Home for winter

Flanders Moss NNR

If you saw a giant wader on migration at Flanders last week, don’t be alarmed.

I dunno about you, but I can definitely feel the seasons changing. As I’m putting an extra jumper on, the migratory birds are heading to warmer climes, tits and finches are flocking together and the waders are heading to their coastal wintering sites.

There is one wader in particular who I’m sure you’ll be familiar with. On a summer visit to Flanders, you may well have heard the high-pitched, bubbling call of the curlews who breed on the moss. In the foreground sits Caroline the Curlew – the woven willow sculpture made by local artist, Kate Sankey along with the kids of Wallace High School.

Curlews breed inland during the summer months (hence their presence here on Flanders) and then head to the coast for winter where they’ll feast on shellfish and other small sea creatures. Caroline, however, will have a slightly cosier few months in the warehouse as we’ve taken her home for winter.

This will prevent her from getting beaten about by our Scottish wintry winds and allow us to carry out any touching-up needed (she may have had a bit of a wobbly eye).

When taking her off the bog, it was nice to see how boggy this patch of the moss has become after the recent rain has re-wetted the place a bit after the dry summer. It make releasing her feet a bit tricky, though, as you’re basically working underwater.

Stepping into Caroline’s shoes (sort of)

I have to say, it’s a bit comical watching her getting taken away. Certainly entertaining for the visitors who were there. Although some slight disappointment apparently, as one chap joked “I only come here to see the curlew!”

Some TLC and she’ll be back on the moss for next Spring!

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An ominous embrace

One of our seasonal wardens, Polly Philpott, tells us of an unusual encounter at Flanders…

Flanders Moss NNR

Recently we found this pair of spiked shield bugs (Picromerus bidens) locked in an amorous embrace at the side of the boardwalk at Flanders. But on closer inspection things took on a decidedly more ominous atmosphere.

Whilst engaged in a spot of mating one individual had got peckish and was busy devouring a caterpillar at the same time. A great example of multi-tasking in the natural world.

Shield bugs can be mistaken for beetles but they are in fact members of the true bugs group; a key characteristic being their needle-like sucking mouthparts. These mouthparts are adapted for liquid food.

Most shield bugs feed solely on plant sap but these spiked shield bugs (so-called due to the fearsome looking spikes on their shoulders) are mainly carnivorous, feeding in this case on the liquid insides of this sorry looking caterpillar.

This particular shield bug was impressively determined not to give up its partner or its dinner, even in the windy conditions on the bog!

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Farewell to a loyal colleague

Stirling NNRs

Well, this working week marks the last on the reserves for an outstanding member of our team – reliable, hard-working (mostly), always got time for people, full of energy and loves the bogs. He’s made heaps of friends over the years working on the NNRs who will all miss his wild enthusiasm, caring nature, furry face, soft ears and cuddles…

Before you start thinking “crikey, he must need one heck of a shave”, I’m talking about Finn!

We’re saying goodbye to the bog dog…. That majestic face will be heading down to Dumfries & Galloway to help conserve some different wetlands.

We’re not joking when we say he was hard-working. He’s known to have removed a birch tree or few from the bog and Bethia has been grateful for this, giving her arms a break during scrub clearance.

Both Bethia and hard-working bog dog taking a break…

A character indeed, and one who often livens up the Monday morning meetings at the Ashfield store and warms our toes in winter since he seems to love parking his behind on our feet.

Speaking of behinds, he does have a habit of sitting next to me when he needs to fart. I’ll not really miss constantly getting the blame for his tooting, or the smell…

Sheepish look, mostly likely after being shooed away after a guff.

Ah well, it’s all made up for by his other traits (honest) and we’ll miss his morning welcomes, his entertaining heathery playtime, bog-water sneezes, lovely cuddles and company.

Oh, and there was that other guy, what’s his name? Tagged along with Finn quite a bit? Oh yeah, Dave!

I wouldn’t really know about the soft ears or cuddles, but he definitely shares some of the aforementioned traits. David Pickett has contributed 21 years of working for NatureScot (as he’s relived and highlighted here), during which has helped conserve 6 NNRs, including working on and watching Flanders Moss turn from a forested, heathery, heavily-degraded, ditched peat bog into the soggy, wobbly, spongey, mossy blob that it is today. (All of those things are good, in case you didn’t know). What an amazing thing to witness of a career and, thanks to all of his efforts, Flanders Moss and the other reserves are much better places for wildlife and visitors, old and new. Here’s to the next 7000 years a bog.

