Flanders Moss

Flanders Moss: it sounds like the site of a WWI battle, but in fact it’s a stretch of raised peat bog in the heart of the Carse of Stirling. By the 1970s this ancient peat bog wasn’t looking too good. Decades – if not centuries – of attempts to remove the peat had turned some of the area into workable agricultural land, but unfortunately left large expanses of the bog dried-up and barren. Today, however, the story is very different and this precious landscape is being restored to a much healthier state.

But why, you might ask, would you want to restore a bog! We tend to think of bogs as bleak, miserable places: difficult to walk across and even deadly (think Grimpen Mire in the Hound of the Baskervilles). But, in fact, they’re hugely important. Not only are they a vital habitat for many plants and animals, but they’re extremely effective carbon sinks, removing harmful carbon dioxoide from the atmosphere. We need them!

The Moss is so important that it’s both a designated SSSI, as well as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Thankfully, despite historic attempts to alter the nature of the bog, it remains one of the largest areas of near-natural raised peat bog in Europe.

But it’s also a fun day out!  With a hint of adventure, you have to take care not to step off the boardwalk into the water-logged ground beside you. You’ll hear birdsong and the hum of busy insects and there’s also a good chance you’ll spot some four-winged dragonflies, multicoloured butterflies, sun-bathing lizards, even juicy cranberries, or dazzlingly white bog-cotton and, if you’re really lucky, that tiny, carnivorous, insect-eating plant, sundew!

Near the start of the trail there’s a viewing tower which gives a glorious bird’s-eye view across the bog over to the surrounding mountains: Ben Lomond, Ben Venue, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich and many more.

The bog began its life over 8,000 years ago, sitting as it does on water-logged clay soil, and in places the peat is 23 feet (7 metres) deep – and still growing. But so slowly that there’s little danger we’ll sink under it! That depth of peat, however, is a goldmine to scientists who are able to use it to chart those 8,000 years of changes in climate and sea-levels; and to learn how humans interacted with this landscape.

Common lizard

Common lizard

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) care for the site and are working to repair and improve the balance of the land; clearing scrub and damming former drainage ditches to bring the bog back to what it once was: a wonderful world of wetness! All of which, I must say, sounds ideally suited to our renowned Scottish climate!

“I to the hills will lift mine eyes…” The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre, Aberfoyle

Womens Timber Corps 1942-1946There are days when things seem to wrong from the word go. The weather is lousy, the car won’t start, the bus is late, you’re caught off guard and hurt by an unpleasant remark from a bullying colleague or an unjustified mocking jibe on social media.  Then there’s the infuritaing call-centre that never answers the phone no matter how important they claim your call to be. Or the angry customer who vents his frustration on you. Or the delivery you waited in all day for that never came. Irritation after irritation.

Some days the list can seem endless! None of it your fault, but rather circumstances and people around you that seem to conspire to make you feel bad. To feel worthless. To feel invisible. Some days it can be an uphill struggle to retain you equilibrium.p1250113

We all have different ways of dealing with life’s ups and downs. For me, the very best way of dealing with the effects of upsets and hurts, and for putting life back into perspective, is to take to the hills.

Here in Scotland we are blessed to be surrounded by hills, lochs and forests. Yesterday we headed to Aberfoyle and on up to the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre run by the Forestry Commission Scotland.  If you should go there, stand on the terrace, breathe deeply and savour the marvellous panorama that unfolds before you: Loch Ard Forest, Loch Achray Forest, Ben Lomond, the Lowlands in front of you, the Highlands behind – it’s undoubtedly one of the very best spots in the Trossachs.the-lodge-aberfoyle-500p

And as you look across the wide expanse of countryside that surrounds you, the world takes on a whole new perspective. The view is magnificent. The air is fresher and cleaner: the encircling trees ‘breathing’ in our dirty air and ‘breathing’ out the clean oxygen that fills our hearts and lungs and makes us stand up straighter, bringing a new sense of calmness in its wake.

