Author Archives: SelfPropelled

Norfolk – life in the slow lane (in a good way)

Norfolk. UK. It can be an odd place. There are the obvious jokes that seem to apply to any county that isn’t close to a huge metropolis, or which is agriculturally focussed. After 25 odd years of living here I still find the lack of serious hills a bit boring at times; having grown up in East Sussex with the South Downs, Norfolk can seem a bit flat until you get to the North coast.

It’s a beautiful county though; huge skies and horizons, the Norfolk Broads, the coastline and endless beaches, the picturesque little villages you stumble upon where time still seems to run more slowly than the rest of the world. The people are friendly and hospitable, and not hesitant about sharing a story or two, in fact it can be hard to get away if you engage them in conversation.

Today I went on a slow bike ride around a bit of the the Norfolk Broads, around Neastishead and Irstead, not far from Wroxham. I was deliberately pedalling slowly, just looking at everything, and pausing frequently. There were children playing in the country lanes, neighbours chatting on village greens and staithes (in a mostly socially distant manner) over a glass of cider (ok, can of scrumpy maybe). Nature was thriving everywhere with birds singing, mice foraging, lambs gambolling and even a glimpse of an Otter. And the plants, mighty Oaks and water loving Alder, hundreds of different wildflowers I can’t even begin to name, all buzzing with insect life.

What’s my point? I was just wondering why people feel the such a compulsion to holiday abroad, getting on a plane, flying to a concrete hotel complex somewhere in the world, with a sterile beach and swimming pool, food they ultimately complain about, with accompanying travel stress and carbon footprint. We have all this on our doorstep. Norfolk isn’t unique in having loads of places to explore and things to do. Coming out of lockdown why don’t we all fly less and visit the wonders on our own doorstep? I’m certain local businesses would appreciate it for a start, and connecting with nature in our local area is so good for folks.

I really enjoyed my slow bike ride today, and wander round Alder Fen Broad, then Barton Broad. Highly recommend visiting them; although maybe just leave Alder Fen Broad alone as it’s lovely and quiet, a bit of a hidden gem; so many Dragon Flies!

Exploring hidden pathways is fun, and did anyone else read Swallows and Amazons as a child?

I’ve really got to get myself a canoe. Sometimes paddling beats pedalling.

Anyone know the story behind the statue above Irstead Church doorway? Some kind of Broads Serpent maybe? I love how a ride round your local area can inspire your imagination.

Barton Broad offers another chance to see an example of car woodland; not much of this around anymore.

It’s been fun exploring my local area whilst I’ve been on holiday. I’m back to work next week, but hoping to work a bit less and get out a bit more!

Finally, for my Extinction Rebellion friends: Next Rebellion announced today, 01 September, Parliament Square in London if you’ve not got a local rebellion. Coincides with Parliament reopening. With Boris saying ‘Build Build Build’ (all the wrong ‘builds’ too), and 4C temp rises now predicted, it’s time to Rebel For Life; We want to Live!

Extinction Rebellion – where are we at?

Hi – this is a reflective post on Extinction Rebellion, with whom I’ve been involved for about a year and a half now, if not longer; recently time is starting to blur a bit. It will most likely be of interest to active rebels, but I’d invite anyone to read it and comment, as it’s useful to hear other opinions. I originally started writing it in a response to a post on social media, but apparently it’s a bit too long to fit in the comments!

Extinction Rebellion…Oct 2018 to June 2020

It was such a relief to me when Extinction Rebellion (XR) started in Norwich. Turning up at that first meeting in October 2018 to find there were lots of people like me, very concerned about the environment and ecology, and the path that we’re still on; 4oC temp rises, mass extinction, societal breakdown, mass migration and war, famine, drought, ecocide etc.

At the time the above were my main concerns, and still feature right up there on my worry list. Thinking about the future and what’s going to happen to everyone (humans, animals, plants, planet) genuinely does stop me from sleeping, and often makes me think everything pointless, because I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to stop this runaway train (unintentional link to HS2 there). There’s just not the willingness politically, or amongst business leaders, or amongst most of society in the UK to make the drastic changes we so desperately need. People don’t want to give up there comfortable, high-consumption, cosy and safe lifestyles; and by people I do mean most people in the western world. I totally acknowledge this is a challenge for me too!

I still think most people, even if they now know climate change is real, don’t really get the implications, or the impacts already being felt by the Global South and indigenous populations. Yeah, there were those fires in Australia, and didn’t South Africa run out of water, and what about those orang-utans (etc etc), but at the end of the day I can worry about that a bit then go back to my cosy lifestyle, as it’s not on my doorstep.

It’s not on my doorstep yet anyway. It will be soon but people don’t want their bubble broken, or to be taken outside of their comfort zone. It’s damned scary. Blissful ignorance is…well…blissful.

But once you’re properly awake, you can’t go back to sleep. And that’s why it was such a relief to find a group of people in Norwich, and nationally, who wanted to try and do something about an issue that has been on my mind for years and years. I think many of us, even if it’s at an unconscious level, have known something is wrong all our lives. Here was a group of people that really understood the depth of the crisis and changes needed. To us it’s obvious why you shouldn’t build another airport or more roads, damage vital habitats to build a railway or more houses, or push an unfettered economic growth policy. It’s obvious the modern way of life and capitalism is ultimately killing us. It’s now more obvious how this links in with Social Justice. All of this still isn’t obvious to most people though, and I can’t really judge them on that; it’s a hard topic and not widely discussed or accepted.

I’ve was never involved with any kind of activism before XR, and I think that’s pretty representative of a lot of our membership, aside from some of our ‘leaders’ (hesitant about using the word leader, probably mean more founders). We’re just ‘normal’, run of the mill UK people, with ‘normal’ jobs and lifestyles. And yes, a lot of us are middle classed, and very privileged; I for one acknowledge that. Until recently I didn’t know much about other movements and struggles, and for example I still view organisations like Unions with distrust (but trying not to judge).

Sure, I was worried about the NHS, Brexit, human and animal rights, racism, fairness, and a host of other issues, but for me these all paled into insignificance versus the Climate Crisis and Ecocide. In the end these two things have made me an activist, and got me out onto the streets. I think this is still the case for lots of XR members; the climate and ecological crisis is the issue that trumps all other issues, as if we don’t solve that there won’t be anything else left to fix. I still believe that to an extent. And I think a lot of rebels still want us to focus on that, and feel we might be trying to bring too many other issues into scope.

However, since those early XR days, I’ve learnt loads thanks to talking to lots of other rebels; I could reel off a long list of names and talks I’ve been too, but you’ll probably know who I’m referring to if you move in those circles. XR has been a gateway to the world of activism and learning more about the issues we face locally, nationally and globally. One of the biggest areas of learning has been around Global/Social Justice, and how it’s all linked. We can’t fix the climate and eco crisis without addressing Global Justice. And by Global Justice I mean acknowledging and taking action to stop the exploitation of the Global South and indigenous populations, and to support them on the front-line of the climate crisis; they’re already dying in their thousands.

It also means acknowledging and doing more to combat racism and inequality in our own country, for the same reasons, and that includes within XR. We need everyone’s voices (I exclude racist and some other categories from ‘everyone’) and to engage with all communities, not to distance ourselves from them, or say we don’t need them; I have personally seen this happen. We also shouldn’t take actions without understanding the impact it can have on communities which one doesn’t originate from. More empathy, outreach and understanding needed.

What can we do to make XR better? What can we do to fix what could be viewed as a make or break few months? I don’t have all the answers and shouldn’t expect to; we need everyone’s help with that.

What don’t I want to see?

I don’t want to see current rebels, who joined for the same reasons I did, leaving because they think being middle classed and privileged means they’re no longer welcome, or because it means they don’t really have a right to protest. I think I need to acknowledge and use my privilege in a constructive manner, to hopefully to make things better. I also acknowledge the ‘not feeling welcome’ bit is how a lot of BAME/LGBTQ must feel all the time.

I don’t want to see XR paralysed by internal politics, especially at a national level. I don’t want to see us starting to rely on a hierarchy that will stop us from doing anything; we’re a self organising system with demands, principles and shared values. We shouldn’t be held back because suddenly one of our previously key members/leaders is doing something we find is at odds with those principles and values; let’s move on.

There are quite a lot of very self righteous people (I hope I’m not one of them) around at the moment who are getting too judgemental perhaps. Too many egos? Maybe XR is being used as a platform for other causes where it’s not really appropriate to do so?

I also really don’t want to lose the grass-roots rebels we have, that would diminish us. I feel that if you’re part of something you care about, and think it might be broken somewhere, then it’s better to try and at least fix it before leaving; if you think it’s worth your time and effort, and isn’t going to bring you too much stress or ill-health.

What do I want see?

I want to see the 4th demand (Social Justice) put in place as soon as possible, and don’t want to have to wait for months of endless talk and meetings for this to happen. I personally think if the majority approve it in local groups, they can just add it at a local level, and national can catch up.

I want to see our existing rebels get motivated and out on the streets again for the right kinds of actions; targeted actions versus government and corporations. Not actions that are going to adversely impact already stressed communities.

I want to see peaceful mass actions at a local level. Sure, we should go ahead with national actions and large scale well considered, well-messaged, and well-managed Rebellions, but local groups shouldn’t just wait for these to happen, or be reliant on central ‘leadership’.

