Amongst The Marshes

Joseph Norman Frankland (1904-95)
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Born in Hellifield Norman Frankland became a skilled field naturalist and at one time lived at Middlesber, a farm between Lawkland and Austwick Mosses. An extract of this article has appeared in ‘Images of Dales Life in the 1930s’ published by the Trust but deserves to be printed in its entirety. The photographs have been kindly provided by Stuart Ralph who has been studying the natural history of the Mosses for over 50 years.

Who does not love a ramble on the marshlands even though the ground is rough and boggy, and every minute one stands a good chance of getting wet. Here everything grows at its own free will, everything is truly wild and wild creatures are very numerous. This marshy tract is situated in the centre of the wide dale; in the district they are called mosses, probably because many species of moss grow in profusion on them, and the soil is peaty.

For quite a long way we may walk through an almost never ending stretch of peat bogs from which peat has been dug by the inhabitants of the district in ages past, to burn when there was little or no coal available. Some of them measure only a foot or two across, while others stretch for fifteen or twenty yards. Most of them are full of dark-brown water in some places as deep as eight or nine feet, and to get along we must skirt carefully round them on narrow grassy ledges which shake beneath our feet.

Sedges grow thickly in many of the pools, and here and there the white feathery tufts of cotton grasses nod in the wind. Bilberries hang over the water in bunches, and in many places black crowberry carpets the edges of the deep dark pools for many yards with its evergreen leaves.

Besides the bilberry and crowberry we can find plenty of variety of wild fruits on the marshes. Where the ground rises a little and is fairly dry the cowberry grows, covering all the little mounds with its shiny evergreen leaves. Some of those leaves we can always find a fungi, it deforms the leaf, and instead of being green it is thick and red. Many folks would not think it to be a fungi at all. Another fungi similar to this, but which turns the leaf black instead of red grows on the marsh andromeda. The cowberry bears small pale pink flowers and red berries not unlike those of the cranberry.

In some places wild raspberries make tangled thickets, and in summer when the fruit is ripe simply hang with delicious berries. Then we may find a red or black currant bush laden with fruit & flourishing in the wettest of places. Cranberries creep along the ground between the bogs, and their little pink flowers look lovely in spring peeping out from amongst the evergreen leaves while red or brown berries deck the trailing stems in autumn. In among the thickets of willow are beds of blackberries, and in places a solitary gooseberry or hawthorn bush grows covered with fruit, and on the ground beneath are strawberries. So we see the marsh is not without its harvest of fruits for the birds.

The marsh is not altogether devoid of trees and bushes, for in some places thickets of willow and birch trees extend for a good way, and occasionally we may find a mountain ash or alder growing out of the black pools of water. Solitary scotch pine trees are dotted about, real wild ones planted by nature, and seem to flourish luxuriantly on the water-logged ground. I have found in this district some sixteen species of salix or willow, besides many varieties; five of them being commonly met with on the marshes. Guelder roses grow in the thickets, and here and there a bird-cherry or aspen in the hedgerows bordering the meadows and the marsh.

Sweet gale or bog myrtle grows everywhere scenting the air with its fragrance. It is sometimes used to keep moths off clothes, and is also used in the making of botanic beer. In some places candles are made from its sticky fruit, the fatty substance being extracted by the aid of boiling water.

Ling too grows everywhere, in some places almost a yard high, the reason is that there are no sheep to stunt it when young by nibbling off the tender shoots. Almost as common as ling is the cross-leaved heath or bell-heather, which has a tuft of pink bells at the top of each stalk, and the leaves are four in a whorl. I have often found white specimens of both species growing on the mosses. The marsh andromeda, a cousin of the heaths and a rare flower grows in abundance here in many places. It is an evergreen with longish leaves, and a thick wiry stem, and bears tufts of tiny pale pink bells. Because it grows in such wild desolate places it is named after Andromeda who in ancient Greek story was chained to a rock and released by Perseus, who slew a dragon which was guarding her.

A few species of reptiles and amphibians make their home here. Toads of the common species are very abundant, but there are very few natterjacks [later footnote: There are no natterjacks here.] if any, for I can only recollect seeing one, and of that I am not certain. Now and then a grass snake may be seen in the marshy meadows, and newts live in the ponds and ditches. Common Lizards are often very numerous on the dry banks although I have occasionally seen them in the wettest of places. Frogs in myriads live among the bogs, and in spring many of the stagnant pools are full of jelly-like spawn containing small black eggs. On March 15th 1920 I procured some frog spawn and kept it in a large jar. I changed the water once a week, and it was not until the 7th of July that the first of them came out of the water as a full developed frog. It is very interesting to watch the tadpoles develop, the eggs enlarging, the tail appearing, and lastly after many weeks the legs. Tadpoles are born cannibals, and will eat each other up voraciously if there is no other food available.

