Dog on a bog (95% water)

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I went, with a dog, to Kirkconnel Flow for inspiration for World Wetlands Day. The National Nature reserve noticeboard had just one message. Yofi and I took note.

dogbog2wFrom the start, Yofi was not sure about this venture, following me closely and not leaving the path. Odd behaviour, for a young dog.

But going through healthy blaeberry bushes, we found something that interested us both. What is “N31” – a Peatland Action?

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Yofi was uninterested by Sphagnum, though I was trying out a new Moss app.

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We progressed towards a drain blocked as part of the peatland restoration programme.

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This open water harboured Feathery Bog-Moss:

dogbog6wYofi (who loves to swim) hung back: No go. No way.

I tried another path by the uncleared Scots pines, that were part of the plantation that almost destroyed Kirkconnel Flow). Yofi still was unimpressed.

A fallen tree made me very curious – but no dog followed me to the pool that had formed where it had stood.

 

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I meanwhile, found much to distract me.

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I wandered to the crater edge – more Feathery Bog-Moss.

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Yofi withdrew to a safe distance and kept an eye on me.

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I finally twigged, walking back to our starting point. Perhaps for a dog on a peat bog, the earth literally shakes? With all four feet on a quaking bog and a water level only just below the surface, she was certainly right to be very cautious.

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Back at the carpark, I found myself compelled to conduct a litter pick.

dogbog13wAn empty bottle of Vimto. Fruit juices, I learnt, make up of 5% of its ingredients – so the other 95% is water.

Just like Kirkconnel Flow! The peat bog is a liquid lens of water and moss atop a foundation of glacial boulder clay. Long and well may it quake.

 

 

How Deep is your Bog?

An event organised by Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership offered a glimpse of the plants which create the depth and the breadth of Beggar’s Moss. The partnership intends to restore this rich Moss, which is fascinating culturally as well as ecologically.

At the end of August last summer, Emily Taylor  led an event for the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership to Beggar’s Moss in New Galloway Forest Park. This attracted a group of bog aficionados and had all the feel of an expedition.

Beware! It is easy to get lost amidst the Forestry Commission conifers around the bog. The awkward access was all the more exciting for those carrying peat probes and other survey equipment. I was glad that the sandwiches made it through unscathed.

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We created a marker point for our basecamp, on the ‘shore’ of the Moss.

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Beggar’s Moss is a peaty island left within the extensive afforestation of this area that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The Moss triumphed as it was too wet to plant. Being protected from grazing by the plantation, the Moss has become ever more verdant – with colourful Sphagnum mosses mixed amongst other plants.

Emily’s guidance helped understand something of the environmental contexts that led to the luxurious depth of the bog, and also the plant profile of its living layer that gives it a fascinating breadth. We learned to survey a line of quadrats, showing the plant transitions across the Moss. It took me a long time to tell the difference between deer grass and cotton grass, but expert eyes made it look simple to identify the intriguing bog plants.

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At the same time, others in the party probed the peat and found it was 8 metres deep.

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We discussed the impact of our footprints on the living surface layer. Perhaps wellies do more damage than bare feet?

Sundew plants growing between the mosses were the stars of the day.

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Lodgepole seedlings are menacing because when they grow, these trees’ deep roots can crack the bog. Some seedlings were uprooted exposing their long taproot – perhaps this was the start of a process of restoration.

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At lunchtime, eating sandwiches kindly provided by Galloway Glens, we discussed the Moss’s changing fortunes and the irony of our introduction of olive pits to its plant record. I intend to keep track of the restoration of Beggars Moss, and to learn more of the plants that made the bog a wonderful eight metres deep.

Thanks to Emily Taylor and McNabb Laurie for creating this public event, which was part of the Galloway Glens programme.

‘lungs of the earth’

The meanings of Fala Flow near Edinburgh are sung by Karine Polwart at the Eidnburgh Festival, placing cultural value on the ‘lungs of the earth’. Meanwhile a ‘review of permissions’ may allow peat extraction to accelerate nearby, at Auchencorth in Whim Moss – undermining climate action, and the quality of future lives to be lived.

