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Issue 23 - Solway coast is bird watchers' paradise

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005

 

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Solway coast is bird watchers' paradise

Some of Britain's rarest birds live in the vast mud flats and sands of Solway on the Dumfries coast. Anthony Toole reports

The coastline of Dumfries and Galloway follows a tortuous route from Gretna to Loch Ryan. The direct distance is less than 100 miles, but the meanderings to north and south more than double this.

Around a backbone of low hills, the rivers Annan, Dee, Cree, Bladnock and the waters of Urr and Fleet, as well as numerous smaller streams, have filled the valleys with alluvium.

Since the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers 11,000 years ago, tiny particles of sand and clay have been carried incessantly from the north, and deposited where the rivers meet the weaker sea currents. And the process continues, creating an ever-shifting sequence of mud flats that extends in some places as far as three miles from the land.

South-east of Dumfries the sands of Powfoot face across the narrowest part of the Solway Firth toward the Cumbrian coast and the mountains of the Lake District in England.

Buried in the mud are ragworms, snails, crabs, shrimps and shellfish that in turn provide food for large numbers of birds.

Throughout the year, waders such as golden and ringed plover, lapwing, curlew, oystercatcher and dunlin can be seen here.

These are often joined by shelduck, and in winter, scaup.

West of Powfoot, the boundary of the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve stretches along the coast for nine miles, past the estuaries of Lochar Water and the River Nith. It then moves south to Carsethorn, before turning back east along a line some four miles out into the waters of the Solway.

Close to the land, and covered by the high tides, are large areas of salt marsh, known in this region as merse. Here, the mud has been colonised and trapped by hardy plants such as glasswort.

The gradual build up of sand and silt allows the establishment of other salttolerant species that include thrift, sea aster and sea spurrey. Where the tideline has been pushed back, grasslands are able to develop behind the merse.

Caerlaverock was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1957. It is an internationally important wintering site for 10 species of waterfowl that come here in their thousands. In addition to waders there are whooper swans, pink-footed geese and pintail ducks. In 1957, fewer than 1000 barnacle geese wintered here. This number has now swelled to more than 20,000.

The edge of the merse is the only place in Scotland where the rare natterjack toad is found.

These amphibians hibernate in the sand during winter, breed in shallow pools in spring and feed on beetles, worms, snails and spiders.

Ashort distance outside the reserve boundary is the Caerlaverock Wetlands Centre, which was founded in 1970 by the Waterfowl and Wetlands Trust. This covers 1,400 acres and is a haven for ducks, waders, whooper swans and Svalbard barnacle geese.

Birds of prey include peregrine, merlin, hen harrier and short-eared owl. In the well-equipped visitor centre, a television link allows visitors to watch the progress of a family of barn owls.

Pathways lead from there to a series of hides which combine birdwatching at close range with excellent views across the varying environments of farmland, pond, saltmarsh and meadow that make up the centre.

Moving west from the Nith estuary, further stretches of merse, mud and sand take one past Southerness to the more rocky headlands of Colvend and Balcary Point, where the cliffs provide nesting places for cormorants, shags, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and herring gulls.

Continuing westward, the coastline recedes again into Wigtown Bay. Until the early 1970s, wildfowl shooting and fishing were carried out here without restriction.

The concern of conservationists over the deterioration in the wildlife led to the creation the largest local nature reserve in Britain.

Wildfowling and fishing are still allowed, but under strict control, to ensure the bay’s long-term future and continued economic benefit to the local community.

Wigtown Bay is of international importance as a wintering site for pink-footed geese, and nationally important for pintail ducks and whooper swans. Rare fish, such as sparling and shad, migrate through the bay toward their breeding grounds upriver. Waiting for them are the otters that hunt around the estuary.

Avisitors’ room in the county buildings in the centre of Wigtown gives a comprehensive view over the bay.

In spring, breeding ospreys can be watched with the aid of a closed circuit television link.

Continuing around the headland from Wigtown Bay is the larger Luce Bay, enclosed at its western limit by the Rhins of Galloway, a long, slim peninsula that reaches down to the Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s most southerly tip.

In complete contrast to the rest of the coastline, this is a region of high cliffs. In spring and early summer, upward of 2,000 pairs of guillemots nest on tiny ledges, competing for space with hundreds of kittiwakes, shags, razorbills and fulmars. This is also the only part of the Galloway coast where puffins can be seen.

On the heathland above the cliffs, flowers such as sea pinks, vetches and sea campions attract many butterflies, while the nesting birds include wheatears, stonechats, twites and linnets.

Dolphins, porpoises, seals and otters swim in the waters around the Mull of Galloway. Even the occasional minke whale has been recorded here.

About seven miles to the east, at the southern limit of Luce Bay, the Scare Rocks provide a sanctuary for grey seals, more guillemots and some 1000 pairs of gannets. Beyond are the deeper waters of the Irish Sea, with the Isle of Man to the south and the coast of Northern Ireland to the west, both clearly visible.

On a particularly good day, the Cumbrian coast and the hills of the Lake District may be picked out on the eastern horizon.

The distance along the Solway coast is not great. Many people will drive its length in a couple of hours without seeing it, on their way to or from the ferry ports of Loch Ryan. Yet the variety of wildlife habitats is surprising, and would more than repay anything from a brief pause in the journey to a longer visit. There are few places in the British Isles where so much nature can be seen in so short a span.