Sunday, 21 September 2014

Launched on the Moss

'Leighton Moss Ice Age to Present Day' has now been on sale for a week and seems to be going well.

We launched it  at the RSPB visitor centre last Saturday complete with tea and world famous drizzle cake supplied by the great folk in the cafe,  and a generous speech by the reserve's manager Robin Horner. I'm delighted to say that many of the generous folk who shared their knowledge of the Moss -- and their photos -- were there to give the book a shove down the metaphorical slipway. The book is now available at the RSPB shop at Leighton Moss and at several local bookshops including Waterstone's in Kendal and Lancaster.

                                Leighton Moss Reserve Manager Robin Horner (left), me and Founding Warden at
Leighton Moss, John Wilson (Photo: Joan Bryden).

Brian Rafferty -- who took the stunning 'Running Deer' photo on the book cover, me (again) and my publisher, Anna Goddard of Carnegie Publishing. (Photo Joan Bryden)

The author (above) in full rhetorical flight (Photo: Peter Standing)

Signing a book for Robin Greaves of Yealand Conyers (above) with my mother, daughter Laura and old chum Louise Byrne looking on....and (below) another for Professor Phil Barker of Lancaster University. (Photos: Joan Bryden)

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Early Birder

Alice Watterson's evocative image of a Mesolithic man -- complete with
ceremonial head-dress, decorative feathers and deer-skin suit.
While we're celebrating the RSPB's 50th anniversary at Leighton Moss, it's worth reflecting that interest in the wildfowl on the site goes back a lot further.

This wonderful illustration -- by Alice Watterson (of whom more below) -- shows a hunter gatherer. He's the sort of chap who would have arrived at Leighton Moss about 6,200 years ago -- at the very tail end of the Mesolithic era.

There isn't much doubt that he would have been expert at stalking ducks in the reed-beds -- although he'd probably have taken his head-gear off first!

Areas like Leighton Moss -- between the woods and the water --were so rich in food sources that they were a magnet for prehistoric folk. There were fish, eels and cockles to be had from the shore-line, deer and possibly elk from the woods. But the waterfowl and their eggs would have been a star attraction. The hunter-gatherers moved from place to place with the seasons. When setting up camp they would have used whatever building materials came to hand to construct their shelters. And what could be more convenient and effective than the reeds around the Moss? Cut, pegged and secured over a framework of hazel poles, the reeds could be used to fashion a remarkably cozy, tent-like hut. This photograph is of a reconstructed hunter-gatherer's hut at the Irish National Heritage Park in Waterford.
A highly desirable water-front home, circa 4,200 BC. (Photo David Hawgood)

We know a good deal about hunter-gatherer activity on the Moss because Liverpool University archaeologists carried out an excavation in the mid 1960's. The team was led by Professor Terence Powell but the idea to dig on the Moss came from a young environmental scientist, Frank Oldfield. Frank tells the story of the excavation in the first chapter of my Leighton Moss history. And I'm very pleased to say that he and his wife, Mary, are hoping to be at the launch party for the book at Leighton Moss on Saturday September 13th. 

Professor Frank Oldfield who suggested digging the Moss


It was the Liverpool team who discovered what may have been the remains of a timber causeway leading out on to the Moss. They also found a large number of small, sharp-edged stone tools. It was clear that a lot had been going on here during this period. 

Despite all the physical evidence, there is no doubt that the skill of an artist and the mastery of modern computer imaging can help bring these stories to life. 

Alice Watterson is a young archaeological illustrator currently working at Skara Brae in the Orkneys. Her image of a Mesolithic man was done as an exercise to improve her character modelling techniques. She was inspired, in part, by the Star Carr Mesolithic site in Yorkshire, but the character she created is not supposed to reflect any specific location. Alice spent a weekend struggling with arcane but clever computer software programmes rejoicing in names like Mudbox and Hair Farm. The result -- I find -- is a haunting image: a real face of a real person, who might have stalked the reed-beds of Leighton Moss 6,000 years ago -- or could just as easily be spotted in the supermarket car park...again, probably without the head-dress.  

