The Solway Mosses

Raised mire (Photo copyright Charlie Hedley, and the Solway AONB; thanks to the AONB for supplying this image)

Only a little way inland from the coastal salt-marshes are the Solway’s precious “lowland raised mires’, otherwise known as peatbogs or, more poetically, the Mosses.

Over the centuries Britain's mires have been drained for agricultural use, more recently for forestry or commercial peat extraction, and reduced from 95000 ha to just 6000 ha. Now, the majority of the English mires, about 1900 hectares, are here by the Solway and, as Norman Holton [*], at the RSPB's Campfield Reserve says, "Raised mire is one of the rarest habitats in the UK, we have to do something to save it." The four main areas on the Cumbrian side– Glasson Moss, Bowness Common, Drumburgh Moss and Wedholme Flow – make up the South Solway Mosses National Nature Reserve. Cumbria Wildlife Trust own Drumburgh, the RSPB own part of Bowness, and Natural England own most of the rest.

Peat-coring at Kirkconnell Flow, April 2016 (6.5metres deep!) Photo: Ann Lingard

Kirkconnell Flow, a Scottish National Nature Reserve, just South of Dumfries is also an important site that is undergoing restoration; you can read much more about its development, and the technique of peat-coring on my Solway Shore-walker blog.

The Mosses have a fascinating geological and cultural past, which is closely tied in with that of the coast - indeed, the peat "horizon" is still visible on the shore. Over thousands of years, the remains of plants and sphagnum mosses accumulated in an acidic, anaerobic environment, forming domes of thick, waterlogged peat that preserve evidence of their more recent history. When the railway was cut through Bowness Common towards the marshes and the (now-vanished) viaduct over the Solway, the peat was found to be more than 15m thick; and recent carbon-dating places the lowest layer at 8000 years old.

Wedholme Flow July 2013. The old peat cuttings are exposed and dry during this hot summer (photo: Ann Lingard)

At about a metre below the surface there is a sudden change from tree pollen to pollen from weeds and arable crops, coinciding with the Roman period, when they deforested the area to build Hadrian’s Wall. On Glasson Moss, hemp or flax pools dating from 400-800 AD have been discovered, in which the plant stems would have been soaked or "retted" to remove the living tissue from the fibrous stems. And although there are no human "bog bodies", there is The Solway Cow, (actually, pieces of two cows), which probably were ritually deposited in the bog in early mediaeval times. For more about human history of the Solway and its Mosses, it's worth visiting the exhibition at the Solway Coast AONB's Discovery Centre at Silloth.

IKONOS Satellite view of Wedholme Flow near Kirkbride, with thanks to Dr Ted Milton at the University of Southampton (image licensed under Creative Commons)

Peat is not just useful as a preservative, it is also well on the way to becoming coal: dried peat has been important as a fuel for many centuries. During the 18th century parts of the Mosses were divided up into stints, or “Awards”, from which peat was cut and taken away.

Frank Mawby, now retired from his job as Sites Manager for Natural England's North Cumbria Reserves, has always been an enthusiast for the Mosses. When I first met him a few years ago, at the organisation's office on the edge of the Kirkbride airfield, he showed me a map of Wedholme Flow, along the edge of which the Awards for Kirkbride and Newton Arlosh run in narrow, orderly strips, each about 1.5 ha in area. The peat in each Award was cut vertically, down to the mineral soil and boulder clay, leaving a steep face about 2 metres high. Because of the different rates at which the stints were cleared, the ends of the stints present a castellated appearance from the air.

Drumburgh Moss, scrub and carr at the edge of the Reserve (photo: Ann Lingard)

Since the bogs are raised mires ("like an upturned saucer-shaped sponge", according to Norman Holton) the effect of cutting deep into the peat is to expose the edges, which drain and begin to dry out. Other areas of the Mosses have been actively drained for agricultural use, with underground pipes leading to ditches. In both cases, the return to drier conditions allows scrub, heather and woodland carr to colonise the area, and wetland gives way to typical dry heathland.

Drumburgh Moss, with Skiddaw in the distance (photo: Ann Lingard)

Bowness Common with Rogersceugh Farm on a drumlin in the distance (photo: Ann Lingard)

The Solway Wetlands Project (formerly "Peatlands for People"), in which Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Natural England, the RSPB and the Solway Coast AONB are all collaborators, aims to remove the birch and willow scrub that is encroaching on the South Solway Mosses, and to re-wet the bogs by damming drains and building banks or "bunds". The project is already having very noticeable affects. At the Campfield Reserve, recently expanded to take in Rogersceugh and Biglands Farms as well as North Plain, the Reserves Manager Norman Holton has seen Bowness Common undergo a steady change back towards wetland conditions in the past 15 years. 

