Autumn on blanket bog

Autumn on blanket bog

Looking up to Cray Moss in low cloud © Lyndon Marquis

An autumnal transect across one of our restoration sites.

We're trying something new with our Bogcasts - just someone (me) walking a transect and recording the ambient noise. There's no talking; just whatever sounds happen while I'm there. I'll walk the same transect in winter, spring and summer to see (or rather hear) how those noises change across the year. I thought I'd put together a blog to accompany each recording so that you can see what I'm seeing as I walk.

I cannot hear a sound* in the still, cold air as I head out across the bog. The moor is bleak, cloud-shrouded, almost spectral; visibility has irised down to around 10 metres and it's all a bit Baskervilles...

There's still plenty of this year's bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) about. In summer, the flower spikes were tipped with vivid pyramids of sulphur-yellow stars. Now they are straw coloured, rattling, the leaves wilting to a pallid, glaucous smear across the bog. Fun asphodel fact: the species name ossifragum translates as bone-breaker. It was once believed that livestock grazing on bog asphodel would develop brittle bones; the condition was actually caused by calcium poor pasture.

*apart from squelching and sniffing

There's also an abundance of deergrass (Trichophorum germanicum [or possibly  cespitosum but distribution maps suggest not]). This forms tough, stalky humocks, green in the summer, banded green and ochre as autumn sweeps in. It is now turning a rather splendid (if somber) purple/black.

Common and hair's tail cottongrasses (Eriophorum angustifolium and vaginatum respectively) are abundant, the bobbing, white heads of "cotton" long gone, narrow, pointed leaves seeminly rusting with the season.

All three of these grasses are in fact sedges, which (as any botanist will tell you) have edges. If you roll the stems between thumb and forefinger you'll find that they are angular rather than round (like true grasses).

Heather (Calluna vulgaris) does not die back over winter but it does lose its colour, fading to a darker green, in places brown.

So is anything (apart from me) alive out here? Well, there's masses of crowberry (Empetrum nigrum). It is a member of the heather family; indeed, I have confused it with cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) in the past. The easiest diganostic (for me, anyway) is that the leaves are glossier and have a white stripe running the length of the underside.

And, of course, there's the habitat architect, sphagnum. There are at least four species around me, though my ID skills are only good enough to name two of them (and one of those is pretty much down to the fact it's colonising a pool). I suspect in better visibility and not in a hurry to get back off the moor before dark, I would find quite a few more (not to self: walk the winter transact in the morning).

Let's not forget, though, that dying vegetation is important in the formation of peat. The acidic, waterlogged conditions driven by the sphagnum mean that dead plants break down incredibly slowly, becoming peat as they do so.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this route changes across the seasons and (I hope) to hearing some birds in spring and summer. For now, as I believe a popular television show would have it, winter is coming.