Ancient woodland, mud flats and mashes, swirling sands and salty sands – just part of what make the Caerlaverock Estate in Dumfries and Galloway so special.
Home to an unusually harmonious mix of man, beast and fowl, is living proof that hunters and conservationists can co-exist.
With tensions between the often conflicting pursuits widespread, the estate, which lies on the eastern bank of the River Nirth, has been bucking the trend from almost 60 years.
Here wildfowling, birdwatching and conservation play out side by side.
‘Caerlaverock is in a unique position simply because we don’t run a commercial shoot,’ explains estate manager Robbie Cowan says. ‘It’s a wild shoot. The estate has always been used as a wild fowling estate. We don’t rear birds, the shooting is all based around the geese and duck that arrive through the migrating months.’
Geese populations have been thriving here for almost 60 years, thanks to a timely intervention by the 16th Duke of Norfolk in the middle of the last century, when populations dropped to crisis levels; by the early 1950s the number of Barnacle geese coming to roost on the Solway estuary from Svalbard, a small island high up in the Arctic Circle, had fallen to 400.
Recognising that something had to be done to protect the birds when they arrived back in Scotland, The Duke approached the government to offer a part of the estate, in conjunction with the mudflats on the estuary, to create a nature reserve which would safeguard the geese from excessive shooting and disturbance, and in 1957 the Caerlaverock Natural Nature Reserve was born.
As well as protecting the geese – which, with last year’s count topping 40,000, proved an unbridled success – the Duke’s aim was to manage nature conservation alongside the seemingly conflicting interests of farming, fishing, wildfowling and bird watching, and managing activities for both the conservation and enjoyment of the natural heritage remains key to the continuing success of Caerlaverock NNR.
‘It’s a great vision that the Duke had way back then,’ Cowan says. ‘Not just with the geese, but he could see future conflict with the wildfowlers and the bird watchers for example, or farming with conservation. He set out a plan to make sure everything worked in harmony and it’s is a great example, even today.’
When setting up the Nature Reserve, the Duke included a provision that wildfowling must always be allowed to continue, in a monitored, sustainable fashion. Not only should it be allowed, it should be welcomed – and free.
‘That was his condition,’ says Cowan, whose father and grandfather were both game keepers on the estate. ‘He wanted free wildfowling to take place on the nature reserve and that still continues today. Scottish Natural Heritage provide parking, they provide footpaths, a warden, all the boundary maps and permits. It’s all there free of charge which is rare in this day and age, but it will remain that way at Caerlaverock because that was a key foundation in the formation of the reserve.’
Organised shoots are for friends of the family, many of whom have been coming to Caerlaverock for years, while local and visiting wildfowlers shoot on the foreshore by permit from 1 September to 20 February. Scottish Natural Heritage manage the numbers so there isn’t too much disturbance – it is a nature reserve after all. But with wildfowling ‘in the blood’ of locals, the Caerlaverock Panel authorises up to 80 season permits to those resident within 18 miles of the National Nature Reserve on the Scottish side of the Solway Firth.
Short Period Permits are available to all other wildfowlers, who flock to Caerlaverock from far and wide. ‘The Solway is famous for wildfowling so people come from all over the country and we get foreign visitors as well,’ Cowan tells me. ‘We’ve had Americans, Spaniards, Italians. It’s very beneficial to the local economy during the winter when it’s a bit quieter in terms of the tourist trade because we have a steady number of wildfowlers coming to the area.’
In his varied role, Cowan also heads up haaf netting at Caerlaverock, another sporting tradition that the estate is working hard to preserve. An ancient form of fishing which dates back to the Vikings, the technique is over a thousand years old and hasn’t changed much in that time.
But with the government implementing 100% catch and release for salmon from next season on rivers that have been struggling, including the Nith, the ancient fishing form is once again under threat.
‘When I took over from my father we were down to 12 haaf netters, it really wasn’t sustainable,’ Cowan admits. ‘The run had slowly been getting later in the year – the season only runs from the end February until 9 September , so it was affecting the amount of fish we were catching. One of my first roles was to try and get the haaf netting popular again. We managed to get the tickets back up to 30 by opening up the area and we saw an increase. It revitalised itself which was great – we could pay the rates and we managed to keep this ancient form of fishing going.
‘It’s bound to tail off again, though, with the catch and release for salmon. We’ll probably lose around 25 tickets which will leave us with just two men fishing.’
The move essentially renders haaf netting on the estate financially unviable, but despite this, Cowan says it will continue: ‘It would have been very easy just to pack up and close the fishery down, but we have to remember that this is a thousand-year-old fishing, an important part of our culture and local heritage,’ he says. ‘It’s a big part of family life in Caerlaverock, that knowledge of how to fish has been passed on for generations, so we’ll do everything we can to keep it going.’
It’s galling, though, given that the haaf netters are already mindful of maintaining fish stock, and go over and above in terms of conservation.
‘We been leading the way in terms of conservation,’ Cowan says. ‘We’ve voluntarily implemented conservation measures right through the board. We return all sea trout over 3lbs in weight, for example – the bigger sea trout are normally the hens, they’re carrying the eggs so you want them up the river.
‘The Nith District Salmon Fishery Board has always supported us. That’s a unique relationship compared to other rivers in the country, and it’s something that we’ve always been proud of. If the director approaches us and asks us to maybe implement another conservation measure, there’s no argument, we’ll do it, because we realise that allows us to carry on fishing.’
‘It’s sad that it’s come to this to be honest,’ Cowan adds. ‘I think the government have made a huge error, and I think that will come to light in the next year or two, not just for netting, the angling community in general will suffer, and you’re going to lose the people who know and care about salmon.’
Looking to the changes ahead – the Land Reform Act, the Wild Fisheries Review and more access to the countryside, Cowan hopes that the age-old Caerlaverock ethos, where land owners and public agencies work side-by-side, will continue. ‘We’re going to have to evolve with the times, but we must also stay true to what we’ve always been and that is to ensure that the wildlife is managed and the habitats are looked after, but also that the culture and heritage is maintained for future generations to enjoy.’