My thanks to Alice for allowing me to reproduce the image. You can find out more about the techniques she used on her blog.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

One Jacket, Two Great Photos

The book has now gone to the printers and this is the final version of the front cover -- a bit spruced up from the earlier dummy.  It's a  clever combination of two great photos. The idea came from my publisher, the redoubtable Anna Goddard at Carnegie. It was executed by talented designer Lucy Frontani.

The photos were taken by two different photographers: Ben Locke captured the silhouetted marsh harrier, Brian Rafferty the running deer. 

I thought it would be good to share the photos in their full glory.

Ben Locke's moodily magnificent silhouette of a marsh harrier over the reedbed

Ben is a freelance who often works with BBC Springwatch. When the opportunity to take the marsh harrier picture came up, he didn't even have his main camera gear with him.

"That particular picture was a bit of good fortune if I'm honest. I was helping with filming of a Starling murmuration and spotted the harrier and reached for the only stills camera I was able to carry - the one in my pocket." 

Brian Rafferty is a very experienced photographer who devotes much of his time to capturing memorable wildlife shots. 

The running of the deer: Brian Rafferty's exciting and colourful capture

He took his photo from Leighton's Grisedale hide on an August afternoon.

"I could immediately see a number of deer both hinds and stags and all were lying down in the reeds and grass to shelter from the very warm afternoon sun. There was little activity until something spooked all the deer and I was treated to a magnificent sight as a number of stags  charged across the open area and into the dense reedbeds in front of the hide . Needless to say I fired off a salvo of shots with the camera hoping to capture the fast moving action. The stags soon vanished into the reedbeds."

Ben's moody, almost monochrome harrier shot contrasts beautifully with the colourful pell-mell charging deer in Brian's photograph. Both show the importance of being able to react decisively when the photo opportunity presents itself.

The combination captures a magical and timeless quality which visitors to Leighton Moss often experience....although (historian's footnote) 100 years ago the landscape would have looked utterly different: a drained network of fields laid down to arable crops. (See earlier blog posts on drainage of the Moss). 

More of Ben's photos

...and more of Brian's photos

Friday, 15 August 2014

'Black with Duck'

Ducks at dawn on the Moss

When Leighton Moss flooded at the end of the Great War the owners faced what might be termed a problem of rebranding. Between 1850 and 1918 the drained Moss had been known as "The Golden Valley"-- one of the most productive cereal-producing areas in Northern England. Then the drainage pump stopped and it was suddenly a lake. In about 1923 a well-known northcountry ornithologist, HW Robinson wrote a fascinating two page report titled 'Leighton Moss as a Wildfowl Reserve'.

But it wasn't a blue-print for an RSPB-style sanctuary for wildlife. It actually catalogued the potential of the Moss as a duck-shoot.

Robinson reported seeing four or five thousand duck in the air at once over the Moss.

"And on New Years Day, 1923, when frost had drawn all the denizens of the swamp into the open, these pools of open water were black with duck," he wrote.

"The vast packs of wigeon must be seen to be believed, and properly shot with three series of butts, the bag of wildfowl each season could total up to ten thousand head with at least three thousand snipe in addition."

These days it seems odd to hear an ornithologist discuss shooting with evident enthusiasm. But the line between birder and wildfowler in the 1920's and 1930s was much more blurred.

When the Moss went on to become a nationally famous duck shoot, one of the wildfowlers it attracted was the young Peter Scott, who liked to stay at the Ship Inn at Sandside while shooting at Leighton and across the River Kent at Brogden marsh.

When he was older Scott decided to sell his guns and concentrate on conservation. Eventually the RSPB bought the shooting rights to the Moss and called a halt to the shooting of duck locally.

More in the book -- just 29 days to the launch!

