Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a field excursion with some Durham University biology students to Chapel Fell, between Weardale and Teesdale in Co. Durham
We were lucky from the weather and the views were stunning, although there were still patches of snow on the ground so it was pretty bracing up there. This is just about the last place in the local landscape to show signs of spring but if you take your eyes off the view and look at the ground under your feet there are plenty of signs of growth in the upland mosses. Some beautiful lichens thrive here too.
Bogs like this are deep pools filled with Sphagnum moss and are a potential death trap. Stroll onto this fine green 'lawn' and you'd instantly disappear up to your neck (at least) in ice-cold water.
Sphagnum moss is a living sponge that retains vast amounts of water, thanks to its unique leaf structure which you can see by clicking here. Once you get about a metre down from the surface it's pretty anaerobic and preserves biological materials (like drowned bodies) extremely well. You can read about some fine examples of corpses exhumed from peat bogs by clicking here.
In more open patches of water the moss takes on this very attractive starry appearance.
Sphagnum species identification is a specialist skill (there are around 36 species listed in the latest field guide) that I've never mastered and there are several species up here that would keep dedicated bryologists occupied for some time, including ...
.... this delightful claret-coloured example.
One day I'll learn to identify them, using his excellent key.
Polytrichum species thrive on the drier banks ....
.... and this one, which I think is Hylocomium splendens, has intensely red stems bearing yellowish leaves and does well amongst the heather stems that have yet to show much sign of new growth.
This is also home to some fine lichens (mostly Cladonia species) .....
I think this may be Cladonia diversa