The Burnt Mosslands

It’s Nos Calan Mai. In our old British myths, this is the night on which, centuries ago, a red dragon’s fiery scream blighted the land of Britain. On the next day, Calan Mai, the eternal rivals, Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ and Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ battle for their beloved, the flower maiden Creiddylad. (If either the Summer King or the Winter King take her forever the world will end.)

Five days ago, on Monday, I started my traineeship on the Greater Manchester Wetlands. I was not, thankfully, thrown into either of the fires that had happened on the mosslands in the area that week, but I attended their aftermath.

On Little Woolden Moss I visited the area of wet heath where the characteristic heathers had been burnt along with purple moor grass and brash. This was essential habitat for common lizards, field voles, and field mice, and a crossing place for bog bush crickets.

Gas pipes run beneath and, if the fire had penetrated the peat, it could have resulted in a blaze like a dragon’s breath, like Gwythyr’s flaming sword, which could have taken out the gas supply to much of the surrounding area.

Luckily, the pipes had been protected by scrapes, which had filled with water and been cultivated by sphagnum mosses, providing resistance to the flames.

The fire on Little Woolden Moss was 500 metres square whereas the fire on Red Moss had devastated over a dozen hectares – as far as the eye could see. Whilst the damage to the bog itself, burning off only purple moor grass and leaving the sphagnum mosses intact, was superficial, it was damaging for wildlife.

Small mammals, such as bank vole, water vole, and shrews; amphibians such as toads, frogs, and smooth newts; ground nesting birds such as lapwings and skylark would have lost their lives and, if not, their homes. On my visit I saw a broken nest and lapwings still display flighting over the burnt moss.

The plastic piling dams and drainage pipes were also damaged by the heat. 

This, I am sorry to tell you, was not the work of gods or dragons, but humans who had purposefully lit the fires because it was their sick idea of fun.

Still, the symbology stands, the connections between Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, who put a stop to the dragon’s scream, and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, the lord of the once misty peat bogs whose sphagnum mosses dull his rival’s fiery feet.

On Monday my line manager suggested I take the restoration of the fire damaged wet heath on Little Woolden Moss as one my personal projects. I had never suspected my work on the mosslands would be so directly connected with Gwyn’s battle against Gwythyr.

This is not a warrior’s, or a poet’s, but a healer’s role – something I never imagined I would step into. Once I believed everything I touched died, but sowing seeds and planting flowers with Creiddylad has already proved that is not the case.

She keeps telling me everything comes back to plants – no sphagnum, no mossland; no heather, no heathland; no food for the bees or the butterflies. She is life and, because of our greed, every day, every night is a battle for her. The plants will be my allies against the anthropogenic forces creating an eternal summer.

Watering Cottongrass

Last August, at Brockholes Nature Reserve, I helped on work parties common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium). Winnowing the tiny dark seeds from the fluffy white heads, placing 1 – 2 into each cell of a 60 cell tray, which we had firmly packed with compost, covering them over, praying they would grow.

We sowed 10,000 plants in total. Some have grown better than others. Later I learnt they were for Little Woolden Moss – a strange synchronicity for it was through contacts at Brockholes that I recently gained a six week contract planting common cottongrass and other peatland plants on this mossland (which was purchased by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust in 2012 after having been badly damaged by peat extraction).

Prior to gaining this work I had discovered my patron god Gwyn ap Nudd’s connection with peat bogs/mosslands* in the medieval Welsh poem ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ ‘The Peat Pit’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym. I promised to make an offering to Gwyn next time I visited one. As we were in lockdown I hadn’t expected to go to a peat bog soon (the only area of lowland raised level bog in South Ribble, Much Hoole Moss, has been drained and, to add insult to injury, commandeered as a paint balling site). On receiving the contract, when I asked what Gwyn wanted, he showed me a common cottongrass plant.

So my planting on Little Woolden Moss had meaning in terms of both conservation and devotion.

I loved my time there in spite of the difficulty and what some might call the monotony of the work – pushing heavy wheelbarrows of plant trays along unstable bunds and repeating the same motion of digging five holes with a spear-spade, planting common cottongrass plugs, moving on, for seven hours.