A wonderful performance about a peat bog is running at Edinburgh Festival – Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart. This interweaves people’s lives with those of plants and migrating birds over generations. Fala Flow is a peat bog near Karine Polwart’s home, south of Edinburgh, and with her voice the Flow becomes urgently alive with wondrously named sphagnum mosses and life-giving (but also deadly) plants. Glimpsing uncertain futures with foul weather, Karine Polwart also draws out what can be done collectively. After listening to this performance, I was left wanting to breathe deep, and keen for Flows and the lives lived within them. As Karine Polwart said, peat bogs are the ‘lungs of the earth’.

Whim Moss is a raised bog at Lamancha not far from Fala Flow and in part of it, called Auchenforth, peat is being extracted. You can see the machinery used here – not quite so industrious as the fearful Two Headed Vacuum (below) but along the same lines, and still able to pick up peat infinitely quicker than sphagnum can ever lay it down.

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It seems that people buy massive quantities of horticultural peat, despite alternatives being available. So extraction continues (see a previous post) and for Whim Moss, a legal loophole has allowed yet more peat extraction:

Plans to dig out large amounts of Scotland’s precious peat from a landowner’s estate near Edinburgh look set to go ahead despite widespread opposition from conservationists and government.

A loophole in the law is likely to allow peat to be extracted from Auchencorth Moss on the Penicuik Estate in breach of local and national planning policy. Peat is a vital store of carbon, and is meant to be protected to help prevent climate pollution.

12 June 2016, Rob Edwards, Herald Group –  full article from the Herald. 

What does Whim Moss look like from above?

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Photograph: Hugh Chalmers, Tweed Forum

The photo, kindly supplied by Hugh Chalmers of Tweed Forum, shows that Whim Moss, if perceived as lungs, have two lobes that are not equally healthy. Overall, the dark brown ‘lobe’ (of active peat extraction) is releasing carbon dioxide from the ground into the air – but the lighter ‘lobe’ slowly absorbs carbon, and has its uppermost vegetation layer intact. The healthy part of the lung is an SSSI bog which has been restored, as part of Peatland Action, to reinstate the dams and fell inappropriately planted trees.  You can also see, middle left, an experimental area used by the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology to study how peatland ecosystems respond to different levels and forms of nitrogen deposition.

Think about the time frames invoked in this image. The raised bog has been creating itself since the Ice Age.  The Clerk family has run the Penicuik Estate since 1654, while their tenant, Westland Horticulture, was initially given permission in 1986 for peat extraction. Since then, Scottish Government has taken legal steps to protect peatlands, but Westland wants to extract 100,000 cubic metres of peat every year until 2042, under a ‘review of minerals permission’ process. A decision is to be announced this summer.

Hold on! a review of permissions? A process that takes account of what time frames, what places, involving whom, and for whose generation?

A peat bog, according to Karine Polwart, can be appreciated best by being seen from two distances. A moss can be understood from the widest possible viewpoint – but also in close-up, its richness and beauty is revealed by the narrowest focus. Shouldn’t a ‘review of permissions’ take the widest possible viewpoint for future generations of all species, so that they are able to enjoy the meanings and values to be found within the slow, cyclical, small-scale pace of the living Flow?

 

 

 

a blind eye

Although it is a really bad idea for climate, peat is milled on an industrial scale in Scotland, and elsewhere.

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“Coined “global coolers”[2], peatlands remove or “sequester” carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and are known as “carbon sinks” or “pools”. Peatlands are thought to contain between 329 and 528 billion tonnes of carbon (equivalent to 1,200- 1,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide). Unless the bogs are disturbed by human activities, such as commercial peat extraction, much of this carbon can be stored for near geological time-scales [3]. ”  Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, report available here

Since the 1950s, gardeners have bought peat in large quantities.

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So…private companies profit without paying for the environmental cost of releasing CO2. Meantime, some public money has been dedicated to restoring peatlands.

The way peat extraction releases carbon into the atmosphere is invisible unless you have developed an eye for carbon landscapes: seeing carbon in flux requires a new way of thinking.

As well as its ecological impact, peat extraction means the disappearance of an environmental archive; a previous post described the kind of information a peat core offers.

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You can see signs of peat extraction on the A75, between Annan and Dumfries.

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I stopped at a lay-by where you can see the Nutberry Moss works, with the old Chapelcross Power Station in the distance.

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This is a place that is really only for those who work here.

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You cannot get any closer to the diggings, even if you skirt round the smaller roads to the north. When I visited, the rifle range was in operation.

 

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I am now curious about what happens here.

“The drains separate the peat mass into long ‘milling fields’, from which several thin layers of peat are then stripped during a year, amounting to around 200 mm per year. This bulk removal of the peat in the form of the industrial crop represents both loss of carbon and loss of the peat archive. The latter is lost forever because it recorded a particular set of moments in time which cannot be repeated. In the case of carbon, the net result of cutting and restoring a bog will be a loss of carbon compared to leaving the bog in its natural uncut state.”  IUCN publication  Source here

I wonder how much height Nutberry Moss has lost, and imagine a peat-core that could once have been taken here standing as a vertical pillar.

The scale of extraction at Nutberry is at a far remove from traditional peat digging.

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source: http://www.islayinfo.com

 

All the same, the machinery at Nutberry Moss is not nearly as massive as the Two-Head Vacuum Peat Harvesting Machine developed to get peat for fuel power stations in countries like Canada and Russia. This kind of machine hoovers up peat vastly more quickly than Sphagnum moss can ever generate it.

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In 1999, a mysterious ancient object was found on Nutberry Moss. This two centimetre wide artefact is now in Dumfries Museum:

“This ball has been decorated with coloured concentric rings of grey, red and green enamel or glass. It is probably Iron Age, although it was believed that enamel decoration like this was more characteristic of the Roman period. Archaeologists do not know what it was for. Carving such hard rock would have taken a long time. Perhaps it was a hereditary object, passed on from one generation to another, or maybe it was carried as a status symbol, or perhaps it was part of a game for which we will never know the rules.” Source:  Future Museum 

I lingered with this beautiful item, marvelling at its six faces and how its paint-marks survived sitting in a peat solution for centuries.

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This Iron Age painted ball stayed in my mind as I returned past Nutberry Moss along the A75. I began to think of it as a seer’s eyeball, or a forebear of carbon’s helical symbol.

According to Janet Suzman, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table concerns the ‘essential matter of life that makes us, binds  us, and with the detachment of the natural world, ignores us‘. Levi’s story of a carbon atom allows it to escape from being bound up in bedrock for hundreds of millions of years, to become the energy giving him capacity to impress, on paper, the dot at the end of his story.

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With thanks to those who have helped me start to see carbon landscapes, Dumfries Museum,  and Michael van Beinum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

getting down to the Ice Age

A core taken from a peat bog offers a form of time travel, letting us think of landscape as layers of its former self.

On April 22, 2016 (Earth Day), a group gathered at Kirkconnell Flow for a demonstration of peat-core sampling by Dr Lauren Parry  – lecturer in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Glasgow.

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Kirkconnell Flow is one of the best preserved raised bogs around Dumfries, thanks to an EU funded peatland restoration project. Lauren explained that this kind of bog plays a really important role in locking up carbon, which has been laid down over thousands of years by Sphagnum moss.  For this reason, preserving peat bogs plays a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Peat bogs store carbon in a different way than forests. One way of understanding this is to think of peat bogs as being like a long-term savings account: they store carbon over millennia, but accumulate slowly. Forests, on the other hand, are like a current account – they accumulate fast, but store carbon in the short-term.

As these ideas about carbon landscapes sunk in, we learnt why drainage ditches had been blocked to raise the water table and plantation conifers were removed in order to restore Kirkconnell Flow, as I have documented in an earlier blog.

As we walked to the heart of the Flow, we sensed through our feet that a peat bog consists almost entirely of water. The topmost living layer of plants is underlain by the plants’ dead ancestors: the moss has captured water to create a lens of peat in what was, ten thousand years ago, a glacial lake. ‘Ombrotrophic’ is a word used to describe raised bogs – this means that nutrients within the peat bog have built up from rainfall only, as carbon was sequestered from the atmosphere via photosynthesis.  Poets and scientists in the group were equally fascinated by this entity, and the meanings that can be extracted with a peat core.

