First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
‘We’ve done something quite special here,’ says Pete Bowyer, senior manager at Fenn’s Moss National Nature Reserve, with modest pride. ‘Pretty much the whole bog had been wrecked and destroyed, and we’ve gradually brought it back to life.’
If there’s one outstanding example of how conservation can work to dramatic effect, it’s here on the borders of Shropshire and Clwyd, where England and Wales rub shoulders. Fenn’s, Whixall and their neighbouring ‘mosses’ form over 2,000 acres of raised bog, a rare landscape brought into being by the growth of sphagnum mosses that trap and hold rainwater.
We set out along the NNR’s History Trail. It’s a juicy and squelchy environment, a vast cushion of carbon-absorbing sphagnum where butterflies, spiders, wetland birds and flowers throve undisturbed for 10,000 years after the last Ice Age – the mosses were too deep, sodden and dangerous for man to do more than a little wildfowling and fishing. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries came commercial drainage and peat harvesting on a massive scale.
We passed scrubby areas of irregular banks, where peat was hand-cut by local villagers – ‘Whixall Bibles,’ they called the square black slabs of peat. Further out were vast acreages of bleached grass, heather and bog cotton, golden spatters of bog asphodel, oily black bog pools where dragonflies skimmed, and big skies full of swifts and swallows. Overhead sped the intent dark crescent shapes of hobbies, slender birds of prey hunting dragonflies to munch on the wing.
We walked the Long Mile and the old railway track to Fenn Old Peat Works, a skeleton shed holding rusty old pulley wheels, conveyors and ramps, the derelict rump of destructive industry. Harebells, mulleins, heath spotted orchids and yellow loosestrife clustered here.
Back on the bog track we crossed the regrown heath of Oaf’s Orchard. Rusted wire baskets once held incendiary devices to trick wartime German raiders into dropping their bombs on the ‘useless wasteland’ of the bog.
Walking the homeward tracks across the moss it was hard to credit that this wonderful multi-coloured world of busy wildlife, buzzing and calling, was a dead black desert only forty years ago, cut and dried and abandoned. The painstaking work of professional conservationists and the volunteers that help them, the water management, the restoration of vegetation and encouragement of wildlife have combined to work a miracle in the Welsh Borders.
Start: Manor House NNR Base car park, Whixall, Salop SY13 2PD (OS ref SJ 505366)
Getting there: From Wem, follow ‘Whixall,’ then ‘NNR Base’ and brown NNR signs.
Walk (9¼ miles, level paths, OS Explorer 241): Obtain ‘History Trail’ leaflet from Manor House office or dispenser, or download at publications.naturalengland.org.uk.
From car park, down drive, right at road for 500m to Post 1 beside gate (498364); follow History Trail clockwise to Post 21(504368). Left along Long Mile green lane. In nearly 1 mile, left at post with arrows and dog notice (505382); in ½ mile, left (497381) along railway path. In 1½ miles left at Fenn’s Old Peat Works (478367), heading SE on Mosses Trail. In nearly 1 mile, right at Post 10 (487355). At Post 11 (485354), left to Llangollen Canal (485353); left to Roving Bridge junction (488352). Fork left (‘Hurleston’). In ¼ mile, left at Morris’s Bridge (493354, green arrow) on green lane. In 300m pass gate (492356); at Post 8, right (490358). At Post 6, left (496363) and retrace outward walk to Manor House.
Conditions: Can be wet and muddy.
Info: Manor House NNR Base (01948-880362);
first-nature.com/waleswildlife/n-nnr-fenns-whixall.php; shropshiresgreatoutdoors.co.uk satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk