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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Rivers - Supermarket, Highway and Inspiration all in one.

A few weeks ago I wrote about 'Mental GIS' which we all carry around with us subconsciously - our mental maps and knowledge interlinked which can make us as humans efficient hunter gatherers even if many of us don't practice those skills any more. 

When I am out and about, whether it be for a gentle countryside walk with my family, a dedicated photography trip or a foraging session, I am drawn to certain features in the landscape depending on where I am. Rivers have always been a draw to me, particular smaller rivers in deep cut, wooded valleys. There is something about these valleys that never gets old to me. As a teenager on the North Devon coast I had plenty of opportunities to explore these sort of valleys, including in and around Exmoor, to this day one of my favourite parts of the UK. 

Contemplating life alongside a river, on this occasion in Speyside in Scotland. The mountains you can just about see in the background are the Cairngorms. Osprey fly over head, Red Squirrels in the woodland, Roe and Red Deer too. Beautiful! 

You may ask why Rivers - I honestly don't know the definitive answer to that question but I have a few ideas. The first comes back to this concept of mental maps, particularly resource maps. Rivers are a phenomenally rich resource to the forager:

First and foremost they are a readily available source of water. In the higher reaches of rivers where they run fast and clear it is also likely to be clean water which you can drink straight from the river. Even these days in areas where agricultural run off may have sullied the water, or in its lower reaches where it runs slow and silty, with simple techniques it can be filtered and purified to be made safe to drink.  

They are a source of protein in the shape of water birds*, fish* and crayfish (although sadly these days an invasive species, the American Signal Crayfish which has driven our native White-clawed Crayfish to the edge of extinction). If you know where to look there may also be freshwater mussels or as you get closer to the coast and into the brackish and tidal zones of the river there may be other salt-water shellfish to harvest. 

With a constant source of water and, further down the river at least, nutrient rich silts, river valleys are often a great source of plant food as well. To name a few, wetland areas associated with rivers are often home to sedges, some of which have seeds which can be eaten. Also in wetland areas or slow-flowing parts of the river and backwaters, Bulrush or Greater Reedmace (Typha latifolia) can be found which has edible rhizomes as well as being a useful tinder. These days in the UK several very common edible plants found along rivers are non-native species, certainly not something our hunter-gatherer forebears would have been familiar with - Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). And by eating either of these you are also doing your bit for conservation by reducing the population of an invasive plant. 

Some of the trees often found in close association with water are Willow species. Willow is an extremely useful plant to a bushcrafter providing bark for cordage & withies for basket making. In addition its bark contains Salicylic acid (in fact 'Salicylic' is derived from Salix, the Latin name for the Willow family) which is a component of aspirin and it has been known for centuries that chewing on willow bark could ease aches and pains and reduce fevers. 

Barren perhaps in the winter as seen here but a veritable treasure trove of wild food and other resources. Although particularly low in this image when it floods the river will lie across the entire valley floor leaving when the waters receed a layer of nutrient rich silt. It is this reason why river valleys tend to be so fertile.
Downs Banks National Trust National Reserve in Staffordshire
I think we have pretty much established that rivers are useful for resources, and I really do think that my love of and fascination for rivers stems in some way to an instinctive draw to a landscape feature which is of use to me. But I don't think that's the whole story. 

Rivers are beneficial for moving through the landscape. In a very modern sense we can see this based on how many roads or railway lines follow the course of rivers. In many circumstances the river bed itself will be the path through a landscape which experiences the least severe changes in elevation, waterfalls aside! By following these ready made paths modern engineers are saving themselves some time and effort but also in some respects creating for themselves different issues by placing their projects in the path of an immense erosive power - but that's another story.

I don't think this would have been unappreciated by the people who roamed the land when roads weren't even a futuristic dream. Especially during the summer, when vegetation was at its highest and most impenetrable, and the water level was lower likely exposing a portion of the river bank, using these natural routes to move inland from the coast or the opposite would have saved effort and ensured that food to fuel your travels was never far away. Certainly in dense woodland I have followed small rivers or streams, sometimes alongside them and sometimes by necessity in them to aid my movements and help me to move more quickly or easily. It has long been a goal of mine to follow a river from its source to the sea - I think it would be a fascinating journey! 