 

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Lauren explained how her research techniques allow her to ‘read’ the archive that reaches down through metres of peat – Ann Lingard has already described this very clearly. With Lauren instructing, we learned how to explore the depth of the bog with a ‘Russian’ – an instrument that yields semi-circular depths of peat to researchers and their assistants.

 

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Each time the Russian was drilled under the bog, it came up with about a thousand years of history. The first section, we learned, could be dated by traces of Chernobyl’s nuclear accident and other pollutants of the industrial era. Each sample was placed in guttering, labelled and wrapped in cling film; we bored down, seeing how the dark top layers changed to become lighter and wetter as we got deeper.

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After five and a half metres, suspense deepened. Would we reach the boulder clay that was deposited when the last glaciers melted, with our final sample?

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Yes! Pale grey boulder clay was drawn up from six metres below.

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On 23rd April, the peat core became a conversation piece for a second Borderlands meeting at the Stove. The successive depths of the sample were shown with the Russian corer, alongside drawings I had made in anticipation of peat core analysis. As Lauren pointed out, our imperfect technique meant that this sample cannot be used for scientific purposes – but it offers much for artists to think with.

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The science Lauren uses for analysis of a peat core includes proxy measures which age the sample, providing ways to document changing environmental conditions through which the bog has developed.

One of these proxies are testate amoebae – microscopic protozoa with hard shells, in varied shapes. Different species flourish according to how wet or warm the living layer of the moss is.

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The books describe them as ‘vase-shaped’, making me speculate about potential Iron Age remains to be found amongst the amoebae.

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These became intertwined in my studio drawings, as I began to consider the ideas a peatcore may convey.

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Pollen grains in the core provide information about which species flourished as the bog grew, making beautiful shapes when seen under a microscope.

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I combined the idea of these pollen grains with Russian paisley patterns.

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Bog-bodies also came to mind as I prepared drawings in the same dimensions as Russian peat core samples. I would like these to accumulate into a new body of work.

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With thanks to Dr Lauren Parry and all who took part in the Borderlands 2 event, held with generous support of the Stove. This event and the ideas it generates will continue to be recorded on this blog.

 

 

Peatland Actions: questions of scale

It’s been great to do this project at the Stove.

If I’ve published in triplicate by accident, sorry + sorry + sorry… do let me know how not to!

Coinciding with the COP21 Climate Talks in Paris, The Stove’s exhibition Submerge has brought issues of climate change into the heart of Dumfries. With Nadiah Rosli, I have brought together two considerations of peatland – from the Solway and South East Asia.

The work also celebrates the form and function of bog-moss. With the dream of seeing restored peatland across Southern Scotland, I have become interested in how that curious and unique plant, Sphagnum, can be regenerated.

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Very few complete Mosses survive – for example only 15% of Lochar Moss by Dumfries remained as moss by 1973, compared to its extent in 1889 (source – Peter Norman, The Great Moss). Until recently Mosses have not been valued for their ‘ecosystem services’ but peatbogs are the most effective carbon sinks known. Conversely, peat releases greenhouse gases when it is exposed. Damaged Scottish peatlands are being restored using public money for climate mitigation – but at the same time, peat extraction is pursued privately. I see this, passing by on the A75 to Carlisle.

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For me, this grim landscape of carbon emission is a glimpse from the car window. Nadiah Rosli’s has had to breathe far more damaging airs – the thick toxic haze from fires raging in Indonesian carbon-rich peatlands. These affect countries in South East Asia, including Nadiah’s home country of Malaysia. This year is one of the worst years on record, and it has become a strange annual ritual for Nadiah’s family and friends to wear face masks and to stay indoors when the air pollution is particularly bad.

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The scale of this smoky haze can be seen from space, and huge carbon emissions result. It remains to be seen if the UN talks in Paris can require the Indonesian government to take action against this illegal burning of forest, that makes space for plantation monoculture.

Friends of the Earth International believe Indonesian fires to be one of the most pressing climate change issues. At Paris, they are calling on the EU and US governments to introduce and implement strong and binding laws in order to stop the fires.  You can read the report here, describing how EU shareholders are profiting.

Setting out extracts of these investigations next to each other has posed questions of scale, and thoughts about the comforts and discomforts of distance (in both space and time). In relatively short periods ecological damage to slowly formed natural heritage can become ‘normal’.

