Doing environmental history for peat’s sake

with Dr. John Morgan

One of the best parts of being an environmental historian is getting my boots on and getting outside. My third-year course, ‘Fire Famine and Flood: An Environmental History of England, 1500-1800’ provided ample opportunity for this again this year, as we took a trip to visit the Lancashire Wildlife Trust at Cadishead and Little Woolden Moss.

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Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Mike Longden explains the ecology of the moss

Cadishead and Little Woolden Moss was once part of one of the largest lowland raised bogs in England. Chat Moss, as it was known, was a vast expanse of peat and sphagnum moss stretching across the western reaches of what is now Greater Manchester. Peat bogs were once common to the west of England and Wales, with large expanses stretching out across Cheshire and into the Welsh Marches, and in the South West on the Somerset Levels. They now form a disjointed patchwork, as a result of extensive drainage and extraction for fuel and horticultural use over the last two centuries.

Mosslands are important. They provide habitats for rare species of crickets and jumping spiders. They hold water and prevent downstream flooding. Where the peat is still growing, mosslands absorb carbon dioxide. And for the historian, they preserve artefacts immaculately. We saw a 5,000 year-old bog oak, and heard about the many things – human and non-human – that have risen from the peat. But for all their importance, mosslands are in danger. Just three per cent of the lowland raised peat bogs of the north west remain intact.

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Up close with a bog oak

We were out on a windy Wednesday afternoon to learn about what these mosses might have been like five hundred years ago. We had read that they were useful landscapes, valued, fought over and jealously guarded from incursion in the later sixteenth century. This was a time when extraction took place, but at a rate far less damaging than in more recent centuries. In fact, the bog was so healthy and growing so much during the early modern period that it spectacularly burst in 1526. Near contemporary accounts, like those held in the John Rylands Library here at the University, report large chunks of peat being flung into the Mersey and washed up as far as the northern coast of Ireland. Yet the flat, black earth of the modern peatland was in stark contrast to the vivid colours of the peat maps we had looked at, and reminded us that without the work of organisations like the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, such landscapes might never return.

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Sphagnum moss growing next to a bog oak

We reflected on the trip in the warmth and shelter of our seminar room last Friday. A number of points came across clearly in that discussion. We all valued being outside, getting our hands and feet on history. There was something about bouncing and springing on the spongy peat that taught us about the uniqueness of this landscape that reading about it couldn’t. Students really enjoyed learning from Mike Longden, the Chat Moss Project Officer, about a landscape that is very much for the future, and not just something for our seminar discussions.

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HIST31711 braving the cold!

But above all there was a sense that being out on the peat put us in our place. It put us at the heart of an environmental transformation that started thousands of years ago and swerved dramatically in the last few hundred. It put us in a place that is at the heart of climate change. While the peat is dry, historic carbon stored within it enters the atmosphere every time the wind blows; once it is wet it starts to grow, accumulating Sphagnum moss and storing atmospheric carbon. We realised that as historians we can do something about this. We can tell human stories of environmental change that engage communities with these precious but often unloved landscapes, and we can reconstruct past ecologies and contribute to restoration and reintroduction programmes. These actions can help keep the peat wet and the carbon captured. But whether we choose to do this or not is up to us. As my students and I came to realise, and as the recent IPCC report showed, the stakes could not be higher.

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