Meeting report: The origins, Archaeology, History and Wildlife of the Lochar Moss

17 January 2014
Peter Norman (Biodiversity Officer, Dumfries and Galloway Council)

A large audience enjoyed the first talk of 2014, given to Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The speaker was Peter Norman, the Biodiversity Officer for Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council. His subject was The origins, archaeology, history and wildlife of the Lochar Moss, sometimes referred to as 'The Great Moss'.

Peter described the huge extent of the original Lochar Moss and its impact on the development of Dumfries and its environs throughout the centuries.

Utilising excellent diagrams and photographs, the speaker explained how peat mosses are formed and he described the detailed development and archaeology of the moss, demonstrating how the two were closely inter-related. Particular attention was paid to artefacts which are available to view in Dumfries Museum. Peter showed how the moss might well have been utilised for ritual deposits using evidence, such as the Lochar torque, which is a find of world importance. He suggested that the discovery of 'bog-bodies' might indicate that human sacrifices once took place.

The earliest written evidence is from a warrant dated 1524 which concerned a dispute over the rights to extract peat. Attention was then drawn to the commercial development of the moss, commencing with work carried out by the Duke of Queensberry to drain parts of it in the mid 1750s. Photographs and plans were used to show these works and their resultant effects today.

Local folk lore is associated with the moss. In September 1837 The Royal Highland Agricultural Society held their annual show in Dumfries. They paid £250 to bring an enormous steam plough to the event. For two days the demonstration was successful, but on the third day a combination of heavy rain and the attendance of over 2,000 visitors meant that the plough failed to operate. That the plough is still buried in the moss is a tale that persists: but Peter was able to inform the meeting that the engine was salvaged and transported to Egypt. Parts of the plough may well still lie in the moss despite the fact that several attempts to locate them have proved abortive.

Commercial peat extraction and forestry have had an effect on the wildlife and ecology of the moss. Some species recorded in the 1850s are no longer present, but the picture is not a totally gloomy one. The schemes to rescue parts of the moss, to clear commercial forestry and to manage the peat moss have proved successful. It is hoped that these schemes can be extended. Several extremely rare plants are present, notably Baltic Bog Moss. Bog rosemary is prevalent. The large heath butterfly is still on Longbridgemuir land, Ruthwell. Some of the key plants essential for peat formation, such as Sphagnum cuspidatum, are thriving.

Why is this moss so important? Wild life, ecological and archaeological issues may be obvious, but what may not be appreciated is that the equivalent of all the carbon emissions Dumfries produces in a year are stored in the moss. Its absence would cause carbon to be released into the atmosphere, a factor which would significantly add to our global warming problems.

The talk ended on the optimistic note that it was still possible to save parts of the moss and that over a period of many years they could be re-instated to their former glory.