For more than 1,000 years. haafers have trudged across the mudflats of the Solway Firth, their primitive-looking fishing contraptions propped across their shoulders, each step taking them closer to the grey, cold water and their catch.

Once almost chest deep and with the Solway tide swirling around them, they halt to plunge the mid-stick of a frame strung with net deep into the sand. From thereon in, it’s a case of waiting and hoping.

Brian Nicholson remembers learning how to haaf net when he was 18, nearly 60 years ago now. He was taught how to make the 16ft long wooden beam with its two 5ft 5ins end sticks and longer middle stick to dig into the sand, how to knit the nets, and to understand the changing tides, dangerously shifting sands and the salmon.

Now, however, he fears this current and dwindling generation of haaf netters may be the last.

“It’s dying a death,” he sighs. “People blame us, they say there are less salmon because we’re catching them. They blame farmers for putting slurry on the fields and the ducks for eating the wee fish,” he adds.

“They blame everyone, but no-one wants to say it’s because the climate is changing.”

The lifting of some lockdown restrictions means anglers across Scotland will be digging out nets and rods from the garden shed and once again participating in their sport.

For the haaf netters of Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, however, the relaxing of the rules is bitter sweet, marking a return to the shifting sands of the Solway estuary where their style of fishing is arguably even more endangered than the fish they’ve been told they can no longer catch.

Fearful of falling salmon numbers in rivers which feed into the estuary, bosses at Marine Scotland have placed restrictions on the handful of fishermen using the ancient method.

While they can keep sea trout and other fish they catch such as flounders or grey mullet, any salmon which swim into their nets must be returned to the sea.

An attempt to ease the four-year-old restriction was made earlier this year, when the remaining haaf netters – now numbering only around 15 regulars – appealed for permission to catch and take home a small quota of salmon.

At the heart of their plea was a hope that gently easing the rules would help to keep the tradition alive and perhaps even pique the interest of newcomers – vital, they argue, if haaf netting is to stand a chance of surviving.

However, hopes were dashed in January when Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee was told Marine Scotland believes the rule must stand.

That, along with lockdown restrictions and the risk they may be reinforced at the peak of the forthcoming sea trout season, has raised fears that the age of the haaf netter – a throwback to the days of Vikings and specific to the inner Solway – may now be on the brink of being lost forever.

“There’s hardly anyone doing it now,” adds Nicholson, who hasn’t fished for three years due to health problems. “It’s dying out and once it’s gone, it’s going to be impossible to get it back.

“This kind of fishing is a way of life. When I started, it was ‘dead man’s shoes’ – you had to wait for someone to die to get a licence.

“Now I really do think it could all be lost.”

Running from May to September, haaf netting for wild salmon and trout to take home to the dinner table is as much to do with the area’s history and culture as it is fishing.

Inherited from the Vikings around 900AD who understood the estuary’s challenging tides required a new way of fishing, haaf netting takes part of its name from the Old Norse word “haaf” for “channel” or “the sea”. Folklore even suggests the 16ft length of the haaf beam echoes the length of the Viking longboat oar.

Traditionally handmade, when strung with net it looks similar to a set of goalposts with an extra post down the middle for plunging into the Solway sand.

Once in the water, the haaf net is continuously manned, with “gangs” lining up together, each holding their beam against the current while clutching the net, waiting for a tug.

The knack then is to lift the haaf quickly to prevent the fish swimming away. Fish are then dispatched with a wooden club, called a mell.

Down the centuries, fishing was fundamental to the town and embedded in royal charters. King James V granted “the citizens of the Burgh of Annan the right to fish the river and the Solway” in a 1538 charter which highlighted the town’s role against “our ancient enemies” a stone’s throw away across the border and its loyalty to the Scottish crown.

When that charter was destroyed after Annan was sacked and burned by raiding English forces in 1612, a new royal charter was granted by King James VI.

According to John Warwick, 65, who learned to haaf net from his father and uncles and who remembers when the catches were so abundant that profits boosted the town’s common good fund, the skill is entwined in centuries of local heritage. “It has been passed from father to son for generations. It’s a traditional skill that you have to be taught. You need knowledge of the tides, to be fit enough to walk over the sands, understand the danger of soft sand, quicksand, the currents.

“Even though you’re standing in water, the sand is disappearing all the time. You can’t just say to someone ‘go and fish’ – chances are they would drown.

“Young people build up knowledge by fishing with experienced fishermen who would occasionally have to fish them out when they got into trouble. When this generation stops, the knowledge will die out with us.”

He argues that haaf netting’s traditional method means any salmon that are caught are released almost instantly, whereas hook and line angling which, due to the stress it places on fish, has a 10% mortality rate for released salmon.

As a result, the remaining haaf netters believe they are being unfairly treated compared to river anglers.

A rising seal population in the area, changing sea temperature, parasites and chemicals from west coast fish farms are also having a detrimental impact on salmon numbers, he adds.

“There are more seals now. They have no predators. One seal will eat the equivalent of all the salmon the men were taking.

“If you want to conserve salmon, then seals are one of the main predators.”

The risk, he concludes, is that haaf netting could become little more than a tourist attraction or keep fit activity. If it survives at all.

“Haaf netting is unique, it’s localised in Solway and is linked to the natural habitat – if we didn’t have the tidal estuary, you wouldn’t have this kind of fishing.

“It’s a traditional skill that’s in danger of being lost.

“If we were allowed even just one fish each it would be enough to encourage people to come back.

“Otherwise, I think it will be gone within five years.”