Opening doors on the wild
A few yearling sheep, still lamb enough to leap around, were the only signs of life on a February morning at Flanders Moss, which stretches flat and featureless, north from the visitor path and viewing tower. But there is vitality and richness here, even in winter, if you look below the bleak, brown surface, say the pupils at Thornhill Primary, which sits on the edge of the Moss, one of the largest lowland raised bogs in Britain (see panel).
"When you go right up to it there's a lot to see," says Hazel Imrie (P7). "There's a bridge with water under it. We saw newts there."
"From the tower, there's a big tree which stands out. I saw a barn owl sitting on it," says Lewis Turner (P7).
Raising your eyes from the peat can be rewarding, says Angus Parsons (P6). "On Christmas Day we saw the tip of the mountains covered in clouds, with snow falling out of them. And on the bog there were little frost flowers with the sun shining on them, falling off the plants."
Flanders Moss is a huge part of growing up for children around the village of Thornhill, west of Stirling, says headteacher Fiona Anderson. "Their families walk their dogs there and there's now a cycle track the children use. Our school has had a long, close relationship with Flanders Moss and Scottish Natural Heritage, which looks after it."
Past projects with SNH include "People, Peat and Poetry", in which local schools, people, poets and artists came creatively together in experiences that left a lovely legacy of poetry and film. "Our kids made a rap and an animated video which were included in the DVD," says Mrs Anderson.
Then there was "Art on the Moss", says Angus. "They took us out there and we sat down with a little drawing book to sketch something. I drew one of those flowers that snaps - a sundew."
Back at school the creativity continued with pupils putting larger paintings together, he says. "Then we'd say a little bit about it and they put that onto a DVD. We were younger then. Our voices were very different."
"All the pupils took the DVD home with them," says Hazel. "I've still got mine."
Other close connections with the Moss include visits to the school by a local craftswoman, says Mrs Anderson. "She shows the children how to make things using materials from the Moss. Then every year we send our Primary 1s down there to work on the wild flower meadow."
As an eco-dude, one of several responsible roles for senior pupils, Calum Cameron (P7) accompanied the new starters and their teacher, he says. "It was a really windy day and a bit flooded, but we showed them all around. It's squelchy and you could fall in. But it would take you a while to sink and you'd probably get pulled out."
There are places that could be tricky if you were alone, says Lewis. "If you fell into the really watery parts, you could sink. It's peat, so it doesn't stop. It keeps going down. There's a green bit called the bouncy bog that you can jump up and down on, wearing wellies."
Wildlife is often abundant on the Moss, say the pupils, including plants, insects, birds of prey and even snakes.
"There are adders there, which are poisonous," says Hazel. "But they're not going to jump out on you. It'd waste a lot of energy, especially in winter when food is scarce. If they don't think you're going to harm them they won't bite you."
Flanders Moss is an unattended SNH site, but work done in recent years has made it user-friendly say the Thornhill pupils. Besides the walkways, cycle-tracks and viewing tower, there are laminated information leaflets at the start, telling of the flora and fauna, the biology and ecology of the blanket bog.
Then there is the history, says Calum. "There's a post marked in thousands of years, showing the level of the peat and how its colour changes with time. The bog used to be huge, stretching all the way from the old train tracks. When you hear the history you feel drawn to it."
Flanders Moss is an exciting place on their doorstep, say the pupils. It is a valuable resource for learning, says Mrs Anderson, and it also provides something not often found in busy schools. "It's peaceful there," she says. "It has a serenity. When you walk along the pathways at Flanders Moss, you can feel the tranquillity."
Find Natural Nature Reserves, including Flanders Moss: www.nnr- scotland.org.ukfind-a-reserve
Get bogged down in peat
Peat bogs, once seen as a worthless waste of land, are now recognised as valuable natural habitats, home to mosses, lichen, fungi, insects, spiders, birds, reptiles and mammals that create a unique ecology in wild and forbidding places - Scotland's version of the rainforest.
Peat forms slowly in wet hollows, as plants grow, die and only partially decompose, due to acidity and lack of oxygen. The majority of these plants are bog mosses and their partially-decayed remains are the peat.
In active bogs the bog mosses are still growing and the peat still forming. Parts of Flanders Moss are active and Scottish Natural Heritage is working to restore the rest.
Flanders Moss is recognised as one of a series of the best active lowland raised bogs across the European Union, as part of the Natura network of European protected sites.