The Solway Coast contains many locally, nationally and internationally important features, some centering on landscape and others on important wildlife and heritage.
Many features are protected by designations and collectively they indicate the high value of the area and underpin the need to protect and enhance it for future generations. Wild salt marshes with migratory bird species and sand dunes designated as Special Sites of Scientific Interest, and many more landscape features can be found.
Farming has long been the greatest influence on the landscape of the Solway. Royal forests originally covered vast areas of the Solway Plain, but by the 1400s the demand for new farmland had caused large areas to be cleared. Today, agricultural land accounts for the greatest proportion of the AONB.
The area is very attractive, with charming villages scattered among small fields and rolling pastures. Many of the original field boundaries and the stone-built 'kests', or hedgebanks, remain. The distinctive local red sandstone is also found in centuries-old gate stoops (posts) and traditional barns.
Hedgerows and field margins are homes to badgers, foxes, voles, hedgehogs and all the familiar characters of England's countryside.
The beauty of this place has been moulded by generations carving a living from the land. However, new demands and pressures on farmers have put this beauty at risk and careful management is needed to ensure the survival both of the countryside we know and this way of life.
Lowland Raised Mires have evolved over thousands of years into a dome of peat covered in pools and plant life. They are vary acidic and low in nutrient and are fed via rainwater falling onto their surface. The dome of peat grows through the action of three species of sphagnum moss. The mosses colonise small pools and fill them with moss. A second species then comes in because it favours slightly drier conditions - this is followed by a third species that prefers even drier conditions. As the mosses rise above the level of the dome new ponds are created and so the process continues.
Some of the Solway mires are over three metres high. Many specialist plants such as the sundew, which feeds on insects, occur on the dome. In the drier areas heather blankets the ground and brings a beautiful purple hue in August and September.
The lowland raised mires of the Solway are extremely rare habitats and are being restored by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, English Nature, RSPB and the Solway Coast AONB Partnership.
This restoration concerns water management. Following the 'improvement' of land through drainage for farming, much of the land supporting raised mires has dried out. But by careful water management they are coming back to life.
All of the Solway Raised Mires are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and some are National Nature Reserves.
The estuarine sand and mud hides a fantastic array of plants and animals that are usually overlooked.
Under the rippled sand lies a whole world of life, from small animals such as crabs and worms to the larger shellfish like the razor shell, through to the tiny Baltic telling - a bi-valve shellfish. All of these animals are just above the bottom of the food chain and they live on the primary producers such as plants and organic detritus.
The millions of birds and fish that use the Solway, either on migration or as residents, in turn, eat these animals.
The estuary is governed by the daily ebb and flow of the tide and all of the plants and animals respond to this in a multitude of ways from the spectacular flights of wintering wading birds to the sight of porpoises chasing shoals of fish.
The sand and mud flats are the engine room from which all other life around the estuary is dependent.
The flats are all covered under national, European and global nature conservation designations.
Inland from the Sand and Mud Flats along the southern stretch of the Solway Coast AONB you reach the unbroken belt of Sand dunes. This coastline habitat has, over many years, been modified by man for grazing pasture and leisure activities such as golf courses and the provision of car parking. However, much still survives as pristine habitat and as such is being designated as nature reserves.
The surviving sand dunes are really four habitats; we have dune heath, where heathers dominate the plant species, there are dune slacks, where mosses and grasses are prolific, and there are the mobile dunes. The mobility refers to the shifting wind-blown sands that are at the heart of a sand dune.
At the seaward edge of the dunes the sands are trapped by the grasses - these are the embryo dunes. Further inland larger dunes grow and are called yellow dunes. These higher dunes support a wide range of grasses and herbs.
Many species of birds, butterflies, mammals and the rare natterjack toad make the dunes their home.
The dunes are extremely fragile and are prone to irreparable damage from such things as the indiscriminate use of motor vehicles and fire.
The salt marshes dominate the landward edges of the inner Solway estuary and were created through the deposition of sand, silt and mud through the ebb and flow of the tides.
Tides vary in height and frequency and for periods of time, while tides are low, newly-laid down sediments are colonised by plants such as the glasswort. Eventually the roots and leaves of plants trap more and more sediment creating new land.
As you go from the seaward side of the marsh to the landward, the plant communities change. This is a response to salt tolerance by the plants. The more tolerant a plant is of salt the closer it is to the shore, and the least tolerant are furthest away.
The marshes host thousands of wildfowl every winter as their grazing area and they support many breeding birds in the spring and summer.
Most of the Solway marshes are grazing commons and are run by 'marsh-committees' for the purpose of grazing sheep and cattle.
The salt marshes are all designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas and candidate Special Areas of Conservation.