Casting my gaze over the distant desolate moors of Noon Hill and Winter Hill, some 3 miles away to the south east I noticed an unfamiliar smudge blurring the dull summer green of the horizon.
Over a few days the smudge whitened and brightened, confirming my suspicion that it was cotton grass.
Never before had the moorland been so swamped by the instantly recognisable seed heads of this bog and peat lover. I determined to investigate the phenomena and to explore what was going on, after all this appeared to be a nature first for this particular lonely landscape.
Last year the picture was altogether different. On the evening of the June full moon Winter Hill was ablaze. An incredibly long rain-free season had left the moors ready to ignite, tinder dry and crackling in readiness. Over the course of the forty one day event two grass fires merged to become a national incident which destroyed over seven square miles of upland. Fire crews from around the country worked round the clock to extinguish the persistent flames which took root in the deep peat.
The devastation seemed to be total. Cracked and charred, the oily black ground smouldered and steamed when the rains eventually came and no sign of life was apparent. But this new whitening told a new story. Life was emerging, no, it was thriving from the blackness. It was time to go and explore and see exactly what was going on.
I knew the moors had greened up somewhat, that was obvious late last year but I had no idea it would be cotton grass that would come so strongly to the fore. As I approached the moor just after dawn on a dull damp morning the wind moaned through the ditches and quartered the skylark heavy skies.
A song of celebration rang around me as curlew, lapwing and pipit joined the arial symphony. A squadron of swifts poured their screeches into the morning breakfast bowl of delight too.
The moors were once again ablaze.
But this time with the white seed heads of common cotton grass, a species of sedge that bobs it’s fluffy white heads above peat and pool in hard to love, acid places. I’ve never seen such a display. I don’t think I’d be far wrong to say that the whole seven square miles of fire ravaged moor was now blanketed in a white, soothing sticking plaster bringing regeneration back to a stressed landscape.
I was not surprised to learn that the plant was used to ease the burns of soldiers in the first world war, and apparently the sweet cottony seed heads provide the most restful sleep when used as pillow stuffing.
The plants grow in densely packed, damp tussocks that soak up the waters from beneath and this gives them a huge advantage over every other plant on the moor when fire strikes. Deep in the tussocks the live stems survive even the most severe blaze and quickly take advantage of the open landscape in the following season.
Also, when new seeds from adjacent boggy lands alight on recently burned peat they fertilise quickly. Cotton grass seeds actually prefer hot peat and draw nutrients from the blackened ash, adding to the dominance of their species as they flourish in the post apocalyptic environment
For a few years following a severe fire the cotton grass will thrive, adding layer upon layer of organic material to the impoverished soils, preparing the way for the return of a wider biodiversity.
Then, as heather, ling, bilberry, purple moor grass and mosses return in its wake, cotton grass slowly recedes into the background, lighting up its preferred niches until called on again to soothe the burned flesh of its moorland home.
Time on the moor evoked a real sense of healing as the white heads of cotton fluff bobbed and danced around me.
If you’d like to get a sense of the atmosphere I’ve posted a six minute video over on my Earthlight YouTube channel. No music, just skylark, curlew, pipit, lapwing and that moaning wind carrying the swifts home.