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.
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.
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.
“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 acronyms.
“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.
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.
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, told me, “I just like being out here and being part of it, the early morning, the solitude of it.”
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.
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.