I want to see more outreach and discussion with working class and BAME communities. I would love XR rebel numbers to grow from their ranks, but if that’s not possible please can we learn from them, act in harmony with them, and support each other? I am certain we can do this with the BLM movement.

I want to see more education and trainings to help people understand how the climate and eco crisis is inextricably linked to Global/Social Justice. This will surely help bring communities together; more integration and learning on both sides. We need more actions specifically on Global Justice, or XR rebels turning out to support actions organised by these movements.

I want middle class XR members to understand why it’s more difficult for working class, LGBTQ, and BAME communities to rebel, and to support them where they can so they feel they are able to, so we can create a united movement across society. I think this is starting to happen, but we have a long way to go still.

I want people not to be afraid to speak what’s on their mind, ask questions, challenge statements, enter in to discussion. It’s the only way we really learn.

I desperately want people to pause more often for self reflection and to think about what they’ve learned, whether they need to learn more, and whether that means they need to alter their trajectory at all. Really – Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes (empathy). We shouldn’t get paralysed by self reflection though; sometimes happens to me.

I want more people helping and doing stuff, rather than just talking about it, or criticising. I want less meetings and more actions.

I am probably wanting too much, and again acknowledge I am speaking from a privileged position, and that I still have lots to learn. Yep, I’m one of those middle aged, white, middle classed white blokes, but I don’t think that means I should just shut up; it does mean I should listen more though.

I move through periods when I think anything is possible, to periods of despair and grief, especially when I move outside my own echo chamber (but even whilst within it).

I’ve just got to carry on believing change is possible, and hoping we can work out how best to bring about that change as time goes on. But time is ticking, and frankly I’m increasingly anxious (or terrified ) about how little of it we have left to make the significant changes needed. Maybe only months, maybe years; those tipping points are looming. I am increasingly tempted to do what some have done, try and buy my own patch of land, somewhere remote, and prepare for the worst.

How do I feel better? By organising and participating in targeted non-violent direct action and positive outreach, centred around the climate and ecological crisis, as well as global justice. It feels right to me, when they’re the right sort of actions/outreach, and when they have some sort of impact. More of those sorts of actions, and I hope with an ever increasing number of Rebels, as well as cross-overs with other movements and communities.

Finally, a plea.

As we come out of lockdown I’m hoping we don’t go back to where we were prior to Coronavirus, and that we don’t let our government and business leaders take us back there by investing in the wrong areas, to drive more profit and growth for the benefit of a very small fraction of society. We new a new baseline to work from.

There are many positives to take from lockdown, such as being able to work from home, not needing to travel so much, consuming less in general, and how local communities have rallied around to help one-another.

I hope we can ‘Build Forward Better’, a green and sustainable future investing in the right things, which doesn’t include projects like HS2 (remember we can work for home), massive new road schemes, or housing developments on endangered biodiverse habitats.

I hope people realise that long term happiness and satisfaction is more about who you have around you, functioning communities, being able to play, being able to enjoy nature, being able to talk to your family and neighbours. It’s not so much about having to go on holiday abroad twice a year, or constantly buying new stuff you don’t really need at the expense of our environment, ecology and the Global South. Let’s stop sleep walking towards our own destruction.

We can be happy without all of that, in fact we can be happier than we are now, with less stress, mental and physical illness. We should be able to support one another across society to make this happen; a transition to a fair, sustainable, resilient, and green world.

Now stop reading my ramblings and go enjoy some nature, dance in the rain, play some music, talk to a neighbour, play a game, or just be in the moment for while.

Love and Rage.

Please stop scalping Mother Earth

I haven’t written to the Council for a bit, or to my MP, however after pedalling round my local country lanes over the last few days I felt motivated to write the below. I might also submit this to the local newspaper tomorrow to see if they’d life to print a version of it. I’m sharing it on my blog as I’m sure many of you will feel the same way. Here’s a nice photo before getting into the letter; let me know quick if you spot any typos!

Norfolk waterway

Norfolk waterway with willow trees and cow pasture

03 June 2020

Dear Sir/Madam,

I’m sure like me being able to enjoy Norfolk’s glorious countryside over the last few months has been of great solace during lock-down. We have an amazing variety of habitats, plants, mammals and birds, and I was delighted to see the Swallowtail butterflies when I cycled up to Hickling Broad the other day.

I am currently working from home, as are many people; those fortunate enough not to have been furloughed or made redundant, or our committed key workers who run the risk of catching COVID-19. I try to get out once a day for some exercise, which generally involves a bike ride or a walk around the Salhouse area. At the weekend I go on longer rides taking in many of the county’s country lanes, teeming with wildlife and bird song.

One of the upsides of lock-down is that I’ve been able to get out in my local area a bit more, to appreciate nature in all its glory as Spring turns to Summer. The hundreds of varieties of plants and wildflowers, the insects in their multitudes that feed on them, the birds and mammals eating the insects; a wonderful trophic cascade. A couple of week’s ago I spotted a Stoat bouncing down a lane, hunting along the hedgerow, a sight that filled my heart with joy. It was accompanied by the magnificent sound of Skylark’s song overhead.

In the last two weeks it all seems to have dramatically changed, leaving me very sad, and filled with considerable rage.

Now when I cycle down the same routes the roadside verges, once teeming with life, are quiet, shrunken and lifeless things. They have been shorn down to the bare minimum, often the naked earth, as if Mother Nature herself has been scalped. Gone are the wildflowers and plants, the brightly coloured beetles, the butterflies around the nettles, the birds finding food for their young. There is no sign of the Stoat; there’s nothing for it there anymore.

I don’t understand why this is done. I have checked the information on the Norfolk County Council website on the page linked to below:

https://www.norfolk.gov.uk/roads-and-transport/roads/road-maintenance/trees-hedges-and-grass-verges

It says that roadside verges are only cut for safety reasons and not appearance. They are cut to ensure visibility and safety at junctions. It also extols the virtues of ‘almost 10 miles’ of roadside nature reserves; 10 miles, out of the 1000’s of miles of roadside verges we have in the county.

Now I get the safety and junctions point, and to an extent the visibility bit on some stretches, but the cutting goes far above and beyond this. Most cutting, aside from in the very few designated roadside nature reserves, is extreme, leaving very little cover. I am guessing this is to reduce the frequency of cutting, or is just down to ignorance or lack of care for the habitat being destroyed. I guess it’s also possible the contractors doing this work are assessed and have to make sure it’s clear where they’ve cut, and that the council is getting their money’s worth. I imagine there is a whole governance and sign off process around it that’s miles distant from caring about the safety of the plants, mammals and birds whose homes are being destroyed, or the vitality of the habitat that brings so such joy and relief to walkers and cyclists alike.

It’s not just roadside verges. There are reports of park or common land where wildflower meadows that have been allowed to grow, being dramatically cut back, with nesting birds disturbed or killed. Local residents in those areas have been rightfully devastated and angry to find their little bit of nature gone; it’s really bad for people’s mental health.

It appears the temporary reprieve nature had in many parts of the county, due to lock-down, is over. The stay of execution has expired. Not only are roads getting busier again, packed with traffic with a corresponding increase in roadkill (I passed a beautiful grass snake half squashed near Ranworth the other day, and lets not even get into hedgehog deaths), but we have restarted our relentless pursuit of dominance over nature. It’s got to be controlled, cut, shaped, moulded and turned to our purpose.

I request we change the way we’re looking at this. Roadside verges and hedgerows provide some of the last remaining habitat in the UK for our native flora and fauna. We’ve simply got to realise we’re a part of nature, not apart from nature. By destroying it, and roadside verges are just one simple but effective example, we’re harming ourselves and future generations.

Instead of cutting nearly everything back, which seems to be the case in most places, why can’t we reverse the policy and only cut at real key points, such as at junctions as the Norfolk County Council’s website references. On straight stretches of road, with a clear line of sight, there really can’t be any excuse for cutting down to the bare earth. We’re in a climate and ecological emergency, and desperately need to protect our remaining biodiversity. Instead of just a handful of ‘roadside nature reserves’ why can’t we have just a handful of ‘roadside cutting zones’ with the new normal being verdant habitat for wildlife. Give the plants, mammals and nesting birds a chance.

I’d like to talk about a couple of other things, just to support this.

The UK has been hunted, developed and farmed to within an inch of its life for thousands of years. We have very few wild places left, and a massively reduced diversity of plants and animals. Very few bits of ancient woodland, or habitat that has reached its climax state, remain. We are highly critical of other parts of the world who are destroying their own perhaps more obviously biodiverse habitat, such as rainforest, for example for agricultural purposes. The poorer nations doing this are often doing so to provide goods and services for us. They’re doing now what we’ve done to our own country for centuries, and our own corporations are encouraging them to do so in the name of progress and economic growth.

We’re massively exploiting the Global South for things like food, precious minerals for our mobile phones, palm oil and fossil fuels, with profits mostly going to line the pockets of the elite in the Global North. We’re privileged hypocrites and most of the time we don’t even realise it. Can’t we spare our remaining bits of nature the chop, and try and set a bit of an example for other nations? This also links in with social and environmental justice, but that’s a topic for another day.

