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Friday, 27 February 2015

BushScience: How can snow keep me warm?

An Inuit Igloo - traditional snow shelter.
(Source:, 2013)
In kicking off the new BushScience series I thought I’d sneak this topic in before winter leaves us entirely. The science of snow keeping you warm can seem counter intuitive but in reality is very simple. In the UK we rarely have enough snow to enable the practice of making snow shelters, with the possible exception of the Scottish Highlands, but they are nevertheless a well known concept, even if only from children's programmes. However, in other parts of the world, most notably Arctic regions with indigenous groups such as the Inuit, snow shelters of one sort or another are still common. Most famous has to be the igloo, those domed structures built of snow blocks.

I am sure I am not alone in having heard people commenting on how they ‘can’t understand the point of these shelters, because it must be freezing in there’ or statements to that effect. Of course these people are right: it is freezing in snow shelters - but all things are relative. In the UK or other temperate climates our idea of a snowy skirmish, maybe once or twice a year and most likely at temperatures between 2oC and -5oC (36oF - 23oF), ends in a retreat to a heated home at around 20oC (68oF). With this concept of cold, then freezing in the real sense (0oC or 32oF) does sound pretty cold. But snow shelters are for regions with persistent snow not the odd flurry, where the temperatures can drop far lower, maybe -30oC (-22oF) or less. In these circumstances coming in to a shelter that offers freezing temperatures, or even slightly lower is a much ‘warmer’ proposition, representing a similar temperature difference as going from a temperate winters day to a warm house.

A close up of some snow flakes
(Source: Flickr user LadyDragonflyCC, 2013)
Lets consider then how this works, it really is very simple. We humans have devised essentially just two methods to keep warm - an active source of heat, with fire being the most obvious example, and insulation, a more passive method. Snow acts as an insulator and works in exactly the same way as many other insulators, by trapping air. As we all know snow is essentially fine ice crystals, when it lays a large proportion of the volume of the snow is air - think of how much compacting (or air removal) you have to do to get a decent snowball. The air trapped within the snow is less influenced by outside air temperature because it has no direct contact with it and therefore tends to be fairly constant, at or around the temperature of the snow itself. When this air-filled snow is used in the construction of shelters it breaks the direct link between external and internal air and slows or prevents entirely the equalisation of air temperature by heat conduction. (For a slightly more scientific description of the properties of snow as an insulator try one of these: , )

Other insulators that work on this principle include warm clothes, double glazing, duvets, sleeping bags, loft insulation and many others. None of them in their own right provide a heat source, but they all retain air, either in a distinct layer or in lots of little pockets. With the introduction of a heat source, in the case of clothing or blankets a person, or in the case of double glazing or loft insulation some source of domestic heating, this trapped layer of air prevents the warmth of the air being conducted away by disrupting its direct link with external, usually lower temperatures.  

An Inuit whale blubber lamp, known as a 'quilliq'.
(Source: Brendan Griebel, 2012)
A small heat source inside a snow shelter, these days something like a small gas stove but more traditionally in areas where these sort of shelters are used a seal fat or whale blubber lamp, will slowly warm, and maintain, the temperature within a snow shelter, aided by the body heat of the occupants. When correctly equipped with suitable clothes and appropriate sleeping arrangements - remember the adage: there’s ‘No such thing as bad weather only the wrong clothes’ - these shelters can provide a warm (relatively, remember) retreat from the crippling temperatures outside. A further advantage, which cannot be under-estimated, is the shelter from the wind provided by such a structure. The wind chill factor of the gale force winds which frequent Arctic areas can make already uncomfortably low temperatures unsurvivable - a wind-break is worth its weight in gold, let alone snow! A few simple modifications, such as a cold sink (essentially a whole in the floor) and raised bed platforms, keep the occupants higher in the interior - warm air rises - making the most of the ‘warm’ temperatures. If you do fancy having a go at making a snow shelter follow this link for a chapter from the ‘Field manual for the U.S. Antarctic program’ on making snow shelters - but good luck on finding snow that will work!

As a round up then: snow doesn't keep you warm, but it can help you keep ‘warmer’ than you might otherwise be!  


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Applied Bushcraft (2): deer stalking


Martin's first Bushcraft Education article all about deer stalking.

"One Deer Stalkers perspective on Deer Stalking"

Highland Red Deer Stalking - - 508971
Perhaps the typical image of deer stalking;
Kyle Macintyre [CC BY-SA 2.0 (
/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To many people, the term ‘deer stalking’ conjures a vision of men in tweed and ‘plus fours’ taking a majestic red stag from a Scottish hillside. In reality, there are thousands of deer stalkers who will never make the trek to the Glens but will shoot a number of smaller species, close to home and for a number of reasons. I am one of those, who arise at indecent hours during the lighter months, to take to the fields, woods and hedgerows where I assume the responsibilities of Deer Management.