You’ll soon notice that all around the Lodge are tracks and trails that lead off and away into the forest, inviting you to follow them. Who could fail to be drawn onto a path as it disappears into the woods? Who wouldn’t want to go sit “Under the Greenwood Tree” as did Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Orlando, or Thomas Hardy’s characters? There is something primeval about forests and we respond to that. Our curiosity and desire to explore are awakened and off we go!

p1250063The trail to the waterfall is a delight. Running steeply downhill, it twists and turns, with strange sights awaiting! Turn one corner and there are the two young deer startled into motionlessness. Turn another and you come across the Magic Tree. Turn a third and you’re faced by the strange ghostly figures that stand so very still and silent among the trees – ethereal and alien looking, yet at the same time reflecting back strange visions of ourselves.

Then, turn one further corner, and come face to face with a force of nature: the waterfall crashing and roaring through the gorge, thundering over rock and down the cliff face as the swollen burn races in torrents past your feet. After heavy rain the might of the water is unmistakable. Magnificent – and a little bit terrifying too!

It would be hard not to be drawn into the beauty of this natural landscape. Nature heals and soothes. And as that happens you’ll find nothing seems as bad as it did before. You’re not worthless, nor are you invisible. A sense of proportion returns. Your physical and mental wellbeing improve.  Body, mind and soul.  Not a bad outcome from a walk in the hills!the-lodge-aberfoyle-burn-500p

Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

Scotland’s Wild Tours of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH): Scotland’s People and Nature Survey

Søren Kierkegaard and John Muir on the benefits of Nature

“If you go down to the woods today…” The Lochan Spling Trail

“If you go down to the woods today…”

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir (1838 -1914)

Wise words from a wise man, and as true today as back then. If fact, probably truer today than ever before. A survey undertaken by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in 2014 reported that 90% of people found that visiting the outdoors helped them to relax and reduced stress, while 80% felt that being outdoors not only improved their physical health, but also left them feeling both energised and revitalised.  No mean achievement! We are very fortunate that Scotland is rich in forests and forest walks: so just what awaits us if we go down to the woods today?

The aptly named Old-Man's-Beard

The aptly named Old-Man’s-Beard

Lichen abounds in the fresh, clean air of the forest

Lichen abounds in the fresh, clean air of the forest

For a start fresh, clean, unpolluted air. Take a look around and marvel at the abundance of lichen draped over the branches of trees: in particular the aptly named Old-Man’s-Beard!  Then there are all the wonderful smells and sounds of a forest.  Birds and bird song all around, the glimpse of animals through the trees, while strange mushrooms and toadstools thrive on fallen trees. A forest creates its own world, its own rich eco-system from the top of the tallest trees to the smallest creepy-crawlies and strangest looking fungi! A gentle poke in the undergrowth will quickly reveal all sorts of life – much of it scurrying hastily away!

Weird and wonderful growths

A grumpy looking fungus!

A grumpy looking fungus!

At the weekend we set out from Aberfoyle, ‘the gateway to the Trossachs’, along the Forestry Commission’s Lochan Spling Trail.  Spling is a strange name and may come from the Gaelic word splàng, which means to sparkle. In Sunday’s sunshine, with its welcome warmth, that certainly seemed an appropriate name! As we walked through the forest and across the Duchray Water we met other walkers and cyclists, as well as groups of young people learning outdoor skills through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

The Lochan Spling Pike

The gigantic Lochan Spling Pike

Reaching the lochan, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with some very unexpected, and very out-sized, creatures! The Lochan Spling Pike, Dragonfly and Osprey were all created by artist Rob Mulholland in 2008 and form part of the Loch Ard Family Sculpture Trail, which runs not only around this delightful lochan but also along the shores of Loch Ard, Little Loch Ard and Lochan a’ Ghleannin. The three we saw are quite remarkable objects and reflect the creatures that live in the lochan and surrounding forest.

The Lochan Spling Dragonfly

The Lochan Spling Dragonfly

There is so much to see, do and enjoy in a forest, and at the same time it is so good for us. Like John Muir, Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was also keenly aware of the benefits of taking time to be outdoors, and in particular walking, until our problems take on a more manageable perspective. In 1847 he wrote: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Coming from the man widely regarded as the world’s first existentialist philosopher, that’s good advice indeed!

All of which just goes to show that if you go down to the woods today you really will find plenty of surprises, plenty to enjoy and come back feeling refreshed and revitalised! And that’s got to be a good thing!

Links:

Lochan Spling Trail: Forestry Commission Scotland

John Muir, Scottish environmentalist and naturalist, and ‘Father of the US National Parks’

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park