Winter on blanket bog

Wharfedale panorama © Lyndon Marquis

A winter transect across one of our restoration sites.

Following on from our autumn bogcast, we're jumping straight to summer...

...just kidding, it's winter and once again you can listen to someone (me) walking a transect and recording the ambient noise. There's no talking; just whatever sounds happen while I'm there.

I walk the transect on the heels of Storm Ciara and the landscape is blanketed in white. Having imposed on the hospitality of Mountain Rescue enough for one lifetime, I am incredibly mindful of the conditions. I've specifically walked the route once already and more generally a few times previously so I have a feel for where terrain traps lie hidden in the snow; I am properly dressed for the weather and have plenty of food and drink; and I have left a decent route plan with the team.

Even reaching the transect is challenging. I am uncomfortable with the way the 4x4 slithers in the snow at the first incline. I don't feel confident I can safely drive the route, so I reverse down and park on level ground. Walking up the track, I start to question whether I have been too timid and then I hit a snowdrift. It is the first of many and perhaps 0.5 m deep on a tight, upward-banking left turn. It takes me 30 minutes to reach my starting point on foot, through multiple drifts and ice patches, constantly shifting my route to hug firm footing.

At the top of the track, a gate is pinned open by a snowdrift (see the picture above). The photograph is slightly deceptive - the ground drops away from the gate and the snow is actually at least 1.5 m deep.

Much like walking the autumn transect, I cannot hear a sound. More accurately, I can hear only one sound - the wind - that blots out everything else.

My eye traces the fence-line westwards, searching out patches of smooth snow without upstanding vegetation. There hasn't been time for thaw/freeze consolidation of the snowpack so these patches will likely be soft drifts to be avoided. I set out following the tussocks of this year's cottongrass where they stand proud of the white carpet. I am idly congratulating myself on my foresight when both boots plunge through the snow into blanket bog. Instantly my feet are  shockingly cold and I am trapped up to almost my knees. I push myself forward to get my body in contact with the ground, spreading my weight so that I can pull my feet free. This close to the surface of the snow, I can make out the scurrying of spindrift racing eastwards. "Oh, I can hear something over the wind!" Behind me, the two fresh foot-holes fill with peaty water.

I am concerned that the rest of my route will be a misery of cold, wet feet. The temperature drop was simply from the sudden plunge rather than water ingress, however, and my feet soon warm up again.

I continue to handrail the fence, sometimes close in, sometimes winding up to 10 m out. Cottongrass and heather are my depth guides - if I can see them, I'm on safe ground. It's a shame I can't see any deergrass; not for biodiversity, mind you, it's just that it goes black in winter and would make a lovely contrast in a picture. I can hear the distinctive crump crump crump you only get on solid snow, punctuated by my sinking up to my ankles, thankfully without any more deep plunges. The weather is a constant pressure against my face as I stride into it.

Looking back the way I've come, the cottongrass is all laid in the same direction, bowing eastwards in obeisance to the wind. I have not heard another living thing.

It is lovely to see the Dales in its winter raiment (if a little lacking in actual biodiversity interest right now). If you're out in these conditions, please make sure that a) you're properly equipped and b) someone knows where you are and when you'll be back.

I hope you enjoy this post and the accompanying bogcast enough to join me for the sping transect. We might actually hear some birds!