped down.”

IMG_5163

Tamping down the floor

John helped with the tamping, and we went to help again on the day the ox-blood was to be added.

As we arrived, two dumpy bags of Dalston sand were being delivered to the dabbins’ door. “You’d think we could go and get some sand from the Solway just up the road,” Alex said, “but it’s all too muddy.This sand’s slightly rough, it holds together well.” He squeezed some to show us, and it kept its shape.

And the ox-blood?

“I heard about blood from various people – it’s one of those folklore things.”

We were using dried and powdered blood. We tried mixing the powder with water to various consistencies, and there was much hilarity and discussion about the best way to apply it to the surface of the floor.

“I’m calling it experimental archaeology,” Alex said. “It sounds better than saying I don’t know what I’m doing! When I’ve looked at old floors, they’re always really black.”

In the end, Alex painted on the mixture. Apparently it was very smelly and ‘furry’  a week later!  But on the day of the official opening, April 28th 2017, it was clean and firm, although it was generally agreed it would probably need a linseed coating to ‘fix’ it.

***

Three pupils from Kirkbride Primary performed the official ribbon-holding and cutting, and the building  – now fitted with solar-powered LED lights and very helpful interpretation boards – was open, a year after it had been started.

As Chris Spencer said in his opening speech, “Many hundreds of people have helped – with the drystone walling, the clay-building, the thatching – it’s been quite an amazing year centred around the building.”

The dabbins house “shows how the Solway vernacular buildings were made. It’s also important to show that they are under threat around the Solway Plain. We hope from this to help people understand how to care for them and mend them.”

And then, of course, there was Elizabeth’s cake…

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