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.

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.

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.

Much Hoole Moss

Glacial retreat leaves a wet land weeping
Life breeds teeming in reeds in hollow pools.
Fallen rushes in the deep rot to peat
Sphagnum, master of decay rules all.

Rosemary curves pink, explosive sun dew winks,
Cranberry thrives on hidden stalks, delish gleam.
Cotton grass streaks, eye spotted large heath fleets
Over multi-coloured moss the curlew soars.

Anoxic, unbreathing, hold all beneath;
Primeval plant, box of oak, bone and spear.
Living museum of ten thousand years
Stores the past of the people of Much Hoole.

Dug for peat, drained and fertilised for wheat,
Dropping, drying, sinking precariously.
Much Hoole Moss sole preclusion of mercy
Sways tentative twixt field and fern and man.

If the drainage was stayed, water retained,
Sphagnum regained, the moss could be redeemed.
Natural history, just outside our doors,
An ancient site of wonderment and awe.

Surrendering the land for fun and games;
Thunder of guns and thud of running feet
With erosive shudders the moss land sinks
Lost are its mysteries and future dreams.

Much Hoole Moss Paintballing Site