The Coronavirus originated in China, and it seems evident that anthropogenic (human based) pressure on natural habitats caused the outbreak. Human incursions (habitat destruction, pollution etc) into natural habitat, stressing natural systems and balances, caused this horrible virus to jump to humans, leaving us with a global pandemic and widespread tragedy and grief. I’m not saying that cutting verges and hedgerows will cause a similar outbreak, but it’s the same principle; destroying nature harms us in the long run, and we’ve got to learn to live alongside it and not try and tame it all the time.

I was really hoping that we could emerge from the pandemic with a new strategy for life, a refreshed system, with no going back to old harmful and destructive practices. I know many people are trying to change the way they live, with working from home becoming the new normal, and perhaps reduced consumption rates and associated emissions. Please can we do all we can to encourage this, including stopping the highly destructive practice of roadside verge and hedge cutting where it’s not needed? It may seem like a little thing, but all these small steps add up to something bigger.

And if we can get a new normal, with more working from home and much less traffic on the roads, we could scrap other environmentally and ecologically destructive projects such as the Wensum Link Road, or housing developments on County Wildlife Sites such as Thorpe Woodlands, or plans to expand Norwich airport. We desperately need to invest in a greener and more sustainable future, and to relieve ourselves of the suicidal notion that unfettered economic growth is either possible, a positive measure of success, or leads to happiness and satisfaction.

I humbly request that as a county we revisit the policy on grass verge cutting, as well as decisions made in a different era on developments that are no longer needed, and which don’t make any sense when we know we need to reduce emissions and protect biodiversity.

If we don’t act now, we wont leave anything for future generations. Please stop scalping Mother Earth.

Yours sincerely,

James Harvey

Salhouse resident

 

P.S. Photographic evidence of excessive roadside verge cutting available upon request

 

 

January 2020 – Shelter and Water, Survival weekend

I was going to get another blog post out on the wild plants and flowers front, however time has been against me this week, so I thought I’d share an experience from January, from my Bushcraft course, when we weren’t in lockdown and I was learning lots. By the way, I didn’t just write this all this evening, it’s from my course log which is 50,000 words long and growing; such a fascinating subject and I’m finding the tuition from The Woodcraft School excellent.

I think it’s fair to say we were all excited, if a little apprehensive, about the January training session down at the Woodcraft School in West Sussex. Not only was it another chance to have a go at the 3 hour bow drill test, something that hadn’t gone too well in the wet conditions to date, it was also our simulated survival weekend. The objective was to recreate a scenario where we were out for a day hike, but something went wrong meaning we were stuck in woodland for 2 nights, or more. This also meant we had minimal kit with us; just enough to deal with emergency situations. Being January it was likely to be cold, and possibly wet, so this wasn’t going to be the same as a pleasant summertime jaunt to a verdant forest full of life. On top of surviving the 2 nights, we also needed to find and purify our own water, something you’d definitely need to do in the event of being stuck somewhere for a while. Given I was likely to get pretty hungry and need a lot energy, I made a huge pile of trail mix to take with me; I may have gone a little excessive on this, having enough to last a couple of weeks, but it tasted so good in the middle of a cold winter’s night.

Trail mix

Trail mix – might have made too much but damned tasty

Given we needed to look after ourselves there were a few key lessons to take on-board, before we were released into the wild. These included learning about what water is used for in the body, symptoms of dehydration and how to fix it, how to source and purify water, as well as how to recognise and deal with hypothermia (too cold) and hyperthermia (to hot), and research into shelter types.

I won’t inflict you with the pages of notes I made on this, however if you’re interested then I’m thinking of a few future blog posts on the subject, so stay tuned.

The brief was to simulate needing to survive after unexpected circumstances forced you to remain in a given location for an extended period of time; in this instance a broad-leaf forest with plenty of water, which was somewhat less challenging, or at least different to, being for example halfway up a mountain in the Alps. I think it’s safe to say we all approached the weekend with a certain amount of trepidation, trying to work out what kit we should take, how we were going to keep warm, and what food was best.

Exploring my woodland block

Exploring my woodland block

Given the brief we were only allowed to take a day sack with limited equipment and food, so sleeping bags were right out, as were tents and hammocks and tarps. No sleeping bag, or insulating sleeping mat, in January, oh good. We also needed to be able to source and purify our own water, make fire, build an adequate shelter, and cook basic food.

All the knowledge and skills we’d learned to date would come into play over the course of the weekend, so it was a good opportunity to put everything into practice, and grow in confidence in the outdoors. I hope to be able to lead groups in the wild in future, and this was definitely a stepping stone on that journey.

The aim was to be able to thrive and not just survive, and I like to think that by the end of the weekend, and after lots of learnings, I was getting there; just a shame I sat on the spoon I was carving.

What to take?

With a maximum capacity of 20 to 30 litres we were limited on what we could take. I opted to use an army surplus day/patrol pack to carry everything I needed, which was pretty full by the time I’d finished packing. I must have unpacked and repacked that bag a dozen times whilst deciding what to take, and probably still took too much kit, however if the weather conditions had been different, for example including rain or snow, I’d have perhaps needed the extra change of clothes and waterproof trousers.

Below is a brief summary of what I took with me

  • Army surplus patrol pack – about 30L
  • Outdoor trousers (tough) and clothing, plus spare set of clothing in dry sack, mutiple layers and dry socks , hat, buff, shemagh, hat
  • Waterproof jacket – Craghoppers; I’d have preferred ventile cotton or thick wool with ventile patches, which would be spark resistant, but will need to save up for that
  • Bushcraft knife and laplander saw
  • Paracord, sling and carabiner
  • Fire making kit including some tinder
  • Water bottle x 2 and collapsible water vessels x 2, Millbank bag (brown bag – expedition sized), puritabs (not used)
  • Life venture screw capped lid cup, which almost keeps your brew too hot
  • Zebra billy can, spork, cloth
  • Headtorch
  • First Aid Kit – only cut myself once, toothbrush
  • Food: Pasta and pesto sauce, chocolate, smoked sausage, dried apricots, trail mix – far too much trail mix as it happens, but you never know when you might have guests, couple of apples, tabasco sauce (always goes with me on cycle tours), cereal bars, dried oats and honey
  • Brew kit – herbal teas
  • Rab down jacket – in compression sack
  • Poncho (US army) – I could probably have done without this, but would have been invaluable if it’d rained
  • Emergency foil blanket (space blanket)
  • Toilet roll and hand sanitiser (gel)
  • Mobile phone and battery pack, notebook and pen

Getting started

To simulate a survival situation we were all dropped off, individually, into our own block of woods away from our usual camping area. After a morning of being together with the group I was suddenly alone amongst chestnut and birch trees, with just the sound of birds for company; followed shortly by Sib shouting hello from about 100 metres away, breaking my wilderness reverie.

With several hours of daylight left, and enough drinking water to last me for a bit, my priority was to get a shelter built and gather fire wood; it was going to be a cold night with temperatures forecast to drop below freezing. The area of woods I was in had plenty of standing deadwood to use, in the form of Sweet Chestnut and some Silver Birch, so I set about cutting some down using my laplander, to create both firewood and material to build my shelter from.

Whilst a laplander saw is efficient and easy to carry, I did start to miss using a bow saw after about an hour of processing wood! I guess one wouldn’t usually take a bow saw on a day hike though. I soon had the basis of a shelter built, trying to position the opening away from the prevailing wind. I used forked pieces of wood up against trunks for the two side pieces, with a cross bar running between them. I also pegged the side poles at the end to stop them from slipping backwards. I chose a spot that had a bit of natural shelter due to the lay of the land, with sufficient trees to use for support, and no low overhanging live branches that would get singed by my fire. I was also mindful to remove any dangerous looking standing deadwood from the immediate vicinity lest it fall on me if it got windy.

Before building too much of the shelter I decided to build a raised bed, as it’s easier to do that without a roof being present. I constructed the raised bed using forked pieces of wood pushed into the ground, with poles running between the forks to make a platform about a foot off the ground. I needed some greenwood for this so coppiced some Hazel from a nearby ride edge, bringing it back to my camp. As well as making the forks and some of the poles, I also made a mallet and a couple of wedges for splitting wood, and used the brash to create a springy base-layer for my bed.

On reflection I think it might have been easier to use some bigger logs to lay the poles upon for my bed, rather than use forks of Hazel, although it did add to the springiness. I did consider making a V shaped bed, as I often sleep on my side; the V shape of the base creates a comfortable shape to sleep in. However this would have lost be valuable ground clearance and not allowed hot air from my fire to circulate under the bed. It’s nice to have a raised area to sit on next to the fire rather than the ground; a good whittling spot that avoids a wet posterior is essential!

Using the Hazel I also created a Whagon Stick pot hanger, which proved invaluable over the course of the weekend for boiling water and heating food; I was really chuffed with how well it worked.

With bed frame done I got to work finishing my shelter, or at least finishing it as much as I could on day 1. I covered the lean-to roof with more poles, using deadwood, and also wove in some more Hazel brash to create a layer leaves wouldn’t fall through; I needed to pile on about a foot of leaves to act as insulation.

I took a break mid-afternoon to go and source some water, and whilst on my wanderings decided to collect some Western Red Cedar boughs to make a better mattress for my bed. The boughs act as good insulation, especially when woven together so the ends don’t prod you during the night, and they smell nice, which I reckon leads to sweeter dreams.

With dusk approaching and plenty of firewood prepared I also though it prudent to get a fire going. I made a base from split chestnut, behind the beginnings of a reflector, and created a V-fire using a few feather sticks I’d prepared earlier and some silver birch bark. I initially positioned the fire about 3 feet from my bed, however by the second night it was considerably closer.

Finding and purifying water

I must admit finding water wasn’t too much of a challenge. It had been raining so much over the previous few months the water table was very high, and I didn’t have far to walk to find a spring. The water from the spring was very clear already, having filtered through sandy soil, however I thought I’d better pass it through my millbank bag to be on the safe side. I hung my millbank bag from the sling and carabiner I’d brought with me; I often carry a sling and carabiner or two with me as they’re useful for so many things, a habit from my more frequent climbing days.

Millbank bag and sling set up

Millbank bag and sling set up for filtering water

Interestingly I did follow the spring up the hill to see if I could find its source, or a better place to collect water from easily, and came upon what looked like old style septic tanks, or the settling tanks anyway, behind a house backing on to the woods. They were however several hundred metres uphill from the spring where I took my water from, so I figured the ground would have done most of the work for me by filtering out any nasties etc.

My millbank bag has a fairly slow flow rate, despite having run it through a rinse cycle in my washing machine at home a few times, however by constantly topping it up and collecting water in the small pan from my zebra billy can kit, I was able to collect a large amount of filtered water in one of my collapsible water vessels; I used the other one to collect unfiltered water. I remembered to let a decent amount of water run through the bag, down to the line, before I started to collect it, to make sure I was only getting filtered water and not drips off the outside.

Cooking set up

Billy can and Whagon stick – water purification in progress

It was then just a matter of boiling water over my fire, using the zebra can and pot hanger, and either drinking it straight away as tea, or storing it in a water bottle. I’m pleased to say my system meant I had more that enough clean water throughout the weekend, including enough to wash the essentials with – face, pits and bits; warm water of course.

The First Night

As night fell the temperature dropped, and I hastily made some last adjustments to my shelter, piling more leaves on top as insulation. I reckoned I had enough firewood to see me through the night, intending to widen my fire into a long log fire to provide sufficient warmth. I hadn’t had time to build a large reflector yet, but was warm enough once I put on my down jacket as an additional layer, and lay down on my raised bed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was pretty much dark by 17.00, but that was far too early to go to bed, despite which I’d have needed more firewood if I intended to keep a long log fire going from then all the way through to the morning. I had my head torch so kept busy processing a bit more firewood from the dead chestnut and silver birch I’d felled earlier, starting to make some sides for my shelter, and then cooking some food a bit later on; pasta with pesto and a bit of smoked sausage, with tabasco sauce to spice things up a little, and plenty of tea.

Pasta and pesto

Pasta and pesto, with spork

I widened my fire into a long long fire before finally turning in, making sure I had plenty of wood within easy reach to add throughout the night. This included more kindling to get the fire going easily should it go out. I was comfy lying on my bed, electing to keep my shoes on as my feet were mostly warm in my boots. I used my poncho as a bit of a blanket but it didn’t work very well, as moisture built up underneath it. With the fire and shelter I was mostly warm enough.

I was a little nervous about the fire either going out if I fell asleep too deeply (I can sleep fairly deeply anywhere), or if it sparked and set fire to my shelter or firewood pile; I was burning mostly seasoned chestnut which spits enthusiastically. As a precaution I pegged a large log between me and the fire. As I had plenty of water I boiled a last lot before my first sleep cycle and transferred it to one of my water bottles. I placed this between my thighs to warm the blood in my femoral arteries, which proved a great way of staying warmer for a couple of hours. Had it been colder it would have also meant I’d have had non frozen water in the morning.

It was very peaceful lying in the woods, listening to the owls and gazing up at the stars. After a busy day of non-stop preparation it was great just to stop and switch off for a bit, with a full stomach and a little bit of chocolate as dessert. I considered how privileged I was to be in such a beautiful woodland, sleeping next to a fire in a similar manner to that my ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

I probably initially went to sleep about 22.00, for a couple of hours, then woke up and loaded more wood on to the fire. I then slept again in 1 to 2 hour intervals throughout the night, waking to add more firewood, or nip to the loo because I’d drunk too much tea; it was much colder away from my fire!

Day two – Camp improvements and Learnings

I awoke about 06.30 hours with my fire still glowing, and the woods just about starting to get lighter. I lay still for another 30 minutes, despite realising my feet were now pretty chilly and I needed the loo; my bed was pretty comfy and I was enjoying the dawn chorus.

Eventually the need for a hot drink, breakfast, and to warm my feet up with some activity got me out of bed, up and moving. I was feeling pretty happy about having made it through the first night without too much difficulty, and for having had just about enough firewood. I decided I needed more for tonight though, as it was likely to get a bit colder, and I could have burned more if I’d wanted warmer feet. As I was getting up a roe deer passed through the woods not far from my camp, disappearing up the hill; he or she didn’t seem too alarmed at my presence.

Camp complete with XR flag

Camp complete with XR flag

We were due to meet up as a group about 11.30, so I spent the morning preparing more firewood and water, as well as putting proper sides on my shelter. I’d forgotten about my space blanket so used that for one side, and started to weave a wall of hazel together on the other.

It was good to meet up with the rest of the group to see how they were doing, and encouraging to learn everyone had made it through the night without having to retreat to tents and sleeping bags. I think we were all fortunate that it hadn’t rained, which would have made things trickier, and meant I’d probably have needed more leaf litter on my roof or to incorporate the poncho. As well as a walk through the woods to learn some winter twig identification, we had a bit of a debrief on what we could do to improve our shelters and well-being. Some points below to remember:

  • For a long log fire make a big base out of logs to raise it off the ground. This creates a good long lasting bed of embers, and will initially protect any tree roots.
  • Make sure you have an adequate supply of feather sticks and kindling to get your fire going again if you need to; you don’t want to have to spend an hour doing it during the night when you’re cold and sleepy
  • Create ‘fire piles’ of wood to manage your long log fire through the night. You can easily pick these up and use the set to get your fire going again for your next sleep cycle. You should be able to sleep well for 3 hours before needing to redo your fire, although it may initially be a little hot to be close to
  • Think big on the fire, and adequately long to give your whole body warmth. And always get more firewood than you think you’re going to need; in general I think I was okay on this score
  • Close the ends of your shelter to stop drafts and trap hot air from the fire
  • Raise your bed so hot air can flow underneath it, and to give you a sit spot
  • Put a greenwood ‘banksmen’ (large log) in front of your fire to stop it rolling into your bed, and move your fire closer to your bed for warmth; people have died because they were just a couple of metres away from the warm zone of their fire
  • Use a reflector to reflect/radiate heat back into your shelter. You can just use logs for this, or incorporate a space blanket
  • Loosen you boots to keep your feet warmer. This traps a layer of air around your toes as heat; top tip and helped me the following night
  • Lean to shelters need to have a 45 degree angle, and not be too far off the ground
  • Orientate your shelter to the prevailing wind, and to take advantage of the sun rise
  • Remember hygiene – wash hands etc
  • Lip salve and hand moisturiser really are a boon to stop skin cracking; I’d remembered the lip salve
  • Rotate your sleep and activity through 3 hour blocks
  • Recognise what is wrong and act on it
  • Thrive not survive

I’d covered off several of the above points already, however once lessons were over I was keen to get back and perform some more enhancements to my shelter, whilst we still had some daylight. I built up the reflector for my long log fire using greenwood, and made sure it was secure by tying the staked poles together at their tops. I also set a large greenwood banksmen in front of my bed, moving the fire a little closer. I harvested a little more Western Red Cedar for my bed, and finished the sides of my shelter to shut out breezes. I also added some more leaf litter and trimmed down some of my shelter poles to stop them poking through it; prevents water running down them if it rains. By the time it was starting to get dark I was pretty happy with my set up for the night, although I could have kept on enhancing and adding features for days!

Me and my camp

Me and my camp

The Second Night

I had more firewood prepared than the previous evening, and wanted to try for a bigger fire throughout the night as it felt like it was going to be colder. This worked well however at one point my reflector did catch fire, and I had to hastily insert a new banksmen between it and the main blaze. I again feasted on pasta, pesto and smoked sausage, and munched my way through large quantities of trail mix.

Long log fire with reflector

Long log fire with reflector

It was definitely a colder night so I was glad of the bigger fire, although I did find it got a bit smokey at times, perhaps because some of the wood was a little damp, but also because the wind had slightly changed direction. I think I need to mix up my firewood a bit more in future, and try and use some oak or ash as well as chestnut and birch. The former burn long and hot, the latter bright and more briefly.

As I’d got most things done I settled down to try whittling a spoon for an hour or two, before my first sleep cycle. I also made a few extra hooks for my shelter, and an upright fork to put at the front to support the cross beam, which had more weight on it now.

I slept fairly well again on night two, and was definitely warmer with the improvements I’d made to the shelter; this was fortunate as it was definitely colder. I don’t think I managed a three hour chunk of sleep, but I got close, and my fire stayed alight throughout with regular restocking. I had plenty of wood left in the morning to get some breakfast going, and awoke feeling fairly refreshed to the sunrise and a beautiful dawn chorus.

Wintry sunrise - glorious

Wintry sunrise – glorious sights, sounds and smells

We made it!