Water at Drumburgh (photo: Ann Lingard)

Both the pasture-land and the mire have a system of drains and bunds and sluices, whereby the water-level is managed; in the winter months the level is raised further to provide wetland conditions for waders and the grazing barnacle and pink-footed geese. Where there were areas of bare, cracked peat, white-beaked sedge is forming dense mats; scrubby birch is dying and rotting as the water-level drowns its roots; the heathland heather, Calluna, is being replaced by cross-leaved heath, Erica, more typical of wetland areas. Three species of insectivorous sundew, with their scarlet sticky leaves; bog myrtle; bog rosemary; and even low-growing cranberry are present. Spikes of bog-asphodel, their flowers bright yellow in the summer and seed-heads a rusty brown throughout the winter, form carpets. (Bog asphodel is known locally as '"bone-breaker": like many wetland plants its tissues are low in calcium ions, and it seems to have had to take the blame for the broken bones of poorly-nourished sheep that were put to graze on the moorland.) Hollows formed by the cutting and removal of peat have filled with water, where rushes and reeds grow - and, a matter of great pride, there were 53 breeding pairs of reed buntings last season. Mapping the breeding birds is a labour-intensive process, requiring three visits to pinpoint the singing males, but as Norman says, "The counts are useful as it means we can see whether the management is working."

Plants on The Mosses (from top left): bog rosemary / cranberry / white-beaked sedge / bog-cotton / grass / round-leaved sundew and bog-myrtle / round-leaved sundew, with sticky droplets / Heather, Calluna, and cross-leaved heath, Erica

Raised mire is characterised by having a water-table within 20cms of the surface, and since "a fully-functional peat-bog is 98% water", this can make for a spongey surface. Norman used to get visiting children to stand in a circle then jump up and down; gradually and much to their delight, a wave of movement would spread out underfoot as the bog "quaked".

Wetting Bowness (photo: Ann Lingard)

The Solway Mosses' return to wetlands is marked and helped by the increase in sphagnum: from 13-15 species at Drumburgh and Campfield, for example. Sphagnum is an unusual plant in that the leaves along its branches contain large water-storage cells with pores on the surface, through which water is quickly taken up. As a result, a sphagnum plant is like a sponge and can absorb as much as ten times its weight of water. You can test this for yourself: place a long stem of the moss in a glass of water so that its top hangs over the side, and it will suck up the water until the glass is almost empty. Dry sphagnum bleaches to grey or white, but when wet the colours bloom.

Drumburgh Moss seen from a gyroplane flight; purple with heather (photo: Ann Lingard)

“The Mosses vary season to season,” Frank Mawby told me. “In winter, they’re brown, not surprisingly, but they’re still the most colourful habitat you can walk on. When the sphagnum mosses are all wet, the different species have different colours, greens, and oranges that are almost fluorescent, they glow. Big hummocky ones that are dark red ... All these under your feet, under the layer of dead cotton grass. A skin of mosses. It’s very quiet at times, but at other times it’s pretty hectic - snipe, jacksnipe which jump up under your feet, pipits and skylarks. There are the bloody midges, too!”

Sphagnum mosses (photos by Ann Lingard)

Lizards scurrying along the boardwalk at Bowness Common, adders on the dry heath, large hairy caterpillars and empty brown cocoons of oak eggar moths, frogs and dark brown toads: there's plenty of animal life to observe. Wherever there is wetland and vegetation, there will be dragonflies and damselflies too: a bird-watcher I met described them as the "birds of the insect world". At Bowness, we saw nine different species in a couple of hours, including the enormous Emperor Dragonfly, Anax imperator; many of the dragonflies have been photographed by local residents and bloggers John and Judith Rogers.

Dragonflies and damselflies (from left): Southern Hawker / Black and Common darters / Blue-tailed damselfly (with thanks to Judith Rogers)

You can't beat a visit to the South Solway Mosses in the summertime. Coming out of the tunnel of trees onto the open expanse of Wedholme Flow, you are back into a primitive landscape of heather, sticky red sundew, golden-brown stalks of bog asphodel; there is the smell of sun-warmed peat, the soft squelch of sphagnum underfoot - and silence except for bumble bees and the rasping of dragon-flies' wings.

Copyright Ann Lingard, August 2010. An early version of this article appeared in Cumbria Life magazine in December 2003 


[*]Norman Holton died this autumn, 2016; a great 'Solway man', he will be very much missed by his many friends and colleagues.


Useful weblinks about the South Solway Mosses Reserves

Solway Wetlands Project

Cumbria Wildlife Trust's Drumburgh Moss and a CWT film about Drumburgh

RSPB Campfield Marsh Reserve

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