The morning started slowly, (a nice meal out and yes, maybe a little too much wine and beer the night before) but I was feeling surprisingly (very surprisingly) chipper as Brodie and I got togged up and jumped in the car to drive over to White Moss car park.
The little car park is on the A635 which traverses the moors between Holmfirth and Greenfield and we were meeting up with whoever else had spotted the ‘Meet The Ranger / spot an elusive Mountain Hare’ walk announcement that had been posted on the Marsden Moor National Trust Facebook page. The clue would be in the word ‘elusive’..
There were about a dozen folk and two dogs already setting off ahead of us on the track as we pulled into the car park. It was a little bit icy underfoot on the old mill floor flags that are used for much of the ‘designated routes’ across the moors, so whilst I sped to catch them up I was concentrating on not coming a cropper (notice the subconscious mill association there?).
I needn’t have worried about slipping on the flags, within a few yards I saw the party had cut across the peat and heather so I picked my way across towards them. It was cold enough for some ice to have formed on the shallow peat pools but I still avoided them where I could : it was just a thin layer and would still be wet under the ice surface – a boot-full of peat bog so early on would have been unwelcome.
I’d just missed the intro from Robert the Ranger (pictured above left with his lovely dog who keeping an eye on Brodie ) about the challenges of retaining the water on the moors. Which is important as otherwise peat can leach away in large amounts and be carried down into the valleys and water courses below. Michael, one of the NT volunteers who was on the walk kindly gave me a potted background before we headed on. Turns out he’s a neighbour of one of my mates, always nice to meet someone new from the area.
As Michael explained, a whole range of barriers have been used in the channels, from heather bales that then form natural dam walls to wood to reclaimed stone (all of which naturalise / blend in over time). And also a plastic clip-together barrier product (a larger version of the stuff you can use as a border in your garden) which despite its peat colour isn’t as aesthetically pleasing but is effective.
With all of the materials used, the idea is to keep the water where it should be, in the gullies and pooled on the moors and not dragging large volumes of peat (and therefore plant flora / fauna) with it as it heads downhill. Peat traps a huge amount of CO2 (more than a rain forest, cubic metre for cubic metre I beleive) so it’s important work. I’ve probably got the science of that wrong but I think that’s the gist of it!
A better explanation is on The National Trust estate page : Gully blocking on Marsden Moor.
We spent an hour so walking through the peat bog and heather stands on the look out for a hare or two. The heather and other plants are protected from sheep in places with fencing – giving ‘commercial’ fast-growing grasses that were dispersed by helicopter last year a chance to shoot and act as the vanguard for other native grasses to grow and stabilise exposed peat areas. No hares spotted at this stage but I was learning some new things and despite the claggy weather was having a fun time.
5000 year old trees
In a couple of the larger channels in the peat we saw some of the old (as in, 5000 years old) tree remains that you’ll occasionally find sticking out of the peat. I’ve seen a few bits of what I think are roots or branches whilst out and about but these were particularly large sections and I’m always taken by the thought that whole area was once woodland. There’s conjecture about why the forest disappeared some 5000 years ago – the work of the people who lived here at the time (although it seems far too industrial-scale to my mind, this is a big area) or maybe a mix of that and also a rising water table that meant the trees found themselves in a boggy area that eventually weakened their root system and stopped seedlings from thriving. At any rate, it’s fascinating to stand a high sections of the moors and imagine yourself surrounded by Birch, Beech and Ash (note to self – actually check those trees were native at the time!).
We also came across a couple of peat pipes – sinkholes of a sort – that I’m guessing can down the full 4 metres or so depth that the peat can reach. Having trudged across open parts of the moors on my own I made a note to pay a bit more attention when the snow falls, as these pipes would be harder to spot (for me or the dog), I could pull her out, not sure it would work the other way around. (Disclaimer – I do keep my eyes peeled but will do that a bit more having seen a particularly large pipe we skirted around!).
Going off track
I’ve added the broad route (as in, cross-country for mostly of it) that we took in the hope of spotting a hare. See the map below.
I’ve walked across large sections of the moors that surround Marsden, on and off pathways but I hadn’t actually been on some of the flanks of the Wessenden valley that we were on for this walk, so it was interesting to get a new perspective on some landmarks like Shooters Nan, West Nab and Pule Hill etc.
At one point we walked past some grouse shooting hides / shelters which the National Trust were obligated (for want of a better word) to allow continuing presence to on the moors when they formally took over management. They look well-maintained stone shelters for shooting parties and I’ve seen them park up and head off up into this area from The Deer Farm in the past but not been in amongst the shelters; so again, a novel experience. I saw a few grouse whilst we were out but then you can’t fail to on any length of a walk up on the tops, they’re not the quietest of birds and draw attention to themselves!
The weather for most of the walk was pretty dreich – lots of low-level cloud and the sodden heather and grasses made for wet boots and trousers but the sun did make a fairly shy appearance a couple of times when we were on the Pennine Way heading towards Swellands and Black Moss reservoir.
before that though we had come off the open moor and rejoined the path that curves around a large clough (Blake clough?) then meets up with the Pennine Way near a transmitter station. We crossed the clough in front of a waterfall, a little spot I’ve passed a few times. Care was needed this time as the stones felt a bit slippier than usual. I have a slightly crooked little finger (broken and I never went to the hospital to get it splinted / set) thanks to a slip on an algae-covered stone on the moors, so I’m always a bit careful.
The elusive hare
Spoiler (for the rest of the photos of us looking out for hares):
We didn’t actually see any Hares, even though we spread out and had the added hare-flushing accompaniments of three dogs. The dogs were (rightly) on leads though and I’d judged that all of them were more pooch than seasoned hunter (whispered so as not to embarrass them).
I did see a hare a year or so ago in the snow up near Swellands Res and it was a fantastic sight, an explosion of winter-coated white energy zig-zagging across the moors.
The following photos chronicle the search for the elusive Mountain Hare:
Despite not seeing a hare, the 4 hour or so round trip was great – going off-path in an area I hadn’t actually walked fully before and finding out about the kind of work the Ranger and team / volunteers do was interesting. And a nice group of people to hike with. So Hare 1 Hikers 0 (to quote Robert the Ranger) but it kind of didn’t matter and there’ll be another day.
Just spotted these links related to work on Marsden Moor: