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 cafĂ©. 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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1 Response to Setting foot on Flanders – 7000 years a bog – 40 years an NNR

  1. Anne says:

    A reflection of the wonderful work underway.

    Liked by 1 person

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