Dave has mentored and taught several of us student and practical placements over the last few years and I’m sure I speak for all who’ve had a stint under his wing as Stirling NNR placements – Amee, Ellen, Ceris and Bethia – when I say he’s been adequate at training us up for nature reserve management. I really mean that, too.

In all seriousness, though, his expertise and general bog-wizardry could not easily be replicated. I mean, he even knows how to find the exact way out of the depths of Flanders Moss in the dark! His boggy puns and sense of humour won’t be easily-forgotten, and his exasperated acceptance of Bethia and Ceris’ streams of Lord of the Rings-relevant-to-bog quotes has been much appreciated.

The whole team are wishing him the best of luck in his next adventure at WWT Caerlaverock were he’ll be up to his knees in geese. He’s often remarked that whenever anyone leaves working on our peatbogs, they’re being seduced by the birds – look who’s talking!

Hang loose, DP, and don’t forget to visit.

Patiently helping with caterpillar-searches on Flanders
You’ll miss those Loch Lomond boat trips!
Pleased to realise he wasn’t digging a boggy grave at Blawhorn Moss, I’m sure.
Getting mobbed by a gull. Reserve management on Isle of May NNR wasn’t always glamourous.
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21 mm of peat and not doing an Elvis

Stirling NNRs

Usually I get to write this for someone else, but this time it is for me.

I always said that I didn’t want to do an Elvis and die on the bog, so having started at Flanders Moss 21 years ago it’s really time to be moving on. So this blog post is to say that I am leaving this job, and NatureScot, so it is somewhat timely that this post happens to be my 500th, and therefore my last blog post for the 2 bogs…… blog (with over 1000 posts for NatureScot blogs in total), so a good time to call it a day.

I started working on Flanders Moss 21 years ago. I moved up from working on nature reserves down south to work in larger, wilder places. And over the last 21 years I have been privileged to have worked on 6 amazing nature reserves – truly the best in Scotland.

I have spent the most time on Flanders Moss and have got to know every inch of its 868 ha of wet, peaty wildness. Over the years I have been able to see it get wetter, more bog like and have introduced it to the general public with the building of the boardwalk and viewing tower. Seeing some of the rare bog insects spread into newly created habitat and listening to excited school children visiting the moss and wobbling the bog, have been some of the highlights. And showing Chris Packham around was pretty good as well.

5 years working on the Isle of May was absolutely magical. Living and working on an island so packed with special wildlife was a real privilege that will stay with me to the end of my days. And being involved in the building of the new visitor centre, the upgrading of the bird observatory, introducing a programme of events, starting the long-term volunteer placements, saving the tern colony and putting the Isle of May out on social media were all amazing projects. As were introducing the Isle of May salsa nights (lighthouse keepers, researchers, bird ringers and volunteers all shimmying the night away) and setting up music nights in the South Horn with singers Karine Polwart and Jenny Sturgeon.

A shag – enough said.
View off the Isle of May looking towards Fife

In my earlier days I worked on Ben Lui NNR. This is actually 4 mountains in a line, all over 900m with some of the best array of mountain flowers in Scotland. So what a great job to be able to experience them in all weathers, get to know every inch of those the hills and working out ways of improving their management.

Ben Lui in winter.

The Loch Lomond NNR has to be one of the most beautiful in Scotland, and also the most varied. Though I spent less time at this reserve than others, the time spent on the boat going around the magical islands and early mornings doing goose and breeding bird counts was amazing.

A couple of years ago I spent 6 months working at Forvie just north of Aberdeen. A short time but a lot packed in. What an amazing landscape with endless beautiful coastal heath, a huge muddy estuary and the most active sand dune system in Britain. But is was the tern colony that stole my heart. Thousands of some of my favourite birds. Being able to raise the profile of this special reserve through more events and on social media was very satisfying.

And last but not least the very underrated Blawhorn Moss. A small bog in a unfashionable bit of Scotland and yet a reserve that gives so much. It has been brilliant working to make the reserve bigger and better and start the process of putting in new paths and boardwalks for people to enjoy it. But the best bit was working with the local Nature Club, an out of school group that we lead in partnership with the amazing Beechbrae Communioty Woodland, where the plan was to introduce local children to the out doors and by experiencing it, they learned about it. To be paid to play hide and seek, kick the can and cooking marshmallows over the fire meant I was doing the best job in the world.

