I’ve walked up on these moors all my life. I live in Tameside, a valley carved out by glacial meltwater flowing off the hills around my house, and the moors around us are on the southern tip of Saddleworth, an area famed for its fires and pouring rain. I would like to paint a different picture of a place I love.
It’s recently though that I’ve found a new passion for them. For me, in a turbulent time, the moors are the one thing that rarely changes: the wind, the rattling heather, the carved rocks remain, and always remain. It is a place that some people fear, for good reason. Many a walker has gone missing in its thick fog and grassy slopes. But it’s also a place that, while being respected, can be enjoyed and appreciated. Like all nature’s wonderful habitats we must love the moors to understand them.
‘My moors’ include the 2 main hills of Harridge Pike and Wild Bank, both reaching summits of nearly 400 metres, and both coated in golden brown heather and stubby green bilberry. It’s an area that I’ve seen in all weathers: covered in thick white snow, glowing with purple heather in autumn light, and breathing out rich orange flames as they cough out misty red smoke in late summer. My moors also include the Brushes valley which consists of 4 reservoirs: Walkerwood, Brushes, Lower Swineshaw and Upper Swineshaw, tucked deep in the moorland.
Manchester is well known for its outstanding amounts of rainfall; this is all down to the Pennines. As warm wet air from the Atlantic Ocean hits the Pennines it’s forced up into the atmosphere, where it condenses into liquid and rains on our birdwatching expeditions. This landscape is perfectly adapted to rainfall, and gives us the blanket bogs in return for the rain. Now, anybody who regularly walks on the moors will know what I mean by water-logged boots and sodden socks. This landscape is best described as a sponge, soaking up water and retaining it. I say this, but when that water has dried up the moors are dry as a bone and very prone to wildfires.
Up on a hill near me, called Wild Bank, there’s this beautiful field of the greenest green. Its actually sphagnum moss and it’s honestly stunning. I lie there like a peregrine looking out from the cliffs, towards the sprawl of busy Manchester. It isn’t just pretty to look at, it helps to soak up water. In short it helps raise the water table across the degraded landscape, prevents flash flooding and naturally improves water quality, not to mention improves habitat for breeding wading birds! For me, it’s all about the wilderness. You go into a forest or by a river and it’s peaceful, it’s beautiful, there’s new life springing everywhere. But on the moors it’s wild. It feels completely untouched by humans. It rarely changes and there’s always a slight breeze (or howling gale). There are a handful of plants – heather, gorse, grass, hawthorn and the rare sundew, which create a complex habitat that is beautiful and biodiverse. I have seen hares up here, lizards, meadow pipits, kestrels, deer and short eared owls because it’s such a wild environment. There should not be anything else up there – you go to a wood and there’s lots of trees that have been planted in certain ways; you go up on to the moorland and its as it has been the same for thousands of years.
These moors are Britain’s wet deserts, drowned by rain pretty much every day and howled by the winds. The rocks up there are incredible, ripped off the hillsides thousands of years ago by glacial retreat. They are being constantly carved out by the wind to give beautiful rippled patterns. One bird that is as tough as the rocks themselves is the red grouse, perfectly adapted to live in these harsh conditions, with their deep brown rich red colour that perfectly blends in with the environment. Golden plovers are tough little birds, too, with their peeping call and seen scuttling between the gaps in the heather. You have the bilberry bumblebee that’s sometimes up there. All the plant life here – the hawthorn, the heather, the bilberry – are all stout, gnarly and stubby. You brush past them and they hardly move, because they’ve got to be like that, because if they weren’t they’d get blown over by the wind. That for me is the real essence of these moorland: tough, resilient and dynamic.
Once they dry out however they are like tinder and they can just go up with the slightest spark. The soil is very aerated, and the peat is really flammable. Wildfires have always happened but I’ve seen it myself, more regularly than they used to. Some years they’ve been as many as five fires, but the 2018 Saddleworth Moor fires were unbelievable: miles upon miles of moorland that took an army of fire personnel and volunteers to put them out. The natural world is where I feel safest and happiest, and watching it all go up is an assault on my heart. It’s painful to watch. It’s like watching your home burning.
When I find the remains of barbecues or see people lighting fires up on the moors, I feel anger and disappointment at the human race. I’m not an angry person by nature, but I can’t contain myself when I see the moors on fire. Now, whenever I hear a fire engine I wonder if the moors are on fire again. It’s not just the emotional impact either, the moors are home to countless rare bird species such as curlews, golden plovers, short eared owls and peregrines. The smoke also contributes heavily to climate change with masses of Co2 being sent high into the atmosphere. Peat harvesting on the moors for compost is not sustainable and we can never get it back – it’s not like how you chop down a tree and you plant 3 more; taking away peat means you are also taking away the soil and eating away at the biodiversity.
It makes me feel very guilty and overwhelmed, the human race and the damage we’re inflicting. But the moors give me hope, too. This planet has been here for billions of years, these moors rarely change. Life will find a way to survive.
The moors were the scene of my favourite lockdown experience: I was lucky enough to see one of the rarest birds in Europe, the bearded vulture. It was just so crazy, that on my moors I got to see one of the most unbelievable birds in the world. It was magnificent and what an epic adventure it was!
The first attempt started at the Derwent Valley a few miles south from us. At 3.30am we hiked across unpredictable moorland, with low cloud drifting over us. We got up to Back Torr, carved out by the wind into strange shapes. We took the wrong path, bog trotted across moorland, and while we could just about see the roost site, the bird did not make an appearance. We had to make our way back over open moorland with no paths and plenty of places to trip (I even fell into a river). Right at the top of the torr we saw a golden plover. Then the fog rolled in; by the time we made it off the rocks and back onto the moors my feet felt as if they were stepping on burning ashes in my trainers . Fifteen miles – defeated but determined.
The second attempt was virtually a repeat of the first; we heard a nightjar, saw an owl, watched the sun come up and it was bitterly cold. Five hours we sat on the torr and once again the vulture eluded us. The third trip was a quick visit to a layby, with my Mum. As we got out of the car it flew over our heads! I was really happy, but disappointed that my dad hadn’t seen it properly. Dad and I then went back to the layby a few days later and thankfully he saw it too, albeit very briefly. These sightings were just fleeting glimpses and not quite satisfying.
Then finally, one Sunday, when I felt like I was done, it happened. I was really down in the dumps with schoolwork and the pandemic restrictions. We decided to walk the dog over Woodhead and the conditions were horrendous: drizzle, dank, cloudy. But we were told by some walkers that the vulture was near, and I bombed it up the hill where we had an amazing view of it sat on it’s roost. Then suddenly it took off like the Buckbeak the Hippogriff out of Harry Potter and flew low over our heads. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful in my life. I threw my hat in the air and whooped with joy.
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George Hassall is from Greater Manchester and has grown up with the mighty Pennines standing impressively before him and dumping lots of rain on his house! During lockdown the moors provided a much needed escape for George and his rescue dog, Buddy. Aged 8, George was crowned RHS Young School Gardener of the Year, and a year later he was made the first RHS Young Ambassador in order to inspire other children to share his love of gardening and the natural world. Now aged 15 George’s specialism is wildlife gardening, dabbling at landscaping and he’s totally potty about ponds. George has loved nature all his life and feels a real drive to protect it as it has helped him. George has made several TV appearances, including a regular spot as CBBC’s Blue Peter Gardener. George writes a blog greenfingeredgeorge.com and regularly posts on social media.