In all this I have skirted around the potential of travel on the water itself. While not a expert in water travel I have been lucky enough to do a bit of kayaking and rafting both on rivers and the sea and it is a fantastic way to travel. Our ancestors in the UK may not have cashed in on this opportunity as much as other parts of the world, the effort required outweighing the advantages in many situations on a relatively small island. It is however well documented that early civilisations in other parts of the world focussed their travel on waterways with variations on the theme of dug out canoes and later in the northern hemisphere with bark canoes. 

Even urban rivers can provide some aesthetic pleasure,
even if it does have to be out of focus to do so! This is the
River Trent in Stoke-on-Trent, where it flows through the
University campus. It might be very urban but that doesn't
stop the Kingfishers and Otters using it.
If you are referring back to the title you'll notice we are two thirds of the way through this tale. There will be those who read 'inspiration' in relation to 'river' and think I have lost it - city folks perhaps for whom rivers are places for stolen bikes and shopping trolleys, pollution outflows and perhaps if your lucky, the odd gull or duck. Luckily in Britain today even this inner city image of rivers is largely a thing of the past with tighter controls on pollution and water cleanliness but still the Thames in London or the Mersey in Liverpool are not the sort of rivers I look to for inspiration. 

The picture that comes to my mind when I think of rivers is a small river, wooded valley sides rising steeply above, clear water trickling quickly through a jumble of moss-covered rocks and woody debris. A Dipper rushing past or watching you from a half-submerged rock. Perhaps a little further downstream a whistle and a flash of blue alerting you to what has got to be the UK's most colourful bird, the Kingfisher, going about its business. If you lucky some muddy footprints indicate a Otter isn't far away, and if your even luckier a glimpse of these now thankfully returning mammals. In the early morning mist a Roe deer perhaps, tentatively crossing from its shelter on one side to prime feeding ground on the other. As the sun gets higher, the dragonflies, the birds of prey of the insect world start to come to life. I could watch their aerial battles for territory and bright colours for ages before I got even a little bit bored. At the right time of year mayflies provide a spectacle, both as they 'dance' above the water and as they are fed on by every valley dweller you can imagine. I could go on... so I shall. 

As a teenager I was lucky enough to work on a nature reserve for a week in Scotland. (On a side note, to any young person reading this, I cannot recommend highly enough this experience.) One day having been, I think, to check a hide over looking a large marshy flood plain alongside the river Spey, I spotted a family of fox cubs playing on a 'island' in the marsh, their earth was obviously located on the slightly higher and therefore drier ground above the wetland, among the gorse. On my return journey to my accommodation that evening, a gorgeous summer evening, I cut across the reserve - cresting a ridge having climbed up steeply through birch woodland I looked up to see an Osprey flying over, fish held tightly in its talons. Standing on the ridge wondering at this spectacle I had never witnessed before I became aware of movement in the valley meadow below - a Roe buck, summer coat radiant red in the low evening sun had moved out of the woodland to browse. What a day! Not all strictly river associated but all within a stones throw.

The view from the hide I mention. The 'island' where I saw the foxes is in the middle ground on the left, the meadow where I saw the Roebuck a mile or so up the valley to the North (right in this picture). But I have seen since that day Roe deer browsing through the marshland here - one doe in particular was wondering through selecting umbellifer flower heads to eat, the only time I have seen this and a perfect example of the selective feeding style of Roe Deer. 
I know of no sound more relaxing and calming than the gentle trickle of a river to lull me off to sleep in an evening after a strenuous day out of doors. And in the same way I could sit, and have done on many occasions, and stare at a fire burning for hours, I could sit and watch a river flowing past, listening to its gurgles and trickles just as I listen to the pops and crackles of my fire. With the calls of Kingfishers or Dippers replacing the Tawny Owls I so often hear when sat by a fire in woodland.  