A male Chinese water deer (Buck) and it's impressive tusks. 

My primary quarry don’t have antlers to speak of and perhaps would have some of the unknowing and untrusting shouting ‘Photoshop’ but no! The non-indigenous Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer are smaller than some of the larger and better known species but can carry some impressive looking tusks, depending on sex and species and are an ever spreading species in England. The Muntjac are very wide spread whilst the Chinese Water Deer frequent the reedy waterways of the lower lying counties of Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk and make up the bulk of my deer management tasks.

A Chinese water deer in it's adopted habitat of stubble fields showing off it's distinctive 'teddy bear' features.

The primary skills of a successful Deer Stalker would include being able to arise early, ridiculously early, and still be sharp. Needs to be fit and active, have great observation skills, the ability to move quietly and then of course, have the marksmanship skills and equipment to ensure a swift and humane kill whilst ensuring safety and good neighbourliness to those people and animals who live nearby. One can and my opinion should, seek formal training in deer stalking to ensure a high and consistent standard among those who undertake this work.
For those who do not undertake it or understand it, what we do makes no sense and may even be offensive to them. To those who feel that way, I would seek to assure them that this is not about wildlife slaughter but about maintaining a healthy and sustainable deer population in any given area and providing a service to the agricultural communities, whilst being sensitive to the feelings of other countryside users. Many endangered plant species for instance, are under threat from the little Muntjac, who’s introduction came by way of escapes and deliberate releases from private collections in the early late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They are here to stay and breed prolifically, the doe (female) being pregnant every 7 months and if you haven’t seen one yet, its only a matter of time.

A little muntjac buck munching on acorns
An occasional winter visitor to the UK this beutiful waxwing
put in an appearance on a recent stalking trip.
For me and I’m sure I speak for almost every single deer stalker, the prize is not a dead deer, its being out in the fresh air and countryside, seeing and hearing things which can only be seen and heard in those places. On many occasions, I spend significant periods of time sitting in a ‘high seat’ this is a chair placed some meters above the ground, often in or in close proximity to a tree and provides both an improved view of the local terrain and the added safety of an angle which means that the bullet will pass safely into the ground when it passes through the deer. But sitting in the high seat has bought me wonderful opportunities and experiences which I would never have had otherwise. It’s amazing how little wildlife looks up in to the trees and so I have watched at very close quarters (often just a few yards) several species of deer, foxes, badgers, hares fighting in spectacular ‘Mad March’ style, doing summersaults and sending fur flying, rabbits, hedgehogs and stoats, too many to note in fact and perhaps two of the most special experiences have involved birds. The first a buzzard, sitting just a few yards away in the next tree, doing the same as me, watching out for a meal and the other, a woodpecker coming up the back of the tree in which I was sitting and drumming on the tree trunk just feet behind my head. I was a keen ornithologist 50 years ago and that love has never left me, so these experiences were very special.
A home made high seat, made by Martin from
salvaged lumber, ready for the close of the 2015
Chinese Water Deer Season.
Come with me now on a typical stalk: Two hours before sunrise I’m up and packing my gear, rifle checked and ready, magazine loaded, always the same number in the same pocket, License, knives, rubber gloves, torch and perhaps most important of all, BINOCULARS. You spend hours looking through binoculars and maybe only minutes or seconds looking through a telescopic sight, so these are a vital part of the trip and may make the difference between success and failure.
I like to drive to one of my many parking areas on the farm, long before sun up, then sit silently awaiting for the sun’s rays to reveal the landscape and all of its residents, which will never be completely absent but may not be what you want to see that day. As soon as it’s light enough to see and shoot I move as near silently as I can along my chosen route. If I was to be shooting from a high seat, I would move there as soon as I arrived and wait for the light whilst seated there. To anyone who likes a brisk walk, the rate of progress would drive you insane! Sometimes we only move a few paces before using the binoculars again and again.
A Chinese Water Deer is spotted lying in a bare field some 500 yards distant and the focussed work of a stalk commences. The wind is checked to ensure that the direction of approach will not be betrayed by our sent reaching the deer before the bullet and the lay of the land permits a safe shot when you do get into a firing position. On this occasion, the wind is not working against us and the stalk commences by going away from the animal initially, so that a belt of wood can be used as a screen for our approach. Across a ditch now and through the wood before a hands and knees crossing of a road and into a large dike. Fortunately the water isn’t deeper than our boots and a long slow wade is commenced toward our target. Popping up occasionally just to make sure our target hasn’t moved, we continue on our way. Getting tense now as we approach a good shooting position and range, all adjustments are made whilst in the cover of the ditch, bipod is extended and we exit the ditch to crawl through young nettles to settle for the shot.