An extensive reed bed covers part of the marsh, like a waving sea of green almost hiding anyone walking through it. The lovely feathery heads begin to appear by the middle of July, which later on turn greyish-white. Amongst the reeds many birds have their homes. There are coots and plenty of moorhens, and wild duck have their young hidden in the thick marsh vegetation. Short-eared owls hunt for their prey among the reeds, and occasionally a grebe will pay a visit. Besides these many small birds love the ancient reed beds. Reed buntings are very numerous, and they can always be distinguished by their white collar and black head and throat. Sedge warblers, winchats, and stonechats keep the marsh alive in spring with their songs, and the marsh warbler is a regular nesting species here. The buzzing note of the grasshopper warbler is often heard proceeding from the thick reed beds. It does not seem particular whether its home is in a wet or dry place, for it is just as much at home among the furze bushes on a dry common, as it is among the reeds of a wet marsh. The grasshopper warbler is a rare bird, but I have often heard two or three singing together here amongst the bogs. They sing very early in the morning and very late at night – if not all night – for I have heard them both at 4am an 11pm on fine days in summer, but they generally rest for a little while in the middle of the day. I have often timed them to see how long they could keep up without a break in the song, and the longest buzz I have recorded is 2¼ minutes; a marvellous performance for such a small bird to ‘churr’ for that period as the grasshopper warbler does without a breath. I have noticed that they keep the ‘churr’ on longer at night without a break than in the morning.

Hares and rabbits sit amongst the tufts of dry brown grass between the pools, venturing forth at night to feed in the sweet meadows not far away, and occasionally the footprints of reynard may be traced in the snow, after a visit in search of something sweet and tasty. Shrews and voles make their homes among the grass, and water voles live by the stream which runs along the side of the marsh. Often when there has been a hunt down the stream, an otter will take refuge amongst those thick reed beds & tangled thickets for a day or two until the danger has passed, before returning to its old haunts beneath the banks of the stream.

Here in one of the bogs is the white and weather-beaten skeletons of a horse, with the ribs sticking up gaunt & bare. It is all that is left of a once noble steed, and it reminds us that those lovely marshes have a sorrowful and tragic tale to tell besides a beautiful and happy one. Cattle, sheep and horses especially the two former often stray through the old fences on to the boggy places and get stuck fast in the soft ground. Most of them are seen and rescued, but now and then one dies – or kills itself with trying to get out – before it is found, and soon only the bleached bones are left to tell the tragic tale.

Plenty of lichen festoons the sides of the bogs, and grows thickly on the trees; plenty to occupy anyone interested in it for a long while. There is also plenty of moss for the moss collector. Sphagnum moss covers the ground for yards with its wet spongy foliage, in company with many other species of the moss tribe; but of all the vegetation growing here the flowers are the glory of the marsh. All through the spring and summer they come, springing up everywhere, one species dying and another straight away taking its place.

Down among the light green bog moss the little sundew peeps up, with its little spoon-shaped leaves held upwards to catch any insect which may chance to alight. Each leaf is covered with hairs, and on the end of each hair is a sparkling drop of gum. When any insect alights to sip the dew-like gum put there to lure it into the net, the hairs close in on it tighter and tighter, almost squeezing it to death. The sticky fluid turns acid thus enabling this insectivorous plant more easily to digest the soft parts of its victim. There are three British species of sundew, the long-leaved, round-leaved and English sundew, but only the round-leaved species is found here.

Another insect-eating plant we have on the marshes is the butterwort or bog violet. It is a violet like flower on top of a long stalk which grows out of the centre of a rosette of yellowish-green leaves. Each leaf is wet and sticky, and there are always a few small flies stuck to them which have been caught by alighting on them.

If we look in some of the ponds where the whirlgig beetles are darting about we will find yet two more insectivorous plants, the greater and lesser bladder wort. Both of them floating in the water and covered with hundreds of tiny bladders in which it is said they imprison minute insects. The lesser species is a rare plant in England, and being so small and inconspicuous it is hard to find by anyone who does not know it.

There is another rare floating plant which grows here in the ponds; it is the floating bur-reed a smaller cousin of the branched and un-branched bur-reed. The leaves are flat and not three-sided like those of the others, and they are only a quarter of an inch wide. The flowers are like small yellow burrs, which earn for it the name bur-reed.

In some parts of the marsh the black [illeg] grass grows in profusion, and this valley is the only place in West Yorkshire where it grows. It is quite easy to distinguish as the seeds grow at the top of the stalk in a close black head.

