IT HAS all the makings of a wild-west cattle drive.

But while there may be the big skies and the wide-open spaces, cowboys are replaced by shepherds, horses swapped for quadbikes, and rope lassos replaced with trusty sheepdogs for what is believed to be the largest cattle drive in the country taking place on salt marshes on the Solway Firth.

The great Solway round up sees a team of three negotiate the tidal marshland, driving the nearly 1,000 head of cattle back across creeks and gullies on the huge expanse of Rockcliffe Marsh at the head of the Solway Firth to their home on the Castletown Estate, near Carlisle.

It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, as estate and farm manager, James Marshall explains: “Rounding up nearly 1,000 cattle on unfenced land on quad bikes with such pitfalls as creeks and gullies is not an easy task.”

“We have to use quad bikes and sometimes take three or four dogs, and that could be five miles away,” added James, who has worked on the Castletown Estate for the past 13 years.

“It is a job that is also dictated by the tides as it can take up to three hours to bring the cattle in to a special fenced field to be wormed and weighed said James.

The cattle drives can happen three or four times a year, and on this occasion James was accompanied by Toby Mounsey-Heysham, whose family owns the Castletown Estate that overlooks the Cumbrian coast and is situated between the River Eden and River Esk, and stockman, James Henderson.

“We start at Drumburgh and Glasson and try to get a flow and once they do that you can make progress and we try and push them,” said James.

“They are used to this because they need to be herded up to three times a day to keep them on the grazing and off the sand.

“We keep them trotting along the boundary of the marsh, as cows can swim and so can sheep. If they leg it you have a problem,” he added.

The estate includes Rockcliffe Marsh, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and high-ranking nature conservation area which carries 900 head of cattle from May to October and winters 800 ewes and lambs.

Giles Mounsey-Heysham created the inland salt marsh on one of England’s most important nature reserves. In 2018 it was given the Silver Lapwing Award to recognise the outstanding effort to improve habitat and environmental management on the farm.

Running at up to 11m above sea level, the estate’s 1,249 hectares of permanent pasture includes the 1,134 hectares of SSSI salt marsh, a nationally important site for wading birds, which is grazed mostly by cattle and sheep.

As many as 40,000 geese winter on the Solway, including barnacle, pinkfoot and greylag varieties. The barnacle geese also come into the fields before they migrate in May. The marsh is home to a large number of breeding waders including lapwing, redshank and oyster catchers.

In mid-May, store cattle are released onto the marsh in a controlled operation, because of the vast amount of unfenced land, and grazed there until late September to early October, depending on the weather and the tides.