By Raymond Buchanan
Critics say haaf netting is harming fish stocks in Solway Estuary
A salmon-fishing method inherited from the Vikings is under threat from new restrictions on the hours they can work, according to the handful of fishermen still using the ancient method.
For a thousand years men have trampled over the sticky mudflats of Cumbria's Solway Estuary and immersed themselves waist high in its ebbing and flooding waters.
Then, as now, their prey was salmon and sea trout.
Their method of fishing is unique in the British Isles. They shun the light convenience of rods and the industrial efficiency of commercial traps.
Instead, the men carry home-made "haafs", which are shaped like giant butterfly nets, to capture and scoop up their prey before despatching the fish with a wooden mallet.
And so it has been for generations - the first haaf netters were the Vikings who invaded the Cumbrian coast.
The Norsemen were forced out a millennium ago and now the fishermen fear they will soon follow.
Traditional netters demonstrate their craft
"We are being regulated out of existence," said Mark Graham, the chairman of the Haaf Netters Association.
"We are finding it almost impossible to fish."
The fishing is dominated by the time of the tides. New by-laws mean the netters can fish only on weekdays between 10am and 10pm.
The time restrictions mean many netters no longer think it is worth the bother.
Last year there were around 100, this season there are barely 50.
To halt this decline, the association is seeking a judicial review to get the restrictions overturned.
"It is very important to the people locally," said Mr Graham.
"It's part of the fabric of Cumbria and on those grounds alone it ought to be preserved."
The Environment Agency, which regulates the waters, insists the new rules are to conserve stocks and not aimed at ending ancient fishing customs.
Environment manager Jon Shatwell said: "We have enough net licences this year for all the guys who were fishing last year.
"We've reduced the amount of time they can fish a bit so that we can let more fish escape to spawn."
Some of the river owners are in favour of restrictions because increased stocks would make their fishing rights more valuable, but the netters do have a powerful ally.
Businessman Lord Ballyedmond owns an estate on the River Eden which links into the estuary.
He said: "It's very natural for them to get upset and annoyed if you try and put them out of business.
"I think the River Eden Owners Association should meet the haaf netters and get an agreed policy and put that to government."
For the haaf netters this year's season is almost over. It has been a poor one for fish catches - they blame the restrictions and say there are plenty of fish if only they were allowed to catch them.
Next spring will show how many still want to heave the haaf on their shoulders and head out into the mudflats.