Here on the marshes are orchids in countless numbers & of many species. The early purple is everywhere all through the summer, near by are butterfly orchis with their slender white flowers, there are fragrant orchis delicate and sweet, and in the very marshiest of places the bog orchis with its thick hollow stem. In the marshy bogs the marsh trefoil or buck bean grows; one of the loveliest flowers imaginable. It bears its leaves on thick stalks each consisting of three leaflets. The pinkish-white flowers are covered with white hairy fringes, and we might almost call this flower the fairy of the bog. Marsh cinquefoil, marsh violet, and bog pimpernel keep it company, and near by are water avens, marsh louse wort, mares tail, sneezewort, and the lovely golden bog aspodel.

In July and August we ought to find a lovely greenish-white flower standing up on a long bare stalk with a leaf half-way up. It is the grass of parnasus, and its beautiful white flowers with their transparent veins look so delicate and sweet amongst the rough brown grass. The stamens in this plant – five in number – instead of coming to maturity together, do so one at a time, and only the most fully developed flowers have all five stamens unrolled. This plant which is not a grass, is named after Mount Parnasus in Greece where it grows in profusion.

Many flowers grow by the side of a small stream running down the side of the marsh which slowly winds its way through the matted beds of water cress and brooklime There are forget-me-not, figwort, ragged robin, monkey musk, many speedwells, bird’s eye primrose and spearwort. In the water itself water plantain holds up its slender branches, pondweeds cover the surface of the water, rushes and bur-reeds point their green sword-like leaves upwards, and sedges grow in huge beds.

In summer, when everything is at its height the sides of the stream grow thickly with tall luxuriant plants, wearying to walk through. Meadowsweet, great wild valerian, willow herbs, marsh woundwort, nettles, curled docks and many more grow thickly side by side, each as it were striving to master and grow taller than the others until they become almost a solid mass of stalks, flowers and leaves.

The following is a list of flowers I collected in one short walk round the marshes on the 5th of July last year. I don’t think it is a bad list for one locality, as I did go more than a mile, and was not out long. Some of them perhaps are not marsh plants, but I counted all I saw not quite on the marshes (see below).

Besides the flowering plants many flowerless ones grow on the marshes; plenty of horsetails, a few species and varieties of ferns, and lichens, mosses and fungi.

Althrough the summer dragonflies glide about over the bushes, from small ones about half an inch long to huge gold and green ones. Beetles go churring along; on the willow trees huge brown cockchaffers sun themselves, and grasshoppers chitter in the grass in hundreds all day long. Butterflies flitter from flower to flower; white ones, admirals, painted ladys, tortoise shells, small & large heaths, meadow browns, brimstones, clouded yellows and blues. What a happy crowd they seem, all enjoying to the utmost their short but sweet lives, and fluttering about like so many flying flowers. There are flies about in hundreds of every size, shape and hue; just a happy hunting ground for the entomologist, for as so many insects spend their earlier life in stagnant water they find it here in plenty, and therefore they breed and live here in profusion. Bees in dozens help the butterflies and other insects in the fertilisation of the flowers, and some species have their nests down among the grass and spongy moss. These bees nests are made of moss & are only very small, but the inmates can be very savage in the protection of their homes if molested.

If we dig into the peaty soil we will be almost certain to find some ants, they too can be very troublesome if one happens to sit down on a bank when the grass is full of them. By the end of July the ants begin to fly, and are then a terrible pest to the haymakers working late in the fields who are compelled to stay out whatever comes.

The curlews wild cry echoes across the marshes all day long in spring and summer, and it often lays its four large olive-coloured eggs right among the very bogs. Although a very wary bird, generally slipping off its nest before anyone is in sight, it will sometimes when brooding stay until anyone is quite close, in fact on one occasion a certain bird allowed me to catch it on the nest quite easily.

Black birds and song thrushes often nest in the low bushes, and skylarks, pipits and willow wrens amongst the rough grass on the ground. Pheasants and partridges nest in the ground beneath the bushes of bog myrtle surrounded by the boggy water. All the year round herons may be observed standing for hours among the thick sedges waiting for their prey, with their thick lance-like bills ready for the slightest movement.

Wild ducks, teal and mallard build their nests amongst the heather on the ridges between the black pools. The eggs look lovely nestling in the soft down plucked from the breast of the mother bird, but she always covers them with it if she leaves the nest on her own. Often in summer whilst walking amongst the bogs we may come across a batch of ducklings chirping and squealing as they scatter among the rushes.