Although we had many cold starts and some days were grim – with constant rain and up to 50mph winds – most were temperate and we were surrounded by the spring song of skylarks and meadow pipits, curlews, lapwings display flighting, brown hares racing up and down the bunds, and deer tracks (but not deer) were often seen.

When encountering the glacial till, seeing the ancient bog oaks exposed by the excavations (with 8 metres of peat 10,000 years of the archaeological record had been stripped away, unknown stories, our exploitation only slightly redeemed in that the compost had been used to nurture new plants) I experienced profound feelings of sorrow, awe, and privilege in partaking in the restoration process.

I later learnt ‘Little Woolden’ derives from the Viking Vuluedene ‘Wolf’s Valley’. This was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had previously agreed to write a series of poems for a Ghost Wolf Trail in New Moss Wood, just down the road, for the Carbon Landscape Partnership. Secondly, Gwyn and his father, Nudd/Nodens, are associated with wolves.

Little Woolden Moss is one of the few places that, in the words of storyteller Martin Shaw, I have felt ‘claimed’ by. The only others are my locality of Penwortham and the stretch of the Ribble from the Douglas estuary to Brockholes and those to which I have been a fleeting visitor such as Glastonbury, Cadair Idris, Borth beach, and Coed Felenrhyd (beautiful in their own ways but not truly ‘mine’).

Thus I was disappointed when, after succeeding with an application, and attending an interview, I didn’t gain either of two paid Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeships. I received positive feedback from Lancashire Peatlands Initiative Officer, helpful for other interviews, but assumed I had no future in peatland restoration.

So I returned to my voluntary internship at Brockholes, which I continued to enjoy, 3 – 4 days a week. One of my jobs was watering the common cottongrass, which we planted last year, and is due to go to Little Woolden Moss in mid-June.

On Thursday, after watering the cottongrass, I heard my phone ringing and just missed the call.

“That’s odd,” I said to the Assistant Reserve Officer, with whom I was working, “nobody every rings me.”

When I checked the number I saw it belonged to the Lancashire Peatland Initiative Officer.

“You’d better ring him back,” my colleague said, with a knowing tone in his voice.

So I rang back and, to my surprise, was offered the Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeship on the mosslands, based at Little Woolden Moss, as the previous candidate had chosen another job.

So… of course… I have taken it. The funding for the job will last a year. I will hopefully be starting on Monday 26th April and I have arranged to work my contracted 30 hours a week Monday – Thursday so I can continue with my internship at Brockholes one day a week on a Friday. So it looks like I may be both watering the common cottongrass we planted at Brockholes and planting it on Little Woolden Moss.

In total there are another 45,000 plants to be planted on Little Woolden this year. When Gwyn asked me for an offering of cottongrass I wasn’t expecting it to be in quite such numbers or to be planting it later in the year and, if this traineeship leads to a permanent job in peatland restoration, for many years to come.

I Say Farewell

Farewell Little Woolden Moss.
Farewell Great Manchester Wetlands –
an end of contract and news of a failed job interview
fall on the same day but I haven’t failed
because we planted that last plant,

that last little plug plant of common cottongrass,

greening and rimmed with red like a sunset,
ready to turn golden next month’s dawn.

Farewell to hare’s tail cottongrass,
tails showing like the tails of brown hares
racing up and down the bunds like celebrities.

Farewell to all eleven species of sphagnum,
bog rosemary, cross-leafed heath, long
may you grow and prosper beauties.

Farewell to the oyster catchers who we saw
back-to-back on the bund, reflected in the water,
who cried weep weep in the air far from human tears.

Farewell to the lapwings in their black-and-white mating flight.

Farewell to the curlews with their cur-lee cur-lee-eee,
to the four flying over with down-curved beaks.

Farewell to the skylarks keeping our spirits up
and to the meadow pipits piping away.

Farewell to those I worked with now friends.

Farewell to the porter cabin and the fact we had a toilet.

Farewell to the journeys down the M6 (busy and contentious).

Farewell to a journey now complete – back home now
I will wait, again, to hear the will of the gods…

~

This poem relates to the completion of the contract work I have been carrying out planting on Little Woolden Moss for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and my failure, on interview, to gain the paid position of Great Manchester Wetlands Trainee.

These photographs show the development of common cottongrass on a mossland over time.

