We bring you another informative blog, as Iona introduces one of the reserve's seasonal spectaculars: bog cotton!

As we finally transition from a very wet May into the start of the Scottish summer, the reserve is starting to come to life. Little fledglings are starting to explore their local patch, invertebrates are making the most of the warm summer air and the undergrowth is bursting into full colour. Across the cover of marshy ground the landscape is decorated with white fluffy dots: bog cotton!

Bog cotton, your new favourite sedge.

Best seen from April through to June, bog cotton grows in wet, peaty ground. Part of the sedge family, the plant starts the season with brown and green flowers, but after air-borne pollination, these soon develop into the characteristic white seed-heads which give the plant its name. In some years when the bog cotton has been successful, the white seed-heads even create the illusion of a dusting of snow across the landscape.

The white fluffy seed-heads are rarely still, usually seen swaying in the wetland as they are met by a breeze. The wind is very useful when it comes to pollination. The strands of what look like cotton are in fact modified petals and sepals which when aided by the wind can provide very efficient long-distance seed dispersal.

Aw, look at the fluffy white seed dispersal mechanism.

The bog cotton brings more to the reserve than just aesthetics. It is also a food source for some of the reserves most charismatic species. Moving down from the seed-head, the shoots of the plant are known to be eaten by several bird species, including black grouse and capercaillie. The female capercaillie will rely on the plant during the summer, feeding on the shoots to gain protein and stay healthy while she looks after her brood.

In addition to providing food for one of our rarest species, bog cotton can be a great indicator of the condition of the habitat, as it is not only birds which like to feed on this plant. Grazing and browsing animals such as sheep and deer are also known to have a taste for the shoots, despite it often being in wet, boggy soils. Much of the habitat here has been over-grazed meaning it’s very difficult for certain plants to regenerate, because as soon as they peek out above the heather it is likely they will be eaten. Trees in particular, with tasty leaves full of nutrition, struggle to grow if an area is heavily browsed by deer. Areas of bog cotton can therefore indicate the grazing level of a habitat, with a large area of bog cotton demonstrating a promising restoration of the habitat.

This habitat is thriving, look at all that bog cotton!

Bog cotton brings a multitude of benefits to the reserve, from food to ecological indicator – and indicates boggy areas to avoid walking! In the past it has even been used as candle wicks, pillow stuffing and wound dressing. So, when you’re next out on the reserve and come across these tufts of cotton-like fluff, think of all the benefits this tiny plant provides!

Anonymous