Moorhens are very common on the marshes, and lots of nests may be discovered hidden in the thick rushes which grow out of the dark-brown water. The nest is built of dead grass and brown rushes, and although generally placed very low down I have often seen them in trees one of which was built on an old ring doves nest quite twenty feet up a thick holly tree. The eggs number from four to ten though seven or eight is the usual number. They are of a light brownish colour spotted with darker brown & grey, somewhat similar to those of the coot but the egg is smaller and the spots are larger. Young moorhens are very funny and interesting creatures with their bald heads and black fluffy bodies, and if disturbed will dive into the water almost as soon as they are hatched. The moorhen can move in many different ways; for it can run, walk, swim, dive and fly with ease.

Snipes nest on the marshes in good numbers. The nest is always placed in one of the swampiest places, deep down among the sedges, and the eggs which are greenish buff blotched with brown and four in number, are always completely hidden. All through the breeding season the male makes a curious drumming or humming sound with his wings and tail as he darts downward through the air.

The redshank is one of the most interesting birds of the marshes, & can never be mistaken, for its long legs or red shanks show up conspicuously. No words can describe the beauty of its dashing flight or its shrill wild call, which tells us of a free open life amongst the sedges and rushes on a water-logged marsh, or on the miles of lovely mudflats near the sea; only those who have observed it can realise its loveliness. The red shank is fairly numerous here for I have found a good many nests in a season, and seen flocks of from twenty to thirty at the beginning of the breeding season. The nest is on the ground well hidden by the herbage, the eggs only being visible when looked straight down upon. They are four in number and of a creamy buff colour boldly blotched with a rich chocolate brown. When the bird has just laid its full clutch and begun to sit, it slips its nest unseen if anyone approaches, but if the eggs are almost hatched it often stays till the person is quite close. If it has not laid its full clutch it never makes any fuss, the only noise to be heard after it has been disturbed is a faint call in the distance about every five minutes, as though it kept returning to see if the intruder had gone and on finding him still there uttered its ‘tyook’ a few times and once more went off. If there are young ones in the vicinity the redshank makes a terrible noise, flying round and round quite near, uttering its loud call. When the young ones are about I have seen as many as four or five couples calling round me while I have been walking on the marshes. The redshank has always been one of my favourite birds, and surely the marshes would not seem half so lovely in spring, if they were without such beautiful and harmless birds.

In the winter the marshes are the haunts of many species of wild duck and wild fowl; the little jack snipe haunts the bogs, black grouse may be seen perched on bushes and fences, & red grouse come own from the fells in snowstorms. Wild geese often settle on the marshes, and huge of flocks wild ducks are to be seen, chief among them being teal, mallard, golden eye and widgeon. Although I have seen tufted ducks about here in spring, I have never yet been successful in finding a nest of that species.

In some parts of the marshes where the soil is wet and peaty the farmers set potatoes in a very curious style called the lazybed way. Although called the lazybed style there is nothing lazy about it as I can say from experience. They are set in beds which are six feet wide, and between each bed is a ditch two feet wide. Instead of being planted in a place ready dug for them they are simply laid on the grass one foot apart on the six foot beds, then the ditches are made up each side, the slabs of peat being placed over the potatoes on the grass, half of the ditch going one way and half the other. The top is then mashed a little with a fork as a means of keeping the moisture in and to give them a straighter appearance. They are then finished until ready for getting up as they need no hoeing at all as very little weed grows on them. The ditches generally fill with water and this soaks up through the peat and keeps the potatoes moist. Potatoes are only set on one patch of ground for two years, the second year, after being levelled the ditches are made up the centre of the old beds and the potatoes planted over the old ditches. After two years new ground is selected and the old patches left to grow how they will.

It is very interesting to notice the vegetation which grows in different stages on the old potato beds, before it reverts back to the former tough marsh herbage. The first year after being left there is scarcely any thing but docks growing almost a yard high. Then hemp nettle comes, and charlock, knotweed, spotted persicaria, goose foot, thistles, nettles, black bindweed and weeds innumerable, each taking their turn of being master of the plot. Each year more rushes and rough grass get intermixed with the weeds until eventually they get stamped out altogether, which usually takes some six or seven years.

