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  • Julie Muller

HOLBURN MOSS AND LAKE - (TD15 2UL) For Peat's Sake

Nearest post code TD15 2UL

A red welsh sheepdog sits amongst the bracken and grasses on Holburn Moss. It is a windy day and all of the sheepdog's fur  is being blown in the breeze.
Bruno surveys Holburn Moss

Bruno and I are always keen to explore new places and, when our humans took us up to St Cuthbert’s Cave, we knew that there was so much more to discover.

So, one afternoon, our humans decided that we would explore the hills and moorlands around St Cuthbert’s Wood. This is all part of Holburn Lake and Moss SSSI.

It was a glorious afternoon when we set out. The hillside was clothed in last season’s vegetation which created a mosaic of crispy bronze bracken, spent heather heads, and stands of brittle grasses all blowing in the wind. The hillside was also punctuated with bushes of deep green spiky gorse adorned with glorious bright yellow flowers.

Beneath our paws, the ground was quite dry, and in some places, we had to bound, dive through, and jump over the thick vegetation, but we were always careful not to disturb the wildlife that could be hiding there.

As we climbed higher up the slopes, we looked to see the Cheviot Hills softly focused in the afternoon sunshine.

The ground became damper beneath our paws and the soil was black and peaty. From the top of the ridge, we could see Holburn Lake just below us.

Two sheepdogs sit amongst the brown bracken and grasses on the slopes above Holburn Lake which is shining silver below
Shep and Bruno sit on the slopes above Holburn Lake in Northumberland

It seems strange to find a lake so high up on the hillside right in the middle of the moor, but this is because the water table is so high. The whole area is part of a huge mire and, beneath our paws there are thick layers of carbon-storing peat which began forming over 7,000 years ago. It takes a whole ten years to form one centimetre of peat. Peat is produced when there isn’t enough oxygen available to allow plant material to completely decompose. Over many years, this partially rotted plant matter forms thick layers which store a surprisingly large amount of carbon and also supports many special flora and fauna. These all come into their own as the seasons roll around. Such plants include white fluffy topped cotton grasses , sphagnum mosses of red, yellow, and green hues, and sulphur yellow coloured bog asphodel which was once thought to cause rickets in cattle and hence given the undeserved Latin name ‘ossifragum which means bone breaker. Such plants can survive on quite impoverished soils depleted in calcium, so the bog asphodel was only an indicator – not the cause for the cattle’s malaise.

In fact, the soil is so lacking in nutrients that certain plants growing here have developed carnivorous habits . The round leaved sun dew is one such plant. It secretes sticky dew with which it traps any unsuspecting insect which is tempted to land upon it. Once trapped, the sundew wraps its leaf around its victim and then begins to digest it.

I am glad that Bruno and I are too big to be digested but it just shows what a tough environment this is in which to live.

The importance of peat habitat has long been misunderstood and over multiple decades, many peatlands, like Holburn Moss have been ravaged by human’s ‘demand’ for peat. Apart from being an excellent fuel for cooking and heating, peat has become a trusted ‘friend’ to amateur and professional gardeners alike, because of its ability to hold onto water and nutrients and so keep plants healthy. Every year three million cubic metres of peat are sold in the UK – mostly to hobby gardeners. The peat is usually mixed in with compost. Of course, today, you can buy compost that doesn’t contain peat, and generally, it is just as good , as well as being much more environmentally sustainable

Excavating peat is not a good practice. Layers of peat take thousands of years to form but it takes no time at all for them to be removed. Usually, machines are used which strip away the top living layer and expose the layers of peat beneath them. These become oxidised as they are exposed to the air and lots of carbon dioxide , which we all know is a very damaging greenhouse gas, is released into the air. The peatland left behind usually dries out and so any wildlife dependent on it is either killed or evicted.

Holburn Lake itself was created about ninety years ago when its natural drainage channel was dammed. I would have loved to swim in the water, but our humans kept us well away from the water’s edge. It is actually a very important place because of the sheer numbers of wildfowl that visit it. One particular winter visitor, the grey lag goose, arrives here from Iceland in such enormous numbers that Holburn Lake has been given protection as a Special Protection Area (SPA). In past years, over 2,000 birds have been recorded although the current bird flu epidemic will probably have had a significant effect upon their numbers. This is why it is so crucial that we keep our distance from the wild birds. We don’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus.

The grey lag geese are so called because of their grey coloration and also because they tend to lag behind the other geese when it comes to migration. They are chiefly herbivorous and spend much of their time feeding which is probably because the food they eat is not particularly nutritious. Generally, they eat grass, leaves, grain, or cereal stubble but they will feast on crops if they get the chance. Parent birds show their chicks which foods are good to eat by pecking at them.

Greylag are the largest of the geese and were one of the first animals to be domesticated over 3,000 years ago . They were held in particularly high esteem by their human owners, and it is thought that sacred geese guarding Capitoline Hill were responsible for alerting the Roman guards to attack. Geese have also been linked to Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility , and probably as a direct result, goose fat was once used as an aphrodisiac. The things that humans do!!

We didn’t see any geese on the lake today as we were not allowed to venture too close to it. But often, on or morning walks, long before we see them flying overhead, we hear the geese, honking encouragement to each other, as they constantly change their position in the flock.

We always wondered where they might be heading -– maybe now we know!

A black and white sheepdog sits on a slope surrounded by last year's bronze  bracken fronds
Shep sits among the bronze bracken on the slopes of Holburn Moss

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