Late Spring on Whixall Moss

The first post on this new blog describes my visit to Whixall Moss at the beginning of June 2020. It was not my first visit to the Mosses as I’ve been walking there, talking to people and making artworks for a few years now. It was, though, my first visit for several months, and the first since the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown were eased.

In other posts I will review some of the work I have done already in response to walks and other research at the Mosses and what future arts activities I am planning both here, and in collaboration with artist, Kim V. Goldsmith and her work at the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, Australia.

I will be talking to different people, walking the landscape, studying data and research, and I will continue to make responses through a series of my own artworks and by involving other artists. Over time, I will be exploring what environmental issues these sites are facing, what the human impacts and interactions with the landscape are, and how the relationship between humans and non-humans might evolve in future. I hope that by sharing this, it will raise awareness and start a wider engagement and discussion of these issues.

Rain gauge at weather station on Whixall Moss, part of an international network monitoring climate change

But first, I am going to provide an up to date snapshot of my research on the site visit.

The weather throughout most of April and May had been near perfect dry sunshine. However, during my visit in early June, there were a few passing light rain showers and the wind became quite strong. Many birds, butterflies and flying insects were keeping a low profile, so it was a slightly disappointing visit from a wildlife observation point of view, but there was more than enough interest to keep me busy over what turned out to be about 5 hours on site.

I have a few different areas of interest and research themes

  • History of human impacts, primarily at the Furber’s scrapyard and past peat extraction activities
  • Role of the raised peat bog in mitigating climate change
  • Engaging with people and gathering responses to the Mosses
  • Water management
  • Birds and other wildlife

My main objectives for my visit were:

  • Monitor restoration works at the Furber’s Scrapyard
  • Visit the Starfish WW2 site
  • Collect some materials for making dyes and paper
  • Record some sound and video, and take photographs – I always take loads!

Even before I began thinking about any art projects I was fascinated by the car breakers yard at Whixall Moss – it stood out like a sore thumb against the starkly beautiful landscape. I later began documenting restoration work by its new owners, Shropshire Wildlife Trust from around 2017 onwards. See posts on my No Time Like the Present blog here and here.

On this visit, I noted that most of the piles of silver birch trees had been removed. These have been cut down all around the Mosses as part of Natural England’s BogLIFE project because birches and other pioneer species are very effective at drawing water from the ground which prevents conditions developing for the reestablishment of sphagnum moss. I gathered birch bark in order to make a dye for painting canvases and for making paper.

Work on covering the area adjacent to the concrete hardstanding with soil had to be halted earlier in the year because of wet conditions and then, I guess the lockdown prevented further progress. But I could see that some areas had been covered. Meanwhile, willows, birches, reeds, bog cotton and other plants were getting well established on the concrete already.

On one of my earlier visits, I had seen a bitumen tanker left suspended amongst the trees adjacent to the scrap yard.

Tanker in the trees, 2018

The remains of the tanker have been left on the concrete slab, and it was hoped to incorporate it into a sculpture but the corroded metal has become unstable and unable to contain the bitumen which softens and flows in the warm sun. It will be covered over as part of the restoration works. For the time being, it is still a fascinating installation – an ironic reminder that this icon of oil exploitation will be returning to its origins in a peat bog.

On returning to Morris Bridge, I had a long discussion with John Roberts. He was in the garden of the bungalow he built when he moved here in 1958. He had lived in the area all his life, his son worked at Furber’s Yard for over 30 years and his family had worked in peat extraction for many years. More on our conversation in other posts, but it was very interesting to hear another perspective on the value of the Mosses in supporting livelihoods for generations.

On my various walks around the Mosses, I had passed along paths forming part of the History Trail, but I haven’t yet followed the whole route. There wasn’t time in the end to do all of it this time either, but I did walk the western portion mainly to see the Strategic Starfish site. This array of portable fire baskets was constructed in 1940 as a decoy against German Luftwaffe bombers heading for Manchester, Crewe and Merseyside. The sculptural installation of wire baskets is hauntingly beautiful on this windswept peatland, now acting as perches for stonechats and other birds.

The most striking feature of my visit was the abundance of haretail cotton sedge or bog cotton. There were swathes of it around pools, energised by the strong winds.