Online Talk on the Prehistoric Archaeology of Chat Moss

Little Woolden Moss bog pool in silhouette at sunrise

As part of my Greater Manchester Wetlands Traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, I am going to be giving an online talk on the Prehistoric Archaeology of Chat Moss.

It will be taking place on Zoom on Wednesday the 2nd of February 6 – 7pm.


I will be covering how the mossland formed and the lives of the people who lived there, from the first hunter-gatherers and farmers to the inhabitants of the Iron Age roundhouses. I will also be talking about the haunting story of Worsley Man, a local bog body, and how he ended up in the bog.

If you would like to come along you can book your free ticket HERE.

Omen of a Mossy and Spidery New Year

Yesterday I went for a New Year’s Eve walk with a friend around Longton Brickcroft Nature Reserve. The first thing I saw, on the gate on the way on in, was a small patch of moss with a tiny spider stringing a thread between the sporophytes. I think the moss is Creeping feather-moss (Amblystegium Serpens), but I’m not sure about the spider. The presence of palps shows its a male and I suspect it belongs to the Linyphiidae ‘Money Spiders’, likely one of the species impossible to identify without a microscope.

It felt like an omen of a mossy and spidery New Year.

Of Sphagnum and Spiders – Planning Lowland Bog Spider Surveys for 2022

If had to name two things that have claimed me this year over the course of my traineeship I would say they are Sphagnum mosses and spiders. I’ve said quite a bit about Sphagnum in previous posts so here I intend to make my main focus spiders.

The first thing I’d like to say about spiders is they’re always about, everywhere, in every habitat we can name, from woodlands to moorlands, to grasslands to mosslands, they’re in our gardens, houses, and cars. They can be found (or turn up unwanted) at any time of the year. They say you’re never less than six feet from a rat, well, in my experience, I’d say you’re far more likely to be less than six feet from a spider!

I used to be afraid of spiders. Like so many people particularly of the large-bodied, long-legged house spiders of the Tegeneria genus who would often scuttle across the fire place and occasionally get caught by the cats or would show up in the bath together with the gangly-legged daddy long-legs spiders (Pholcus phalangiodes).

I don’t know why I was afraid of spiders. On some level I think it’s instinctual, but it’s also societal. As a child if you see adults screaming and running away from spiders you learn they’re something to worry about. For me I think it’s the fear of something so strange, so alien, running onto me, coming up close, the shock. The interruption to my ‘safe space’. And also the fear of damaging these strange beings in ill-fated attempts to put them out, as I’ve done in the past, then the horror of putting them out of their misery. Unless I’m confident I can catch them without harming them I now tend to let them be.

Recently fear has turned to fascination as I’ve started noticing them more and learning about them. This began in February when I was out planting with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust contract team on Little Woolden Moss. In areas of bare peat I frequently noticed strings and sometimes a lattice-work of spider-silk. On the last day the air was filled with threads and with tiny ballooning spiders. Like the carriers of a message.

Fast-forward to August and, now a trainee, I am gathering cottongrass seed for the purpose of growing cottongrass sustainably at Prince’s Park Garden Centre. As I work I am aware that I am surrounded by webs and that in almost all of the cottongrass heads is a spider! Many of them are big, four-spotted, and vary in colour from orange to brown to green. They’re spooky and beautiful. I have to remove them from my clothes and tip them out of my bag at the end. Still, some end up coming home. I later learn they are Four-spotted Orb-weavers (Adraneus quadratus) and the cottongrass heads are their retreats.

These encounters with spiders lead me to attend a workshop on identifying spiders in the field with Richard Burkmar, at Rixton Clay Pits, which is just down the road from Little Woolden Moss. I learn that, of the 650 species of spider in Britain, it is possible to identify around 200 with a hand lens or with the naked eye. Richard introduces us to collection techniques such as vacuum sampling, sweep netting, beating, and grubbing, and shows us how to catch the spiders in a spi-pot to examine them more closely.