As you can tell, managing reserves is not rocket science, nor macho or about promoting yourself; it is just about working with as many different people whether they are team members, volunteers, project partners, local people, students, contractors, researchers, neighbours, farmers, landowners and managers, and funders; anyone really just to get the maximum benefit for wildlife and people.

Getting teenagers grubby by measuring the depth of peat.
Never did master the selfies.
Explaining the origins of the word “bog”
One of my favourite blog posts
The importance of wearing a hat on Flanders Moss – so that people can see where you have fallen in a ditch.

So it has been an amazing experience but it is time for another challenge – this next one is to be at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site at Caerlaverock, near to Dumfries. Still a wet place, just more geese. So it is time to hand the baton onto someone else who I am sure will introduce themselves to you soon. 21 years seems a long time to me but in the life time of a 7000 years old bog it is the blinking of an eye. To simplify it my term could be summed up as 21 mm of peat and a few people connected to the moss. But I’ll take that as a contribution. And as long as I make it to the end of the week I am glad that I never did an Elvis – though the team were under strict instructions that it that had happened then they had to role me into a ditch where I might hold back some water and so do some lasting good on the moss.

So thanks everyone, especially my team members over the years, it has been a blast. And wishing these special reserves and those who manage them all the best for the future.

(And it was all much more fun being the beautiful assistant to the bog dog. He has worked very hard over the years to fulfill his role of litter picker, crumb tidier, volunteer entertainer, deer driver and scrub basher. He are some of his best bits).

If the cap fits.
Natural birch control

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The helpfulness of a long-distance lorry driver and other people

Flanders Moss NNR

The twinkling of orange in the distance.

One of the latest volunteer work parties was a double whammy, cutting the Flanders Moss wildflower meadow in the car park and the improving of the dragonfly pond by the boardwalk. Not only did our merry band of volunteer come along but we were joined by the amazing Daniele Muir from the British Dragonfly Society (Flanders Moss is one of their dragonfly hot spots) and a group of Network Rail volunteers. Looking at the weather forecast we always knew it was going to be a wet day but raking up the meadow and in the pond. By the party split into two with the Network Rail guys got stuck in in the pond (almost literally) with the idea to make the pond a bit deeper so that when we have dry spells there is more standing water for the dragonfly larva and other invertebrates to survive in.

Steve looking goooood!

Meanwhile our gang gathered up all of the cut grass from the meadow, this opens up the sward so allowing for more flowering plants to be on display next summer.

Nearly finished.

The car park was busy when we arrived including a small lorry parked in the corner. It was a Polish lorry. As we set to work the driver appeared and was watching us work away. Jokingly I suggested that he could join us if we could find another pitch fork and very surprisingly he said “alright”. And so with a mutter of “my Grandfather does exactly this in Poland” he set to work. Our new found friend (we did ask him his name but failed dismally in being able to reproduce it in writing) ended up doing a really good shift, helping with the heavy-duty work of dragging the full ton sacks of cuttings to the composting area. And all the time during the work, and lunch after there was that normal information exchange that is part of a volunteer work party. Through this he found out a bit about Flanders Moss and why we were doing this work, and we found out that he was in limbo waiting for the window of opportunity to make his delivery and then head for home. He drives all over Europe, going to a long list of countries but really would like to head across the Atlantic and take on the riving of bigger lorries in Canada and States. And maybe end up in Australia Where the lorries are really big!

Our Polish friend on the right getting stuck in.
And here on the right with James dragging the sacks of cut material to the compost heap. Hard yakka.

This is part of the joy of volunteering work parties, whether it is working with our usual team, the Network Rail guys or our lorry driver from Poland, it is the meeting of people for a common good, working as a team and of course the chat and craic. It is just fantastic that people give up their time, bend their backs, get wet and tired to make these places better for wildlife. With all that it going on in the world at times these gatherings show you the best of people and can restore your faith in the human race.

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Flanders Moss NNR, the next 40? – 7000 years a bog – 40 years an NNR

Flanders Moss NNR

Flanders Moss recently celebrated its 40 year as a National Nature Reserve, though it has been around for 7000 years. With COP26 due to start shortly and a climate and biodiversity crisis ongoing this anniversary seemed to a good time to look at the history and evolution of Flanders Moss through time. Over this week 5 blog posts will look at the changes of this special place and how it is developing as a nature reserve.

