I’ve lived opposite The Pennines all my life and during the many lockdowns I became a bit obsessed with exploring the hills, trees, rivers and paths, literally every nook and cranny. The moors rarely change: the wind, the rattling heather, the carved rocks remain, and always remain. For me, when everything seemed so out of control, they were the one thing I could rely on. And now it’s my time to give something back, as I’ve just started doing some volunteer conservation work with RSPB Dove stones.
My patch, the Brushes Valley, was formed by glacial movement 50,000 years ago and includes the 2 hills, Harridge and Wild Bank; surrounded by rich peak bog moorland, stretching to a height of 500 metres. They are on the southern tip of Saddleworth Moor, an area famed for its fires and pouring rain. It’s an area that I’ve seen in all weathers: covered in thick white snow, glowing with purple heather in autumn light, and breathing out rich orange flames as they cough out misty red smoke in late summer. Passing Upper Swineshaw, over Iron Tongue Hill, across Broken Ground and then over to Indian’s Head brings you to Dove stones. Of course on volunteer days, I get the bus!
Volunteering at RSPB Dove stones
Conservation volunteering isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s proper hard-graft and you’re very exposed to the elements. I find being with the team – RSPB staff and volunteers – is both inspiring and interesting, there’s always plenty of banter and I’ve learnt so much. Here’s some of the jobs I’ve been involved in, a lot of which are new skills to me:
- Heather bales – peat bog restoration, damming up the water flow using heather bales; that job was so therapeutic the bog it was like butter when you dug into it, but crikey the smell! Read all about ‘Restoring Bogs’ here
- Sphagnum moss – translocating sphagnum moss, restoring areas back in to fully-functioning blanket bogs. More info on why this is important can be found here
- Willow pinning – provides a natural solution to peat erosion, helping to improve water quality, reduce carbon emissions and allow nature to thrive. Intern, Callum wrote this piece about Peatland Restoration using this technique
- Seed & berry collection – a bit less labourous than being up on the moors, we collected seeds & berries (loads of Knapweed, Rosehips and a few Hawthorn & Alder) to grow on and spread throughout the nature reserve
Manchester is well known for its astonishing amounts of rainfall; this is all down to The Pennines. This landscape is perfectly adapted to rainfall, and gives us the blanket bogs in return for the rain; it’s best described as a sponge, soaking up water and retaining it. But when the water has dried up the moors are dry as a bone and prone to wildfires.
Anything that lives up here, has to be tough as the hills themselves. The moors and surrounding hills are covered in rich purple heather, stubborn bilberry and ancient withered hawthorns. Most of the plants on moorland tend to be quite low lying, this is to contend with the pretty much constant wind and are adapted to live in permanently wet soil by growing on the sides of hills where the water tends to move away quicker.
The wildlife up here is just as tough, though most of it tends to migrate in the autumn, which means the moors are quite quiet in the winter. One very cool species that’s found there is the mountain hare, brown in summer, white in winter. Another all year-round species is red grouse, there’s no denying that these are proper moorland birds, and it’s very haunting to hear their call echoing over the moors in the fog. They are perfectly adapted to live in these harsh conditions, with their deep brown rich red colour that perfectly blends in with the environment.
The moors are Britain’s wet deserts, drowned by rain pretty much every day and howled by the winds. The rocks up there are incredible, ripped off the hillsides thousands of years ago by glacial retreat. They are being constantly carved out by the wind to give beautiful rippled patterns. That for me is the real essence of these moorland: tough, resilient and dynamic.
Once the moors dry out however they are like tinder and they can just go up with the slightest spark. The soil is very aerated, and the peat is really flammable. Wildfires have always happened, but I’ve seen it myself, more regularly than they used to. Some years there’s been as many as five fires, but the 2018 Saddleworth Moor fires were unbelievable: miles upon miles of moorland that took an army of fire personnel and volunteers to put them out. The natural world is where I feel safest and happiest, and watching it all go up is an assault on my heart. It’s painful to watch. It’s like watching your home burning.
When I find the remains of barbecues or see people lighting fires up on the moors, I feel anger and disappointment at the human race. I’m not an angry person by nature, but I can’t contain myself when I see the moors on fire. Now, whenever I hear a fire engine I wonder if the moors are on fire again. It’s not just the emotional impact either, the moors are home to countless rare bird species such as curlews, golden plovers, short eared owls and peregrines. The smoke also contributes heavily to climate change with masses of CO2 being sent high into the atmosphere. It makes me feel very guilty and overwhelmed, the human race and the damage we’re inflicting. But the moors give me hope, too. This planet has been here for billions of years, these moors rarely change. Life will find a way to survive.
The moors were the scene of my favourite lockdown experience: I was lucky enough to see one of the rarest birds in Europe, the bearded vulture. It was just so crazy, that on my moors I got to see one of the most unbelievable birds in the world. It was magnificent and what an epic adventure it was! After 6 unsuccessful attempts and many a painful mile walked, we spent an hour watching it yawn on its roost and then it took off like the Buckbeak the Hippogriff out of Harry Potter and flew low over our heads. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful in my life. I threw my hat in the air and whooped with joy. (Bearded Vulture pic by my mate and naturalist, Indy Kiemel Greene)
My moorland movie
I’ve photographed, blogged, filmed selfies and wrote poetry up on these moors and back in Feb 2021 I filmed this clip for Chris Packham & Megan McCubbin‘s Self-Isolating Bird Club. This was filmed and edited by my friends at Lizardfish TV.
This is an edited mash-up of a blog I wrote for Little Toller & the script from the vid above.
I’d love to hear about your patch, the flora, the fauna and especially if you’re involved in wildlife conservation. Comment below 😉