With Richard’s help I manage to identify a few spiders on Little Woolden Moss. These include Larinoides cornutus (an orb-web spider) and three wolf spiders – Trochosa ruricola, a spider of the Pirata genus, and Arctosa perita. The latter is interesting because it prefers dry, sandy habitats such as the Sefton coast. Here, on the peatlands, it favours bare peat. This master of camouflage has adapted its colour to fit its surroundings.

I find out that Richard has been conducting spider surveys on the lowland bogs of Lancashire and Cheshire for over ten years and he generously shares his publications and spreadsheets with myself and the mossland team. I learn that spiders are not only valuable in themselves, but indicators of the health of a peat bog and, as predators, of the wealth of its invertebrate population. This seeds the idea of carrying out spider surveys across Little Woolden Moss, which is in different stages of the restoration process, over the course of five years to see how the management affects spider populations.

I have written the survey methodology and am in the process of planning a training session with Richard for volunteers in spring next year along with arranging dates for the surveys. Although my traineeship ends in March and I am unsure if I will be able to stay on on the peatland team I intend to otherwise commit to these surveys as a volunteer. And likewise with the Sphagnum surveys. Whatever happens in this unstable and competitive job-world I have two favourite things to look forward to next year.

She Spreads Her Mossy Cloak

This is an image of Anrhuna in her guise as ‘the Mother of the Moss’ through which she has been speaking strongly to me over the past year. Anrhuna is not known from Brythonic lore but has presented herself to me and a couple of other awenyddion as an ancient goddess, who is the mother of my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. It’s my intuition that she was the driving force behind the earliest colonisation of the land by mosses.

A Mossy Holiday

A two week holiday has given me the chance to start exploring and recording the mosses and liverworts in my local area. Equipped with a x 10 hand lens and the FSC Field Guides to common species in woodlands and gardens, backed up by the British Bryological Society’s Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland a Field Guide, I have made some interesting discoveries and managed to identify more bryophytes than hoped.

I started with my garden and firstly discovered that the moss which is everywhere is Rough-stalked feather-moss (Brachythecium rutabulum) in various stages of growth. It came as no little surprise that Springy turf-moss (Rhytiadelphus squarrosus) is in my lawn. I was excited to find the unmistakable Big-shaggy-moss (Rhytiadelphus triquestrus) on a stony area. The fourth moss, growing in a damp area beneath the shed (which is not on the FSC Field Guides, but I have identified from the key in the BBS Field Guide by its capsules) is Clustered feather-moss (Rhynchostegium confertum).

In Greencroft Valley the most abundant species of moss is Common feather-moss (Kindbergia praelonga). My guess is the acrocarpous moss covering two Elders and seen on the trunks of other trees may be Common smoothcap (Atricham undulatum).

Beside the brook I spotted Common pocket-moss (Fissidens taxifolius) alongside some fascinating plants I cannot name.

I then decided to go to Castle Hill as some of the woodland on its banks is ancient. By the steps up the hill from Well Field, past where St Mary’s Well once was, I found more Common pocket-moss, and Cypress-leaved plait-moss (Hypnum cuppreseforme) on a fallen branch.

On the wall on Church Avenue and on the old stone cross halfway down was the evocatively named Grey-cushioned grimmia (Grimmia pulvinata). It is named after a German scientist called Johann Friedrich Carl Grimm yet, to me, the name ‘grimmia’ is particularly evocative of this unmistakable mossy creature. By this point I had started getting to grips with taking photos through my hand lens.

On a stone on the side of Church Avenue was this unidentified acrocarpous moss.

In Church Wood the most abundant moss was Common feather-moss (here with capsules present).

Another unidentified moss was found on the pathway on the fallen branch of a tree.

Although I didn’t identify as many different mosses as I had hoped to in Church Wood it was a treat to find Great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) on a damp bank.