 

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Nadiah, now a University of Glasgow postgraduate student of Environment, Culture and Communication, explains why she urgently wants us to know about ‘extraordinary injuries … committed through deliberate acts’.  Her experience takes us into the emotional space of people for whom “Haze” has become an everyday weather condition, that can kill. Images of children in face masks at school compare with instagrams rejoicing at the sight of blue sky.

 

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There are also impacts on wildlife – a third of the worlds orang-utan population has been smothered, ancient rainforests wither in the heat, and skies are silenced of birds.

 

These scenes of devastation are hard to imagine, and difficult to hold in mind when set alongside a Scottish peat cut for the hearth. Yet in combination,  desiccation and fire becomes a disturbing theme amidst the watery concerns of Submerge.

 

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To return to Sphagnum, this moss is a kind of aqueous superhero which allows bogs to soak up flood water and release it slowly.

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Sphagnum has spongy cells, so dried-out strands can be submerged to absorb perhaps 20 times their own weight of water. Another statistic: a peat bog is perhaps 98% water and 2% moss. I am rapidly becoming an enthusiast for this rootless plant that survives only in dense upright mats and collectively creates peatlands.

 

These themes will be discussed at Questions of Scale – an evening event on Thursday 10 December. You can see Submerge at the Stove, Dumfries until 12 December, and download our exhibition notes here: QOS printout

for the love of … Sphagnum!

The Stove in Dumfries had a craftivism session last weekend for the forthcoming Stop Climate Chaos March  in Edinburgh. This was a heartening session of ‘slow-activism’ – helping me decide what I care to wear as a heart on my sleeve. This was the moment to declare a growing love for mosses, and Sphagnum in particular.

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Living with water is important around the Solway, and I’m learning that Sphagnum is a kind of aqueous super-hero. An individual Sphagnum moss is a strand of water-holding cells that can collectively create raised bogs many metres deep, over thousands of years.

Complete raised bogs are now rare. Dogden Moss in the Eastern Borders and Kirkconnel Flow west of Dumfries give hints of what the landscape in Southern Scotland was like before bogs were drained and dug. Beginning  a tour of mosses,  I have discovered the equivalent of mountain-top removal has been inflicted on them. My eye is getting tuned to tawny strips on the low horizon.

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Dogden’s gravelly kaims make a curving ridge between two moors, debris of rivers that flowed under ice sheets.  Woodcock sheltered in the heather and the moor houses shooting butts.

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I did not dare leave the footway across Kirkconnel Flow.

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Sphagnum in autumn colours, with frost later in the month.

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Close up, you see different shapes and colours of different sphagnum species, which in 3D stretch in watery suspension metres down to the underlying rock. A natural environmental archive of eight thousand years of watery life is underfoot.

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This human-made drainage ditch has been dammed, a recent reversal of policy. Peatland Action is a restoration programme co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage: the reasons to conserve peatbogs are beautifully laid out in the National Peatland Plan. Importantly, peatbogs sequester carbon and are sinks for atmospheric carbon. This process is starting in the blocked ditch at Kirkconnel, as Sphagnum strands start a slow and steady occupation.

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The Southern Upland Partnership has engineered  a “bringing together of minds” connecting those looking after trees, soils, and water quality (Peatland Action, the Forestry Commission, Galloway Fisheries Trust).

 

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Photograph courtesy of Southern Upland Partnership

Peatland Action has also included a Bugs on the Bog training event – getting local wildlife recorders enthused about bogs.
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 Photograph courtesy of Southern Upland Partnership

Across the Solway, Cumbrian Boglife is bringing raised bogs back to life.  At Wedholme Flow, moss starts to grow back over peat exposed by years of extraction.

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Wedholme Flow was covered by gossamer strands, with spiders spinning above.

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I will march with a Sphagnum heart on my sleeve next Saturday.  Also, I am inspired by craftivists, artists, bog enthusiasts, land managers and researchers  to look more at mossy carbon landscapes in southern Scotland.

My thanks to:  the Stove, Tabula Rasa Collaborations, Sarah Eno, Lauren Parry,  David Borthwick,  Pip Tabor.