Whilst the ditches are being dug for the potatoes, many sorts of wood are got out of the peat. Some of it must have lain for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and most of it is just as hard and sound as it was on the day it was buried. The chief kinds of wood found here are larch, scotch pine, willow, birch and oak. Willow and birch are generally rotten when found, and a curious thing about birch is that the wood is often rotted away while the bark remains sound and is left hollow like a drainpipe. Scotch pine generally has plenty of sound bark on it but the wood is sound as well, while larch and oak have scarcely any bark left on them. At the present time in a certain low-lying meadow a huge trunk of oak is being dug out and will have to be hoisted with blocks. It is a yard in diameter and perhaps twenty yards long, and ought to be worth a good lot when processed as the wood is sound as a bell. Some of the bog wood has charred marks on it, showing us that there must have been a fire raging on the marsh while it still lay on the surface. Besides wood there are other things preserved in the peat, for there are bur-reeds, grass and rushes, and only this spring I found in a turf-pit, about a dozen wild ducks eggs buried a foot or two below the surface in the solid peat. They had their natural colour, and the insides were dried up so that there was no smell.

After a fine hot day in summer the marshes are often enveloped in a fleecy covering of soft white mist, hiding all the lovely plants and flowers beneath its floating clouds. By the time the sun sends its last rays across the level stretch, the little hollows begin to fill with mist which gradually begins to thicken and spread. Standing on a hill nearby, it is a beautiful sight to watch the mist rolling and gathering silently over the ground, until it at last settles down in one huge sheet with the tree- tops peeping out, like islands in a pure white lake. From below comes the quack of a duck just settling down to roost, a herons loud kronk is heard as it journeys to some favourite hunting ground to spend the night, a beetle buzzes past in the gathering gloom, then all is silent, as night descends over the marshes, and the night loving creatures creep from their hiding places.

Norman Frankland’s account was written in 1920 and in the intervening years there have been considerable changes to the Mosses he knew. The most obvious has been the incursion of trees which continue to colonise the area. Whilst some may view this as an inevitable result of biological succession there is no doubt that the ‘improved’ drainage to Fen Beck in 1945 and the ‘60s has resulted in a lowering of the water-table. Unfortunately the latest monitoring report by Natural England, in 2011, found that only three of the eleven compartments were in a favourable condition.

Andromeda marsh
Avens water
Bog aspodel
Burnet great
Buttercup common
Betony wood
[illeg] small rough
Bur parsley small
Bedstraw smooth heath
Bedstraw crosswort
Brook lime
Butterwort common
Crowfoot water
Crowfoot bulbous
Crowfoot creeping
Cuckoo flower
Clover purple
Clover white dutch
Clover pinkish dutch
Clover crimson
Cinquefoil purple
Campion red
Dead nettle spotted
Dead nettle red
Dead nettle henbit
Daisy oxeye
Dock common
Dock curled
Dock sharp
Dog rose
Dyers green weed
Eye bright
Earth nut
Forget-me-not water
Figwort water
    Figwort knotted
Fox glove
Guelder rose
Goose grass
Hemp nettle common
Hawkweed mouse ear
Heath cross-leaved
Hawkweed mouse ear
Herb Robert
Hawksbeard smooth
Jacobs ladder
Knapweed greater
Knapweed black
Lousewort field
Lousewort marsh
Ladys mantle common
Mustard white
Milkwort common
Meadow sweet
Meadow cranesbill
Mares tail
Nettle common
Nightshade woody
Orchis larger marsh
Orchis fragrant
Orchis early purple
Orchis lesser butterfly
Orchis spotted
Plantain great water
Plantain greater
Plantain ribwort
Primrose birds eye
Parsnip cow
Pondweed broad leaved
Parsley wild beaked
Ragwort common
Ragwort hoary
Rush common
Rush hard
Rush shining [illeg]
Raspberry wild
    Ragged robin
St John’s wort small
Stonecrop biting
Shepherds purse
Sowthistle common
Sowthistle sharp fringed
Sun spurge
Scorpion grass wood
Scorpion field
Sweet briar
Sandwort thyme leaved
Speedwell common
Speedwell germander
Speedwell thyme leaved
Strawberry wood
Sweet gale
Spearwort lesser
Sage wild
Silvery weed
Stitchwort lesser
Stitchwort glaucous
Thistle welted
Thistle slender flowered
Thistle creeping
Thistle melancholy
Trefoil birds foot
Trefoil lesser yellow
Valerian great wild
Vetch white
Vetch tufted
Vetch bush
Vetch tufted horseshoe
Vetch common
Vetchling meadow
Wood avens
Willowherb great hairy
Willowherb narrow leaved
Willowherb spear-leaved
Yarrow common
Yellow rattle

Fig. 1 Bilberry flowers
Fig. 2 Cranberries
Fig 3 Brown hare
Fig 4 Marsh cinquefoil
Fig 5 Golden ringed dragonfly
Fig 6 Curlew

Fig. 1 Bilberry flowers

Fig. 2 Cranberries

Fig 3 Brown hare

Fig 4 Marsh cinquefoil

Fig 5 Golden ringed dragonfly

Fig 6 Curlew