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Dawn on the Moss

The view from Lilian's hide at 5.45am

I'm so glad I managed to get down to the Moss for sun-rise this morning.
There is a timeless quality to the reserve at dawn. The duck were still snoozing but the red deer were out in numbers around Grisedale hide.
Perhaps the scene would not have looked so very different to some of the earliest people to visit the Moss: the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who arrived more than 6,000 years ago.          

Grisedale deer at dawn 
If I were going to be pedantic -- as I sometimes am -- I'd have to remind myself  that back then the Moss would have been a tidal inlet, directly connected to the sea. Probably there'd be saltmarsh fringed with alder. Dense woodlands of oak and Scots pine beyond.  On the other hand, the wildfowl would still have been here. And the red deer have been a constant for thousands of years. They would have come down to drink at the springs that trickle into the Moss from the surrounding limestone hills. The real miracle is that these magnificent, large, wild animals still manage to find a space between the farms, the houses and the roads to carry on as they always have. Of course, they don't have to cope with wolves any more. Now that would be a great sight at dawn on the Moss...
Morning flight

Monday, 11 August 2014

Where's Midge? The Roll-over

OK ... not the best start to the 'Where's Midge?' competition. No-one seemed to know where Midge was/is in this photo. To be fair, now I look at it again there is not much to go on. 

Admittedly my old friend Ian Christie did send me the following message:..."As for where Midge is, I suspect she's by one of the big rocks on the plateau of Summerhouse Hill. But I expect I'm wrong."

No Ian, you are absolutely right. But since you are an old friend (who shares my passion for Summerhouse Hill), the ethics committee has ruled you ineligible. (You were going to receive a free copy of 'Leighton Moss from Ice Age to Present Day' for your birthday in any case.) 

So that means [cue tense music] that we have a 'Where's Midge Roll-over'.... this exciting prize  (£8.99 from local bookshops this September) is available to anyone who can tell me'Where's Midge?' in this new photo.

The "roll-over" enhancement -- if you were wondering --  is that the book will now be signed by  both Midge and the author, and will be inscribed with an appropriate message of congratulation. 

I should say at this stage, that I'm basically just looking to give someone a free book. Seriously, when you recognise the location, please just click on the link at the bottom of this post and tell me. First correct click wins. It's as easy as that. Good luck. 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Great Flood

I love digging through archives. But there's no denying that some days are a little dull: after several unproductive hours you have to force your eyes to focus on the paperwork. And then occasionally, you turn up a document of real significance, one that wakes you up and transports you to another time and place.  I became very excited when I found this telegram in the County Record Office. It was sent by the owner of Leighton Hall -- Mr Charles Gillow -- to his land agent in Lancaster. It is dated and timed:  July 25th 1918 at 10.21 am -- three and a half months before the end of the First World War.  In 28 pencil-written words the message records with shock and anger the moment when Leighton Moss re-flooded.  For 80 years the Moss had been drained to grow arable crops and fodder. Now, Charles Gillow complained in the staccato tones of  the telegram: "Grisedale hay on moss under water. Pump not going. I consider Dawsons are responsible." For the landlord and his tenants it was a moment  of catastrophe. Within months a lengthy legal battle was underway between Mr Gillow and the trustees of the neighbouring Dawson land who looked after the pump. The telegram is part of the jigsaw of evidence which explains why the Moss flooded again, and why the pump was never restarted. If it had been, there would be no Leighton Moss nature reserve today.  The full story is in Chapter 6 of my book 'Leighton Moss from Ice Age to Present Day', due to be launched on September 13. 

Bad News.  The July 1918 Telegram from Charles Gillow to his land agent Ernest Harrison in Lancaster. Note that the telegram was sent from the Post Office in Yealand Conyers: none of the Yealands now has a Post Office. Today the grim tidings would be conveyed by email. Not the same at all. And how will the historians of the future access them? (Courtesy Lancashire County Records)