Beyond the river itself the landscapes they have created can be awe inspiring all on their own, dramatic landscapes all over the UK have been carved over many millennia by the rivers which now seem like a side show in the valley bottom. Caves and tunnels, stacks and caves and water falls all indicate the sheer power of water in the landscape and can be as spectacular as their coastal counterparts. 

We all I dare say have 'favourite landscapes' - I would certainly have to say that rivers and the associated valleys and wetlands are well up there for me. They provide food and fun, mental relaxation and the ability to move through the landscapes we love. What's not to like!


* - It needs to be remembered that the taking of certain fish and all water birds, and the methods of taking or catching them are restricted by law in the UK. In certain circumstances you may just need landowners permission, in other it is far more complicated. 

Monday, 28 September 2015

Hare today, gone tomorrow!

If a farm has an abundance of hares, there will be crop damage to some degree or another. Cereals will definitely get munched but they can also do tree damage! ring-barking small saplings and succulents, the Hare can be a pest to nurserymen and gardener alike.

The Hare is an enchanting creature which can disappear at the drop of a hat, flattening itself to invisibility in a crop which would appear too short to cover it but it manages it somehow, can accelerate at a speed which would do justice to 'the stig' and of course in March, will box and scrap until the fur flies.

I have spoken previously about how you may cook them (see my article "Bad Hare Day" ) but there is no shortage of other ways to convert this rich dark meat into a culinary master piece.

The following recipe comes highly recommended by a friend who regularly converts hare into deliciousness! Thanks to Dave Clark for the recommendation, this recipe is found in Maxine Clark's book, 'flavours of Tuscany - recipes from the heart of Italy' pages 60-61. (ISBN 1-84597-143-4)

The recipe is for wide egg noodles with rich hare sauce. 
I hope I'll be forgiven for only covering the sauce and not the noodles, I would be one of the Philistines who bought the noodles but as I'm the one who gets up at 'stupid O'clock, walks miles, shoots the hare, butchers it and clears up afterwards, I'm allowing myself that luxury! 

I medium sized hare, same quantity of meat in the form of rabbit or duck breast also works. 
3 tbspns olive oil. 
4 tbspns butter.
1 each finely diced celery stick, onion & carrot.

2 cloves of chopped garlic.

75g of unsmoked pancetta.

2 tbspns flour.
300 ml dry red wine.
Ca 600 ml game or good chicken stock.
2 fresh bay leaves.
1 tbspn chopped fresh rosemary (plus sprigs for garnish).
1 tbspn chopped fresh sage.
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.
Freshly grated Parmesan to serve.


Cut the meat from the bone and dice or process. Heat the butter and oil in a sauté pan and add the chopped onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Stir gently for 10 minutes or until soft and browning. Alternatively you can joint the hare and cook with all the other ingredients and then just lift the bones out, dicing the meat in to the sauce. Season with the salt and pepper, stir in the flour then the wine and half the stock. Mix thoroughly scraping any sediment off of the base of the pan, add the herbs and bring to the boil, turn down the heat and half cover and simmer for at least 2 hours adding more stock as required, until the meat is tender and the sauce thick and reduced.


Friday, 25 September 2015

Stop Reading This Blog NOW!!

As Richard and I both have backgrounds in the so called 'land-based' sector, he in conservation and ecology, and I in game and wildlife management we often use words, and you will have seen them on this blog, like habitat and environment. Depending on a plant or animal species habitat preferences it may be given a specific name, Riparian species for example;

Riparian species inhabit, surprise, surprise, the riparian zone; that is an area where land and river or streams meet. Those species might include 'hydrophilic' water loving species such as Alder and Willow for the trees, wading birds, beaver, amphibians and just as they have their particular niche even within their general habitat so do I. 

This picture was taken from just outside the Warren Street Underground station in London and  this is not my natural habitat, I have never been keen on cities, or towns and built up areas like this do make me very uncomfortable if I have to be there for any length of time. I live a 'bushcentric' life being outdoors, in the 'bush' to use the Australian term is my niche habitat. Yes I live in a house and drive a car and have a mobile phone and my job often involves paper work, but I am outside every day, I teach outside, I forage for food outside, I feed my pheasants, stalk deer, coppice, split firewood and burn charcoal, all outside.

This is my Natural Habitat;

Mt Ruapehu, New Zealand, I spen two nights camped at the bottom of this beautiful mountain listening to the nocturnal activities of Kiwi's (the bird, not the fruit or the people!). 

The view from the top of Mt. Sabestapol in New Zealands Southern Alps. the largest mountain in this picture is Mt Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. On my way to the top I saw this amazing bird;
This is a Kea, once shot as a pest by sheep farmers due to it's inquisitive nature and habit of eating carrion and pestering lambs, I watched this bird for a long time from no more than ten or fifteen feet away while resting on the way to the Mueller Hut on the Sealy Range in New Zealand, it was craning it's neck at all sorts of strange angles to try and drink out of a small crevice in this rock.  
A panoramic view looking back up at the mountain I had just descended near Trento in Northern Italy. 
Riddy Wood in spring as the first of the bluebells start to flower.  

These pictures sum up what my natural habitat is, as long as I'm outside amongst nature I am happy and I'm sure most of those of you who read this blog and practice bushcraft and other outdoor activities feel the same way. I live a 'bushcentric' life, you should try it too don't live your outdoor life through nature documentaries, you tube clips, books or the internet, that means you should stop reading this blog NOW, and go outdoors. You don't have to travel across the globe to have a life that is close to nature or 'bushcentric' you won't see any bird more beautiful anywhere in the world than our kingfisher, nor a predator more efficient than the stoat or weasel, the fungi taste as good here as in Eastern Europe, the deer leave tracks to follow here just the same as the elk do in yellowstone park. 

Wherever you live there are experiences to be had that will bring you closer to nature, take advantage of them. 


Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Attitude, Commitment and Respect, all in black and white.

I've seen it on the way to and from the high seat and I've sat in the high seat in awe of the industrious and slightly bumbling black and white bandit, who is our beloved Badger! Not everyone shares that view of course, perhaps foremost the dairy farmer but if there are no cattle around, as is our situation, they do little harm, apart from blocking the occasional ditch.

Badgers caught on a Bushnell Trophy Camera on 'our patch'

The industrious badger is a committed and capable excavator and in the soft fen soil of our region they can move a massive amount of it in a very short space of time. Overnight, they can fill a ditch with spoil from an excavation, certainly three or four hundred pounds of soil, which is quite an achievement for such little legs! Their determination is commendable, not just in building their home but also keeping it clean. A trail of clean bedding material from the site of collection to the mouth of the set is a clear sign that Brock is at home.

The badgers attitude toward food is also one of extreme commitment, a favourite food is wasp grubs straight from the nest and that takes some commitment if any meal ever did. In this world of fast food and ready meals, just imagine the process which the badger has to follow to get his favourite meal. First he (or she presumably) has to dig a fair sized hole, I've seen several that would have been easily big enough to bury our microwave and maybe even the dish washer. Then he has to rip the front out of the wasp nest and stick his face in it to get the grubs out! Now just imagine the combined fury and fire power of a thousand wasps defending their home! Holy cow, 'ready steady cook' and the 'Great British Bake Off' now look like a walk in the park! If you ever walk past a freshly 'Badgered' wasp nest, the air will be thick with really really upset wasps, likely to sting anything that moves close by, including you. I have been in that situation and I have a lot of respect for anything that determined, I really like Badgers and really hate wasps!

You can in the picture above a wasp nest that has been 'Badgered' it's not a great picture but I wasn't about to stand there and get stung for the sake of a piece of pristine photography, if you can't make out the cluster of wasps still in conference in the nest, you'll have to take my word for it that there was a bunch of them in there.

Keep your eyes out for the black and white bandit and his yellow and black enemy, I know which I'd rather watch at close quarters!


Monday, 21 September 2015


The Bushcraft Education Team just wanted to thank everyone who contributed to our crowdfunding appeal earlier in the year. We were able to raise our target of £2500 towards equipment and materials to begin work at Riddy Wood and we couldn't have done it without you. We have already put the equipment we purchased to good use and have started the improvement and enhancement of the habitats at Riddy Wood.

Several groups of volunteers have also come and helped us build shelters, survey wildlife remove unwanted vegetation and make things ready for school groups to start visiting us in the next few weeks.  

We couldn't have achieved what we have at Riddy Wood over the last few months without all the help we have received and just wanted to say a huge thankyou to everyone who has volunteered, or supported out crowdfunder appeal.

The gifts promised to those who pledged money to crowdfunder are now on their way to you and we hope you enjoy them.

Some of the 'fungi key rings' made from wood harvested from Riddy Wood that are on the way to our generous backers.  

There will be more opportunities to get involved with the Riddy Wood Project soon and we hope to see you in the woods sometime.

Thanks again

Geoff and The Team from Bushcraft Education and The Riddy Wood Project

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Blog Hijack; Natures Playground

Geoff is at the Midland Game Fair Today promoting Reaseheath College's Game Management Course so in his absence I am hijacking his blog again. 

Today I am going to write a little on the topic of children outdoors but in particular natures playground. Obviously there are so many different things for families to do outside, All it takes is a little imagination which, I am very happy to say our children are not short of.

Michael being a hobbit looking for Gollum's cave on the way up Cadair Idris 

When we go for walks near home the nearest willow tree becomes a rope swing or a rocket blasting off as they swing out over the water. 

When we are in the woods or fields of flowers or crops they are great places to play hide and seek, in the nearest hollow tree, tall grass or covered in flowers. 

 Who can forget the classic den/fort building . Our children have a den in our garden that the love to play in and it takes on many roles; from a pirate ship to a princess palace and, of course, a hobbit hole. When playtime is over they are happy to sleep out in it. 

They don't only play in dens in the garden they like to make them in the woods and when we are out camping.

Hot chocolates and smoked venison on a cold, wet February evening ready for a night in Riddy Wood.  

The Bivi the children slept in back in February was heated by a simple stove made out of an old tractor oil drum. 
I love that our children can enjoy living/playing outdoors and that they can use their imaginations to look at things in a totally different way than maybe you or I would view them and see fun and mystery in the simplest of things. Our daughter Lillie loves stones and she will often collect them and make pictures from them or add some to her collection which everybody has to see because she is so proud of it.

There are pretend sharks at the sea side and shells that become treasure I could go on and on and the best thing is theses great activities and fun to be had cost nothing. I speak about our children in this blog but the truth is the outdoors and nature is out there for all of us to enjoy and there is no age limit.

 We love being outdoors.


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Thursday, 17 September 2015

Protected Fungi; Bushcraft and the law

I've discussed on here before the legality of foraging and Richard recently addressed protected species in one of his posts in the Bushcraft and the Law series

Having written a lot about fungi recently though I thought I might address a piece of legislation which protects some scarce fungi.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 govern a great deal of what goes on the countryside and includes one particular schedule which relates to protected species, now the sale of fungi collected on private land is, as I have discussed on here before, illegal without the landowners permission although collecting for personal consumption is generally considered to be allowed. Those species listed ion schedule eight of the countryside and wildlife act are protected from any picking or interference. 

The fungi listed there include;

  •  Sandy Stilt Puffball; this is also a red data book species and is very uncommon in the UK. Although it does not really resemble a puff ball the spores are spread in the same passion as the other puffballs and although it appears to have a cap and gills it's spores are spread from the sac on top of it's cap.    
Battarrea phalloides 40049.jpg
"Battarrea phalloides 40049" by user: Landsnorkler - Mushroom Observer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
The specimen pictures above is not from the UK and thus the person handling it here is not in breach of the wildlife and countryside act, this specimen was found in Hawai

  • Royal Bolete; a very vibrantly coloured fungi of the bolete family, somewhat similar in appearance to the devils bolete but very brightly coloured with very red cap and yellow stem and tubes. 
  • Bearded Tooth; 
By Rob Hille (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Oak Polypore
Piptoporus quercinus I Posazavi.jpg
"Piptoporus quercinus I Posazavi" by Vavrin - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

So there you have it, the protected fungi of the UK, They don't look particularly apetising anyway.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

My Day in Fungi

The late Summer months leading into Autumn provide some of the best fungi foraging opportunities of the whole year, in todays post I will show you all the fungi I encounter on an average day.

