From bog-sceptic to bog-enthusiast: the power of volunteering

To celebrate Volunteers’ Week, we asked David McCulloch, a volunteer at our Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve (NNR), to give us an insight into his volunteering experiences with NatureScot.

I started volunteering for NatureScot in 2015, after taking early retirement. I’d only visited Flanders Moss NNR a few times and, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in bogs. However, I like being outdoors and had time on my hands so I thought I’d give it a go.

Seven years on, I spend a lot of my free time at Flanders Moss, which has become my “happy place”. I love the wildness of the bog, the wide open spaces that are far from the madding crowd. The tranquility heightens my senses, enabling me to listen to the birdsong and keep an eye out for tiny insects. I also enjoy photographing the wildlife that I find, and I carry out dragonfly surveys in association with the British Dragonfly Society.

A common hawker dragonfly, by David McCulloch

What happened that changed me from being a bog-sceptic into a bog-enthusiast? One word…volunteering!

By volunteering at Flanders Moss, I’ve learned so much about the importance of raised bogs for wildlife. The waterlogged, nutrient-poor, acidic conditions support a wide variety of plants and insects that wouldn’t thrive anywhere else. Bogs are important in the context of climate change too. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. They store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. Damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland restoration can reduce emissions significantly”. By holding onto water, bogs also help prevent our communities from flooding after heavy rain.

However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, people thought bogs had no value. Ditches were dug to drain water off the bog, and much of the peat was removed to expose the clay that lies beneath to make fertile farmland. Thankfully, further commercial exploitation was stopped in its tracks and the bog was saved for the nation by NatureScot’s predecessor in 1980.

Cotton grass (or bog cotton) on Flanders Moss, by David McCulloch.
A common lizard basking on the boardwalk, by David McCulloch.

As peat accumulates at a rate of only 1mm per year, I’ve come to understand that we must protect what is left of a precious and increasingly rare habitat. By volunteering, I feel I’m doing my bit to restore the bog to its near-natural state. I’ve spent time removing invasive trees that would otherwise suck much-needed water out of the bog, damaging the ability of peat to act as an effective carbon store. I’ve carried out surveys for hen harriers, rare moths and dragonflies, and built ‘hibernacula’ for adders (where they can hibernate in winter). I’ve dug and deepened ponds to improve the habitat for dragonflies, and hammered plastic piling to dam ditches and slow the flow of water off the bog. I’ve coppiced trees, helped manage the wildflower meadow, and even repaired potholes on the access road. 

Volunteers deepening the pond, by David McCulloch.
Rannoch brindled beauty moth. The female is flightless, and attracts males by emitting pheromones whilst perched on a fence post or tree trunk. David McCulloch.
Northern emerald dragonfly. Flanders Moss is the only place in the UK where they’re known to breed outside the Scottish Highlands. David McCulloch.

You’d think that spending all this time volunteering on the bog would mean I’d want to spend my free time elsewhere, but you’d be wrong. The more I’ve learned about raised bogs, the more I’ve come to appreciate what an amazing place Flanders Moss is. I want to deepen my understanding, and really get under the skin of the place. I also feel a sense of ownership now, for the dams I’ve helped build, for example.

Installing a dam to reduce the flow of water off the bog. David McCulloch.

Therefore, I’ve found that volunteering is a virtuous circle: the more I volunteer, the more I love the place and want to go back in my own time and immerse myself in it, sometimes literally! It’s a cliché, but it’s true – you get more out of volunteering than you put in.

That’s me in the brimmed hat telling Chris Packham about my volunteering experiences when he visited Flanders Moss in 2018. David McCulloch

In large part, my positive experience of volunteering has been due to the amazing NatureScot staff. Steve, Amee, Ellie and others have helped, encouraged and inspired me in my volunteering journey. Then there are my fellow volunteers. Some of the tasks can be arduous (well, it is a bog!), but the time passes quickly when you’re in the company of like-minded people. The world can be a scary place at times but, when you’re getting stuck into a task, sharing encounters with wildlife and enjoying the craic, time passes quickly and the stresses of everyday life seem less intense.

Huge thanks to David and all those who volunteer their time to help protect and restore Scotland’s nature. We are truly grateful. If you’d like to learn more about volunteering opportunities near you visit

This entry was posted in Flanders Moss NNR, Volunteering and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.