I should mention toilet facilities for the weekend. Going for a wee isn’t really an issue, as long as you go far enough away from a water source; 100 metres or so. For number two’s it was a case of finding somewhere discrete and out of the way, digging a shallow hole, and using that. You don’t want to dig too deep as there won’t be organisms present to break down the faeces, but equally you don’t want anything too shallow that will leave a nasty surprise for someone; a ‘poo mine’. Toilet paper should be burned.

Listening to the birds sing

Listening to the birds sing

I’d made it through two nights in the woods without a sleeping bag, and was feeling hale and healthy. My shelter had worked and I’d learned more practical ways to thrive and not just survive. I got some water boiling for tea, and had a a quick wander to stretch my legs, noticing ice on the surface of my water collecting pan; must have been a chilly night away from the fire.

We had a few hours in the morning prior to the next dreaded bow drill test attempt, to relax and spend time at our camps. It was hard not to keep tinkering with improvements and thoughts on how to expand, or to start processing more firewood! I did a bit more spoon carving to pass the time.

Below are a few final pictures from my camp. Looking at them I could have added more leaf litter to the bottom end of my lean-to, and filled in some gaps, but I’m pleased with out it served me through the weekend.

Before leaving I removed any man made items from my shelter, including my bright Extinction Rebellion flag which had made it very easy to see where my camp was from a distance, and any artificial cordage (paracord); I’d used a couple of withies in other places. I made sure my fire was well and truly out, using my left over water, and packed my bags; I still had lots of trail mix left, and at the time of writing this it’s still going! All natural materials will be turned into habitat piles upon our next visit to the site in February. I’ll be interested to see how my shelter has faired in the meantime, and perhaps tempted for a quick snooze.

Oh, and I accidentally sat on my spoon, d’oh.

Wild plants and flowers part 2

Time for part 2 of my wild plants and flowers blog, where I attempt to identify the various species I find roundabout where I live in Norfolk. I think  there must be hundreds of different plant species out there at the moment, I keep seeing new ones every time I go out for a walk or cycle ride, so I’ll only cover a fraction of what’s on my doorstep.

Is this week 6 in lockdown? I can’t remember how long I’ve been working from home now but it’s starting to get a little dull with the lack of office banter. At least I’m mostly still getting out for my daily cycle or walk, although I did miss a couple of days last week due to it being a bit wet and just not having the motivation. I’ve said it before but I do feel very fortunate to have such wonderful countryside and scenery on my doorstep, even if Norfolk does lack any serious hills or big forests; the Broads make up for it!

I really like what some enthusiasts are doing at the moment; using chalk to label the names of plants they’re finding in villages, towns and cities across Europe. Brilliantly educational for people out on their daily exercise, especially children. I suspect there was a time when kids were just taught the names of wild plants, and what they can be used for, as a matter of course, but that knowledge has faded. Using chalk to label the plants, which will wash off harmlessly in the next shower, is a great idea; and yes strictly speaking it might be illegal, but so are the air pollution levels in many towns, or driving whilst using a mobile phone, or fly tipping, but people get away with that all the time. I think we can let a bit of educational and colourful graffiti that is bringing a bit of joy slip.

On Sunday I rode my bike up to the coast at Happisburgh because I wanted to see the sea. It was actually the sound of the waves hitting the shore that I wanted to hear, rather than seeing it. Pedalling the country lanes was lovely, the verges covered in plants and flowers, insects buzzing and kestrels hovering. I also saw a stoat hunting along a hedgerow with its distinctive black tipped tail, but too fast to photo.

It was a 62km round trip on my bike, taking about two and a half hours. I want to start building up my cycling distances again in case I decide to do another long cycle tour once we’re out of lockdown. I’d really quite like to cycle round the coast of Britain again, which I first did in 2013. It was a wonderful trip, and I learnt so much about my own country; you can read about it on my Bike around Britain blog.

Before I get onto this week’s plants, here’s a short bit of film I took up at Happisburgh, in case you’d like to hear the sea too (and the wind).

On to plants.

The photo of this first one is from several week’s ago, and also contains a few other hedgerow species. Focussing on the plant in the middle with the arrow shaped leaves; Lords and Ladies, also known as Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculata). Some of the country lanes round me have banks crowded with it.

Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum)

It’s got lots of other names, some of them quite evocative such as Jack in the pulpit, Devils and angels, Friar’s cowl and Adder’s root; these names might be down to the different plant parts looking like male and female genitalia. Later in the year it produces a fruiting stalk that grows up from the centre, with distinctive orange-red berries. You can see this around July/August and into Autumn. The flower, a cobra like hood, is nestled in amongst the leaves and is different again. It smells like rotting meat which attracts flies, which in turn pollinate the flower, pretty cool. I’ll try to get some photos of the different parts as they appear. Lords and ladies is poisonous as it contains oxalate acid crystals. These crystals are spiky and can irritate the tissue of your mouth and digestive track if swallowed. If you’re allergic to such things it could cause your throat to close up. I have tried a little bit and it’s definitely got a sharp and heated aftertaste, that builds with time; apparently the older you are the longer it takes to notice.

Lords and ladies is native to the UK, in England, Wales but not so much Scotland. It’s a perennial, and prefers the shaded areas. The plant contains large amounts of starch, so was used in washing for collars etc. I’m told that when the ‘gentry’ used to select their washerwomen they’d look for those with the sore red hands, as they’d be the hard workers; their hands were afflicted by the oxalate acid in the Lords and ladies.

Ground Ivy 1

Ground Ivy and interesting ladybird

I’ve included a couple of pics of this next one, Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea). I like this first picture because of the interesting ladybird, and the pretty small purple flowers. Ground-ivy is another one of these plants that has multiple names, including Alehoof, Gill-over-the-ground, Catsfoot and Creeping charlie. I prefer Alehoof as before the introduction of hops Saxons used it to brew beer. It’s another native perennial and common throughout most of the UK, flowering from March to May.

Ground Ivy 2

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – nice little purple flowers

I found this one in a graveyard, but it pops up all over the place and is considered an invasive weed by many. It’s actually a member of mint family, which you can tell by its square stem. I also don’t think anything that can be used to brew beer should count as invasive or a nuisance, although it can spread rapidly by runners or seed. I believe the leaves can be eaten in salads, but the plant might be toxic to livestock. Apparently it has lots of traditional herbal medicine uses, but I really don’t know if any of them are effective; treating eye inflammation, tinnitus, lung herb (bronchitis), as an astringent or a diuretic. I have a feeling a lot of uses were just made up, the old placebo effect.

 

 

I really want to cover wild garlic on this blog, also known as Ramsoms, however I’m learning there are probably several varieties.

Three-cornered garlic

Three-cornered garlic – Allium triquetrum

This photo I think is of Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum), which is the same family as Ramsoms, and no doubt still counts; it certainly smells strongly of onions. I think this particular variety counts as an invasive species as it can smother out native species, meaning it’s illegal to plant it out in wild. If it is this then I’m seeing a lot of it on the banks of country lanes round me. For reference it flowers April to June and likes shady spots.

 

Wild Garlic - Ramsoms

Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) – broader leaves

The variety I wanted a photo of has broader leaves, and I found loads of it when I was down South last. This is what I regard as Ramsoms (Allium ursinum), and the two photos that follow are courtesy of the Wild Food UK website – https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/wild-garlic/

 

Wild garlic flowers

Wild garlic flowers

This species is definitely native, and the flowers are quite different. It can be found over most of England and Wales, and Southern Scotland, in damp and shaded areas, especially woodland. It flowers from April to June. I love it for making pesto, and the whole plant is edible, however I would avoid digging up the bulbs so it can regrow. Garlic has a number of health benefits including treating high blood pressure and cholesterol. I’ve no doubt it has loads of other benefits too, including the obvious of keeping vampires away. I reckon you can use it pretty much anywhere you’d usually use garlic, so I think I’ll try adding some to guacamole next time I make it. Don’t get it confused with Lily of the Valley which looks similar but is poisonous; doesn’t smell anywhere near the same though.

Following the trauma of trying to work out which wild garlic is which, here’s something a little easier, and which again there is loads of around me at the moment.

White Deadnettle

White Deadnettle (Lamium album)

White Deadnettle (Lamium album) is very common alongside footpaths, hedge-banks and roadsides, but apparently gets rarer as you travel north. It’s a perennial and flowers from March to December. Like Red Deadnettle covered last time it won’t sting you. I’m told it can be eaten like spinach but I’ve not tried it. Herbal medicine wise it has been used to treat catarrh, and the flower used for treating sore throats and bronchitis. Apparently it might also be effective as a sedative.

Whilst it might have uses for humans, I think it’s of more use to the different varieties of insect I see feeding off it. Not mowing the roadside verges is definitely helping our insect friends thrive at the moment.

 

Yellow Archangel

Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolon)

Here’s another Deadnettle, which I’d somehow failed to consciously notice before now, despite it being common in England and Wales. It’s a perennial flowering from May to June, although I saw it out in April this year; maybe another symptom of climate change and average temperatures going up. This one is called Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolan), and I love the bright yellow hooded flowers. This example appeared to have slightly variegated leaves, which I don’t know if is usual or not; from the pictures I’ve seen I don’t think so. I believe you can eat the young leaves and shoots, and that the leaves taste slightly spicy. I might have to try making a tea or soup from it. All these plants seem to have multiple potential uses, and this one is again a diuretic and astringent, amongst other things.

