Cheshire Wildlife Trust on the beauty of bogs
It might not be what we'd usually aspire to, but as Dr Vicky Nall of Cheshire Wildlife Trust finds out, in Cheshire at least bog standard will do just fine
Where to get bogged down in CheshireSome of the region's best bogs are managed by the Wildlife Trust including Abbotts Moss in Delamere Forest and Danes Moss near Macclesfield. Because of the presence of a delicate and fragile 'schwingmoor' habitat at Abbotts Moss, access is by pre-arranged permit or by guided walk only from Cheshire Wildlife Trust.
At Danes Moss a boardwalk takes you through a large area of regenerating bog where trees have been removed to allow sphagnum and bog pools to naturally recover. A number of existing pools also make this one of the best places in Cheshire to experience dragonflies and damselflies at close hand - including Britain's smallest the black darter.
For full directions visit Cheshire Wildlife Trust's website: www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.
For most of us who love the great outdoors, the word ‘bog’ conjures up images of dark, dingy pools and hiking boots disappearing into a peaty oblivion. Although not one our most inspiring wildlife habitats, our tiny island is home to more than 10 per cent of the world's compliment of bogs.
Not only are bogs a biodiversity hotspot, home to some of our most intriguing plants and animals, they also play vital a role in our battle with climate change. In fact, the UK’s peatbogs store the equivalent of 20 years of national industrial carbon (CO2) emissions.
While it isn’t usually something to be proud of, Cheshire does indeed set a good ‘bog standard’. Our lowland peat bogs were formed after the last ice age, as glaciers retreated and left depressions which filled with water and vegetation - namely a water-loving moss type called sphagnum.
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Dying moss cannot decompose properly in the waterlogged conditions and so forms peat, on top of which new moss grows forming yet more peat layers. The natural sponge-like properties of sphagnum led to it becoming a life-saving field dressing in the First World War, before the advent of modern sticking plasters and bandages.
The Cheshire Plain is unique in the English lowlands as it contains the full range of peatland types: open water meres; where peat hasn’t completely filled the depression, solid peat mosses, and floating peat ‘schwingmoors’; where peat has partially filled the depression and a raft of vegetation has formed over the top.
These are perhaps our most fascinating bog habitats leaving a thick water-bed like carpet of plants and mosses, that noticeably moves in waves as you walk across it. These bogs are also some of our most dangerous, as the apparently sturdy blanket of vegetation belies the fact that several metres of black peaty water lie just a few inches below your feet, a predicament that can claim more than a wellington boot for those who have less than enough respect for this fragile ecosystem.
So what is it that makes these mysterious habitats such a draw for scientists? For plants, bogs represent an extreme environment - extremely wet and extremely poor in nutrients.
The soils are so poor in fact that one plant, the sundew, has adapted to eating insects to get enough sustenance. This tiny but beautiful plant just a few centimetres across, traps the unsuspecting insect with a sticky mucus that looks like innocent drops of morning dew on its spiny petals. Once the main course of a passing cranefly is firmly trapped, the sundew releases acids to break it down and absorb the nutrients - rather like a venus fly trap.
And there is no shortage of food for the sundews on our bogs where the most striking residents are undoubtedly our fastest flying and most agile of insects - the dragon and damselflies. Look out for the aerial acrobatics of the four-spotted chaser, hairy dragonfly and common hawker as they carry out low-flying sorties across the cotton grass.
Their slightly smaller but equally impressive counterparts the damselflies are also in abundance on bogs with open pools. A brilliant flash of colour before your eyes could be a common blue, large red or emerald damselfly among many others.
The real privilege though is to be found in the vegetation around the edge of pools, where you could discover a dragonfly or damselfly emergence in progress. When its time for one of nature’s most astonishing metamorphoses to take place, the rather plain, water living larvae or ‘nymph’, climbs out of the water and up onto nearby vegetation where it clings on and waits.
A fully grown adult dragon or damselfly will then emerge by pushing itself out of the top of the larval case. Once emerged it has to wait until it has dried and ‘pumped up’ its wings before the maiden flight can take place, leaving the hard empty larva case behind, still clinging to the vegetation.
This abundance of insects means our bogs are also the summer home to many wading birds. The strange electronic ‘laser’ call of the lapwing, the noisy squeak of the oystercatcher and the melodic call of the curlew are just some that make up the summer soundtrack of birds which come to feast on the invertebrate banquet that bogs provide.
Perhaps the most feared bog insect hunter however is the hobby, a striking falcon that spends the summer in the UK and has a taste for dragonflies. Creating an added challenge for this feathered ‘Top Gun’ is the dragonfly’s flying capabilities. Not only are they our fastest flying insects but they are the only insects to be able to fly forward, sideways and backwards. This makes for some spectacular displays as the dog-fights of the dragonfly and hobby are played out above the bogs.
Not only providing birds with a banquet worth travelling for, our bogs provide us with quite a fruity feast as well. Wild cranberry and bilberry are common plants on Cheshire’s bogs, both producing delicious juicy berries. Smaller than their cultivated counterparts, wild cranberries are arguably tastier and more full of flavour.
So whether it’s helping to lock away the CO2 from our increasingly power-hungry lifestyle or providing a vital home for some of our most delicate and unique wildlife, whichever way to look at our bogs in Cheshire, the standard is pretty high.