Natural England - Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR

Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR

Straddling the English border, near Whitchurch in Shropshire and Wrexham in Wales, lies one of the biggest and best raised bogs in Britain. Its astonishingly varied wildlife makes it a place of international importance

Fenn

County: Shropshire

Main habitats: Lowland raised bog, wet woodland, wet peaty fields, heathland and Teesdalia grassland.

Area: 948 ha

Why visit: Fenn’s, Whixall, Bettisfield, Wem and Cadney Mosses Site of Special Scientific Interest is the third largest area of raised bog wilderness in Britain, at 948 hectares in size. The site is a Special Area of Conservation: (95kb)pdf document (SAC) for its habitat, and is part of a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
Fenn’s and Whixall National Nature Reserve, the central 675ha of the SAC, has been rescued after near destruction by large-scale commercial peat-cutting and by drainage for agriculture and forestry.  A national campaign and 22 years of intensive conservation ‒ focussed in particular on raising water levels ‒ have safeguarded this priceless treasure and its wonderful boggy biodiversity for the future.

Lowland raised bogs are slow-growing domes of Sphagnum bogmoss peat, fed only by rainwater. Bogmoss absorbs and acidifies the rain, water-logging the peat surface so only specialised plants and animals survive. Dying plants, and pollen from vegetation on and around the bogs, become ‘pickled’ as layers of peat, forming giant storybooks of the last 12,000 years. The 8m of peat on the Mosses has yielded more bog bodies than any other bog in Britain!

Re-wetting the bog not only preserves this irreplaceable record of the past but keeps the peat’s carbon in the bog, assisting in the fight against climate change, and also provides valuable water regulatory services.

The gradation from marginal peaty fields and wet woodland through scrub to the central open bog supports ca. 2,500 species of plants and animals, of which more than 2000 are insects, including 96 rare or vulnerable ones.

This miracle of a Reserve is testimony to how careful human intervention can help reverse damage and promote self-sustaining diversity.  It reminds us all why it is so important to use alternatives to peat in our gardens.

Star species: The Reserve has 18 species of bog moss, as well as many other characteristic bog plants, such as the insect-eating round-leaved sundew, and more uncommon plants, too, like bog asphodel, bog rosemary, lesser bladderwort, white-beaked sedge, the rare mosses Dicranum bergeri and D.leioneuron and regionally rare golden bogmoss Sphagnum pulchrum.

The nearest other areas of Teesdalia grassland are the Breckland and the Welsh coast.

Cloudberry grows at a much lower altitude than at its principal upland sites, and northern species like crowberry meet southern ones like cranberry, reflecting the location of the Mosses at the southern limit of raised bog growth.

Invertebrates are thriving after the restoration of the bog, including raft spider, the window-winged sedge caddisfly, and 29 species of dragonfly and damselfly. True bog specialists, including the white-faced darter dragonfly and very rare picture-winged bog craneflies, are now back from the brink of extinction.

There are also 670 different species of moth including the pretty little purple-bordered gold, the northern footman, dingy mocha and Manchester treble-bar. The 32 species of butterfly include the unmistakable brimstone, the green hairstreak and the real bog butterfly - the large heath, which lives on cotton sedge and cross-leaved heath.

Adders and common lizard are also thriving. With the restoration of water levels, there have been major changes in the birdlife of the Mosses, the 166 recorded species including wetland birds such as breeding curlew, teal and shoveller. There have been many more sightings of raptors including hen harrier and hobby and over-wintering short-eared owl.

The richer outflow ditches of the Mosses are a stronghold for watervoles.

Seasonal highlights

Spring

Pools with floating feathery bogmoss turn white in spring with fluffy flowers of common and hare's-tail cotton sedge. In February, yellow brimstone butterflies emerge from trackside alder buckthorn bushes, and in April green hairstreak butterflies flit amongst the birch.
From May onward, the unmissable large yellow four-spot chaser dragonflies patrol the pools, and large red damselflies start the succession which make the Mosses one of Britain’s best dragonfly sites.

Out on the central Mosses, warm spring weather tempts Britain’s only venomous snake, the adder out from its winter slumber to bask on track sides. Common frog, common lizard, small mammals and birds’ eggs are welcome food for the darker female adders, camouflaged to sun themselves against the peat.
Spot brown hare boxing in fields around the bog in March or later nibbling on central mown tracks and seeking cover in purple moor-grass.

The noise of spring on the open Mosses is the plaintive bubbling call of the curlew. Mallard, teal, Canada geese and other wildfowl begin to breed, and reed bunting display on bushes. Meadow pipit nests host eggs of cuckoo, whose call is often heard. Song of tree pipit, wren, robin, whitethroat, garden warbler, blackcap, chiffchaff, willow warbler and yellow hammer fills spring morning air in scrub and woodland on the outer Mosses.

Summer

On restored old hand-cuttings, tiny pink-flowered cranberry, golden-flowered bog asphodel, tiny bead-flowered white-beaked sedge and glistening insect-eating round-leaved sundew herald warmer weather. The pretty bell-shaped flowers of grey-green cross-leaved heath colour the Mosses pink in June.  August then sees dark-green heather turning drier peat areas purple.

