6,000 years of wildlife study

Mesolithic house. Credit: David Hawgood.
Mesolithic house. Credit: David Hawgood.

Andy Denwood, author of ‘Leighton Moss: Ice Age to Present Day’, looks back on the the Silverdale-based nature reserve’s history.

This year the RSPB are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their arrival at Leighton Moss nature reserve.

Mesolithic Man. Illustration by Alice Watterson.

Mesolithic Man. Illustration by Alice Watterson.

Since 1964 the charity has been looking after the wildlife and welcoming nature lovers to its visitor centre at Myers Farm, near Silverdale.

But birdwatchers have been visiting this very special wetland for much longer than half a century.

The first birders probably arrived more than 6,000 years ago.

These were hunter-gatherers more interested in eating the ducks than watching them. But they would have been every bit as expert in bird identification and behaviour as their modern counterparts: just imagine trying to stalk mallard or teal through the reeds with nothing but a bow and a flint-tipped arrow. You’d need to learn everything you could about their habits if you didn’t want to go hungry!

Wetlands like the Moss were the supermarkets of the prehistoric era. Besides the ducks and their eggs, hunter-gathers would have fished for eels and collected shell-fish on the shore-line. They would have gathered salad plants like nettles and fat hen, and they would have tried to bag big game (red deer and possibly even elk) when they came to drink at the springs along the edge of the forest.

In those days the Moss was a sea inlet, surrounded by dense woodland teeming with wildlife. Pollen studies show that the trees included oak and Scots pine. Towards the water’s edge there was a scrubby mix of alder and willow. Early visitors may have built their small, round, reed-thatched, houses just above the high tide line.

Modern-day farmers around the Moss have often found traces of the people who worked their land thousands of years ago.

In the 1930s and 40s Jack Seed and his daughter Alice, tenants at Brow Foot Farm in Yealand Storrs, turned up a series of finds as they walked behind their plough horses.

Among their discoveries was a stunning leaf-shaped arrowhead, as razor-shard and perfect as the day it was shaped from the original flint more than 4,000 years ago

Mr Seed also found four polished stone axes—probably used to cut down trees – and in 1941 his plough turned up a stone disk, nearly 3 inches in diameter with a hole in the middle. This was a net sinker from the Neolithic era, designed to make fishing nets sink into position on the sea-bed.

But much of what we know about the very early visitors to the Moss comes from work by Liverpool University, which carried out an archaeological dig in the 1960’s. Frank Oldfield – now a retired Professor – was then a young environmental scientist.

“Oddly enough the thought of excavating …came to me in a dream. It was very bizarre,” said Frank.

He knew that the junction between the woods and the shoreline was a popular place for ancient people to settle. He also knew there were freshwater springs in the area, and that farmers had uncovered axes and other implements.

“In the middle of the night I woke up thinking: springline, stone-axe on the surface, junction between flooded and dry land ecosystems, this is absolutely spot-on for the place to try!”

Frank’s dream had correctly pinpointed a late Mesolithic site dating to about 4,200 BC.

The archaeologists’ boggy exploration trenches in a field alongside the Moss soon began to reveal clear evidence of very early human activity.

“We found a large board with a hole in it, and we found an upright that had what looked like a mortice and tenon system – a plank in a hole.

“We also found the fragment of what we took to be a wooden vessel.

“These were very limited finds, but the plank had clearly been worked and it had a beautiful hole in it.”

In fact, the archaeologists were not sure exactly what they had found, although Frank thought the post and plank might have been part of a causeway to help people walk from the muddy shoreline towards open water.

Nearby they unearthed a large number of tiny flint tools, known as microliths. The evidence wasn’t enough to prove there had been a settlement, but there was clearly a lot of activity down on the Moss 6,000 years ago.

Bronze Age burial mounds above the Moss and the fort on nearby Warton Crag show that people did settle in the area.

And they would probably have carried on popping down to the Moss to pick up the ingredients for an evening meal.

Today the railway line cuts the Moss off from the sea. The RSPB manages its ditches and reed-beds to benefit the wildlife and the people who come to see it. But visit the Moss at dawn, with the mist hanging on the water and the deer wading though the shallows and it’s possible to imagine that not so very much has changed in the past 6,000 years.

The book is available to purchase from RSPB Leighton Moss shop priced £8.99.

See http://denwoodpublishing.blogspot.co.uk/2014/ for more on Andy Denwood.