Bog wars

It sits astride the English-Welsh border where it runs through Shropshire and Wrexham, and until just over a quarter of a century ago was a major area for the industry of peat extraction.

Since then the Mosses have been subject to restoration work designed to actively re-grow the raised bog by slowing the rate of water run-off and removing trees and scrub that have smothered the raised bog plant life. Among these is sphagnum moss, the plant that eventually decays to settle at the bottom of the bog to form peat.

The wonders of sphagnum moss

However, this humble plant has a history of involvement in some of mankind’s bloodiest activities by being used to stem and heal wounds. As far back as the Battle of Clontarf, on 23 April 1014, sphagnum moss was recorded as being used as a wound dressing.

It wasn’t until the First World War that the full potential of sphagnum moss was realised. The high rate of wound infection was exacerbated by the filthy conditions prevalent in trench warfare. Many soldiers survived their battle injuries only to succumb to the infections from pieces of germ-infected uniforms pushed deep inside their bodies by bullets, shell blasts and shrapnel.

Army doctors tried a variety of methods to clear the infections, including irrigating wounds withsolutions of chlorine, infusing bandages with carbolic acid, formaldehyde or mercury chloride. But the one vital ingredient became increasingly scarce – cotton. Needed for uniforms and as guncotton – the major ingredient of the high explosive cordite – there just wasn’t enough available.

It was then that the medical use of sphagnum moss came to the fore. The entire plant is antiseptic and its absorbent properties, twice those of cotton, made it an excellent wound dressing which helped save the lives of thousands of soldiers in the First World War. Dried sphagnum, widely known as bog moss, can absorb up to twenty times its own volume of liquids. This was ideal for dealing with blood and pus and acting as an antiseptic.

Collecting sphagnum moss became a patriotic duty for non-combatants living close to significant sphagnum bogs. These volunteers would collect the moss by hand, clean out any leaves or twigs, and take them to the local collection point. It was here that the moss would be treated by being pressed and dried before being turned into surgical dressings. It was then sent to a regional depot before being despatched to the war hospitals.

Most of us think of the poppy as the iconic symbol of the sacrifices of the First World War. Perhaps we should remember the life-saving role of our own humble sphagnum or bog moss. Many owed their lives to this fantastic and often overlooked plant.

Going forward

The Marches Mosses BogLIFE Project is a five year programme to restore Fenn’s, Whixall, Bettisfield, Wem and Cadney Mosses SAC. This work is generously funded by the European Union’s LIFE + Nature and Biodiversity Programme and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

For further information contact Mike Crawshaw, Engagement Officer, West Midlands Team - Seconded to Marches Mosses BogLIFE Project.

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Did you know?

The area of Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses combined is the third largest area of raised peat bog in Britain. On average, 1 hectare of peatland can store 10 times more carbon than 1 hectare of woodland

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