In deep pools, the once common yellow-flowered lesser bladderwort supplements its rainwater diet with water fleas.

All summer long, the air drones as one species of insect after another emerges. In June the white-faced darter lays its eggs in bogmoss, where big stripy raft spiders stalk and uncountable azure and common blue damselflies fly, providing food for the acrobatic hobby.  Larger dragonflies abound, including southern, brown and common hawkers and the brilliant blue of Britain’s largest dragonfly, the emperor.

Listen for the ‘singing’ of bog bush crickets and glimpse the golden flash of Britain’s rarest window-winged sedge caddisfly.

In late June, look for the specially spotty davus sub-species of Britain’s most southerly colony of large heath butterfly, manically flitting from egg-laying on hare’s-tail cotton sedge to sipping nectar from cross-leaved heath.

Buzzards spiral on warm days on overhead thermals, and as dusk falls and flocks fly in to roost upon the Mosses. The eerie two-tone chirr of nightjar betrays the race with pipistrelle and Daubenton’s bats to feast as ghostly-pale fluttering moths take wing.

Autumn

Bracken and birch lend glowing autumn hues to dried-out areas, where penny buns and fly agaric fungi speckle the ground. Black darter dragonflies persist until the first frosts. Each year wheatear return and passage migrants fly in, including green sandpiper, greenshank, redshank and ruff, with occasional golden plover and spotted redshank, all easy prey for peregrine falcons.

Winter

Swathes of purple moor-grass bleach the winter landscape white. Birch brackets silhouette against the sky. Relict lawns of bright-green papillose bogmoss, red bogmoss and russet Magellanic bogmoss swell.

Bird visitors include short-eared owls, marsh and hen harriers and merlin. Snipe and jacksnipe fly up from flooded peat cuttings and the peep of resident flocks of teal carries on the air. Flocks of long-tailed and other tits mill round in marginal trees and scrub, where woodcock hide. Redpoll and siskin feed in marginal alders along the canal.

History

The bog developed in a sandy depression of outwash sand between two glacial moraines. High groundwater levels in the southern part of the depression formed a lake, the algae from which sealed the sand with lake clay, retaining the wetland as the climate warmed and dried up. Starting about 10000 years ago in the south at Wem Moss, the shallow lake filled with plant remains, until bogmoss could invade, encouraging the rapid accumulation of peat. This impeded drainage flowing down the depression and allowed the bog to spread northward and outward over the next 8,000 years.

Peat cutting has created a unique culture in this area. In early medieval times, persistence of the Mercian wildwood round the Mosses lessened the need for peat as fuel.  The earliest records of peat cutting are from the 1570s, with sales of peat outside the Manor only after the 1650s.

The Mosses belonged to the Lords of the Manors, the Hills in England and the Hanmers in Wales. Local opposition in 1704 staunched their attempt to enclose Whixall Moss by agreement, and only outer areas were drained and improved. In 1777 Fenn’s and Bettisfield Mosses, and in 1823 Whixall Moss, were enclosed by Parliamentary Enclosure Acts. Common rights were extinguished, and blocks of Mossland allocated to specific householders and the Lords of the Manors. The drains marking out each allocation caused the collapse of the massive dome of the bog.

The Hanmer family later rented their allocation of most of Fenn’s Moss to a succession of commercial peat-cutting firms (and now to Natural Resources Wales), whereas Sir John Hill, followed by the Wardle family, rented the smaller centre of Whixall Moss to local families on an “acre by acre” basis, for domestic and small-scale commercial peat cutting.
 
Large-scale commercial exploitation of the Mosses had to await the arrival of the Llangollen canal in 1803 and then the railway, floated across the Mosses in 1863, to take cut peat to market. Peat cutters burned their cutting areas in winter to protect their stacked peat from summer wildfires caused by trains.

The Mosses have remains of ten rifle ranges, the earliest preceding World War 1. Cutting peat for fuel and horse bedding was a reserved occupation during the wars. Bogmoss was also commonly used as a sterile wound dressing. In World War 2, North East Fenn’s Moss was a practice incendiary bombing range. A strategic ‘starfish’ decoy site on the Moss, where peat would be set alight, was intended to divert German bombers from Liverpool.

Ironically peat cutting saved the Mosses’ bog wildlife from total destruction by forestry or agriculture. A succession of commercial peat firms cut Fenn’s Moss from 1851 until the Mosses were rescued for wildlife conservation in December 1990.

The Fenn’s Old Works, held milling and baling machinery for peat drawn off the Moss on the 2-foot narrow-gauge railway. In the 1920s the Midland Moss Litter Company cut the Fenn’s Moss main drain and a regular system of Dutch flats and drains, which caused the collapse of Fenn’s Moss.

The L. S. Becket Company bought Whixall Moss in 1956 and acquired the lease of Fenn’s Moss in 1962. Dexta tractors carried peat to the Manor House Works for distribution by road. From 1968 a peat-cutting machine increased the rate of extraction from the 1000 acres of Fenn’s Moss from around 10 hectares (25 acres) per year to around 30 ha (75 acres), but even so bog wildlife could survive on unworked areas.

