The fascinating world of quaking bogs in Cheshire

Abbots Moss

Abbots Moss - Credit: not Archant

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy tries walking on water near Northwich.

Abbots Moss

Abbots Moss - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

On a bright and sunny day I gingerly lift my foot as I take another pace across the mossy surface. Once the sole of my boot connects with the ground, the lime-green carpet begins to bow and sink, moving gently beneath my weight. Sea-sickness is a strange sensation to experience on what appears to be dry ground. But I’m not standing on dry ground. I am in fact hovering over several metres of dark murky water. My only salvation is a raft of tangled moss, so tightly woven together that other plants and strange creatures, currently including myself, can be supported by it. This schwingmoor, or quaking bog, is one of the rarest habitats in the UK and in many ways our most incredible.

Quaking bogs form when an aquatic moss, know as sphagnum, begins to grow across the surface of acidic water bodies, such as meres or bog pools. In time the sphagnum knits together, becoming thicker and more stable. Debris from the raft accumulates below it, the dead matter adding additional buoyancy. As the raft grows different types of sphagnum, those less keen on growing within the water will establish themselves on its surface. Other plants soon join, and in time even trees can become rooted in this floating world.

The knowledge that a few strands of aquatic plant are all that stands between myself and a rather wet start to the week is not at all comforting. However, there is something innately magical about this place. With every step I take, the ground responds. The sensation is similar to that of walking across a giant waterbed or semi-deflated bouncy castle. I can even feel the thickness of the raft beneath me, as in places my foot falls deeper where the raft is almost too thin to support me, while other steps leave less trace, a meter’s thickness of vegetation forced to move beneath my weight.

The area I am walking across is known as Abbots Moss, a Cheshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve at Delamere near Northwich. It is one of only a handful of quaking bog in the county, and of a small minority across the country, this Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has been nationally designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and internationally as a Ramsar site for the fascinating wildlife it supports.

Abbots Moss

Abbots Moss - Credit: Andrew Walmsley

And yet, for many taking the public footpath on its edge, the very things for which Abbots Moss was protected may be impossible to see. Most won’t even know that its surface, which looks so solid from far away, is in fact only a thin skin above a deep pool. To appreciate a quaking bog fully you need to be on it, although given the treacherous nature of this wonder most of these sites are closed to the public and only available to explore with an expert guide.

By crouching down I am able to fully appreciate the surface on which I have been unsteadily walking. The heads of the sphagnum, all with faces pointed up towards me, are reminiscent of rows of daisies.

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Like flowers, the blooms come in a variety of colours. Bright green is a clear favourite, but hues of orange, yellow and even deep wine red, can be found across the bog surface. Woven around and between this simplistic meadow, a tiny trailing plant waves miniscule pink lanterns at the sky. These are the flowers of the bog cranberry, and here and there last year’s ruby berries lay wasted, though countless others have been gobbled up during the winter.

And many other treasures lay dotted across the raft. Here a cluster of small purple globes shiver in the breeze. The bog rosemary, a rare sight in England and becoming rarer across much of the UK, is named after its superficial resemblance to the garden herb. Though it shares none of its scent it certainly makes up for it with its magnificent blooms.

But the bog does have a more sinister side. Among the bright array of colours, a predator lurks. Red spikes, dripping with sticky fluids, wait to ensnare passing insects. The round-leaved sundew, a carnivorous plant, thrives on the surface of the quaking-bog, attracting victims through its vivid colours, only to slowly digest them for its supper.

Other hunters roam the bog too, tiny spiders skitter across its surface, briefly visible before they disappear into the jungle of moss. Lizards too make their appearance, their snaking tails slipping away from sight before a proper glimpse can be had.

Above, the air is thick with the sound of bird song, and the speedy hum of vibrating wings, as brightly coloured dragonflies zip across my vision. Butterflies too call this strange world their home. Green hairstreaks, their iridescent wings strangely effective camouflage in this lush world, flit across the bog in search of early blooms.

The raft on Abbots Moss is estimated to have started forming over 7,000 years ago. Few habitats in Britain can be said to have had as constant a presence in our landscape. Created one strand at a time, this floating blanket slowly wrapped itself across the surface of the pool it stemmed from, until no trace of those dark waters remained. It is without a doubt a privilege to be standing here.

I step off the bog a little like a person leaving a moving walkway, my pace momentarily unsettled. The world beyond the raft seems strangely unfamiliar after allowing myself to become absorbed by the unusual nature of quaking bog. As I look back, the surface of the site looks innocently unassuming. Like most others who walk passed Abbots Moss I could easily ignore this large green disc of land. In a sense this makes the quaking bog an open secret, there for all to see while rarely giving up its treasures, except to those lucky enough to step into its world.