The Lives and Deaths of Peat Bogs

Spending over a month doing restoration work on Little Woolden Moss has inspired me to find out more about the ecology of peat bogs – what they are, how they come to life, how they function, how exploitation by humans has led to the deaths of 80% of them, and how they are currently being revived.

The information that follows has been gleaned almost exclusively from the IUCN Peatland Programme’s Conserving Bogs: The Management Handbook, which can be downloaded for free HERE.

What is a Peatland?

A peatland is ‘first and foremost’ a ‘wetland’. Water is essential because peat does not form when the land is dry. Peat is ‘a wetland soil composed largely of semi-decomposed organic matter deposited in-situ, having a minimum organic content of 30% and a thickness greater than 30cm’ and a peatland ‘an area with or without vegetation but possessing a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface.’

The EU Habitats Directive distinguishes between ‘active bog’ as ‘a system that supports a significant area of vegetation which is normally peat forming’ and ‘non-active bog’ which does not. It is my intuition that a peat-forming bog is a living bog and a bog that is not forming peat is dead.

The most common type of peat bog is raised bog ‘accumulations of peat’ ‘within a non-peat landscape’ or ‘a fen-peat landscape’ mainly found in the lowlands. Such bogs form distinct domes that rise above the surrounding landscape by as much as 10 metres.’ The ‘classic type’ is basin raised bog – ‘formed within a shallow lake that has then infilled through terrestrialisation’.

Other types include floodplain raised bog, estuarine raised bog, and the evocatively named Schwingmoor ‘swinging bog’ which forms as ‘a floating raised dome’ ‘over a deeper lake basin’.

A rarer type of bog is blanket bog which forms as mantles of peat in the uplands. Types include watershed bog, saddle bog, valleyside bog, spur bog, minerotrophic bog, and ladder fen.

How Do Peat Bogs Form?

The UK’s ‘classic’ basin raised bogs developed over basins created in the aftermath of the last Ice Age by the melting of dead ice, surrounded by sediment, which was left when the glaciers retreated. These basins filled with water and became lakes which were ‘colonised by a fringe of fen vegetation’.

As this vegetation decayed the lakes were filled in with ‘fen peats and sediment’. The plants at the centre were ‘cut off from the nutrients at the lake margins.’ These nutrient poor, waterlogged conditions were perfect for sphagnum mosses to come to dominate, forming a thick carpet.

As the sphagnum began to slowly decompose it resulted in an accumulation of peat. When this reached a thickness of half a metre above the original level of the lakes the bogs were separated from the groundwater and became ombotrophic (rain-fed) so dependent on precipitation alone. Slowly they expanded, escaping their lake basins, to become the lowland raised bogs we know of today.

Blanket bogs formed in a similar way in waterlogged areas of our uplands such as saddles and spurs.

The Structure of Living Peat Bogs

All living peat bogs have a ‘diplotelmic structure’ (telm is Greek for marsh, pool, standing or stagnant water’). The acrotelm (from Greek acro ‘topmost’) is the surface of peat-forming vegetation and the catotelm (from Greek cata ‘down’) is the ‘inert, permanently waterlogged peat store’.

This structure is created, mainly, by sphagnum mosses. Their densely packed heads, known as capitula, form a thick carpet around 2cm deep. Sphagnum leaves are specially designed to cope with water logging due to their ‘large and empty hyaline cells’ ‘sandwiching smaller photosynthetic cells’. This provides a ‘large surface area for cation exchange’ – absorbing ‘nutrients dissolved in water’.

Their swapping of scarce nutrients for hydrogen ions acidifies their surroundings making them more favourable for sphagnum colonisation and unfavourable for decomposer micro-organisms. This leads to conditions that are favourable for peat formation. Sphagnum mosses also release a ‘pectin-like substance’ called sphagnan which coats the upper parts of the plant and the water and ‘inhibits nitrogen uptake in decomposer bacteria’ further slowing the processes of decomposition.

(The anti-microbial properties of sphagna led to the use of packs of sphagnum as dressings in World War I).

Sphagnum mosses ‘grow from the top of the plant – the apices – and die at the base’ at around 10cm. The stems and branches collapse, flatten, and break down to form peat. This is the point of transfer to the catotelm. The living layer of the acrotelm can be between 10cm and 40 cm deep. The catotelm can extend up to several metres (the deepest peat bog, in the Netherlands, is nearly 7m deep).

Sphagnum are the dominant species of mosslands and our lowland raised bogs include species such as S. magellanicum, S. papillosum, S. capillifolium, S. tenellum, and S. cuspidatum. Other plants that can survive in these conditions include common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium), hare’s-tail cotton-grass (Eriophorum vaginatum), cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix), bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), and round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Sundews are carnivorous bog plants ‘which gain extra nutrients (particularly nitrogen) by catching and absorbing insects.

Ombotrophic bogs gain their water not only from rainfall but from ‘occult precipitation’ – mist and fog.

Exploitation and Death

Humans have been exploiting peat bogs for fuel for many centuries. This began with domestic peat cutting. ‘Turves’ were cut by hand with a spade from banks 10m to 100m long, then stacked nearby to dry. The banks were reached by ‘peat tracks’ and carried by horse and cart or in creels or baskets

Traditional cutting has been replaced by ‘tractor-driven machines’ that ‘cut slits beneath the surface’ to extract ‘sausages’ of peat that are left on the surface to dry before their use as burning briquettes’.

Commercial peat extraction for horticulture and energy is currently taking place on a far greater scale and is far more damaging. Peat accumulates at ‘2mm a year’ and ‘a hundred times that depth’ is removed each year by modern extraction methods such as peat milling. This begins with the drainage of the land by ‘regularly spaced deep drains’. Once the upper peat has dried ‘the surface vegetation is removed’ to create ‘bare black fields’ then the top layers are ‘rotovated’ or ‘milled’ to allow further drying before the peat is ‘bulldozed into long ridges’ then bagged or taken to power stations.

Drainage of the land for human benefits has deadly results. The immediate effect is water loss from, and the drying out of, the acrotelm, leading to the decline in sphagnum and other peatland species.

Loss of water from the catotelm is slower (up to one million times slower than the speed of a snail!). However, water in the spaces between peat fragments seeps into the drain. This causes peat adjacent to the drain to collapse and shrink. This process is called ‘primary consolidation’.

The ‘drier catotelm peat adjacent to the drain itself becomes a heavy load on the peat beneath because the drained layer no longer floats buoyantly within the bog water table.’ It ‘compresses the peat beneath it and squeezes more water from the peat into the drain, causing the bog surface to subside still further.’ The entire depth of the catotelm subsides. This is ‘secondary compression’.

Drainage ‘allows oxygen to penetrate the catotelm’ which is usually prevented by waterlogged conditions. ‘Preserved plant material is thus lost in the form of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), leading to further subsidence as the peat material itself vanishes into the atmosphere.’ This is ‘oxidative wastage’.

‘The three drainage processes – primary consolidation, secondary compression and oxidative wastage – cause the peat to subside progressively and continuously across an ever-expanding area. Drainage in effect continually widens the dimensions and impact of the drain.’

‘Where drainage leads to the loss of the peat-forming layer, carbon sequestration may cease’ and there are increases in the production of dissolved and particulate organic carbon (DOCs and POCs).

A peat bog in this state is termed haplotelmic. Without an acrotelm it is no longer living.

Sadly ‘80% of UK peat bogs now lack an active living surface as a result of human impacts’ and ‘therefore now have little or no capacity for resilience in the face of future climate change.’

Reviving Peat Bogs

Peat bogs can be revived by blocking drains and building dams and bunds to prevent water loss and begin the long process of silting up with vegetation that will lead to the development of sphagnum.

Bare peat can be re-vegetated by planting hardy species such as common cottongrass and hair’s tail cottongrass.

Sphagnum mosses can then be planted amongst the common cottongrass to form new hummocks and once these have formed species such as cross-leaved heath and bog rosemary can be planted on them.

Doing this research has provided me with a greater depth of understanding of the workings of peat bogs and the impact of my work on Little Woolden Moss. It has shown me how restoring a living acrotelm of sphagnum is essential to reviving a bog and reinstating the process of peat formation which sequesters carbon in the depths of the catotelm rather than releasing it into atmosphere.

I look forward to revisiting the mossland in years to come and watching its return to life.

Crawling Out Of Y Pwll Mawn

The pit of despair is a familiar metaphor. For me it’s a peat pit. Not the pwll mawn,the fishpond-sized peat cutting that Dafydd ap Gwilym fell into whilst riding his grey-black horse across the misty moors of Wales many centuries ago, but the empty expanses of the Lancashire peatlands made into gigantic peat pits by commercial peat extraction.