In the current climate and biodiversity emergency places like Flanders Moss are becoming increasingly important. Not just as a way of mitigating the effects of climate change or as a reservoir of rare species but as a special place for people to engage with nature and feel better. With all of the uncertainty it is hard to predict in what state Flanders will be in after another 40 years of being an NNR.

But there is still plenty of work to be done and if this was carried out Flanders Moss and the Carse of Stirling could be a really exciting wildlife place, serving society through nature-based solutions in 40 years time.

Here is just a few of the things that could enable Flanders Moss to develop into an even more important site.

There is still some work to be done blocking some of the oldest ditches on the moss. Those around the Northern Pow and the south west corner were put in as part of the peat clearances in the early 1800’s and though some work has been done more is needed to block up any leaking gaps.

There are parts of Flanders that border right onto intensively managed farmland. Water leaking out of the moss is accelerated by a huge ditch on the border. Using agri-environmental schemes it would be great to see a partnership between the nature reserve and surrounding landowners where a wetland buffer zone could be built that holds water onto the moss. These areas can still be farmed but are less productive that traditionally farmland.

Boundary ditch

Traditionally we know from historical documents that Flanders used to be grazed. Cattle around the drier edges and sheep across the rest of the bog. Grazing has been reintroduced in a few places on the moss as a way of keeping the invading trees in check. Only very light levels of grazing is needed – small numbers of animals so that they don’t damage the fragile surface. An increase of grazing would help to check the spreading trees and keep down the heather, both of which can slow the spread of sphagnum. So a wider area of very light grazing would be beneficial to the bog ecologically but it also builds on that link between farmers and peatland. It would mean they would see a (small) economic return from land that previously they might have thought completely unproductive.

Hairy bog grazers

The Carse of Stirling is famous for its peatlands – it has about the third biggest collection of lowland raised bogs in the UK, with Flanders moss taking up only about 1/3 of the peatland area. The other 2/3’s are made up of some smaller but very good bogs and some large areas pf peatland that have been planted up with conifers. As the value of peatlands gains more recognition is battling a changing climate focus must surely turn to returning these carbon-rich sites to a wetter state that doesn’t release carbon to the atmosphere. With peatland habitats being restored all around Flanders then the reservoir of rare bog plants and animals becomes invaluable. We have already seen peatland specialist invertebrates like large heath butterfly and northern emerald dragonfly spread from good bits of Flanders to recovering areas. So this could happen over a landscape scale area and in the future the size of good peatland habitat could increase hugely on the Carse.

Northern Emerald

Along the northern border of Flanders is the small river the Goodie Water. Flowing over low lying ground it has always been prone to flooding as it flows out of the Lake of Menteith. In the mid 1700’s a length of it as it passes Flanders moss was canalised (straightened) in a vain attempt to prevent flooding. We know now that this type of work along with dredging only increases flooding problems downstream and so many rivers that receive this sort of treatment in the past are being restored back to their original course. By remeandering the Goodie Water you would not only create a more natural river habitat but help to alleviate flooding downstream in Stirling. If wetlands were created next to Flanders moss they would benefit the bog itself by actually as a buffer to keep the moss wetter. And these days on the Forth, wetlands means beavers. They are close to Flanders moss but haven’t been seen there yet. The imminent return of beavers and their water engineering skills are likely to cause some problems to farmers but also have big ecological benefits in the wetlands they create.

A Flanders Moss going into the future has to have more opportunities for people to get involved. It is only by getting local people and businesses involved into a nature reserve that it becomes full valued and therefore has a much more sustainable future. The projects above give the chance for landowners, farmers, researchers, engineers, contractors, accommodation providers, volunteers and many others to get a close connection with Flanders and its surrounding peatlands. And that would lead to a healthy future for Flanders and the people involved.

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Setting foot on Flanders – 7000 years a bog – 40 years an NNR

Flanders Moss NNR

Flanders Moss recently celebrated its 40th year as a National Nature Reserve, though it has been around for 7000 years. With COP26 due to start shortly and a climate and biodiversity crisis ongoing this anniversary seemed to a good time to look at the history and evolution of Flanders Moss through time. Over this week 5 blog posts will look at the changes of this special place and how it is developing as a nature reserve.

Flanders is a hard place to set foot on. It isn’t that you will disappear out of site – there are only a couple of places where you can sink waist deep or more – but it is very hard walking, being squishy, with knee high hummocks and in-between calf deep in water which means that it gives you a full-on work out and you have to have a good reason for going out there.

