Meeting Report: What's so special about the Solway Firth?

15 February 2013
Pam Taylor and Nic Coombey

What's so special about the Solway Firth? was the title of the talk given by Pam Taylor and Nic Coombey to Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society in February.

Both work for Solway Firth Partnership, a local charity, launched in 1994 and "dedicated to supporting a vibrant and sustainable local economy while respecting, protecting and celebrating the distinctive character, heritage and natural features of our marine and coastal area".

Pam has had a lifelong involvement in community and environmental projects and has been with Solway Firth Partnership for five years. The organisation's aim is to bring together all the interests in the estuary and help make links between English and Scottish partners. A new system of marine planning is being introduced and aims to help balance demand for use of the firth with the need to protect wildlife and habitats. The Partnership has been supporting this process by gathering information on how the area is used. The boundaries of Solway Firth Partnership's operation are not rigidly defined and stretch from Loch Ryan right round to St Bees Head in Cumbria.

The Partnership aims to provide an open forum for debate on issues affecting the area. Views on developments such as offshore wind-farms are wide-ranging and the Partnership's role is to support balanced discussion. A Solway Energy Gateway feasibility study has been carried out to help assess the potential for generating tidal energy in the estuary. The technology needed to harness energy in this way is still developing and tests on new devices have been carried out recently in a mill lade in Cumbria. The Solway is a highly protected area and any new developments need to demonstrate that potential impacts on important species such as the iconic barnacle goose have been fully considered.

Sea fishing by its very nature takes place away from most people's daily observance and experience. As a result, the types of fishing that take place and the part they play in the culture of the area are often poorly understood. Solway Firth Partnership works to address this in a range of ways such as by producing informative publications. There is a need to make sure fisheries are sustainable long term and the Partnership has carried out work to promote the Marine Stewardship Council accreditation scheme locally. An old photograph showed a fleet of oyster smacks from Kent in Isle of Whithorn around a hundred years ago when oysters were commercially fished in Luce Bay. Today, scallop fishing is one of the mainstays of the local economy with high value landings in Kirkcudbright.

Creel fishing for crab and lobster takes place in the west of the region where the shoreline and underwater habitats are rockier. Work to conserve crab and lobster stocks in places such as Sussex and the Isle of Man has shown the benefits of inserting creel escape panels to allow juveniles to escape. Solway Firth Partnership is currently bidding for funding to enable this practice to be introduced locally.

The Partnership has arranged training for local divers so that information about marine species and habitats can be gathered. The work is part of a national Seasearch project which involves underwater surveys and helps to provide the information needed to support good decision making. Grant support for equipment including an underwater camera has helped to illustrate the diverse and colourful nature of local sea-life such as the dahlia anemone (Urticina felina).

Nic Coombey spent 15 years as a landscape architect and is well known in the area through work with Solway Heritage and the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere project. He joined Solway Firth Partnership six months ago working as a Coastal Ranger on the Making the Most of the Coast project. Education is a key part of this project and Nic is working with primary and secondary schools as well as organising training events and producing publications.

As part of the Scottish Coastal Heritage at Risk project, Nic is encouraging volunteers to report on archaeological sites at risk from coastal erosion. He is also organising local beach cleans and marine litter surveys as part of national Marine Conservation Society initiatives.

Another project, The Shore Thing, has been measuring the effects of climate change by monitoring indicator species. Assessing local trends in sea temperature rise is complicated by the semi-enclosed nature of the Solway and the volume of water flowing from rivers combined with tidal effect. Some species are extending their range northwards with increasing numbers of bass in the Solway for example. Studies of rocky shores show that cold water species, such as the tortoiseshell limpet (Tectura testudinalis), are still in the Solway but becoming rarer, while the toothed topshell (Osinalis lineatus) is extending its range northwards. The honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata) forms complex reefs along the coast and appears to be moving north and thriving at the moment. The non-native Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) has been found in three or four places in the Solway recently. It is thought to be too cold for it to breed locally although resident populations have established at sites not far away.

Nic has a special interest in dog whelks. Although many eggs are laid in each egg-case, only about 15 might survive because the bulk of them are consumed by the emerging young dog whelks. Dog whelks might spend their whole life in one square metre of territory and many never spread more than 15 metres from their birthplace. Enclaves of them are to be found along the Solway coast. Some are impressive-looking with orange and black striped shells, while others are all white. In sheltered places they grow large and long; in not-so-sheltered places they are short and fat. A school pupil is going to survey a few sites under Nic's guidance.

At question time the subject of cockling in the Solway arose. There has been little cockle fishing for some time due to low stocks. Harvesting cockles stirs mixed emotions with their high value making them much sought after. Solway Firth Partnership recently worked with Marine Scotland to hold a local meeting exploring options for future management of the fishery.