However, after a fourfold rental increase, in 1989 Croxden Horticultural Products took over, working 140 ha (350 acres) per year and opening up old drains on a further 120 ha (300 acres). The Mossland wildlife was laid waste.

There was a national outcry amongst conservationists and in 1990 the Nature Conservancy Council bought the company out. All mechanised peat cutting was stopped and restoration of the bog began.

Management of the reserve

When the bog was drained for peat cutting, forestry and agriculture, dry-land plants such as trees and bracken invaded, shading out bog plants. The trees also evaporate water very quickly from the bog. In order to restore the bog, trees, forests and scrub on the NNR peat are felled and cleared. All the peat-cuttings and ditches are dammed with peat, to raise water levels to within 10 cm of the peat surface. U-shaped pipes are installed to conduct excess storm water off into the arterial drainage network and weirs are constructed in the main drains to raise water levels. Restored water levels encourage re-colonisation by bogmoss and cotton sedges and then other bog plants, birds and insects follow.

Another problem has been the channelling of mineral-rich surface water and groundwater from surrounding land into the bog, rotting the peat and allowing fen, swamp and willow and alder woodland to take over from the uncompetitive rainwater-fed bog plants. Where possible this rich water is channelled back near the edge of the bog to restore the correct water chemistry to its centre.

How to get there

The Reserve lies 6.5 km south west of Whitchurch and 16 km south west of Wrexham, south of the A495 between Fenn's Bank, Whixall and Bettisfield.

By train

The nearest station is Prees, 4 miles away.

By bus

Hourly bus services from Shrewsbury to Wem to Whitchurch stop at Tilstock, 3 miles from the Reserve, except on Sundays. On Mondays and Fridays, Shropshire Link provides a demand responsive service into Whixall from Wem, Ellesmere and Whitchurch (0845 678 9068).

By bike

The reserve is near Route 45 of the Sustrans National Cycle Network.  

Visiting the reserve

There is roadside parking at 10 different entrances, small car parks at Morris’s Bridge (SJ493355), Roundthorn Bridge (SJ501357) and World’s End (SJ480348) and a large car and coach park at the Manor House NNR Base (SJ505366). Car parks have cycle racks.

The Mosses offer flat soft-surface easy level walking on mown tracks, but walking boots or wellingtons are recommended.

Tracks are accessed through squeeze gaps. The easy access canal towpath is accessible by ramp/path from the Morris's and Roundthorn Bridge car parks and leads to the Whixall Moss boardwalk. Disabled people can also drive along the level stoned old railway line by arrangement.

Three interlinking Mosses Trails explore the towpaths of the canal and Fenns and Whixall Mosses, starting at Morris’s and Roundthorn Bridge car parks, the Manor House or the Fenn’s Old Works. The Bettisfield Moss Trails leave from World’s End car park (SJ480348) and the History Trail from Manor House and the Shed Yard (SJ503368). Access off the trails is by free lifetime permit, available from the Manor House NNR Base (Tel 01948 880362 or email paul.huxley@naturalengland.org.uk).

There are pubs and small shops nearby.

The natural environment can be hazardous. Please:

  • Keep to the way-marked routes. The Mosses are riddled with deep, flooded and partly vegetated ditches. Do not attempt to walk along flooded tracks.
  • Do not smoke on the Mosses at any time of the year. Even small fires can cause extensive damage.
  • Watch out for adders. If bitten keep calm and seek medical attention.
  • Do not collect plants or animals.
  • Keep dogs on a lead from March to July, and otherwise at heel.
  • Watch out for canal mooring ropes, metalwork, projecting roots and branches, tree stumps, holes and tussocks.

School and community groups

A limited service may be offered for guided visits for immediately local schools depending on staffing resources, involving pond dipping and insect collection. Teachers are also welcome to use the NNR Base coach parking, toilets, classroom and collecting equipment and field guides for self-guided visits. 
University and college groups will also be guided around the NNR.

Guided walks also may be offered to local community and naturalist groups for a small charge, again using the NNR base facilities.

Talks can be offered to local community and wildlife groups for a small fee as staffing allows.  

Want to get involved? 

The NNR relies heavily on people volunteering to help with management works, events, research and administration. Student or graduate placements are welcomed, as are local people who can come in to help for a day or more a week.

The Fenn’s Volunteer Group, a small friendly group of practical volunteers, meets twice a month on the second Sunday and the fourth Thursday. For information about volunteering opportunities, contact Pete Bowyer on 01948 880362 or mobile 07974784795 or email peter.bowyer@naturalengland.org.uk.

Further information

Natural England, Manor House NNR Base, Moss Lane, Whixall, Whitchurch, Shropshire, SY13 2PD.
Telephone the NNR office on 01948 880362, Senior Reserve Manager Joan Daniels (Mon- Wed) on 07974784799 or Reserve Manager Pete Bowyer on 07974784795.

Email joan.daniels@naturalengland.org.uk or peter.bowyer@naturalengland.org.uk .