Wildlife is always close by - Take on Nature

Many joys of the natural world are to be found locally, and don’t require us to travel far

Bog cotton, as poet Michael Longley wrote, "hangs on by a thread, denser than thistledown..." (Lenorlux/Getty Images)

An old friend and mentor during my younger days of interest in wildlife once told me that many joys of the natural world are to be found locally and don’t require us to travel far, just to be present and curious with our senses in nearby environments.

Whether in a garden, local wood or by a river, there were, he said, lots of living things to discover and enjoy. This advice and these words have remained with me as I continue to explore and find contentment in seeing different species close by, like the bog cotton I came across recently on a pocket of bog in the townland of Dullaghan or ‘Duilleachán’, the ‘wee leafy place’ a few miles outside my hometown of Dromore.

Stopping to properly appreciate its gentle elegance, I was also treated to the rambling chatter of a sedge warbler, a summer migrant here skulking among scrub and rushy wetlands, regarded by Heaney in Serenades as “A little bird with a big voice / Kicking up a racket all night”. There was a certain symmetry to the bird’s presence, as bog cotton, or cotton grass as it’s also known, is not a grass at all but a member of the sedge family.

Seamus Heaney described the sedge warbler as a "A little bird with a big voice, Kicking up a racket all night" (sandra standbridge/Getty Images)

Although I’ve seen this plant many times over the years, something prompted me to take time to observe it more fully. Its white, fluffy tufts float on single stems, standing in contrast to the shades of green and brown around them. These feathery seed heads sway in the breeze until individually each will detach and be swept off by wind to colonise suitable new ground, especially exposed peat.

Michael Longley, in Bog Cotton, writes of how, “It hangs on by a thread, denser than thistledown / Reluctant to fly...” Alternative names for the plant include Bog-silk and Cotton-sedge, with its most common Irish names, Ceannbhán, and Ceannabhán móna, noting its ‘white head’ and preference for boggy habitat.

Only two of the four Eriophorum species are common in Ireland, the common cotton grass and hare’s tail cotton grass. It is known that the downy tufts of cotton-like strands were used to stuff pillows and, on occasions, mattresses, while Danaher, in Irish Customs and Beliefs (1964), wrote of the tradition here of fibres from bog cotton being spun and woven into cloth.

He also tells of the story about a princess who made 12 shirts from bog-cotton for her brothers, to release them from a spell. In Scottish folklore, Lucki Minni, a mischievous witch or ‘trow’, living in the Shetland hills is said to have gathered the wool-like fibres from bog cotton to card and spin along with ferns.

It was said too in Scotland, that the fibres from the plant along with sphagnum moss were sent as dressing material for wounds during the First World War. Longley, in his poem, also mentions how bog cotton, “might well bring to mind / The plumpness of pillows, the staunching of wounds.”

A bird of marshes and wet grasslands, it was no surprise to hear the sedge warbler here close to the bog cotton. Visiting from west and southern Africa, the sandy brown male warbler, with a striking white eyestripe, can be difficult to see. A great mimic, the bird has a vast repertoire of phrases in its song as it attempts to attract a mate on arrival to Irish shores.

The bog cotton and sedge warbler I encountered in a small local townland patch are but two examples of ordinary, though notable, species found near places where we live, in towns, cities or the countryside.

Those were wise words shared all those years ago.