“ Address: Shropshire / West Midlands / England „
Whixall Moss, together with Fenn's and Bettisfield Mosses, on the English/Welsh border near the town of Whitchurch, are together the third largest 'lowland raised mire' in Britain. This is a wild, bleakly beautiful, but potentially hazardous place.
The term 'raised mire' indicates that the site is a peat bog raised above the surrounding countryside; a habitat that is globally threatened and extremely rare. The area is home to a unique range of endangered plant and animal species and has been designated as a National Nature Reserve in recognition of this.
The area is huge, covering over 2000 acres; a flat landscape that looks desolate but which is, in fact, teeming with life. The mosses are incredibly old. Formation of the mire started over 12,000 years ago. Mosses thrive on the saturated peat bed. When these die, the anoxic conditions prevent them decomposing completely; they form peat, adding to the existing layers, and slowly raising as a dome, above the surrounding fields.
At its maximum, the peat dome would have sat around 50 feet above its surroundings. Then, inevitably, humans intervened. Peat has been cut on site for four hundred years. The mosses have been drained to make this easier, and the dome has collapsed. 12,000 years of growth have been reversed in a relatively quick period.
All is not lost, however, as the site has been obtained by Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales. These two organisations have ceased the peat cutting, dammed the mosses, and are slowly reversing the centuries of damage.
Part of their remit has been to open up the site for visitors, for recreation and education. I believe that English Nature and the CCW have done a superb job here. There are several way marked paths around the reserve with entrances (and car parks) at two places. The paths are colour coded, circular routes that cover the most popular areas of the mosses, allowing walkers to experience this beautiful area in safety. Wellingtons are recommended, however, as the paths can be extremely soggy.
Visitors are warned to stay on the paths; the old peat cuttings have left a network of extremely deep ditches and ponds. An unwary step could lead to tragedy quite easily here. If, however, you are interested in open access to the whole reserve, a permit is available, and a very comprehensive map supplied to show you how to navigate the reserve safely. The permit can be obtained by contacting Dr Joan Daniels at Natural England.
For those who don't want to wander the mosses unaccompanied, Natural England runs many themed guided tours throughout the year. Here you will have expert guidance, telling you of the history of the mosses and the fascinating wildlife that can be found within.
The site has had a long association with humans due to its supply of peat. The preserving nature of the peat means that anyone unlucky enough to die here would have their body 'pickled', keeping it from rotting for thousands of years. In fact, three 'bog bodies' have been recovered from the mosses, all in the mid nineteenth century. One of these has been dated as approximately 2,000 years old! Other human artefacts have been recovered such as axe heads and even a wooden stool.
More recent human activity on the site occurred during World War II. The mosses were used for a dual purpose: as a rifle and bombing range, and as a decoy for the nearby city of Liverpool. Lights were lit to try to encourage the Germans that they were bombing Liverpudlians, rather than an empty bog!
The site is a haven for many rare species of animals. Perhaps the most infamous is the adder. The Whixall adders are almost black in appearance, a fact which used to annoy the old peat cutters who inadvertently encountered them basking on their stacked peat rolls!
Another of the mosses residents will not appeal to many people; the great raft spider. This spider is the largest found in Britain: an adult laid in the hand would cover the palm! These are not, however, aggressive or dangerous to humans. They are also only found living on and in the water, so are unlikely to be encountered.
Many birds live and breed on site. The bubbling call of the curlew and the strange song of the lapwing echo across the landscape during the spring and summer months. Cuckoo's sing their disyllabic song whilst hunting for meadow pipits nests in which to lay their eggs.
The spectacular hobby, a summer visiting falcon, can be seen from June to September. This incredibly aerobatic raptor can be breathtaking to watch as it catches dragonflies in mid air, and proceeds to eat them on the wing!
Insects are ubiquitous on the mosses. Over 2,000 species of moth have been recorded here as well as 27 species of butterfly. The site is nationally important for its dragonflies, too (a fact which the hobbies appreciate)! The 'white-faced' darter is common on the mosses, but rare elsewhere in Britain.
Some unwelcome insects live here too. In summer, to travel on to the mosses without applying insect repellent is to attract a variety of bites from midges, mosquitoes, cleg flies, and horse flies; ruining what could be a wonderfully peaceful walk (one can only imagine what the old peat cutters had to endure in the days before repellents were invented)!
And this is a wonderful place to walk. The site does not receive many visitors, and if you arrive in the early morning, it's possible that you will have the 2,000 acres to yourself.
Wandering around the reserve can be an almost spiritual experience. Standing in the middle of the mosses, the land is flat for miles around. In summer it will not be quiet, with the hum of the insects, the singing of the birds, and perhaps the scream of an unfortunate small mammal caught by one of the resident polecats. In the centre of the mosses, there are not even any trees. The vegetation consists of bog plants such as mosses and cotton grass, all low growing, and lushly green, with little to hide the view.
Despite the (natural) noise, and the activity of the birds and animals, a sense of peace and calm pervades this place. There's always a hint of danger here, with the need to watch out for adders and the deep, vegetation covered drains just waiting to trap the unwary, but this to me, is a place to relax and reflect. Reflect on the history of the mosses; 12,000 years of growth, of animals living and dying, and of people encroaching on this special place to earn a living or obtain fuel for their fires. A visit here always touches me and leaves me feeling calm and content.
There are, of course, no facilities on the site. The visitor here must bring everything they need with them. This is not then, a friendly nature reserve, with a café on site, for the family to spend a day out. But for the visitor who's properly prepared, the miles of paths networking through the mosses can be a fabulous place to visit. I travel here every summer and look forward to visiting this unique landscape almost as soon as I've left.
A reserve for peatland.