These Field Mushrooms came from the field where I keep my pheasants but I also see plenty in the field behind my house. 

I mentioned fairy ring champignon mushrooms in my magic or not-so-magic mushroom post recently and here they are in the flesh, in their typical 'fairy ring' formation. 

The fairy ring champignon up close

Giant puff balls ready for picking, but should I take them all? I'll be posting something on Hunter Gatherer Ethics soon to discuss the 'how much is too much?' question of hunting and gathering 

One of the most sought after edible fungi in Europe, although this slightly slug eaten specimen has seen better days, probably second only to the chanterelle, this is the cap of a penny bun, also called the cep or porcini.  

The distinctive wrinkly 'cobwebby' stem of the penny bun 

The expanded cap of a mature, and fairly large, although not record breaking penny bun. 

Although this fungi is similar to the penny bun in the sense that it has tubes instead of gills it's general colour and another interesting feature give it away;

It is a Devils Bolete and it stains this blue/black colour as soon as it's flesh is exposed to the air.

The earthball or pigskin poison puff ball, you can tell by it's name you shouldn't eat it right? and if you ever got so far as to cut it open it's innards should put you off...

It's always this colour on the inside it doesn't start white and colour like the devil's bolete earlier it's always like this, no very appetising is it, compare it to the pure white of a giant puff ball below... 

The pure white innards of a delicious giant puff ball. 
So that's a few of the fungi I see regularly at the moment, obviously this is seasonal and perhaps a little later in the year I will see more of the ink caps, parasols and wood blewets. Look forward to those species being featured on the blog a little later in the year.   

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Monday, 14 September 2015

Bushcraft Books: David Attenborough - Life on Air

Just a short one here. I have recently finished (Sir) David Attenborough's 'memoirs' entitled Life on Air. What a read!

The man himself needs no introduction - he is a legend (I don't apply that word as readily as most) both in the world of natural history film making, and in British television itself. I realise that this doesn't in itself qualify for inclusion under the 'Bushcraft Books' heading. However, in a career spanning more than 60 years of exploration, education and research he has encountered tribes never before seen by 'white men'; explored regions never before traversed by Europeans; filmed, photographed, recorded or documented species of animals, facets of primitive and ancient culture and relics of anthropological development never before seen by outsiders, never mind recorded, or documented. 

Is it not these sort of adventures which all of us who participate in bushcraft style pastimes are seeking after deep down, despite the fact that for many of us they are out of reach? He was involved in these adventures when they were exactly that - adventures! Before air travel to almost every conceivable corner of the world shrunk the planet beyond the imagination of some people still living. He travelled, by necessity, not because it looked good for television, by boat, including dug out canoes, on foot through unexplored tracts of rain forest, on horseback through wetlands in South America where vehicular transport was untenable and still not easy to this day. The list goes on and on. 

Nor was he merely a generic presenter reading someone else's script as seems to be the case so often nowadays. In fact he started his television career as a producer and director without appearing in the finished product. He studied Zoology and Paleantology at Cambridge, and at one point started to study part-time (alongside his work with the BBC) for a degree in Anthropology (this was interrupted by an administrative shake up which saw him promoted within the BBC). His main roles in front of the camera were to come later and, its not an exaggeration to say, were to change the way natural history films were made.

He has been widely recognised for this work with, among others, a Knighthood, too many honourary degrees to count and other industry awards in television, education and conservation. 

However, he concludes his account with a description of why he continued, and indeed still continues, to produce these films and have these adventures:

"...I know of no pleasure deeper than that which comes from 
contemplating the natural world and trying to understand it."

I couldn't agree more and heartily recommend you live some adventures through the eyes of Sir Attenborough by reading 'Life on Air'.

Friday, 11 September 2015

From the high seat; time to move!

What a difference 10 days makes! Since my last visit, the cereal harvest has finished, cultivation has started and headlands have been mown down tight. All this activity is likely to have pushed the normal deer residents to deep cover to await the return of peace and quiet to their more normal range.

