Cairnsmore of Fleet site visit

Blog post by Kate Foster

A field visit on 29 May was a chance to look at peatlands in the headwaters of the River Fleet in Galloway, and learn that organisations in this area have modelled a process of bringing people together to think at a landscape level.

At our starting point, the Cairnsmore of Fleet visitor centre, Dr. Emily Taylor described how the Fleet Management Steering Group had been formed to find joint ways to counter the acidification of the catchment. This acidification has several causes and has been worsening over the last half century or so. Atmospheric pollution, commercial forestation on deep peat, and a base-rock of granite in combination created a ‘perfect storm’ to make the Fleet Catchment one of the most acidic in the UK (further details here). The decline of fish in the rivers is a particular concern of the Galloway Fisheries Trust, who are one of the parties represented on the Steering Group. Although interventions have brought some improvements in some places, the areas where deep peat has been drained for conifer plantation remain very acidic.

IMG_1269The photo above shows our group: Matthew Cook (Peatland Officer at Crichton Carbon Centre); Mary-Ann Smyth (Chair, Crichton Carbon Centre); Kerry Morrison (In-situ arts); Emily Taylor (Project Manager, Crichton Carbon Centre), and (holding the camera) myself, Kate Foster. I am the lead artist for Peat Cultures, a Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership project contributing to the Peatland Connections programme.

The post that follows reflects my interests and opinions as I learn about the process of ecological restoration of peatlands as an environmental artist. I will describe some of the striking things Emily pointed out during our walk, on a hot day in May. Remarkably we did not need to wear wellies – the ground was so dry!

One of the first pauses along the track was to consider how we might re-use the black plastic boxes used by nurseries supplying forestry, sometimes to be found by the roadside in recently re-planted areas. A box for curios? As planters?



Where peat has been exposed by the movement of machinery, it was cracking in the recent dry weather.


The water we passed in burns and drains was deep-coloured. I learnt that brown water is no longer considered an acceptable bi-product of human use of peatlands, and water utility companies have an interest in good quality land-management upstream.


Hummocks of grass can be a sign of lowered water tables: Emily pointed out last year’s dead grass can become a fire-hazard.


We reached “Spur Gulley” by early afternoon . This was the name Mary-Ann Smyth gave a spot which stood out in the memory of the Crichton Carbon Centre team. On an earlier field visit some years back, they had noticed how the peat had been washed away in this drain.

The result is that fence posts are suspended above the new lowered ground level, as this photo shows .


We looked at it from all angles, but had to take care as the bank is now very unstable. Ancient bogwood was visible in the peat profile revealed by the water erosion.

The water in the drain seemed still, with few signs of life.


Granite boulders were deposited in the last ice age and are called ‘erratics’. A public sculpture offered a team-building moment for Emily and Matthew! This sculpture is one of five by Matt Baker in the Cairnsmore of Fleet National Nature Reserve – a project with the poet, Mary Smith.  The handle on the erratic allows passers-by to create further travels for this stone.


Near the horizon in the photo below there is an area of eroded peat haggs, which we did not reach. In the middle-distance, an informed eye can pick out lines where peat dams were created in 2014 through the government’s Peatland Action programme.


We walked over to look at peat dams, and glimpsed a medium sized brown trout. Honest!


Peat dams use local materials to restore the damage that people now realise drainage has done. The reverse process is executed by the skill of digger-drivers, whose experience can include knowledge of how the drains were made in the first place. Emily and her Peatland Action team are well versed in the choreography of this process. “Digger dances” seem to take place when people explain the process of repair that has taken place under foot. Here Emily’s arms have become the digger bucket.

Here is a link is to a Peatland Action video explaining how to make a peat dam.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 21.17.58

Walking back, we reflected on the varied soils we trod on. When you are on deep peat, a probe can be pushed effortlessly to its hilt, into ground that feels ‘squidgy’. If you jump, you can feel movement.


The ridge of sand in the photo below is an esker, that was deposited by meltwater from the Ice Age. The esker has been cut through by the forestry road; it is quite a different soil type. This kind of micro-habitat would not be revealed by broad sweep survey but only in a more detailed soil survey. It creates a distinct kind of sensory experience of place. Surely humans won’t be the only animal to perceive and make use of this?


I left Cairnsmore of Fleet hopeful that the organisations in the Fleet Catchment Steering Group are bringing about positive changes to bring a diversity of species to the uplands and its waterways.

Reaching the car park, the river flowing under the viaduct gave us a chance to paddle, at last.


I am solely responsible for any inadvertent errors in this blogpost; please feel welcome to leave a comment or contact me by email. Kate Foster


2 thoughts on “Cairnsmore of Fleet site visit”

  1. Kate; thank you; how lovely to re-live the day. It was the first time I’d seen the moor in full sun… (normally there is thick cloud and rain, with no views of the hills), and really interesting to hear your and Kerry’s take on it, especially the questions you asked, as artists rather than as land managers and scientists. (“How much money is a single spruce tree worth?”; “Why do trees make a different sound when the wind blows, than heather?”)
    I love the idea of pulling the granite boulder so it can keep travelling… now shall we challenge you free-thinkers to create an interactice scuplture about peat?
    Cheers; Mas.


    1. Thank you Mas for your comments, and Kerry for the questions too. An interactive sculpture with peat is a great challenge! I’d love to talk over possible themes, and what good practice is for people visiting peatlands. I’ve seen a photo of researchers standing on a camp-bed they had taken to in the bog to do a survey, to avoid trampling the plants. This makes me think that art in wetlands might pose some new questions for us.


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