Preparing for a shot, with a Browning X-bolt
chambered in 6.5*55mm

Wriggling up behind the rifle, and checking everything is still safe, we rest the cross hairs of the scope on the deer’s shoulder for the first time. It’s a buck, his white fangs clearly visible against his chestnut coat, he’s a nice specimen. With breathing under control, safety off and squeeze until the rifle nudges back into my shoulder and the slap of the bullet finding its mark a fraction of a second later, accompanied by a shower of hair as the buck roles over dead, twitching gently like he was running in his sleep. It was a quick and humane end to a majestic little animal.

Ready for the long walk back to the larder

After the shot, the little deer will be confirmed dead, confirmed healthy by a thorough inspection of the carcass and then gralloched (Guts removed) for an even more detailed inspection, before carefully removing to home in a clean container prior to skinning and butchering (for a full explanation of this process check out the BushScience series tomorrow). Depending on the location of the shot, this can involve some really hard work by putting the deer, possibly more than one, in a rucksack and carrying it for a significant distance back to a vehicle.
Skinning and butchery for me is an exercise in waste minimisation and we achieve that quite well I think. All of the useable meat is eaten or swapped for something else. The scraps go for dog food to a neighbour and the skins, heads and feet go to organisations who convert all of those items into useful or saleable products, including buck skin.

I feel good about the exercise I gain and the benefit that I provide to the farmer who’s crops are safer as a consequence of what I do. I do it well, safely and humanely and even benefit the deer herd by taking out as a priority, the weak and injured animals first.


Monday, 9 February 2015

Adapt and Improvise Tutorial 1; Affordable Tarp

Last year I promised some blog articles on adapting and improvising, it has taken me a while to make a start on them but here is the first:

Tarpaulins are the staple shelter of refugee camps and the homeless all over the world 

Shelter from tarp and sticks
By trokilinochchi [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

But in recreational bushcraft they seem to have become a bit of a fashion excessory, we still call them tarps but they are now normally made of lightweight nylon, have a multitude of attachment points and will probably cost you tens or maybe even up to a hundred pounds.

Tarpaulin's were traditionally tarred canvas sheets, or 'palls' used to cover items on the deck of ship's now more often than not they are woven nylon or polyurethane. So what if we don't want to, or can't, spend a fortune on a state of the art 'bushcraft' tarp. Here are my suggestions;

Take a couple of small pebbles or bits of wood

Now wrap them in the corner of a cheap builders polythene sheet, It needs to be a fairly thick grade of polythene but that need not be expensive, maybe four or five pounds. Using a larks foot knot now you can attach your guy lines. 
Using builders polythene with guy lines attached as shown above to shelter a cook fire and kit bags. It may be a bit bulkier and heavier than the modern specialist kit but it's certainly cheaper.  

Or you could always forget the tarp completely and make shelter from what nature provides, in this case a harvester had cut down a block of cedar and left massive strips of bark all over the place which made excellent rain proof thatching for this shelter.


Friday, 6 February 2015

BushScience: a new angle.

Another branch is to be added to the ever expanding Bushcraft Education tree, BushScience.

The original concept for this series grew out of conversations between Geoff and myself about the overlap in our different topics of university study (Outdoor / Environmental Education & Ecology and Conservation respectively): there is a whole range of scientific understanding, or knowledge which would now be considered science, which can be of benefit to, and indeed some is crucial, in the practice of bushcraft.

Some of this beneficial knowledge is obvious:
Botany - correct identification of edible plant species or even more important, poisonous species; recognising species which have other uses, such as producing cordage, or which are better for certain tasks than others, which types of wood burn the best or make the best tools etc.

Ecology - understanding what resources certain habitats are likely to offer; understanding animal behaviour, learning links between species which may make finding food or other resources easier and many others.

Not all 'Science' takes place in a
lab - in this case a forensics lab
(West Midlands Police, Creative Commons, 2012)
As you begin to think in depth about the full range of activities that can fall under the title of bushcraft you can quickly add other ‘science’ topics which may be relevant, below are just a few examples:

Physical Geography / Environmental Sciences - land formation, soil types, weather patterns (Meteorology), seasonal variation, and many others which can give all sorts of information.

Chemistry - basically everything to do with fire, the purification of water etc.

Astronomy - specifically in using the stars to navigate.

Nutrition - Ensuring wild food you are gathering is providing a balanced diet.

Physics - You may think I’m going too far, but the preservation of heat in cold environments can be a life saver and this would come under the physics umbrella of the basic sciences.

Mycology - perhaps a new word to some, just the posh name for the science of fungi.

Geology - identifying flint, an appreciation of the permeability of different rock types may help with the location of water sources in some landscapes.

Archeology - perhaps pushing my luck classifying this as a science, but it ends in 'ology' so I think its fair! Understanding ancient methods can be very instructive in how tools or material are used.

