Brown Moss was once a peat bog, 'moss' being the local (Shropshire) term for a peat bog. Peat cutting, drainage and the subsequent encroachment of trees changed the bog into a mixture of pools, dry acid heathland and woodland. The peat would have been cut for fuel and it is thought that the townspeople of nearby Whitchurch may have started peat cutting in the Middle Ages. The moss covers an area of 31 hectares (80 acres) of unenclosed common land. It is now a Nature Reserve and countryside recreation area managed by Shropshire County Council (a locally-elected County level of local government). It was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI1) in 1953 for its marsh, swamp and fen habitats, for which English Nature (a government agency) is responsible.
The Moss isn't spectacular, it is too flat and small to be a tourist attraction. It is of real interest only to the locals and to naturalists. For them the fascination of Brown Moss lies in the way the water levels change, and pools shrink and expand. There is one very large pool, a third of a kilometre across, and five smaller pools. One of these is said to be bottomless, because it has never been known to dry out. In the mid-1990s the large pool was half its 'normal' size and of the others, only the 'bottomless' pool remained. In 2001, all the pools were back and brimming over, the water in the large pool lapping the road through the Moss.
For locals the enjoyment lies in walking through the woods, exercising dogs and kids, feeding the Canada Geese or just sitting watching the water and the wildlife. There are 30 species of breeding birds and other regular visitors to the reserve. The usual woodland and garden birds are there, together with mallard, coots, waterhen, little and great crested grebe and the notorious ruddy duck. Weasel and stoat live alongside rabbits, foxes and badgers. There are woodlands of birch, oak, holly and hawthorn, willow and alder, with patches of bluebells in spring along the east side of the reserve. There are marshes with toads, bulrushes and yellow iris and pools with frogs, newts, delicate blue damselflies, more robust green and yellow dragonflies and pretty white flowered bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata).
In winter there's often the extra attraction of sliding on the iced-over shallow pools, or playing improvised games of ice hockey. Some years ago skating was a regular winter pastime. Some fishing under permit is allowed. There are carp, roach, perch, tench and rudd. Some of these can be clearly seen heaving in the last remaining mud when a pool dries out.
For the naturalist the fluctuating water levels and the variety of nutrient and pH levels in the pools have attracted a wide range of plants, some rare for Shropshire, Britain or even Europe. The most important of these is the Floating Water-plantain (Luronium natans) which is threatened throughout Europe. Other species of interest to conservationists, found at the Moss, include Orange Foxtail (Alopecurus aequalis), Floating Club Rush (Eleogiton fluitans) , Water Violet (Hottonia palustris), Nitella flexilis - a species of Stonewort, Least Burweed (Sparganium minimum), Marsh St John's Wort (Hypoericum elodes), Lesser Marsh Wort (Apium inumdatum) and Liverwort (Riccia canaliculata). Among the more uncommon insects are the Skullcap Leaf-Beetle (Phyllobrotica 4-maculata), and the Red-Eyed Damselfly (Erythroma najis).
In the small quaking bog, where a 1.5m thick layer of sphagnum moss lies over free water, cotton grass and the carniverous Round Leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) are found. As are birch seedlings, destined to drown as they grow too heavy for the moss surface and sink.
Management, Threats, and Conflicting Interests
For some of these plants the fluctuation in water levels became too much. The Floating Water-plantain, the rarest of the plants which earned the Moss its SSSI status, disappeared in the early 1990s but was found to have returned, along with the Floating Club Rush, in the late 1990s. The Lesser Water-plantain, (Baldellia ranunculoides), which also disappeared has not returned. The causes of the changing water levels are not clear. In the short term there is a link with rainfall levels but these do not explain all the fluctuations in the mid and long term. In 1999, a programme of tree felling was started to reduce the water lost to the trees, to return some woodland, (much of it recent growth since grazing stopped), to the original heathland, and to encourage the further return of plant species which had disappeared. Water levels did recover but rainfall was also higher at that time.
The County Council bought the land in 1952, with the help of other local councils, to maintain access for the public to an area they were used to using for recreation. This followed disagreements over the enclosure of common land. The Moss itself is common land with commoners having rights to collect wood, sand and gravel, to air, exercise, games, swimming and skating, and to water and graze livestock. The potential for conflict between public access and the environmental interest of the site became evident early on. Anglers and visitors trample the pool edges, horse riding damages habitats, the number of breeding birds has fallen significantly, probably due largely to disturbance. A management committee of representatives of the councils and commoners, and a naturalist, was set up to oversee the running of the Moss.
English Nature have identified the site as threatened by water abstraction and by insufficient management, placing the special interest of the site at risk. They want more tree felling carried out and would like to see grazing reintroduced to further return the habitat to what it used to be. Local people, on the other hand, strongly protested about the tree felling when it started. Cutting down trees is seldom popular. They are of much more obvious attraction to the general public than small green water plants. The County Council are caught in the middle. However, those little green plants, particularly the Floating Water-plantain, may protect the Moss, through its SSSI status, from much more than some loss of woodland.
The Little Green Floating Water-plantain
The Floating Water plantain is an aquatic perennial herb, of 5 to 20 centimetres in height. Living in shallow water, its stems are horizontal runners, either floating or submerged, rooting at the nodes like a strawberry plant. The leaves are on long stalks, floating or aerial, oval shaped and 10-25mm long. The flowers, in May, have three white petals and a yellow centre. They grow singly, about 14mm across, on long-stalks from the leaf axils2. It is not a dramatic plant but it is rare, and is one of the seven flowering plants occurring in Britain which has legal protection as a result of the EEC's 'Habitats and Species' Directive.
Brown Moss is in the north east corner of Shropshire in the English West Midlands. The most direct route to the Moss is to take the signposted turn-off from the A41 dual carriageway about three miles south of Whitchurch, just after the Prees Heath roundabout junction with the A49, if you are travelling north. There are two car parks and the Moss is freely accessible although the Council does not wish to increase visitor numbers and those who visit are encouraged to stay in the more robust and less environmentally valuable woodland. A narrow tarmac road runs around the edge of the eastern half with a track leading past some of the cottages on the reserve completing the circuit. There is also a trail with some boardwalks over boggy bits, although whoever put these up was not expecting the water levels that occurred in 2000 and 2001.