Drained, the vegetation (sphagnum moss, cross-leaved heath, bog rosemary, bog asphodel, sundew, cottongrasses) of the living acrotelm stripped away, rotovated, left to dry, bulldozed, bagged up for horticultural use or taken to power stations. The catotelm left bare, barren, leaking its carbonic ghosts into the atmosphere.

I’ve fallen into it metaphorically many times over the past year. When the first lockdown struck and all my conservation volunteering was cancelled and my internship postponed, when my mum had a fall and broke her hip, when the third lockdown put an end to all my volunteering but my internship.

Now I’m there for real. On Little Woolden Moss, part of Chat Moss (which was once 10 square miles), near Manchester, which has been severely damaged by peat extraction. Since the Lancashire Wildlife Trust took it over in 2012 the east side is steadily being restored, but much of the west is bare.

This week my task, as part of the contracts team, has been planting the barren section with common cottongrass and hare’s tail cottongrass. I’ve been acutely aware of the wrongness of the exposure of the catotelm, the under-layer of peat, the underworld bare for all to see, its spirits disturbed, released.

Yet it has been rewarding to have the opportunity to make amends, hole by hole, plug plant by plug plant. Slowly but steadily recovering and restoring the broken body of the Mother of the Moss. Giving back her tresses by which, like by the hair of Rapunzel, I may too pull myself out of the peat pit.

It seems to be no coincidence, before I got this temporary contract work, I found out ‘the fish-pond of Gwyn ap Nudd’ was y pwll mawn ‘the peat pit’ and Gwyn, my patron god, was associated with peat bogs. I promised to make him an offering next time I visited him a bog.

Two weeks later I was offered this job. When I asked Gwyn what he wanted, he showed me a cottongrass plant and told me my planting would be the offering – restoring the body of his mother, Anrhuna, who I believe to be a long-forgotten Brythonic wetland goddess.

I’ve long been in a pit of despair because I have unable to find paid work by which I can serve my gods. Now I’ve got it, temporarily at least, and have applied for two other watery jobs – traineeships on the Kingfisher Trail (on Bradshaw Brook) and on the Great Manchester Wetlands.

I’m currently in an in-between place with three weeks done and two weeks left on Little Woolden Moss. Not knowing if I’ll get an interview and where my life might be heading next. A little like the mossland, teetering between death and recovery, this fragmented part of Anrhuna’s body slowly being brought to life.

Gwyn has stolen me to the underworld countless times. He has put into my hands the healing plants. He has sent me back to repair the damage of its exploitation with work and words.

I pray to you my gods, Gwyn and Family, to grant me the means to continue with this work.

Cover Me in Moss

Cover these bare bones
no longer considered sacrosanct.

Cover me with eleven magical mosses:

Give me back my fringe of fimbriatum
and my cow-horns of denticulatum.

Let cuspidatum fill my wet places.

Let flat-topped fallax enfold my curves.
Let papillosum return my pimples rising in the damp.
Let squarrosum be my spikes of dignity.

Return to me my ruby slippers of capillifolium.

Let palustre and subnitens make me lustrous.
Let fuscum dress me in rusty colours.
Let magellanicum work its magic.

Give me back my hummocks
and my hair of hare’s tail cottongrass
and common cottongrass, cross-leaved heath,
bog rosemary and bilberry and I will be a common
for the large heath butterfly where all commoners are welcome.

Cover me in moss come make these mosslands whole again.

This poem is based on my paid restoration work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s contract team on Little Woolden Moss. This mossland, badly damaged by peat extraction, was taken over by LWT in 2012. Since then the drains have been blocked and new bunds built. We are currently planting cotton grass, hare’s tail cottongrass, sphagnum, cross-leaved heath and bog rosemary to recolonise the mossland and make it inhabitable for wildlife. Hare’s tail cottongrass is the food source of the large heath caterpillar and cross-leaved heath is the nectar source of the large heath butterfly. Planting these species will make possible its later reintroduction. The image of the ‘bog in a box’ directly above shows what the mossland will look like when restored.

This poem is written in the voice of the Mother of the Moss – a title of the wetland goddess Anrhuna.