Whist I’m doing ‘nettles’ I ought to cover the well known and often disliked Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocea), which I’ve no doubt most people can recognise.  This is common pretty much everywhere, and most definitely counts as a native perennial. It grows in woods, wasteland, gardens, field edges and footpaths, and is much loved by several species of butterflies, for their caterpillars. It’s definitely worth keeping a small patch in your garden, and not just for the insects. The small hollow hairs on the nettle leaves and stems are what sting, containing formic acid and histamine.

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocea)

Stinging Nettles are amazing plants as they have so many uses, and as they grow pretty much everywhere, and quickly, you can easily get hold of lots of them. They contain Vitamin B, as well as A, C and K, the aforementioned formic aid, minerals such calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and sodium. They  also contain between 19% and 21% protein, so they’re truly a superfood. I have made nettle soup from them, and thrown them in stews like spinach, you just have to remember to remove the hairs first by crushing and rolling them. That reminds me, I think you can use the pith from the inside of the stem to treat nettle stings, which could be handy, although you’ll probably sting yourself getting to the pith. Pretty much a superfood I reckon, and will be useful if the supermarket shelves go empty. It flowers from May to September.

Nettle cordage

Nettle cordage

One more use for the amazing nettle; you can make cordage out of it. Collect a load of stems, perhaps keeping the leaves for food, and split them down into long fibres by crushing the nodes, squishing the stem and separating, removing the pith. To make nettle string you dry the fibres for at least 20 minutes, then twist two lengths together in a twist and kink motion, which would be much easier to demonstrate than describe with words. Over the course of an evening round a campfire you can make quite long lengths of cordage that can be used for all sorts of things.

I think that’s your lot for today as I’ve noticed my word count has crept over 2000 and I don’t want people to fall asleep. I also want to save Umbellifers for next time, when I’ll perhaps cover the likes of Hemlock, and Hemlock Water Dropwort, both of which can kill you reasonably easily, although one is more painful than the other. And Hemlock is absolutely everywhere! That’s one of the reasons I don’t really like eating anything from that family, as I don’t want to get Cow Parsley mixed up with something that’s going to send me over the River Styx in a speed boat. I’ll see if I can find some Cow Parsley and Hogweed too though.

As before please don’t take any notes I’ve made concerning medicinal uses as gospel, as there are lots of different opinions out there, and different people are allergic to different things. Please do your own research.

I’ll leave you with a picture of a cat in a box, because cats love boxes for some reason, especially this one.

Cat in a box

Cat in a box – Boxus catus

Until next time, stay frosty.

Wild plants and flowers – Part 1

Over the last couple of months I’ve been able to get out a bit more, either before the lockdown started on my bushcraft course, or for my daily exercise regime now we’re having to practice social distancing. I’m grateful that whilst Coronavirus has brought hardship and grief to many, at least it came along in springtime, and with good weather to boot. I am enjoying walking or cycling through the Norfolk countryside, exploring hedgerows and copses, fields and Broads.

As well as birds and mammals getting busy with nest building, courtship and young, insects are buzzing and plants are growing. Since starting to learn about wild plants I’ve been amazed at the number of different types one can find in a small area. Different habitats can hold a multitude of different species; sunlight hitting a cleared woodland ride can cause dormant seed banks to germinate into colour, soggy marshland paths produce verdant green borders, and the hedgerows of Norfolk country lanes are just alive with plant life, in turn providing food and homes for animals and birds.

This year more hedgerows and road borders are being spared the chop and left to grow, leading to what seems to be an even greater abundance of springtime life. When I come upon a roadside verge that has been mowed, or a hedgerow that’s been flailed, I really notice the difference; sterile, smells empty, no colour, less buzzing and birds. It’d be great if Councils left far more of these areas to grow, and if people could leave at least a corner of their gardens to go wild, all providing vital habitat for plants and animals who are otherwise up against it.

As there are just so many plants to cover I’ve decided to split my blog into a few posts. I’ll cover ten or so species each time and see how far I get. Most species will be native to the UK, but they’ll be the odd non-native that slips in just because they’re interesting or have a pretty flower, or because I didn’t realise they were non-native. The definition of a native species seems to vary, but in general it’s a species which has evolved and is self-sustaining in a region, and which has not been introduced; although it could have arrived and colonised an area by natural non-human based means. To count as native the plant species needs to have been present in an area since ‘historical times’. Unfortunately I need another definition for ‘historical times’ at this point, as for example Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa), whilst widespread in the UK, is technically non-native as the Romans introduced it; good food source and building material.

I’ve already included a picture of Daffodils (Narcissus), of which there must be hundreds if not thousands of different species. Their brilliance in early spring can drag you out of the winter doldrums, and they also have a number of different medicinal properties which I won’t go into right now (colds, burns, wounds). If I do mention any medicinal properties please don’t take my word as gospel; do your own research and don’t believe everything you read. I’m pretty sure none of the plants I cover will cure COVID19.

I probably should have thought about how I was going to order this a bit more, rather than just going through my photos including them as they come. But that didn’t happen so here goes.

I’ll start off with the beautiful Wood Anenome ( Anemone nemorosa). I have to credit the second of the pictures below to the Wildife Trust website, as I needed another photo after realising the one I took a month and a half ago was from behind; not my greatest photography moment. The Wood anenome flowers from March through to May, although I think they’re about done this year. It has 6 or 7 petals (actually sepals) that can be purple streaked, surrounding yellow anthers. It’s low growing with slightly feathery leaves. I don’t know of any modern medicinal properties and think it’s probably quite toxic if you were to eat it. I always feel like Spring is firmly on its way when these appear.

The Wood anenome is an ancient woodland indicator species (AWI). An AWI is a plant species which is slow spreading, rather than a pioneer species that spreads by windblown seeds. They flower early before the tree canopy blocks out the sunlight, and are generally shade tolerant. Their rate of spread by natural means is limited to about a foot a year (if that), mostly via roots and bulbs, so when you see a carpet of bluebells, or a sea of Wood anenomes, you know they’ve been there for a long time. The definition of an Ancient Woodland is where there has been continuous tree cover since AD 1600; we have very little of it left in the UK, and projects such as HS2 definitely aren’t helping. If you’re in a wood and you see an AWI such as Wood anenome it’s a good sign the woodland has been there for a long time, and deserves respect and protection. One side note; the trees in an ancient woodland could still look young if it’s an area of coppice that has been managed for centuries, such as a traditional hazel coppice, so you won’t always see ancient Ent like looking veterans.

Next up is Jack-by-the-hedge, or Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which flowers from April to June. The footpaths and hedgerows around me are full of this at the moment, but it can be found in woodland too. It’s a native biennial, biennial meaning it’s life-cycle goes across two years; it’ll flower in its second year. Perennial plants differ from biennials in that they live for more than 2 years, and can flower every year (not always though).

Jack-by-the-hedge

Jack-by-the-hedge or Garlic Mustard

I really like Jack-by-the-hedge. The leaves have a strong garlic taste, and can be eaten raw or boiled. You can eat the seeds that come later in the year which are also garlicky. Definitely a contender for Ransoms, otherwise known as wild garlic, which I’ll cover later or in another post depending on when my photo comes up!

Pedalling down country lanes at the moment I’ve seen a number of fine examples of the next entry, Greater Periwinkle (Vinca major). As suspected this plant was introduced to the UK, and can now be found throughout southern England. I’ve seen it in hedgerows where it trails and climbs, putting out these amazing purple flowers. I don’t think it has any particular uses, although maybe you could use the trailing stems to make rudimentary cordage.

Greater Periwinkle

Greater Periwinkle – amazing purple flower

There are a lot of small white flowering plants around at the moment, and it’s easy to get them mixed up.  This next one could easily be confused with Greater Stitchwort, I reckon anyway, but is in fact Field Chickweed, or Field Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arvense). I’m finding this along field edges at the moment, as well as roadsides. It’s a perennial, flowering from April to August, and is edible, although I’ve never eaten it and apparently you might want to cook it because of the texture. Pretty distinctive 5 sets of paired petals and yellow anthers.

Field Chickweed

Field Chickweed or Field Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium arvense)

On the subject of when plants are appearing and flowering in Springtime, it’s worth talking about how things seem to be happening earlier and earlier every year as average temperatures increase due to climate change. I was introduced the concept of Phenology by a conservation scientist recently.

Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors.

What I hadn’t thought about before, but now seems blindingly obvious, is the impact plants emerging, flowering and going to seed at different times, due to climate change, will have on other species that might rely on that plant. If for example plants are starting to grow earlier in the year, then caterpillars that feed on those plants may appear earlier. The problem is that they may be around before the bird nesting season, meaning a species of bird that relies on that caterpillar for feeding its young may now be caught short on food supplies. That’s just one example and I’m sure there are loads of other worrying changes of a similar nature that will impact our flora and fauna. Thank you to Dr Charlie Gardner, conservation scientist, for that info; I hope I got it right!

