The acronyms’ stories: imagine.

‘Alphabet soup’: AONB, EMS, MPA, MCZ, NNR, SAC, SPA, SSSI – how many more of these acronyms for conservation designations can you recall? Do you know what they mean? (If you don’t – and not many people do – you can find out more on the previous post on this blog.) Do words like biodiverse, conservation, habitat and environment perhaps pass you by?

At the other end of the spectrum from alphabet soup, a war of words broke out between some of the ‘new nature writers’, some accusing others of the over-use of complicated metaphors, mysterious similes and literary allusions that make the reader work too hard to understand what has actually been seen and experienced. George Monbiot wrote that we needed a new language, that ‘language is crucial to how we perceive the natural world’: ‘habitat’ and ‘conservation’ were too dry and alienating. Richard Mabey’s flash of self-awareness in this respect was delightful. Observing and writing about barn owls, he found he was constructing ‘extravagant phrases. …  I was rather pleased with my poetic metaphors, and it was only when I first read this passage out in public that I realised its utter stupidity.’ The moment of understanding came when he realised that the owls were 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.’

This is a fine idea. The small mudshrimp, Corophium, is a near-neighbour of mine; we live in adjacent parishes – he/she within the mudflats that fringe both shores of the Solway Firth, while I live in rolling farmland within sight of the Firth. Corophium is a small pale-brown crustacean, less than a centimetre long and with one pair of very long antennae. Few people have heard of mudshrimps, let alone seen them; they spend many hours each day – hours when the falling tide has uncovered the mudflats – in a burrow or crawling across the thin surface-film of water on the mud. Mudshrimps aren’t ‘charismatic’ or ‘iconic’ like a curlew, watervole, or polar bear, yet their bodies and behaviour are exquisitely adapted to the difficult conditions in which they live. Another of the ways in which our ‘parishes’ differ (there are obviously several) is that Corophium also lives, quite unknowingly, in an alphabet soup. The Upper Solway is an EMS, and has SAC and SPA status; part of the Upper Firth, too, is a MCZ.

Yet these designations, these acronyms, describe living, changing neighbourhoods and parishes. Imagine, then, making a short trip around the north-west Cumbrian coast from Bowness-on-Solway to Anthorn, preferably when the tide is mid-way up and rising; leisurely cycling is a good way of getting about – it’s slow, and you can abandon the bike to explore on foot.

Here at Bowness the Firth, stretching between Scotland and England, shore to shore between Mean High Water Level, is the Ramsar site, and an SAC, SPA, MPA and SSSI. Mudflats and pebbly banks have been exposed. There are tiny holes in the mud, hinting at the burrows of crustacea like Corophium and of snails like Hydrobia; coils of muddy sand on the surface betray the U-tubes of lugworms. They, and several species of burrowing molluscs, use the mud as protection from predators like fish and crabs, but many species of the wading birds busy on the shore are specialist probers intent on finding them. Other snails, and worms like ragworms, lurk beneath small rocks and pebbles, but oyster-catchers and gulls know where to look. As the tide floods in, redshank scurry along the water’s edge; flocks of knot flash binary signals of black and white as they wheel and turn, and curlews pace and probe.

These acronym-ed mudflats are home to hundreds of species of invertebrate animals, millions of animals that are adapted to live and feed and breed in a place where the sea covers and exposes them twice a day, and where brackish conditions can change from one day to another, depending on the state of the rivers and the height of the tide. They are tough and adaptable  animals – within limits – and their numbers and life-styles make the Upper Solway mud a rich feeding-ground for resident and migrant wading birds to re-stock their energy levels.

To the South-West of Bowness, trees and scrub hide the landward end of a stub of red sandstone, all that remains of the former railway viaduct that crossed the Firth. Imagine the Upper Solway during the construction of that viaduct, throughout the five years between 1864-69: barges, pile-drivers, the movement of hundreds of tons of sandstone and iron (and sea-borne sediment), the day-after-day clatter and shouting and banging; the fishing and wild-fowling needed to supplement the meals of all those workers; the disruption and disturbance in the Firth and surrounding countryside. Did they worry about ‘the environment’? ‘Conservation’ and ‘biodiversity’ were not part of the everyday vocabulary. That is now an old story, history, and saltmarshes and mudflats line the shore each side of the embankment’s remains.

But here the story of the Upper Solway Flats conservation area interacts with the story of the Solway Mosses SAC: the railway viaduct, of course, required a railway – which was driven across the raised mire of Bowness Common (Moss) from Whitrigg to the Solway coast. Bowness Common is part of the South Solway Mosses SAC (and is also an SSSI and NNR); part of it is also owned and managed by the RSPB as its Campfield Reserve. The line for the railway was excavated through the peat, which was in places nearly 50 feet (15m) deep. This was (eventually – for a while there were some problems with subsidence) good for the railway, but very harmful for the complex hydrological structure of the mire. Then, peat-bogs were ‘wasteland’. Now, we recognise that peat-bogs and raised mires are very important carbon-stores, and we need to restore and re-wet them so that water-retaining sphagnum mosses can re-establish. Natural England and the RSPB have, over recent years, done considerable work in re-wetting the Moss of Bowness Common, including turning parts of the old railway track into ponds and wetland. You can read more of this extraordinary present-day story, of optimism and engineering, here.

So, bump over the cattle-grid at the entrance to Campfield Reserve, have a cup of coffee in the Solway Wetlands Centre, then walk up the track to the hides that variously overlook grazed pastures, wetlands and lakes. Birds of the hedgerows, of woodland, waterbirds and raptors, and waders from the Solway shore, all take advantage of the variety. Carry on past the wood and out onto Bowness Common, onto a glorious wide-open space dominated by heather, mosses, sundew, butterwort and all manner of other bogplants; here be dragonflies – and butterflies, water-beetles and pondskaters, frogs and newts and lizards …

In the autumn and winter, the stories of this RSPB Reserve – and of the Reserves and protected merses across the Firth at Caerlaverock too – turn a page to a new chapter, that tells of the influx of thousands of overwintering barnacle and pinkfooted geese, and whooper swans. They come here, visitors from far-off Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard, to graze on the Upper Solway wetlands and on the other ‘designated’ areas of the Firth – the salt-marshes.

On the Cumbrian side, saltmarshes stretch South along the coast to Anthorn near Whitrigg, their turf jigsaw-ed by muddy creeks. They too are part of the Ramsar, SSSI and AONB stories, and home to mud-loving and saline-tolerant plants and animals. Small samphire plants appear to be caught in freeze-frame as they stride out across the mud, and pink thrift carpets the close-cropped turf between the feet of grazing sheep and cattle. The story of the saltmarshes is never constant, for the marshes are always shape-changing, sequestering or releasing the sediment carried by the tide; they are the intermediary narrators between the land and sea.

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