Sunday, 9 February 2014

Maddened by the floods? Get mad about moss.

Flooded fields between Annacloy and Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland

Photo credit Ardfern

Having spent many years of my childhood on the now disastrously flooded Somerset Levels, and still full of memories of my research last year into 19th century Budleigh Salterton spongiologist Henry Carter FRS, I read with interest Simon Barnes’ article in yesterday’s Times newspaper.

‘Dredging up old ideas won’t save the Levels’ was its title. No, believes the author. What is needed is in his words “a bloody great sponge” placed upstream to soak up water and then release it slowly. “Such sponges are known as upland bogs, moors, woodlands, wetlands and species-rich grasslands.”


The picture says it all: an overwhelmed flood sign
Photo credit Bob Embleton

And maybe he should have added mosslands. For in our hillside cottage here in Budleigh Salterton we’re only too aware of the spongy flood barrier that we call our lawn. It has clearly absorbed much of the rainfall that’s made so many homes uninhabitable recently in other parts of the country.


That’s only to be expected, thinks my American friend Mossin’ Annie, pictured above at work on her mossery.  Based in Pisgah Forest in North Carolina - the other Raleigh country associated with our own Sir Walter - she runs Mountain Moss Enterprises and has been featured before in these pages.


 The path from Huccaby and Hexworthy on Dartmoor runs between old walls of moss-covered grantite boulders  Photo credit Martin Bodman
See more beautiful images of Dartmoor moss by local photographer Adrian Oakes at

Mosses can indeed absorb water like a sponge.  Some only a little at a time. “Others, like Sphagnums, can absorb up from 20-30 times their weight,” writes Annie on her website at

“The absorptive properties of mosses allow extensive colonies to provide water filtration slowing down the rush of stormwater and giving it a chance to reach the soil. Mosses can reduce the impact of flash-flooding or heavy rainstorms as erosion control plants.”

Peat stacks near Westhay on the Somerset Levels: a photo taken in 1905 by Alexander Hasse 
Sphagnum moss is one of the most common components of peat, valued by gardeners for protecting plants against drought.  And the Somerset Levels are just one example of peatlands in countries around the world where thousands of tons of peat have been extracted, removing a most important water-absorbent material.  The current floods seem to be an elementary case of cause and effect. I’m not an expert, but it seems obvious that an environmentally damaging process needs to be reversed. That’s what the Wildlife Trusts believe anyway. Click on to see what they’re doing about it. 

For UK readers interested in learning more about moss, Annie tells me about an event at the South London Botanical Institute which runs from mid-February to mid-March.  Click on  for further information.


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