So far I have been delighted to discover so many mosses within walking distance of my home in a couple of days. I am planning to continue to explore and record the bryophytes of my local area and on the Manchester Mosslands in the New Year.

My Introduction to Mosses

I can’t claim my interest in mosses has been lifelong. For much of my life they have been part of the background, a homogenous mass known as ‘moss’ that is on my drive, on fences, on walls, on stones, carpets trees and soil in the woodlands, loves the damp sides of brooks, and, as I recently learned, is the keystone species of mosslands.

Only occasionally has an individual stepped forward, hummocky, or glistening, or coating the trees in fairy cloaks to make me cry out, “Look at that moss!” Still, it has remained “that moss”. The world of mosses, their individual identities, has remained one of mystery shrouded by difficult binomial names and minute identifying features, many of which require a microscope, all at least a decent hand lens.

My first introduction to identifying mosses and liverworts was a lab session at Manchester Metropolitan University with the Midland Bryophyte Group (MIDBRYG) in February 2020. There we had an introductory lecture on bryophytes followed by a practical workshop identifying them under the microscope. There I first got to grips with their structures and was helped to work through a key. I ‘met’ some intriguing bryophytes including Bog-moss Flapwort (Odontoschisma sphagni), a liverwort from Borth Bog.

I wanted to continue meeting up with the MIDBRYG group and learning about bryophytes but then covid hit. Lacking confidence I stuck with vascular plants for the next year or so.

Then, in February 2021, I started temporary work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust contract team planting on the Manchester Mosslands. For the first time I was introduced to Sphagnum moss by the Beadamoss plugs containing 11 species of Sphagnum.

Once again they were just a homogenous mass until I started working on the Manchester Mosslands as a Greater Manchester Wetlands trainee. Slowly I began to learn the names of the Sphagnum mosses on Little Woolden Moss and Astley Moss – Sphagnum cuspidatum in the bog pools, the green, slightly weedy Sphagnum fimbriatum, the big, chunky hummock-forming species Sphagnum palustre and Sphagnum papillosum.

I began to understand the Sphagnum mosses and the differences between them on a deeper level when I did some training in Sphagnum identification with a microscope with Anna Keightley in October. Anna is a post-doctoral research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University and volunteers on the mosslands with the Sphagnum Squad. I first met her at the MIDBRYG lab session and the work she has done on the mosses and her publications* have been a huge inspiration since I started my job.

Anna taught me how to remove a few leaves from a Sphagnum plant and how to make a slide.

I learnt to differentiate between the large, hooded leaves of the chunkier species from Section Sphagnum (such as Sphagnum papillosum), the bent-at-a-90-degree angle leaves of the only Sphagnum in Section Squarrosa – Sphagnum squarrosum, the long, thin leaves of Section Cuspidata (such as Sphagnum cuspidatum) and the small, cute leaves of Section Acutifolia (such as Sphagnum capillifolium).

I also got to view the unique cell structure of Sphagnum, which has not only chlorophyllose cells containing chloroplasts for photosynthesis, but large empty hyaline cells, which allow it to absorb up to twenty times its body weight in water (thus maintaining the waterlogged conditions of a mossland).

Getting to grips with the Sphagnum mosses has inspired me to start learning about more of the 763 mosses in Britain, many of whom are on my doorstep, for the next post…

*Anna’s PhD thesis ‘Micropropagated Sphagnum introduction to a degraded lowland bog: photosynthesis, growth and carbon fluxes’ can be read HERE. The introduction she wrote to growing peatland plants whilst on placement with LWT inspired me to make this subject the focus of my personal project as a trainee.

On Learning Mosses

If I could learn
every species of moss
In Britain I would know 763 names.

A bardic task and a half and did those old bards
know the distinct differences between
the acrocarps and pleurocarps,

let alone the Andreales, the Bryales,
the Dicranales, the Grimmiales, the Hypnales,
the Orthotricales and Polytrichales?

