IT’S a tradition dating back more than 1,000 years.

But now the haaf net fishermen of the Solway Firth are battling to keep their heritage alive.

The tiny number of fishermen still using the ancient method want to be given protections allowing them to catch and take home a small quota of salmon, despite conservation rules.

But bosses at Marine Scotland have insisted they cannot allow salmon to be retained on the estuary, which is fed by rivers where stocks have fallen.

Experts have called for salmon conservation to be treated as a national priority as the species approaches “crisis point”.

Haaf netting is thought to have been inherited from the Vikings around 900AD, and is still practiced by hardy fishermen on the Solway Firth between Scotland and England.

They wade out into the water carrying large nets in rectangular frames, hoping unsuspecting fish will swim into the trap.

However conservation regulations introduced in 2016 have seen the killing of salmon banned in some areas.

Rivers and waterways are sorted into three categories, with 1 indicating fishing is sustainable and 3 meaning salmon numbers are low.

There have been long-running efforts to secure exemptions for the Solway Firth haaf netters, but yesterday officials appeared to pour cold water on the idea.

Keith Main, policy manager of salmon and recreational fisheries at Marine Scotland, said it had previously carried out a three-year project with the haaf net fishermen, allowing a certain number of salmon to be caught and retained.

He added: “Longer term, the haaf netters in the estuary are working in what we term a mixed stock fishery, which is to say that they are catching fish at a point where we’re not sure which rivers they are going to go to.

“Some of the rivers which feed the Solway estuary are Grade 1 rivers, Grade 2 rivers, Grade 3 rivers.

“And in those circumstances, not just for the haaf netters but for other parts of Scotland, we’ve said that if there’s a mixed stock fishery, then we cannot allow fishing in the estuary or the firth.”

He clarified: “We can allow fishing, but we can’t allow the retention of salmon.

“So the haaf netting community on the Solway are able to fish. They are able to catch and release Atlantic salmon, and they are able to catch and retain sea trout, should they catch them.

“But at the moment, because of the way in which we grade the rivers and because of the grading of some of the rivers in that estuary, they are not able to retain the salmon.”

Mr Main made the comments while giving evidence to Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.

He was questioned on possible exemptions for the haaf netters by Scottish Labour MSP Claudia Beamish, who represents the South of Scotland region.

She suggested the ancient technique kills less fish because it doesn’t use hooks, adding: “Therefore, is it not possible that the haaf netters could keep fish? Is that something you’ve looked into?”

Dr John Armstrong, director of Marine Scotland’s Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory, said he could “see the logic” to this.

He told MSPs: “There wouldn’t necessarily be a need to take the fish out of the water, which is one of the key issues.

“But anglers typically only catch in the order of 10 per cent of fish moving up-stream.

“And now, even of that 10% they’re releasing 90%, in that order.

“So there’s very little damage from catch and release in angling, just by those numbers.

“In terms of where we have rivers that are in poor conservation status, we really just don’t want fish killed I’m afraid.”

The Annan Haaf Net Project has been documenting those who still brave the icy waters with their nets, while the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Dumfries and Galloway, is currently staging an exhibition on the practice.

Haaf netter Barry Turner recently told the BBC: “It would be an act of vandalism, cultural and historic vandalism, if this traditional activity which is unique to the inner Solway dies.

“Please save us, we’re desperate for protection. We’re unique, we’re only 30 people. Give us a small quota so that we can continue.”

Conservation rules mean anglers will be banned from taking their catch home on more than 100 of Scotland’s salmon rivers this year.

Ten rivers have moved to the highest conservation status since last year.