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Brackagh Moss

March 10, 2012

I have discovered so many lovely places since starting my PhD. Many of them are not that spectacular. Unlike some of my fellow students, I do not get to travel to especially wild or stunning locations to pursue my study species. Mine are all common passerine (ie, perching) songbirds. They generally rub along fairly well with humans and the modifications we’ve applied to their ancient habitat, ie, turning the endemic oak forest into farmland, parks, planted woodland, and gardens.

However, one species, the reed bunting, led me last year to a secret spot, which I treasure as one of the finds of this PhD. Reed buntings are not a woodland species. They prefer brambly scruff, sedges and rushes, poor neglected land that would hardly feed a single head of cattle. Surprise, surprise, they have a liking for reeds. They are also a conservation concern, amber-listed. Our need to tidy the place up, improve the land, drain, fertilize, weed, tear out straggly hedges, is probably contributing to their decline.

Last year, I was anxious that I wouldn’t find twenty singing males to record. I badgered a number local environmental organisations with urgent demands: Do you have reed buntings? Where? How many? Have they started singing yet? Of-old accustomed to my interest in birds being looked at askance, worthy of disparagement or ridicule, I felt a flutter of surprise each time my questions were treated with seriousness and a sincere desire to help. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. However, I was still getting used to the transition my life was taking; that I was getting this second chance; and that there were people out there for whom birds, animals, nature, biology, ecology, were as large a priority as they were for me; that, in fact, I had never been that odd to begin with. I just had not yet met my own kind; that for a multitude of reasons, many of the directions my prior life had taken, had drawn me further and further from my original passion. But there were people out there who could meet them and were only too glad to.

Hence, I was introduced to Brackagh Moss. It’s an NIEA reserve, not far from Portadown. The M1 is audible during rush hour; a train line runs directly past its  western edge. Airport traffic is never far away, and last year, a couple of recordings were entirely ruined by helicopter noise. Nevertheless, this small reserve has emerged as a favourite. When I step onto the small meadow that leads to the main part of the reserve, I am escaping to a hidden wilderness. I breathe easier, my body becomes looser, my stomach relaxes.

It was not so impressive on my first day. Then I was brought by two NIEA staff members who thought nothing of ferrying me there and back from their office and spent hours walking me round it enthusing about all the wildlife recorded there. I say walking, but it was actually paddling. Brackagh Moss is a dug-out bog that has morphed into a secondary fen. There are earthen ramparts, known as bunds, which allow passage across and through it; and there are patches of thin hardy trees, clumps of scrub and bramble around the edges; but the body of it is essentially a marsh, and I hadn’t sufficiently taken on board the warnings that it could be damp. It was a good deal more than damp. That day it was raining and the place was a swamp. I was wearing walking boots. By the end of the couple of hours my feet were buckets of peaty water.

In fact, that was the wettest day I’ve ever been, and wearing wellies, and sticking to the bunds, Brackagh Moss is perfectly passable. It is also quietly, modestly, breathtaking. From a visual perspective, its best season is early spring, before the regrowth has really got underway. Then the centre of it is balsam-coloured, thick with the slender bodies of bulrush and reedmace, the heads of the latter alert as microphones. Frost thins the colour further until, standing on the bunds, above the pools and marsh, the wild wattle of their vegetation, you can see the fenland stretch out like a strange savannah. The bunds give privileged access to this silted pale mongrel of a territory. Ex-peat bog; not quite true marsh. The giant grasses, their unfamiliar proximity, engender a feeling of having entered an entirely different world.

It is not, however, entirely a marsh. The bunds, those earthen ramparts, which delineate the original access to the bog, the criss-crossing of its dug-outs, box the reeds into variously-sized pools. The bunds thereby allow other vegetation to invade the reedbeds at intervals, creating a interrupted marshcape, hotch-potched with various patches of scrub, and at intervals, trees, including Scots pine, oak, hazel, sycamore. Some of the older trees have evidently slowly drowned over their lifespan, and their stark skeletons make roosts for the buzzards that haunt the area. The buzzards’ glowering presence and untidy plumage ­– its colour and tone variations of the landscape’s hue, the brown of peat-water, the pallid of reedstem ­– give them the demeanour of Brackagh Moss’s watchmen. For all that, they do not challenge my arrival, preferring to reluctantly lumber into the air and lope off with heavy, weary wingbeats. Occasionally one will mewl complainingly.

On black pools shaded by the thin trees, the hardy bushes, I have surprised mallards, who take off with the clatter of near-ambush. I have been enchanted by pairs, and later families, of mute swans, their eyes dark as the water they float on, the blur of their white reflections on the rippling surface, a homage to their own grace. Only in Brackagh Moss have I seen groups of herons, four, five, six together in lurching flight like an emblem of awkward re-wilding. Brackagh Moss is not pristine wilderness. Even its original bogland was derivative.  But it somehow speaks of authentic renewal, the restoration of a wildness of spirit even when the landscape, its form, is utterly different. It hints at the possibility of mending, remaking, growing into a new body, a new way of being. A new life.

Brackagh Moss has yielded me wrens, great tits, willow warblers, robins and one song thrush. And yes, I recorded my first reed bunting, among many, there last year. This year, they’ve been singing their poor scratchy song since late February. With the few frosts of the spring, Brackagh Moss is already greening. I have to go.


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  1. I am so glad you are doing this- it’s a real window into a world I know nothing about, spaces I’m unfamiliar with. You are at home here, and it’s magical.

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