People did though. Archaeologists have uncovered a Neolithic platform made from trees on the edge of the moss, it was probably somewhere that hunters gathered before and after foraging trips onto the moss. For hundreds of years local people utilised the moss for grazing, small scale peat cutting, heather, cranberry and sphagnum gathering. Rob Roy MacGregor was supposed to know his way around Flanders Moss, sneaking stolen cattle through secret paths and escaping militia and soldiers by disappearing across inhospitable terrain. And in living history people used to shoot grouse over the moss while Thornhill villagers would head out to the middle to gather gulls eggs to eat.

Once Flanders Moss became a nature reserve no-one went out there except the NNR staff. This was wonderful for them but in the villages that overlooked Flanders Moss every time they opened their curtains they looked out on the moss but had no idea what went on out there, why it was special or what it looked like close-up.

So in 2005 it was decided to try to get people onto the moss. This needed to be done in a way that didn’t damage the fragile surface of the bog and also in a way that didn’t spoil visits day with wet feet or an early dip in a hidden ditch. Getting to the edge of Flanders is not easy, there is only one place that you can drive a car right to the edge of the moss so it made it easy to select where to get people on. This bit of Flanders, Poldar Moss was probably the most damaged bit but though it wasn’t the most natural part that people would look at, it had all of the constituents of bog there and telling people the story of its recovery would be of interest as well.

Helicopter bringing in aggregate for the path.
Piecing the boardwalk sections together like a giant jigsaw.

Funding was sought, a design drawn-up, contractors employed and in an summer’s exciting day in 2006 the boardwalk was flown out in sections by helicopter and worked started to join the sections and create the loop path we have today. The boardwalk is made from recycled plastic so is much more hardwearing than wood and has so far had virtually no repair work carried out on it.

Local people immediately discovered the boardwalk and it was fascinating to see what visitors made of the place. The Flanders wildlife is not always obvious, we don’t have the big crowd pleasers like red squirrels or puffins but there is always something to see. One group that we hadn’t thought would be interested were photographers. But the boardwalk gives them the opportunity to get up close and comfortable to creatures such as dragonflies, lizards, adders as well as the wider wild landscape with a mountain backdrop. These days is it a daily occurrence to see someone stalking around the boardwalk laden with equipment like a pack heron.

Some of the locals quickly took to the boardwalk.

Viewed from the human level perspective bogs are not at their best. They are most appealing when seen close-up on your knees or from a height. The boardwalk enables the former, and in 2009 we were able to accommodate the latter with the building of the viewing tower. This takes people 7m above the surface of the moss, allowing you to look down on the patchwork surface and get an idea of the scale of the huge site. It has become an iconic structure and is mentioned in the Flanders Moss entry to Scotland The Best.

This opportunity to get up close to Flanders Moss serves a number of purposes. It provides a visitor destination in the Carse of Stirling where there are few, so making it of economic benenfit to the surrounding area – we have many regular visitors who combine a walk at Flanders with refreshments at the nearby Woodhouse café. Flanders is now mentioned on accommodation provider websites, house sale particulars and community websites.

A survey of people visiting Flanders to find out what they liked best about the place proved to be very revealing. They liked the nature and the exercise but for many the best thing was just the wild, peace and tranquility of the place. It was somewhere to decompress, escape from the busyness of the modern world and recover. So Flanders has become very important for peoples mental health, a importance highlighted by the recent lockdowns.

But most importantly if people can’t make contact with a place and experience it themselves they won’t have as strong a desire to save it. Peatlands are so important in current times in terms of climate cange mitigation and there is a much better chance of people understanding this and acting on it if they can experience them first hand. At Flanders people can do just that. One of the key messages that we are able to make is that by stopping using peat when gardening people can save peat bogs from being dug up.

In inviting people onto a nature-rich site there will obviously be a negative effect as well. But at Flanders moss we have estimated that this is minimal as it is to a very small part of the overall site and the most degraded part and the resulting positives outweigh any small negatives that visitors might have through disturbance.

People and dogs find the information boards around the boardwalk interesting.

At the time on opening we had a number of people suggest that no-one would want to visit a bog. But nowadays visitor numbers are estimated to be in the region of 12, 000-14, 000 a year.

The bog box – a good way of capturing visitors comments.

Since the boardwalk has opened Flanders has been visited by hundreds of thousands of people with more learning about the place through this blog and social media and has become one of the best known bogs in the country, improving people’s knowledge of peatlands and the issues surrounding them. Certainly in local people’s view it has become a national treasure.

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Trees or no trees? – 7000 years a bog – 40 years an NNR

Flanders Moss NNR

Flanders Moss recently celebrated its 40 year as a National Nature Reserve, though it has been around for 7000 years. With COP26 due to start shortly and a climate and biodiversity crisis ongoing this anniversary seemed to a good time to look at the history and evolution of Flanders Moss through time. Over this week 5 blog posts will look at the changes of this special place and how it is developing as a nature reserve.

In text books (yes, there are bog text books) bogs in the UK don’t have trees on their surface. In Europe some bogs do. So do trees have a natural role on UK bogs?

When you look at the peat profile of Flanders (the column of peat, up to 7m deep, that has been deposited over the life of the bog), pollen analysis shows that trees were only present in numbers very early in the life of the bog. It is possible that as the peat deposit built up it became too wet for trees to grow. But it is also possible for people living around the bog to also have an influence. Using the Moss for grazing was common. Records show that sheep, herded by children, grazed across the whole of the moss while cattle (small, ancient breeds) grazed around the drier edges. To improve the grazing parts of the moss might have been burnt. Trees and scrub, along with heather would have been cut for a multitude of uses and all these activities would have kept the Moss clear of trees. A map from 1797 shows Flanders Moss with few features marked but one is a few individual trees suggesting that the moss was mostly bare. Also of interest are the “Cauldron Holes”, (see more here) these are sink holes resulting from collapsed peat pipes, where water is flowing off the moss well below the surface. These suggest that the Moss was already drying out which normally would allow accelerated tree growth on a drying bog surface. As there were so few trees at that time it would seem that man’s activities were keeping it free of trees.

The south-west corner of Flanders showing the trees spreading onto the bog made dry by ditches.

With the reduction of grazing and the impact of drainage making the moss drier, trees started spreading across the moss. By the 1960’s the edges were covering in trees and they were spreading out onto the drying bog surface. In the 1970’s a part of the moss was planted up with conifers. So by the 1980’s and 90’s trees covered about 30-40 % of the moss and the canopy cover was increasing. Thick tree cover on a drying out moss only accelerates the drying out process – the trees suck water from the peat and intercept the rain before it even gets to the peat. So something had to be done to reduce the tree cover and save the wet bog habitat and the species that live on it.

The first work to deal with trees involved carrying the cut trees off the site using a helicopter. Effective but very expensive and these days would use too much carbon. Another method trialed used a burning bin set up on the moss to incinerate all of the brash. Nowadays we used different methods, we sometimes fell the trees, paint the stumps with herbicide to prevent regrowth and leaving branches etc on the surface of the moss. If the bog is wet enough from ditch blocking then the brash gets smothered by sphagnum and gradually will get incorporated into the bog. In other areas we have chipped all of the branches and then used the chips to block up ditches. A win-win method. The key to any tree removal on the moss is to only clear areas where the water table has been restored through ditch blocking. Without the ditch blocking making the moss wetter the trees will just come back at the same rate.

Chipper at work – the chips are transported across the bog by the low ground pressure Soft-Track.

The conifer plantation was felled and removed from the site in 1998. The trees had grown very poorly (unsurprisingly as they were on water logged nutrient poor peat) and about half of the trees were used in brash mats to support the machinery used to remove the other half of the trees. Even with the trees removed the planting ridges and stumps prevented good bog vegetation for reestablishing. So a 2nd phase of work was require to level or smooth the site. A few techniques were tried, with stump flipping proving to be the most successful. We have now leveled about 3/4 of the plantation and are seeing a good covering of cotton grass and sphagnum spreading.

1998 – Conifers removed
2001 – Ditches blocked, conifer stumps flooded.
2021 – Conifer area returning to bog habitat.

So where do we stand with trees now that the Moss is so much wetter?

Scots pine though a native tree to more northern parts of Scotland don’t have an ecological role to play on the moss so we remove them where they are well established (the young trees make great Christmas trees). Birch trees have a more natural role on the moss and also support a number of our rare insects. As the moss gets wetter, the large birch trees that established in drier conditions are dying off due to waterlogging. The younger smaller birch trees survive in the wet conditions but only just and grow very slowly.

Section of a Scots Pine grown on Flanders. Note as it gets older the slowing down of its growth from the narrowing rings.

