May 5. Gordon Moss SWT Nature Reserve, Berwickshire.
I went through a period of collecting nature reserves. I visited a new one whenever I could. At first I may have been imagining they would be full of tapdancing otters juggling freshwater crayfish, but I soon got over that. Next I had a ‘Why here?’ phase which would have involved locating and trying to appreciate what I learnt to call Intrinsic Ecological Value. And I have a BSC (hons) now (in Latin) which licenses me to locate, so I can square with you that there is no such thing. Instead nature reserves are affordable compromises between vaguely endangered habitats, land values and pervasive marketing by someone or other. And Intrinsic Ecological Value is something ecologists may feel when they are happy.
While this was going on I discovered nature reserves were good places to experience the strange connection between stuff and our experience of stuff This also happens for other people (and me too sometimes) in art galleries, libraries, and occasionally in sporting arenas . That sense of appreciation of involvement I’ve since been learning to find in other, familiar places and sometimes in nowhere at all.
I went to a new reserve today to try to wake up. I ve been out of step for a while, convalescing, reading and listening. About mass extinction, Rebellion, the anthropocene and its end, and maybe some things that seem like beginnnings .
So I disappeared into Gordon Feuars Moss for a few hours and will tell you what I found there.
If you just looked up Gordon Moss on the internet you ll have found the biog of some doctor, but scroll down and you might find some stuff about a Scottish Borders woodland. It has an interesting but typical history as a common for the local tenants – a piece of poor quality land ‘gifted’ by the local landowner at the time of enclosure to compensate for the traditional rights of subsistence grazing, hunting and gathering , which we have learnt to call trespass and poaching, which they had just ‘given up’. The word ‘Feuar’ echoes that history , a joint and several stewardship of something which is basically a sponge covered in small,stubby trees – which has, in its nature, proved resistant to profitable improvements.
I imagine the difficult legalities and permissions of common land will have aided its transfer into a SWT reserve, as will the obstinate nature of the stubbly sponge, now reclassified as lowland raised bog, one of the most rapidly disappearing habitats in the UK . While not exactly discouraging visitors, the current owners point out there are no improved access, paths and to beware of adders. I anticipate a quiet morning. There are no adders, but I wont be mentioning that to any dogowners.
And there are access paths but they are made by mammals who habitually move on all fours ( and by two legged ones who visit rarely, and not recently). I crouch and weave and bob into the tangle. Crossing the reserve is a disused railway track, which is like a score through the various attempts to domesticate the site – abandoned coppicings, pondweeded drainage-ditches, and embadgered spoil-sandpits – and now provides an anchoring point from which to plunge-dive into the trees.
There is something physically engaging about being in a nature reserve that probably exceeds the stretch of an art gallery or football match, and evokes the tense excitement of searching and ( sometimes,but not predictably) finding. The things I find may not be rare, and often they seem to capture me rather than the other way. Amongst the dimmed lights and myriad shadows, the movements of a warbler (constant, staccato) or a treecreeper ( vertical, clockwork) are engaging. A slight blueing of the green marks violets, a different brindle reveals the bark and leaf mounds of a birch covert raising itself up, or the remnant sphag bog of the past ( both the bogs and mine – how we loved that pun in our student days). If I stop to think about it, I am happy.
Yet I am also deeply sad. In 1980 I trained as an ecologist ( and learnt about Intrinsic Ecological Value) because I was aware of the cost of the anthropocene ( we might have called it ‘disturbing the balance of nature’). I was convinced of the imminent danger of the way we were living. Last week a political committee acknowledged the climate and environment catastrophe. The response highlighted on the radio news was that there were things that something called ‘Britain’ could select to do to make it go away. A technology centre in Cambridge hopes to increase carbon capture by replacing trees with improved android versions.
There are many things I reasonably believed when I was eighteen which haven’t happened , and were based on the evidence of others – nuclear war, or the end of Tory governments- but I can see for myself the increasing speed and scope of environmental change. Its already happened, its not a choice.
Gordon Moss, I can see is rapidly drying out. This type of habitat -lowland raised bog is increasingly rare. It is reclaimed for agricultural land, dug up for peat compost, or covered in conifer plantation. Because of its obstinate land tenure and drainage system, Gordon has avoided these. However the water table is falling quickly. In many ways this makes it a more pleasant place – drier. I didn’t need my wellies. The SWT have been able to cut out clearings to encourage violets that pearl bordered fritillaries ( a butterfly with a very specific and endangered lifestyle) may colonize. I find sycamore and hawthorn stretching down the rail track, the orange HI-VIS lichen of edgy-lands xanthoria climbing up the branches, the retreat of the sphagnum puddings, and huge exposed reed tussocks, left high and dry as the sponge dried out.
This does happen anyway, as far as we know. Ecologists largely believe in something called succession, which suggests that in time on a given site communities of organisms grow which are grander ( and possibly more intrisincally ecologically valuable) than before. I ve used the word ‘grander’ because when we get down to it, exactly what increases, numbers of species, size of species, amount of species, or cuddliness and photoopportunity of species seems a little unclear. And highly questionable. But we do mostly agree that in time bogs turn into woods.
However the speed of change is unprecedented. Those reed clumps raise themselves each year into tussocks above the surface of a raised bog. Usually the bog grows with them , and the sphagnum does the same , and the whole thing retains its moisture in the surface. But look at these below as I did – they are now nearly a metre above the surface of , well , its not a raised bog anymore, is it? South East Scotland simply doesnt have the rainfall to support this anymore and so , unless they are improbably or artificially watered, they are simply shrivelling up.
Almost any form of nature study now has a sense of mourning. My other possible activity that Sunday morning was a trip to Dunbar to see a spotted sandpiper. This is a rather elegant and delicate wading bird, described in the indelicate terminology of birding as a North American vagrant. It is a close relative of a bird we call the common sandpiper , which migrates from Africa to nest on shorelines of upland rivers and lochs in Northern Europe, at around the same time the spotted does the same on the other side of the Atlantic. I was reading about the common sandpiper here the week before.
One of the good things about the increasing numbers of birdwatchers is the record of population change and the ability to track migrations. Researchers have established substantial falls in the numbers of common sandpipers returning to their territories each year. Most disappear on the northerly migration, due to severe storms, or may have failed to build up condition for the journey due to reduced feeding opportunities in the mangrove swamps of West Africa. They disappear into, or across the ocean. And it appears that spotted sandpipers, first identified in Scotland in 1974, are increasingly doing the same. A rare bird will bring a crowd of birders to photograph and record it , in a way which the absence of a commonplace one will not. But both are an absence. The spotted at Dunbar will not be in Saskatchewan , not be breeding, and will pitch into the sea sometime on its return journey south and west
Twitchers, the more determined and performative birdwatchers, will be alerted by severe storms and weather patterns to the possibility of a specimen of a new species being blown ashore, to be recorded in their notebooks, and then die. They rarely read about the lifestyles, habitat or precariousness of the vagrants they encounter. I’ve yet to hear of a birder carbon-offsetting their journey or mourning the coming death of the creature they make a record photo of. But perhaps, as the disquiet increases, this might change.
My own quest with my hobbies is to find a way I can acknowledge beauty and loss at the same time. I think it is about the uniqueness of each encounter, and the precariousness of it. Gordon will not the same if I return in five years. If I return in ten it may not be a bog , but a wood. So we have this moment together only, and are already always saying goodbye to something we love.