Nightjar Residency // Blog One - July 2023


Leeming & Paterson are the current Artful Migration artists in residence. 

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Image: Ted Leeming and Morag Paterson, photographed by Upland
Image: Ted Leeming and Morag Paterson, photographed by Upland

On 21st June the sun dropped below the horizon at 9:57pm in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. 'Last light' as it is meteorologically termed, was a full hour later, though even then the horizon to the northwest still glowed with the joy of summer. By 3:45am the sun was eagerly climbing once more. It doesn't take a great mathematician to appreciate that, in this light, undertaking an art residency for a crepuscular bird (one that flies at dawn and dusk) that arrives in Scotland in May and leaves by the end of August, will mean a few late nights. But this is our fate for the coming months as we commence our exploration of the mysterious world of the enigmatic nightjar.

Image 1.
The Lochar Mosses - our canvas for the residency. "The most boring place in the UK" according to the legendary John Peel.

The third in the series of 'Artful Migration' residencies delivered through Upland and Moving Souls Dance, I cannot deny the occasional twinge of jealousy that we weren't commencing the whooper swan or osprey residencies that preceded ours, as exploring highly protected nature reserves through a Scottish summer does have a undeniable appeal when compared to photographing an unknown 'cathedral to the midge' peat bog at night.  As we scratched the surface, however, it turns out short nights and biting bugs were the least of our concerns as we contemplated the months ahead. For not only does our nightjar fly at night, but she is also shy, rare and camouflaged better than the SAS on hide-and-seek training. But more on that another time, as our first objective was to understand what the 'Lochar Moss', our residency home for the coming months, actually is.

Image 2.
The bird itself may be the lead actor.  But without appropriate habitat there is nowhere to perform.

It turns out "The Great Moss" was once one of Europe's finest and most expansive peat bogs. An impenetrable quagmire of sphagnum that even hobbits would struggle to negotiate, this quaking entity comprised 90% water and just 10% solid matter. And yet it was land. Like a mighty empire, this living body gradually expanded over 12,000 years after the last ice age, until it covered an area some 10 miles long and 3 miles wide. And then, in the glimpse of a geological eye, her soft borders were torn apart until very little recognisable remained. The first map of the region, produced in the 1750s by one William Roy for military purposes, depicts the single route of a lonely, bandit-ridden track crossing the northern sector of the Moss, together with a small number of agricultural improvements to the southwestern sectors. These incursions, it turned out, were to be but the precursors of what was to follow, and by the turn of the 21st century less than 3% of The Great Moss lay unaltered.

Image 3.
Land uses compete to deliver our modern society, pitting short term needs against long term imperatives.

Landscape 'improvements' came relentlessly thereafter to the The Great Moss and continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as they did across much of the planet. With an efficiency only an engineer, accountant and landowner working together can fully appreciate, the life was literally drained out of what, at the time, was considered a valueless and inhospitable wasteland, in favour of the productive simplicity of agriculture. Additional nails in the coffin came with the urbanisation that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, as housing and industrial development exploded with the accompanying plethora of infrastructure including rail, roads and pylons, waste disposal, parks and concrete, all required to meet the convenient desires of our modernising world. Efficiencies were constantly devised to make, do, grow, build everything quicker and bigger, and with all this cleverness came machinery and artificial nutrients, together with 'advanced' spreadsheet thinking, to extract yet more.  Such was its inhospitable nature, the heart of the Lochar Moss was spared until the 1960s when a policy encouraging home grown timber production led to the final mass drainage of the ravaged Great Moss and the planting of single-species commercial conifer plantations.  The devastation was complete.

Image 4.

'So where exactly are they?' The words elusive, midge and late nights spring to mind!

For reasons I have yet to discover, 3% of the original bog escaped improvement. The attack on this remaining remnant was to be verbal, and perfectly reflects our relationship with the natural world. In the 1990s, the legendary John Peel, in his radio show 'Home Truths', declared this remaining fragment of natural environment as "the most boring place in the UK". His reasoning was that it contained an entire lack of features, save a small watercourse grazing one corner of that square, on a 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map. It seemed our residency was to be based in a truly depressing location.

But, as in all the greatest stories, when all seemed lost and at its bleakest, with no future apparent, a shaft of light broke through the darkening storm clouds. Forestry and Land Scotland (owner of a significant element of The Great Moss planted with conifers) began to recognise the importance of the slowly desiccating peat, both as a globally significant natural habitat and as a vast carbon sink'. In 2010, as densely packed coupes of lodgepole pine reached commercial maturity, they commenced a 25 year program to return the element of the moss that was under their control (some 30%), to something resembling her former glory. In doing so they set an example in future thinking that considers value in broader terms than solely financial, creating a habitat that allowed nature to return and natural processes to resume.  Partly as a result of their inspiration, conversations are now taking place with other landowners, including farmers, on how it might be possible to better balance land use for biodiversity, nature, community, societal and commercial needs.  

Image 5.
Early experimentations

In a few short months, we will only begin to fathom the complexities and conflicts that might exist in this landscape, but we hold these thoughts in our minds as we walk out to explore the canvas.