Meeting Flora and Peat

Group of National Trust Rangers in Loweswater meadow

Recently our ranger team visited the haymeadows at Loweswater, and took me along with them. Here's what I found out:

With a gleeful rub of my hands and some small amount of self satisfaction at getting away from my desk, I recently met up with our Ranger team in Loweswater. They were spending the day identifying plant species for a better understanding of the significance of conservation and land management in our meadows and peatland -  or as I like to call it ‘meeting Flora and Peat’.

Notebook and pen - tick
Sandwiches - tick
Camera -  tick
Welly boots, er, no...waterproof trousers, um...midge repellent, ah.
Ready? Sort of.
If I thought I was going to spend the day simply wafting about in meadows looking at flowers in some floaty fuzzy-focus fashion I was a bit wide of the mark - this is a serious business you know!

Meadows and moss

Our day was split into two halves: in the morning we were looking at the hay meadows around the lakeshore and in the afternoon we were heading up onto Whiteoak Moss, in both locations learning about how land management and grazing regimes affect the diversity and health of the flora that’s present.

A rich meadow flower mix including red clover
Close up of meadow flowers including red clover

A tale of three fields

Flower-rich hay meadows are a rare thing these days and yet they are such an important habitat, sustaining diverse wildlife from invertebrates to song birds. The first meadow we snuffled about it in is directly on the lakeshore, where there is no use of fertilisers or cow muck as this could cause too many nutrients to get into the water which is detrimental to the health of the lake). Here we were able to identify at least half a dozen species of grass which provide the bulk of the crop in a meadow system, but also many broad-leaved herbs such as red clover, knapweed, eye bright, autumn hawksbit, sorrel and great burnet.

Ranger tests just how palatable sweet vernal-grass really is!
National Trust Ranger tastes sweet vernal grass

Down by the water

As we moved closer to the water the species came in marshier varieties with water mint, spearwort and ragged robin. Moving further in, into the water itself, we could just see the tips of water lobelia poking through the water, an indication that the no cows rule is working because water lobelia only grows in low nutrient tarns, hiding its shuttlecock of leaves below the surface.

Wellies needed to get a closer look at water lobelia!
John Hooson checking flora in shallows of Loweswater

Across the tracks

The second field under scrutiny is a short step across the farm track. We’re further from the lake here so while this field doesn’t get fertiliser on it either, it does see some muck-action (if you get my drift). To the untrained eye (my untrained eye, let’s be clear) this field looks much the same as the last. But, hang on, no, the more I look, the more I start to appreciate the difference. There's lots more yellow rattle and eyebright, less red clover and plenty of species from the previous field missing completely. It’s still very pretty, but there isn’t quite the same diversity.

A meadow mix dominated by yellow rattle and eyebright
Loweswater hay meadow with yellow rattle and eyebright

This is a traditional hay meadow in progress and they can take a very long time to develop, but it illustrates very well how a small change in usage can make for a difference species profile.

What have we got here then?
National Trust Ranger using eyeglass

The grass is greener

Field three is back next to the lake, so again no fertilisers but it is grazed year round except for approximately 10 weeks - the stock is fenced away from the water. The pasture is green here, really green. Grasses flourish when munched upon as their growth comes from the base not from the tip like the broad leaved herbs. Aha! So the reason I don’t see any yellow rattle for the first time this morning is because it has been grazed out.

Grazing is good for grass but less so for broad leaved herbs
Grazed sward in Loweswater meadow

It’s been a fascinating morning. Aside from getting up close with many beautiful plants in a stunning location, it’s been interesting to see three meadows with three different characters in one small area, all as a direct example of how each meadow is managed. Unbending my back and brushing down my damp knees I head back for my sandwiches feeling pleased that I understand better the relationship between the way we care for our land and the wildlife that thrives on it.

" How does the Meadow flower its bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its root, and in that freedom bold "
- William Wordsworth

The afternoon beckons

After lunch (ten of us eating our sandwiches in the site office, think snug!) we donned our wellies and waterproofs (note to self, never mind that it's July, always, always bring wellies and waterproofs!) for a hike up the old lead mine track past High Nook Tarn and onto Whiteoak Moss.

Looking down to High Nook Tarn
High Nook Tarn, Loweswater


A wild and ancient landscape in trouble

It was very soon clear that the flora of blanket bog and peatland is an entirely different kettle of fish to the hay meadows of the morning. There is not a lot of deep peat in the Lake District but this is one of the places where this special habitat can be found - however, you have to proceed with care. The whole area is cut with deep gullies and holes and ‘peat pipes’ where old drainage systems have allowed water to run underneath the peat causing areas of slippage and damage which the vegetation has a habit of hiding from the unwary.

Peat pipe erosion
Peat erosion, Whiteoak Moss, Lake District

Star moss and sphagnum moss are the very stuff of peat formation and there’s plenty to see up here. We bounced along in this sodden and undulating landscape, stopping to identify cranberries, bilberries galore and the odd tuft of cotton grass.

Sphagnum moss holds water like a sponge
Sphagnum moss at Whiteoak Moss, Lake District

A slow process

Well this is an ancient landscape, I was thinking to myself, we can’t impact on this surely? Wrong again. Controlling the amount of grazing on this bog is important to help keep it ecologically sustainable. While Whiteoak Moss has been slowly improving over the last 20 years, more time and careful management could allow it to flourish with even more spongey mosses, more cotton grass and more flowering plants such as Bog asphodel.

Sheep with peat-stained wooly coats
Sheep stained by peat, White Oak Moss, Lake District

Looking back on some forward thinking

To really see this process in action we climbed a little higher to monitor two exclosures that the Ranger team put in around15 to 20 years ago (and it was no mean feat getting the fencing materials up here to do it so I’m told!). The purpose of the exclosures is to have little experimental pieces of land where the grazers cannot get in and we can monitor what affect this has on the flora and fauna over the years.

Note the greener sward within the exclosure
Exclosure, Whiteoak Moss, Lake District

At first sight I was a bit disappointed if I’m honest. All I could see was a fenced off square of land that looked just the same as everything else around me. Had I learned nothing? Look closer!

The team were delighted for they could see that inside the exclosure there are:

•    new growths of heather
•    lots more large healthy mounds of crowberry and bilberry
•    nice palatable wavy hair grass (that presumably wouldn’t have stood a chance outside of the exclosure)
•    Buckler fern
•    Bog asphodel actually in flower
•    Much spongeyness and great structure which would be perfect for voles and mice

A satisfactory result which gives a window into the future for the whole area if over time grazing can continue to be reduced.

Bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum)
Bog asphodel in flower, Whiteoak Moss, Lake District

All in all it was a wonderful day spent with very knowledgeable people where I had the privilege to learn, literally in the field, how our conservation work is helping to strengthen and enrich the wildlife of the places we love.