Take on Nature: The Times They Are A-Changin'

The egret can be encountered in Fermanagh
The egret can be encountered in Fermanagh The egret can be encountered in Fermanagh

WE have now passed the ancient festival of 'Imbolc' which the Celts celebrated as their first day of spring on February 1, or Lá Fhéile Bríde as we know it.

From the old Irish 'i mbolg', meaning 'in the belly' or 'first milk', it references the birthing of spring lambs soon to come and nature's renewal. Evidence of this awakening is emerging all around; the dark green heart-shaped leaves of Lesser celandine are already visible above the soil, while birds seek out the territories they will robustly defend and use to raise young in the months ahead.

Although the meteorological and astronomical dates for the start of spring still lie ahead, seasonal change is on its way.

Sitting by the Glendarragh river in Kesh recently, watching the last leg of its journey to Lower Lough Erne, I was reminded of other changes occurring in the natural world.

Bob Dylan's famous song The Times They Are A-Changin', written in 1963, became an anthem for social change during that time and its universal lyrics continue to convey the message of ongoing change as the decades pass.

His title lines came to mind as I observed a little egret fly overhead across the river, black legs and yellow feet outstretched beyond its pure white plumage. Records show that the egret, so named from the French 'aigrette' meaning 'silver heron' or 'plume', was present in Ireland and Britain as far back as medieval times but became extinct through over-hunting as a food source and for the bird's attractive nape plumes used as decorative additions to hats.

Diminishing numbers of this medium sized fish and frog eating heron across Europe was one of the main motivating factors for a small group of women in Britain establishing the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1889, founded to end the use of bird skins and feathers in the fashion industry.

Protection laws soon helped the species recover and after a natural expansion of its range, the little egret bred again in 1996 in south west England and a year later in Co Cork. Since then, the bird has established itself along most Irish coastal counties and many inland wetland sites, especially further south.

Hence my delight at encountering the bird in Fermanagh, a county offering an abundance of flooded fields and shallow lakes, ideal feeding and breeding habitats for Egretta garzetta.

Once only a rare visitor from the Mediterranean, the bird is now a much more common and welcome sight, its northward spread from Europe probably due also in part to increasing temperatures caused by climate change. Times are changing, I thought.

Later that day, news channels reported on the raging wildfires across Chile claiming multiple lives, destroying homes and vast areas of forest as the country faced a "scorching heatwave". Interior minister Carolina Tohá told a news conference: "The thermometer has reached temperatures we have never known until now."

She indicated the fires should serve as yet another warning on the effects of climate change: "The evolution of climate change shows us again and again that this has a centrality and a capacity to cause an impact that we have to internalise much more."

She added: "Chile is one of the countries with the highest vulnerability to climate change, and this isn't a theory but rather practical experience."

Having enjoyed seeing the little egret above Fermanagh's waters, more menacing effects of climate change were happening across the Atlantic. As Dylan says in his song, "The line it is drawn... The order is rapidly fadin'... the times they are a-changin'"