So over the 40 years of NNR management our tree policy has changed from clearing as much as possible to only clearing non-native species and the birch that is the drier places where it still is spreading quickly. Some of those area where birch is still a problem grazing has been reintroduced to keep seedlings and regenerating birch in check. We are more relaxed about trees on the bog now, the raised water table and bits of grazing keeps most of the tree spread in check and there is a more natural balance in play. What is clear is that when we talk about restoring the bog habitats we are not going back to the tree free bog of the past. And when we talk about rewilding we are not reverting back to the original bog of 7000 but a new form of Flanders Moss that, despite its past history of human interference, is moving towards and more natural, wet, functioning form where trees have a natural presence.

.

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Raising water levels – 7000 years a bog – 40 years an NNR

Flanders Moss NNR

Flanders Moss recently celebrated its 40th year as a National Nature Reserve, though it has been around for 7000 years. With COP26 due to start shortly and a climate and biodiversity crisis ongoing this anniversary seemed to a good time to look at the history and evolution of Flanders Moss through time. Over this week 5 blog posts will look at the changes of this special place and how it is developing as a nature reserve.

For hundreds of years a huge effort was made to drain the water out of Flanders Moss to help to get rid of it. Much of this effort involved digging ditches to drain water out of the moss but also the moss was used a a reservoir and the water in it was gathered to used with washing cut peat from the peat clearing works away into the river system. In more recent years about 110 hectares of Flanders was ditched to dry it out for the peat to be harvested while another 40 ha was ditched and planted with conifers. In total there was about 60 km of ditches dug across the site and by the 1980s all this drainage work was having a huge impact on the moss by lowering the water table and so changing the surface vegetation. But with Flanders Moss becoming a nature reserve, work started to reverse this damage by slowing the flow of water off the moss through damming the ditches.

A mass of ditches put in to drain Flanders before peat harvesting.

But how do you dam ditches? Ditch damming on Flanders Moss has evolved through trial and error over the last 40 years with techniques and expertise growing all the time.

The first dams constructed were major structures. There were made from oak and elm timbers, heavy wood lengths that took a lot of effort to just get them on site. It then took a team of workers about a day to put each dam in. Gradually more efficient methods using metal or plywood sheets developed. Lighter materials were easier to get far out on the moss. Today dams of all of these techniques can still be found out on the moss, some are still functional but many have failed.

One of the old wooden dams being put in.

A more recent technique that is still used today is using sheets of interlocking corrugated plastic piling. These lengths can be flexibly made into dams of all sizes, they slide together and are banged into the peat using a large rubber hammer. The bigger dams have a supporting beam laid across the front of the dam.

A small recycled plastic piling dam and tools for putting it in

For small ditches with less flow of water, peat itself can be used. It doesn’t involve purchase or transport of materials, small numbers can be dug by hand but it if there are lots to do a specially adapted digger in the hands of a skilled operator does the job better and faster.

Specially adapted diggers putting in peat dams

But it isn’t just as simple as whacking in a dam in a ditch. The work needs to be planned strategically otherwise you can end up flooding your access routes and hydrologically paint yourself into a corner. Reading the peatland to pick the best place to position your dams is also a skill. Peat often cracks parallel to a ditch as the peat of the ditch edge dries and slumps. It has happened that a dam has been put in and the water table starts to rise. The workers step away for a coffee. And then they come back to find the water table lower than it started with the water having risen and found a diversion around a dam through a crack.

A new method to deal with cracks in the peat is deep trench bunding. The methods involves building a wall of compressed, wet peat under the surface of the bog with a small raised bund on the surface. The slows down the flow of surface and subsurface water off the moss, a way of plugging hidden cracks and pipes.

Deep trench bunding diggers in action.

All the techniques have been applied to Flanders over time. It is difficult to estimate just how many dams have been put in but it is into hundreds. But in terms of lengths of ditches about 45 km of ditches have been dammed now. And about 10 km of bunding has been built. It has been a mammoth effort over the years by staff, volunteers and contractors. Much of it is hard labour on difficult terrain and gives me a feeling of affinity with those people who 200 years ago spend so much time and effort digging ditches and clearing peat. Though the objectives are the reverse, drying out the bog compared to making it wetter, but the connection to the bog and toil, and even some of the tools are the same.