Anthropology - another topic granted ‘science’ status under these circumstances because it ends in ‘ology’. However, as the source of much, arguably all, of the bushcraft methods still employed today, it could not be left out!

Ethnography - The study of people as a participant from within a specific culture, society or group. Many of the most influential modern bushcrafters have taken an ethnographical approach to learning their skills. Think of all the TV programmes and books where people spend time with native peoples or indigenous cultures and observe and take part in their daily lives. These ethnographic accounts can be of great value to us.

Many of these overlap and intermingle, and you certainly do not need a great depth of understanding, or any understanding at all in any of these in order to enjoy bushcraft: but cherry picking titbits of information may be useful, helping to refine techniques used, make living conditions more comfortable, or may just be interesting!

This series aims to provide some of those titbits, some may be an aid to streamline your practical application, increase understanding or improve best practice, but some will have little if any practical use and will simply explore the fascinating science that underpins the activities we enjoy. We hope you enjoy too!


Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Bushcraft Boys

I wrote an article which appeared in issue 53 of Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine titled 'Bushcraft Babies' about how even very young children could benefit from taking part in bushcraft; here you will find Martin's first article for Bushcraft Education recounting some of the joys and challenges of raising children who love the outdoors. 


I am pleased to have raised children who are more enthused to be out of doors, than in front of a computer or games console, who can live comfortably out of doors and can feed themselves from the land in times of extremis. It was with some pride that I told a soon to be Daughter in Law, that she would never starve married to my Son but that she may eat some really weird stuff. Depending on your definition of weird, they have eaten some things which would be considered unusual amongst their peers.

A typical Guy family Christmas dinner, roast duck stuffed with
pigeon breasts, all shot and prepared ourselves. 
From an early age, my boys accompanied me to fields and forests much more than to cinemas and movie nights and loved to follow me on hunting and fishing expeditions. They soon gained more knowledge of where food came from and how to convert fish and animals into something fit for the table than any other children I knew. They did and still do, regularly put a meal on the table for their family that has never seen the inside of a supermarket, butchers shop or market and were likely to be the single person responsible for all stages of its ‘processing’ from field to fork.

The challenges or blessings of raising children with this level of interest in the outdoors, are unique, hunting for missing bits of lego and other conventional childhood challenges still occurred but there was an ever present array of knives, billy cans, camping stoves, para cord, canvas, tents, ruck sacks, boots and socks which were far from routine amongst the other houses we visited. Thankfully, the older boys grew up in an area where wilderness was still readily available, as was the great institution of Duke of Edinburgh Awards. Dedicated and inspired leaders supplemented what I could help them with and they accomplished some pretty amazing expeditions with like-minded children.

Richard amidst the dramatic scenery of the Cornish coast during an epic 120 mile expedition.

My father claimed that his greatest joy was to make something from nothing, his interpretation of that was to take something incomplete, useless, broken or not recognisable and turn it in to something useful. For a bush craft boy, this is the essence of his challenge, his joy and satisfaction. A nettle patch becomes a source of soup and string, a bramble patch similarly a tasty snack and surprisingly strong cordage. A river is likely to give life from its water and its inhabitants likely to feed the hungry wilderness traveller. Perhaps the greatest joy to be had by the side of a camp fire is to fashion something from wood, there will be nothing on TV for sure! 

A stick is always a useful companion in the woods and wilderness, it may be a long staff to probe the depths prior to a waded river crossing, a crook to pull berries and fruit in range for harvesting or a pair of poles to aid progress on a steep or rugged trail where the use of big upper body muscles can supplement those of weary legs having travelled many a mile.

The kind of bushcraft related paraphernalia to be found
in a 'bushcraft boys' room
Personalising a stick, staff or walking cane can be a most satisfying and even profitable enterprise but inevitably this pastime will find its way back in to the house when the journey is over. I can’t count the times I have walked in to a son’s bedroom or bunkhouse to be met, not with the beeping and flickering of a computer or games console but the rustling of wood shavings and strips of sandpaper on the floor and a booby-trap of partially completed carving projects and sticks standing in a corner, behind a door or just lying on the floor! Bits of bone, horn, antler or just different colour, shape or texture of wood for a handle just as 
likely to be there or actually anywhere in the house.

So I chose to offer my children, fitness, health, industry, appreciation of nature, with occasional trips to A&E, band aids and steri-strips, my socks or slippers often contaminated with wood shavings against the alternative of  eye strain, RSI, lethargy and a poor level of fitness. Would I do it the same again? 



Thanks Dad for giving me so many opportunities to be outdoors and for teaching me how to take care of myself out there, even if you think some of the things I do are a little strange; to the right you can see me showing Michael how to inflate the skin off a hare ready for curing or tanning. 

Look out for Martins next article on deer stalking a little later in the month. 


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