The Solway saltmarshes 2: Rockcliffe Marsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The growing marsh

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Scanned map

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

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

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

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

The grazing

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

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

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

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

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

‘Alphabet soup’

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

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


Barnacle geese take flight

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

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

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

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

Management for wildlife:

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

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

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

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

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

Managing the grazing:

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

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

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

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

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

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


The power of the storm


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


The Gullery

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


The Gullery

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

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

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

gull graph mike carrier's report

From Mike Carrier’s report for NE & CWT

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

Anatomising the saltmarsh (with PlayDough)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ungrazed, the Marsh flowered.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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