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.

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.

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.

Autism and Living in the Fog

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level One* on the 28th of September. 

The day before Gwyn’s Feast. “Happy Autism Day,” he said, “welcome to my people.”

Still, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I’d hoped that a diagnosis would bring clarity. However, being told that I have a lifelong neuro-developmental disorder or disability cast me into a fog of wondering how much my autism had played a role in my difficulties with social relationships and to hold a stable career in the past and how it was going to affect my future. 

I’ve been a trainee with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands since April. It’s been a great job, on great sites, with great people.  Yet my enjoyment of the practical work of growing, planting, translocating, clearing scrub, building dead hedges, of the remarkable opportunity to restore the last remnants of our mosslands to their boggy glory has been overshadowed, fogged, by my anxiety about what people think of me, whether I’m doing well enough, measuring up, whether I will be able to progress to the next position up in this competitive job industry.

I’ve felt like I’ve been on trial and in some ways I have and in some I have not. I know my colleagues would rather I enjoyed my traineeship than see it that way. Still, I’ve had to meet my short term objectives and training targets. When it comes to progress I will have to meet the next person specification.

Good news is that a meeting with my line manager and project manager recently revealed in just six months, in spite of being autistic, I am nearly there. 

Job-wise I’m good. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on how my autism and the anxiety that stems from being an autistic person in a neurotypical world, finding it hard to read people and projecting negative opinions of myself, has skewed my perceptions of others and affected my relationships.

Few of us are psychic, but being autistic leaves me less able to judge what others think and feel unless I am directly told. Living with uncertainty is tough but, I’m learning, is better than living with the false certainty everyone hates me.

One of the upsides of living in the fog is the moments it parts like when a friend and I were lost on Cadair Idris and, after a man and his dog approached, the mists shifted and we found ourselves looking down on Llyn Cau. Being able to see and speak the uncomfortable truths that others avoid or ignore.

At least I know I’m living in the fog and, as a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist,’ can know and embrace it as my patron god and as a friend.

“Welcome to my people,” he says and I see the faces of all the others down the centuries who have been able to swing an axe or a mattock or push a wheelbarrow, to write poetry under the trees, to walk light-footed as a will-o-wisp across a peat-bog but could not endure one day of electric light in the office.

“Welcome to my people,” he says, “to doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and truth.”

In the fog, in the unknowing, I walk along the bunds that will bring the peat-bogs back then disappear into the moss as it swallows its surroundings.

It’s cold here and it’s November, but at least I know I’m living in the fog.

*This is the current term for what was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.