Climate change impact lesson over, back to plants. Here’s another one the Romans introduced because it’s a good food source. Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), or hedge parsley, is a biennial, flowering from April to June, and there’s absolutely loads of it on the road edges and footpaths around me. I think it might be regarded as a bit of an invasive pest of a plant, and it certainly has quite a strong smell when there’s lots of it together. You can eat all of it which is handy; the leaves can make a white sauce or can be used as a herb, the younger stems cooked like asparagus, the roots make an alternative to parsnips and the flower buds can be eaten in salads. I’ve yet to try any but it’s on my to do list, I just get a bit nervous around the Umbellifer family, of which Alexanders is a member, as several of them can kill you very easily. Best not to get them mixed up really, and I’ll cover some of the poisonous ones on a future blog post.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) is another common plant I find in Norfolk, and throughout the UK. It used to be called Ranunculus ficaria but the Latin name has changed now, just to confuse matters. It’s a member of the buttercup family, as one might guess from the bright yellow flowers, and has other names such as pilewort. It also has quite distinctive heart shaped leaves. The name pilewort comes from its traditional medicinal use where the bulbous roots were used to make an infusion to treat haemorrhoids. The roots look a bit like haemorrhoids, which perhaps where the idea came from, but I have no idea as to their effectiveness; limited I suspect. It flowers from March to May, is a perennial, and can be seen carpeting banks and beside footpaths.

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

The photograph below isn’t perhaps the best example of the next entry, Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), which is the first of several nettles I’ll include. This one doesn’t sting, flowers from March to October, and is again pretty common throughout the UK on verges, waste ground and field edges. I believe it does have uses in herbal medicine due to its astringent and diuretic properties, as well as being anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, so you could use it for a wound wash or to make a poultice; nature is pretty funky when it comes to keeping wounds clean and helping them heal. It’s really not hard to find this if you go out for a wander.

Red Deadnettle

Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

Another Ancient Woodland Indicator species can be found in our native Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). This is a favourite of many, including me, not just for the colour that carpets woodland before the tree canopy closes, but also for the heady perfume they emit; such a lovely scent. It’s a perennial flowering from April to June, and is illegal to pick. I think it might be under threat from the Spanish Bluebell which was introduced and is escaping into the same habitat as our bluebell. When walking in the woods it’s good to take care to not step on bluebell leaves which are easily damaged; these plants take a long time to spread! Usage wise I think you can make glue from the sap and mushed up bulbs, but it really doesn’t seem like a good idea. They are also poisonous to eat, so let’s just leave them alone and admire their purple amazingness and heady scent.

I’m not really sure of the exact species in my next photo, but it’s a Horsetail of some description. It was in a marshy bit of ground so could be a Marsh Horsetail (Equisetum palustre), or one of several other types, maybe Equisetum arvense. I don’t think gardeners like it very much as apparently it’s invasive and doesn’t flower, but I liked the vibrant green of it, and the intriguing shape and structure. I don’t know if it has any medicinal properties.

Horsetail

Horsetail (Equisetum sp.)

Wood Spurge is another AWI species, and pretty common in Southern England and Wales. It’s a perennial flowering from March to May, with yellow-green disc like flowering structures making it easy to recognise. As with other AWI’s it spreads slowly via underground rhizomes, creeping long the forest floor. The milky white latex sap from Wood Spurge is poisonous, and used to be used to burn off warts. Take care if you try this as leaving the sap on for too long can make your skin permanently photo-sensitve.

Wood Spurge

Wood Spurge (Euphoria amygdaloides)

I think that’s my ten species for this post, with Daffodils included as a bonus. There are hundreds of plants I could cover, but I’ll concentrate on the ones I can find locally, and also the ones that are featured on my bushcraft course. There are around 30 I need to learn the Latin names for, as well as their uses, so I’ll feed those into future posts if I can find them. There are just so many cool plants out there like Wood Sorrel, Foxgloves, Primroses, Bugle, Herb Robert and Pignuts, to name but a few.

If you spot any plants I’ve misidentified please let me know. I’m using a variety of books including the excellent Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips, as well as an App on my phone called ‘Picture This’ ,which doesn’t always give the right answer but often points me in the right direction.

More plants and flowers next week, possibly interspersed with an alternative offering should I be inspired to write something else.

Stay frosty 🙂

Bluebells, blossom, birds and beards by the broad

I don’t know what day of the lockdown it is, and haven’t really watched the news today. Sometimes I just want a break from all the bad news, anxiety inducing headlines, speculation and frankly at times moronic questions from journalists during the daily press briefings.

I’m getting particularly sick of hearing conspiracy theories about how the virus might have originated. I really don’t believe the Chinese manufactured it in a lab; it’s far more likely this has come from nature due to our continuing destructive practices bringing us closer to infectious diseases. We really need to address the ecological crisis, which of course is tired to the climate emergency. And don’t get me started on 5G nonsense, whether it be how 5G can spread the virus (give me strength) or other unscientific theories. Conspiracy theories don’t do anyone any good, and of course you can’t really argue with people that really believe them as they just claim your counter-arguments are all part of the conspiracy. It would be nice if some people weren’t so credulous, and eager to try and convince others of their lunacy. In severe cases it can really put lives at risk, and cause unnecessary disruption.

I’m pulling together photos from my recent wanderings for a blog post on wild plants you can find growing on your doorstep at the moment, however this is quite a lengthy enterprise. It’s amazing how many species you can find along paths and roadside verges. In lieu of that, here’s a short film from the woods down by Salhouse Broad I took today. Many Bluebells, a lot of Blackthorn blossom, birdsong and the odd beard.

Working from home is giving me many more opportunities to get out into nature in my local area, for my daily bit of exercise. I really hope others are getting the same opportunity, whether that be in the city, where nature can still be found thriving, or out in the countryside. Once we’re out of lockdown I hope that working practices will change for many, allowing more time at home with friends and family, perhaps a slower pace of life, and more time to appreciate the natural wonders we have in the UK.

The current crisis also seems to have stimulated a gardening resurgence, both for people growing their own food, as well as planting more nature friendly species to help wildlife. Both these are great things; growing your own food will make us far more sustainable and less environmentally damaging as a nation, and our insects, birds and mammals need all the help they can get at the moment.

 

We just need to remember to try and plant native species where possible, and ponds don’t need to be sterile ornamental things. The wild pond in my garden has birds visit it everyday, as well as a hedgehog at night; far more entertaining than coy carp, in my opinion.

Nature may appear to be thriving in many places in the UK at the moment, but it’s not all good news. On my cycle ride the other day I noticed yet more hedgerows have been torn down alongside a road where I believe new houses are to be built. Hedges provide such vital habitat for nesting birds and shelter for mammals, as well as wildlife corridors. I really don’t know why the hedgerows have been removed, especially during bird nesting season which I think it illegal. There still seems to be flailing (violent machine hedge-cutting technique) going on too, which I hate, not least because it sprays wood splinters all over the road causing me punctures; I’m more worried about the impact on wildlife though. I really wish we could try and live and ‘develop’ in a more harmonious way with the wildlife we have left. At least roadside verges seem to have received some respite this year, with less mowing; it’s amazing seeing all the wild plants and flowers growing.

Perhaps the lockdown will allow people more time to appreciate nature, notice its beauty, and take in the destruction happening. We need to get out of this state of denial and ignorance. We need nature as much as it needs us to protect it. Maybe lockdown will give people the pause and thinking time needed, and once we emerge we can turn the decline in biodiversity around, and put the health of the planet, ourselves, and that of future generations ahead of profit and so-called ‘growth’.

Plant blog to follow 🙂

A wander down country ways

Another week done and it’s suddenly Easter! I’ve fallen into a new routine and try to get out once a day for a walk or a bike ride, around work stuff. Dunno how long the lockdown is going to go on for, but feels like a few weeks at least. Was hoping to get down to my parents for Easter, but obviously that’s not going to be possible. At least I can still stay in touch with family via FaceTime etc. Happy Easter everyone!

One of my excursions this week ended up at Salhouse Church, where I sat under Yew tree for a bit. I wrote a poem about the Yew, a tree that has a lot of mythology associated with it. If you fall asleep under them you can end up having very strange dreams, especially when there’s pollen in the air.

Yew Tree at Salhouse Church

Yew Tree at Salhouse Church

A wander down country ways,
To ease the stress of strangest days,
I stumble on a church and grounds,
Yew trees gather close around,

These guardians of ancient sites,
Witnesses to age old rites,
Dare I climb its spiky limbs,
As evening comes and daylight dims,

Instead I sit and breathe in deep,
Will Yew tree pollen make me sleep,
And bring with it the strangest dreams,
Not everything is at is seems,

A gateway to deathly halls,
Its poison touch darkness calls,
But life and rebirth it can bring,
Something good to make one sing,

I didn’t climb this mystic tree,
Respectful of its solemn key,
I’ll find another trunk to climb,
And come back here another time.

I’ve been exploring a few new trails on my bike rides, finding new hidden gems I wasn’t aware of.

I’m not sure I’d be able to stay sane if I wasn’t able to get outside once a day. The good weather is definitely helping too.

Norfolk has a lot of churches, a testament to its rich farming past. Landowners competed for prestige by building churches, some of them quite large in relatively small villages.

For some reason I always convert church photos to black and white, seems to work quite well. As a counter here are some Bluebells from down by Salhouse Broad, which have started to come out in the woodlands round me; useful ancient woodland indicator species.

As usual it’s beautiful down by Salhouse Broad at the moment, especially given it’s relatively quiet, with plenty of room to maintain social distancing rules. Very grateful to have it on my doorstep.

I’ve been trying to get to grips with learning new plant species.  Hedgerows are crowded with new growth, flowers and colours. There are at least 4 species of nettle I’ve seen (dead nettles), as well as lesser celandine, stitchwort, chickweed, Alexanders; I think I’ll do a separate blog post for wild flowers and plants, which will help me learn their names, especially the Latin ones!