A dammed ditch filed with water and getting chocked up with sphagnum
A plastic piling dam blocked up with sphagnum

At the edges of the peat water normally leaks out at the peat / clay interface creating a different sort of wetland – a lagg fen. But in most places at Flanders this has been replaced by a large ditch that catches the water flowing off the moss and keeps the next door farmland dry. However, at Flanders we have been working with neighbouring landowners and have been rewetting the edges of the moss and forming a new lagg fen. By working with landowners about km of bog edge has been made wet again through the used of bunds, sluices and blocking of old subsurface drains.

The building of a bund to create lagg fen.

There is still more work to do but the results of 40 years of effort to restore this great bog are clear to see. Our monitoring of water levels with high tech equipment show that the moss is getting wetter, with the water table stabilising so that it doesn’t fluctuate as much but stays nearer the surface for longer. But you don’t need high tech equipment to see some of the changes when out on the bog itself. Blocked ditches are disappearing underwater. Spreading carpets of sphagnum. Water at the surface everywhere. Flanders Moss is a bog getting back to its watery best.

Flanders Moss in 1992 – note more trees, conifer plantations and dark purple heather.
Flanders Moss is 2015 – note less trees and heather and more green of cotton grass and sphagnum

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Flanders Moss rewilded by water – 7000 years a bog, 40 years an NNR

Flanders Moss NNR

Flanders Moss recently celebrated its 40 year as a National Nature Reserve, though it has been around for 7000 years. With COP26 due to start shortly and a climate and biodiversity crisis ongoing this anniversary seemed to a good time to look at the history and evolution of Flanders Moss through time. Over this week 5 blog posts will look at the changes of this special place and how it is developing as a nature reserve.

Flanders Moss has been a bog for about 7000 years but only about 40 years a nature reserve. In fact it isn’t quite so clear cut, there was a bog on the Carse of Stirling 11 000 years ago but the final melting of the polar ice caps caused sea levels to rise, flooding the Carse of Stirling and inundating the peatland. Except a few patches of peat grew faster than the rising sea levels and creating peat islands in the flooded estuary. As the sea levels dropped a few thousand years later, following the isostatic rebound, these peat islands spread, joining up with other peat bogs that had started to grow on the former sea bed and so Flanders Moss and a whole number of other peat bogs appeared – one of the largest clusters of lowland bogs in the country.

Over the next few thousand years the fate of these peatlands were in the hands of two different groups of people. Simplified the poorer people utilised the peatlands in a low key way. They grazed animals, used heather, trees, sphagnum and other plants for daily purposes and nibbled small amounts of peat around the edges of domestic uses. The better-off land owners viewed bogs as unproductive so they did their best to “improve” the land by planting with conifers, using them for grouse moors or more commonly just getting rid of the peatlands. Some peatlands on the Carse totally disappeared, others dissappeared under conifers all in the view of making best use of the useless pieces of land. At one time Flanders was surveyed with the view to dig it up for a peat-fired power station and at another was prepared for horticultural peat harvesting but somehow managed to survived both these fates though not is an undamaged state. Parts had been drained, burned, planted and the whole moss was reduced in size by 40% but it still remains one of the largest and most intact bogs in the UK. This is an example of the catastrophic level of damage to peatland habitats across the UK.

But with a diminishing resource the spotlight shone more brightly on the remnant. Naturalists started to realise the wealth of interesting and rare species found there. The Forestry Commission bought a part of Flanders Moss in 1967 with the view of planting it with conifers but in 1973, with great forethought, they were persuaded to sell it to the Scottish Wildlife Trust so it could be managed for conservation. In 1980 NatureScot’s predecessor organisation followed suite and entered into an agreement with Cardross estate to manage another 210 ha of Flanders as a National Nature Reserve. Flanders fortunes were improving, the tide was turning.

As parts were saved for nature the thinking gradually changed. People realized that Flanders was all connected as one hydrological body so to save it the whole thing needed to be protected. In the 1990’s the legal designation extended to cover the whole peat area and NatureScot paid £1.8 million to buy out the planning permissions that existing to dig up part of Flanders for horticultural purposes. With this action the whole of the Moss became saved for conservation.

Since the 1990’s, efforts to restore this magnificnet site have progressed and Flanders Moss has grown into its National Nature Reserve mantle as a site where the water table was rising, the habitats recovering and and people are able to connect with it directly. After all that has been done to the site it cannot return to its former state but by making it wetter, a more natural, wilder state is appearing where natural process can happen. We are rewilding with water.

Read the following blogs to find out more about Flanders Moss’s journey.

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