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Whixall Moss

Whixall Moss can be seen from space.

Fenn's, Whixall, Bettisfield, Wem & Cadney Mosses form Britain's third largest lowland raised bog and are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Mosses, at 948 hectares (2340 acres), are so big that they are visible from space. Only Thorne Moors and Hatfield Chase near Doncaster are bigger.

The Mosses are so important for their rare bog wildlife, that they are also a candidate Special Area of Conservation under the European Habitats Directive and a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

The public own and lease the central 635 hectares (1570 acres) of the Mosses, which is being managed by English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) as a National Nature Reserve (NNR). It is one of the 'jewels in the crown' of British wildlife. The remainder of the SSSI, Wem Moss and part of the Canal & River Trust's (formally British Waterways) busy Llangollen Canal are owned by other parties amongst whom are Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

In December 1990, after a public campaign to save the site, the centre of the Mosses was rescued from near-destruction by large-scale commercial peat cutting. Since then, English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales have embarked on the massive task of repairing the damage done by decades of drainage for farming, forestry and peat cutting.

Now, where bog conditions have been restored, nature is bouncing back. Bog plants and animals are returning and active peat formation is under way again.

Five names for one quagmire

The Mosses used to be one huge lowland raised bog, a quagmire 2.5 km (1.6 miles) wide and 8 km (5 miles) long, which ran from near Fenn's Bank down to Lyneal. Man's activities have cut the bog up, causing its collapse and destroying over a third of it.

Fenn's and Cadney Mosses lie in Wales, Whixall and Wem Mosses in England, and Bettisfield Moss in both, but few can find the border which is a narrow drain, one of thousands on the Mosses, dug in 1826. This artificial boundary separates Fenn's Moss from Whixall Moss, the two halves of Bettisfield Moss, and Cadney Moss from Wem Moss. The Llangollen Canal divided Fenn's & Whixall from Bettisfield Moss in 1807. A narrow neck of peat separates Bettisfield Moss from Wem and Cadney Mosses.

Different land uses have now made each Moss distinct, the huge flat open commercial peat cuttings and marginal forestry of Fenn's Moss, the intricate hand peat cuttings, scrub woodland and small-scale pasture land of Whixall Moss, the wonderful uncut and old hand-cut peat and marginal self-sown pines and birch of Bettisfield Moss, the agriculture and forestry of Cadney Moss and the secluded domes of Wem Moss, sheltered in surrounding alder carr woodland.

Peat, pollen and pickled pines

Sphagnum's water storage cells, its branching pattern and the way the plants cluster together, holding rainwater like a sponge, water-log its habitat, so that dry-land plants no longer can grow. Moreover, when it rains, bogmoss quickly strips all nutrients out of the rainwater, exchanging them for hydrogen ions from its cell walls. This makes the bog water extremely acid like vinegar, slowing down decomposition by fungi, bacteria and microbes. As the bogmoss grows, year after year, its highly resistant remains and those of other bog plants become pickled, layer-on-layer, century-by-century, to form peat.

The local peat cutters have named the progression seen in deeper peats on the Mosses from basal 'coal' (lake deposits) to 'black peat' (fen and swamp peat), then 'grey peat' (well rotted bogmoss-peat, formed in a dry warm climate) to the upper layers of 'white peat' (well preserved bogmoss-peat, formed in the cool wet climate after 500 BC).

Pollen grains of different plants have easily recognisable resistant cell walls. Pollen, from plants growing on and around the Mosses, falls onto the bog in rainfall. It gets pickled in the layers of peat, recording the development of our landscape, climate change and man's activities almost back to the last glaciation, 12,500 years ago - far beyond the reach of history books.

The Mosses, at the southern climatic limit of raised bog growth, have always been sensitive recorders of climate change. Three thousand four hundred years ago, in a dry period lasting c. 250 years, a pine forest, visible in peat cuttings, invaded in a band across the centre of the bog. A change to a wetter climate allowed the peat to grow again, overwhelming the trees.

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