Category Archives: Bushcraft

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 🙂