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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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
(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.
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!”
*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