By Fire and Bog and Sphagnum Moss – My Journey from Greater Manchester Wetlands Trainee to Graduate Ecologist

In November 2019 I gave up my supermarket job and started volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust with the aim of progressing to a career in conservation. This led to a voluntary conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve and then to paid work as a Greater Manchester Wetlands Trainee. 

I was based on the Manchester Mosslands, which include the last remnants of Chat Moss – Little Woolden Moss, Cadishead Moss, Astley Moss, and Rindle Moss, and a couple of others such as Highfield Moss and Red Moss. 

The long drive, up to a 70 mile round trip, an hour each way, longer in heavy traffic, came as a shock to the system after cycling to my local nature reserves.

Over the course of my year-long contract I have faced many challenges, learnt new skills, and had some valuable and transformational experiences. On my first day I was introduced to a piece of fire damaged wet heath and set the task of delivering its restoration and, following training in vegetation surveys, monitoring its progress.

I progressed from helping with volunteer work parties to leading them. Over a long, hot summer we pulled bracken, bashed Himalayan Balsam, and fixed fences. Making the beginner’s mistake of going out in shorts and t-shirt, I had a run in not only with midges, mosquitoes, and horseflies, but the particularly nasty and disarmingly pretty twin-lobed deerfly. This led to itching for days and blisters on my legs I got popped at the doctors. Since then, following advice, I have worn a horse-fly proof shirt and trousers.

One of my toughest challenges was carrying out a site assessment for Cadishead Moss and updating the management plan. Through this I started getting my head around the JNCC and NVC habitat classifications. I was delighted to find that, since the original management plan was written in 2011, this area of degraded lowland raised bog was showing signs of recovering following the scrub clearance, bunding, and revegetating work.

Having enjoyed planting peatland plants I learnt to grow them at Prince’s Park Garden Centre. This involved harvesting cottongrass seed sustainably from the mosslands and sowing it.

I took cuttings from and propagated heather, cross-leaved heath, and other specialist bog plants, and collected Sphagnum to create bog-in-a-boxes. This resulted in an introductory booklet on peatland plants. I also led an AQA in Peatland Conservation and Horticulture for adults with learning disabilities. It was fulfilling to see them progress and see their expressions when they got to the mosslands to plant what they had grown.

I was allowed to pursue a personal interest by researching the prehistoric archaeology of Chat Moss, producing articles, and giving an online talk. I wrote and recorded a series of poems called ‘Ghost Wolf Rises’ for a poetry trail in New Moss Wood and had the opportunity to perform at the Deep Peat event.

A personal highlight has been learning to identify Sphagnum mosses with Anna Keightley, a volunteer with the Sphagnum Squad and a post-doctoral research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. Following this I shared my knowledge through running training sessions for volunteers.

The aspect of the role I struggled with the most was project management. When I was asked to plan and deliver some contract planting I enjoyed making the maps (once I’d got to grips with QGIS*) but struggled with the delivery due to my insecurities about managing people, uncertainties around contractor availability, and delays with plant deliveries. 

At this point I noticed that, on the mosslands, due to the landscape scale nature of the work, there is a lot more project management than on other nature reserves. I noticed my colleagues taking on increasing amounts and realised this may not be the path for me.

Ascertaining I was autistic half way through also led to a confidence crisis. How, aged forty, as someone with a life-long neuro-developmental difference, could I hope to compete with young, neurotypical people in such a competitive job industry?

However, in spite of my fears about my abilities to use machinery as an autistic person, I gained my LANTRA qualifications in using a brushcutter, a clearing saw and pesticides.

Over the course of my traineeship I took an increasing interest in surveying and monitoring. I surveyed for moths, butterflies, and bog bush crickets (who we also tried to catch for a reintroduction project – not easy!). I attended a spider identification workshop with Richard Burkmar at Rixton Clay Pits and began working with him to set up spider surveys on Little Woolden Moss and worked on our survey methodologies.

I gained experience of setting up Eyes on the Bog and carried out habitat assessments for the feasibility of reintroducing the White-faced Darter dragonfly. For the latter we surveyed for aquatic invertebrates and, as well as dragonfly nymphs, water boatmen, and others we discovered what might be larvae of the rare cranefly Phalocrocera replicata

At this time, when I realised no jobs were going to come up on the mosslands before the end of my traineeship, I began applying elsewhere. I applied for a seasonal nursery worker job, a job as a neighbourhood operative on local parks, and sent my CV to a few local ecological consultancies in the hope that they might have seasonal survey work. 

To my surprise two consultancies got back to me soon afterwards. One, Ecology Services in Longton, just three miles cycling distance from my home, swiftly arranged an interview, then, two days later, offered me not only seasonal work but a full-time permanent position as a Graduate Ecologist on a generous wage.

So, I am destined to be an ecologist. This isn’t something I predicted at the outset of my traineeship, but it became a possibility as my passion for surveying and learning about various species and the ways they interact with their habitats developed. 

It fits with my interest in botany and bryology and spiritual calling as an awenydd to deepen my relationship with the natural world by learning the names of the plants and creatures, their distinguishing features, visible and microscopic, the processes by which they interact with their environment, the poetry of small things.

I am also considering complementing my new job by pursuing a part-time MSc in Biological Recording and Ecological Monitoring at Manchester Metropolitan University. This provides a grounding in research methods and opportunities to specialise in areas such as mosses and invertebrates.

A period of upheaval and self-doubt has been followed by confirmation of my ability to gain a Graduate Ecologist position and that I’m a good fit for the MSc.

I’m currently in transition, working the last fortnight of my traineeship, before beginning my ecologist position on March the 3rd. I am grateful to my line manager, Jamie Lawson, the Peat Team, the volunteers, and all at Prince’s Park, for what I have learnt on the mosslands and am looking forward to moving on into my new role.

*This online geographic information system is notoriously difficult and counterintuitive and learning it has been a source of both pleasure and woe.

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.

Closure… with Cottongrass

It is with a little regret but with an overall feeling of rightness that I have decided to close this blog. Since 2012 I have been writing poems for the land and myths for the old gods of Britain and documenting my spiritual path.

This culminated in the publication of Gatherer of Souls and my lifetime vows to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. Since then I was a little lost, my cauldron was a little empty, until, with Gwyn’s guidance, I found a new path in life as a trainee restoring the Manchester mosslands, and through this serving my gods.

Since I started I have been channeling my awen into it in various ways from the more obvious, like writing poetry for a poetry trail and an article on the prehistoric archaeology of Chat Moss, to the less obvious like working on an introductory booklet to peatland plants, a management plan, and a funding bid.

Above all I have enjoyed being the awen. Sowing, propagating, nurturing, and planting the peatland plants and fixing the broken pipes and bunds. Seeing the difference we have made as the plants grow and the water levels alter.

Another reason for closure is that since… I’m not quite sure when… I stopped living my life as my own but as material for poems and blog posts. I want to be in the moment, rather than rehearsing how I am going to retell it.

Before I close I would like to say a huge thank you firstly to my patrons who have supported me through a difficult period and made these blog posts possible. I would also like to thank all who have followed and commented.

And to close… here is a photo of common cottongrass in flower around a pool filled with Spagnum cuspidatum on Little Woolden Moss showing how well some areas have recovered from peat extraction following restoration.