It’s great cycling at the moment, a real pleasure with so few cars on the road. I’m really hoping that when we get back to ‘normal’ people choose to use their cars less, maybe work from home more. It would do wonders for the environment, and hopefully mean people have more time to enjoy the important things in life. Less cars also means less road kill, which has been very noticeable over the last few weeks. Nature is definitely breathing a sigh of relief with verges left to grow, and animals and birds spared being hit by traffic.

I’ve been trying to get a bit of track and sign practice in too, as I’ll be assessed on it later this year. It’s got trickier this week as the ground is harder (not rained for a while), and given I only have a brief window of opportunity each day I can’t explore as much as I’d like to. I found a nice Muntjac deer print (think it is anyway), and the remains of a pigeon which I reckon was taken by a bird of prey. Also found a bearded lizard in my herb garden! (they might be pets though)

I’ll finish with a picture from Wroxham Bridge, showing a very quiet river. Last Easter Wroxham was packed with visitors, but today there’s practically tumbleweed blowing down the high street. Oh, and here are some cat pics too – current house guests leaving fur everywhere whilst enjoying finding new places to sleep.

Adios for now.

Is it my imagination?

Is it my imagination, or are the birds louder, the insects more buzzy and does the air taste sweeter? Out on my bike for my once-a-day exercise break, I glory in the lack of background noise from traffic, the roads and skies quietened by necessity.

Sometimes I pedal down to the Broad, not too far from my house, to enjoy the peace that water brings. I’m alone there aside from a few dog walkers; usually it’d be packed with picnickers and boats.

It’s fun poking about, looking at the tracks and signs animals have left. I’ve yet to find Otter footprints, but have seen signs of their feeding. I’m sure there must be a badger set somewhere close by, but as yet it alludes me.

Spring flowers are bursting into life, which is helping me learn to identify new species. The flowers and warmer weather no doubt account for the large clouds of insects I pedal through, although I wonder if the cleaner air and reduced traffic are also playing a part in their increased numbers. Insects are such a vital foundation for trophic cascades and ecosystems, it would be wonderful to see their numbers recover. I sat and watched a bumble bee buzzing round the Broad for several minutes the other day.

As well as Salhouse Broad I sometimes cycle down to the River Bure, opposite the Ferry Inn on the other side of the water in Horning. There’s no one drinking and eating outside the pub, aside from gaggles of ducks and the odd swan.

On the home front I need to get out in the garden more, but remain pretty occupied with work. Did manage to get a bit of bread braking done, and was very happy to find Hedgehog scat in my garden; I think one might be visiting my pond at night.

Things are a little busier in my house than normal as I’m now playing host to 2 cats, 2 bearded-lizards, and an additional human who have all joined me for the ‘Lockdown’.  The cats like finding places to lounge in the sunshine, and seem content. It’s good to have house guests, as although I’m always happy in my own company, I’ll probably start to go slightly mad if this goes on for several months. I’ve also fixed up my big off road touring bike to explore local trails, and been carving spoons to practice my bushcraft skills; the course has been paused for obvious reasons, but will hopefully continue come Autumn.

As well as keeping on top of my natural history study, it’s been fun to try to improve my photography skills. I’m conscious I’m lucky to live where I do, and am able to get out on my own into the countryside and nature. There’s a  very low risk of bumping into anyone else, and if I do it’s easy to maintain several metres distance. I’m trying to post up a few photos on my Instagram and/or Twitter accounts from my daily exercise jaunts.

The Broad still has the greatest draw for me, although the Mallards do not obey social distancing rules.

It won’t be long until the Bluebells are out, carpeting the woods round here in colour. Definitely something to look forward to.

For the time being the Daffodils, Marsh Marigolds, Lesser Celandine, Stitchwort, Dead Nettles, Wood Anemones and countless other plant species I don’t know the names of are bringing colour to the landscape. Also, going on a walk can be quite a slow process now, as I keep having to stop to try and ID plants or animal tracks; Fallow deer example below I think.

A bit further on from Salhouse Broad is Ranworth Broad, another beautiful spot currently devoid of most humans. There are waterfowl aplenty to be seen, and I’ve spotted an elusive Kingfisher flitting about a couple of times; the brilliant blur of colour as it flashes past.

 

When I’m out in the countryside it feels like being out in a time warp. There are so few human based sounds and sights compared to normal, it sometimes feels like it could be a hundred years ago, or more. Nature seems to be thriving and I can’t help thinking it’s doing us all good (‘all’ being all inhabitants of this planet) to slow down a bit, COVID19 impacts notwithstanding. I’m hoping that we, as a species, can learn from this crisis. Maybe we can stop our relentless pursuit of economic growth, and destruction of the planet, slow down, appreciate what we have, and lead a more harmonious existence; one that might preserve the Earth for generations yet to come.

I’ll end with a bit of film from the Broad, which is mainly to showcase the birds singing.

Stay safe and sane.

Lockdown – so it begins

Due to being immersed on my Bushcraft course as well as XR stuff, and with work also keeping me busy, I’ve really not had a lot of time to keep my blog up-to-date recently. I think I’ll have the opportunity to keep it more current over the next few months now that, as of tonight, we’ve entered lockdown in the UK. As well as updating on what I’ve been doing on my course, I think it’ll be good to keep a journal of how events unfold with the CoronaVirus and COVID19.

I’ve been working from home for about a week now, having loaded my car with my office chair and desktop setup, and trundled it all back to my house. Whilst it’s good to have the face-to-face contact and banter with team mates in the workplace, which I’m going to miss, I can work pretty efficiently at home; in some instances more efficiently! I am also already pretty well stocked-up with supplies, due to being a bit of a prepper by nature.  At least the lockdown Boris announced tonight might stop some of the panic buying going on; bit worried I’m going to run out of essentials like wine, and sausages. In seriousness I wonder what counts as ‘essentials’? To some people it appears to be toilet roll, which seems slightly ridiculous given you’re at home and there are alternatives, such as having a wash. I believe the Romans used to use a communal sponge on a stick, soaked in vinegar…nice…not sure I have a sponge actually.

So I’ve got tinned food, some flour, some stuff in the freezer, salad growing in the garden, other seedlings sprouting, plenty of other bits and bobs to graze on. I’ve also got a warm and comfortable house, the internet, a TV, my guitar, spoons to whittle, loads of books to read, study to do, and a garden to rejuvenate. In some ways this is a bit of a relief as it’ll give me a chance to catch up on some of the stuff I’ve not got close to doing recently. Who knows, I might lose some weight too, as long as I continue to get in one bike ride a day; although my touring bike saddle post broke the other day, so only got my Trek 1120 off-road tourer, with it’s fat tyres – will be fun though!

Compared with other parts of the world the majority of us are going to be pretty comfortable during this lockdown, as long as we’re sensible. COVID19 is a serious disease, no doubt, however other parts of the world have serious threats to lives going on all the time and they cope; war, diseases that can be far worse, famine, drought, climate change impacts such as super-storms and mass migration. Reckon we’ve got it pretty easy by comparison, although I know it’s going to be comparatively hard for many, and there will be a lot of grief doing the rounds. COVID19 is a bit of a leveller really; it doesn’t care about privilege, status, how much money you have (although of course those with more money are more likely to survive), colour or creed. I’m also hopeful that some of the changes we are seeing start to happen, such as less unnecessary travel, working from home, more home grown produce, and communities really working together, become the norm. The world could certainly be a better place for it; air quality is already improving everywhere, although I’m a bit worried we’re going to see temperatures spike due to a reduction in global dimming.

I’ll attempt to keep this blog going with regular updates and reflections, and I’ll post up some of the stuff I’ve been doing on my bushcraft course over the last few months. It’s been amazing so far, learning more about trees and plants, natural medicine, tree-felling, fire starting, track and sign, crafting, shelter building, outdoor food and water, deer management and butchery. Lots that might be useful over the coming months perhaps!

I’m also pondering setting up a YouTube channel to do a bit of VLOG’ing, but not sure about that yet. I could record me playing my guitar a bit I guess, might be fun, or might make your ears bleed. Or produce a few short lectures on stuff I’ve learnt. I’ll ponder some more.

To end today here are some photos from a couple of walks in the outdoors from the weekend. Nature continues its rebirth as Spring gathers momentum, carrying on regardless.

The above were all down by Salhouse Broad, which is a 25 minute walk from my house. I hope to continue to get down there for a bit of regular exercise, whilst observing social distancing rules. It’s one of my favourite places locally and a brilliant place to sit quietly and reflect, immersed in nature; an angry wren was telling me off on Saturday though (small bird angry syndome). Some more pics from there below; I’m experimenting with different ways of displaying them.

On Sunday I nipped the woods to help with some coppicing work, it being the last chance we’ll get this year as all the trees are starting to leaf now, and birds will be nesting soon. The coppicing is helping with some re-wilding work in West Norfolk. I hope to get back there later this year to see what plants have germinated from the previously shaded dormant seed banks, and to see what other wildlife may have moved in.

Finally, my tomato seedlings are coming on well. As usual I’m probably going to end up with far too many tomatoes, but that won’t be a bad thing I reckon; will feed them to the neighbours!

Tomato plants growing fast now

Tomato plants growing fast now

Take care everyone. And please send wine if you have spare 🙂 (essentials only)