We will never know how they named
the mosses and how they remembered them

but might imagine that they asked bardic questions

like “name the three pocket mosses in my pocket”:

Fissidens viridulus ‘Green pocket-moss’
Fissidens pusillus ‘Petty pocket-moss’
Fissidens bryoides ‘Lesser pocket-moss’

and “name the three beard mosses that grow in my beard”:

Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum ‘Red beard-moss’
Bryoerythrophyllum ferruginascens ‘Rufous beard-moss’
Pseudocrossidium revolutum ‘Revolute beard-moss’

and “name three mosses that have swan’s necks”:

Campylopus flexuosus ‘Rusty swan-neck moss’
Campylopus fragilis ‘Brittle swan-neck moss’
Campylopus setifolius ‘Silky swan-neck moss’

and “name three mosses that look like feathers”:

Kindbergia praelonga ‘Common feather-moss’
Bracythecium rutabulum ‘Rough-stalked feather-moss’
Brathythecium velutinum ‘Velvet feather-moss’.

Of course we know they did not use binomial names,

that the coming of the Romans was the death of the druids
if not of the bards, who lived on to learn Latin, Greek,
survived the Anglo-Saxons to learn the meaning
of grimm, if not of Johann Friedrich Carl Grimm and Grimmia:

Grimmia laevigata
‘Hoary grimmia’
Grimmia pulvinata ‘Grey-cushioned grimmia’
Grimmia decipiens ‘Great grimmia’.

Somewhere between these names

the magic is coming back – I can feel it
whenever a word and a moss I have found connect.
My field guide is like some archaic text.

‘Pleurocarps with straight, nerved leaves

Rhychonstegiella, Rhychostegium,
Brachythecium, Eurynchium, Homalothecium

Pleurocarps with curved, nerved leaves

Scorpidium, Craetoneuron filicinum

charming me like some ancient spell,
leading me onward on my quest.

My Green Chapel

I watch through the window
of the only house on this street not lit 
by party lights, the only one where ivy grows,
the one that seems shrouded by darkness and by sorcery.

The steady sound of hoofbeats has been coming to the North
since before the beginning of time, the beginning of myth,
the court of Arthur, and still he comes, the one we call Gawain.

He does not expect a woman this time crowned in holly and ivy.

He cowers away from the blood-red berries of my eyes 
and averts his gaze from the scars on my arms, 
imagining some distant rite of passage
even I can no longer remember.

I have been sharpening my axe
for a long, long time, waiting for the day
my Lord will no longer have the time to play this game.

I commend his courage, speak of the mathematical percentages
of the people who would take the Green Knight’s challenge,
those who would return to meet their fate.

“You’re the only one,” I laugh aloud.

His eyes are big as portals to the Otherworld. 

One day I will step through them and he will follow.

But not today because the blade of my axe just nicks
his neck, a small cut, which will leave a scar beside the others.

I straighten up with a blood-red stare and send him on his way
because my Lord and I have no more time for games.

Sunless Solstice

I.
It’s a sunless solstice
on my bridge over the Ribble
but yet the river flows

as if she has done so
since the beginning of time

in spite of the stopping and 
starting of the ice floes.

II.
I remember how once-upon-a-time
I held the sun in my hand
like the monster with the monstrous

CLAW

and wonder if I am the monster from
beneath the bridge who stole
the girl whose bike lights shine above.

III.
As the streetlights light up one-by-one

I ask Belisama – Great Goddess of the Ribble,
Old One, Shining One, Mighty One,

how many suns and how many stars,
how many daughters have swum
down your river to the GREAT BEYOND?

Will they ever be returned like Peter Pan

and the Lost Boys from Never Never Land,
like Pryderi, like Mabon, like the unnamed girls

whose names never reached the tongue-tip of song?

IV.
A sunless solstice, bike lights shine bright,
past Tinkerbell’s Nursery
I cycle on.