Sometimes, a view from the high seat serves only to confirm that you should be somewhere else, maybe because you can see something specific which needs to be pursued on foot or maybe because you can see nothing and that prospects are not ideal (not always easy to judge but experience and a weather eye will help). So it was on Saturday, a visit to a high seat and a survey of the multiplicity of agricultural activity which has occurred in the preceding days, all added up to a day that probably wasn't worth investing 2 hours in the high seat. So off I go on a tour of the area to see what I could see and because it's such a big area, I choose to drive from point to point and then explore small areas on foot.

I watched an unusual number of herons exploring the freshly dredged dyke edges, stopped to watch a buzzard feeding on a small rodent and saw a host of kestrels cashing in on the reduced cover for their prey.

My first deer sighting was a pair of Chinese water deer at very close range, poised ready for flight and in a few seconds, did exactly that, launched from rest to flat out in the blink of an eye and they were gone!

A Chinese Water Deer making it's first explosive bound as it accelerates away from danger. 

I drove on at 'tick over' just watching all around, stopping regularly to scan with the binoculars and generally having a very gentle and enjoyable morning. As I got to a regular Muntjac haunt, I had a quick peak around the hedge and sure enough, saw a doe in long grass, with inquisitive head stretched up to max height on a slender neck. I backed away to get everything to hand that I would need to convert this sighting to productivity. My initial view provided neither the safety required or the confirmation that this animal was in an appropriate state to take, so I watched, ready to act should all of the pieces drop in to place, there was little opportunity to affect this, it was a waiting game as the little doe moved away from 75 yards to a 100 and more, all the time heading towards cover. At this point there was no 'flag up' which is the raised white tail confirmation that the deer is alarmed and off to safer places and usually at some speed!

A pair of Muntjac, doe to the left and buck to the right. 
As it moved to shorter grass I could confirm it was a 'taker' and around 120 yards gave me the clear broadside presentation I needed for a shot with a safe backstop, so I took the shot and the little doe rolled over with scarcely a twitch and accompanied me home. I drove on and 'glassed' the patch as thoroughly as possible but to no avail, I only saw the 3 deer all morning but I was more than happy with the result. As harvest becomes a distant memory and the fields are re drilled, the deer will become more comfortable again and be seen in greater number as the season approaches. Many more visits will be made before then, to clear paths, check seats and verify population numbers. This may be a quiet time but it's not an idle time, nor is it an onerous task, in 9 weeks the season will be open and our labours will start to bear fruit (or so we hope!) time will tell. 

If you want a chance to experience life 'from the high seat' why not come on one of our field to fork courses

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Applied Bushcraft: Mental GIS

Today the ‘applied’ element of this post is a bit… abstract? I am attempting to illustrate what has been a pretty clear concept in my mind… but my mind can be a cluttered place so I’m not sure how successful this will be.


The human brain is an incredible tool: consider the rapid advances in technology we have seen in recent decades and indeed over the last few millennia at a slower pace. All that innovation and ingenuity has originated in the head of just one person or a team of people synthesising their ideas - it is, in the true sense of the word, awesome to consider just what we (as in humans) are capable of and have achieved! Many innovations aim to increase mankind’s natural abilities by reducing the effort required to complete tasks, increase our output or efficiency or limit the risk of human error through increased memory (data storage) or a level of mechanical consistency simply not replicable by human-kind.

It is one such (admittedly incredible powerful and useful) innovation which I have been thinking about for some time in relation to the practice of ‘bushcraft’ activities. GIS (or Geographic Information Systems in non-abbreviated form) are complex computer systems which allow data to be linked with spatial information (i.e. a map) and cross referenced with other data to examine, analyse, display and report patterns or potentials. They are widely used by a range of companies from petro-chemical companies, through utility companies and commercial agriculture and forestry operations, to nature conservation charities and a wide variety of scientific research… the list is quite literally endless. In essence almost every professional need for information tied to a location (again, a map) will be met by a GIS of some sort.

An example of a GIS output - I produced this as part of an assignment while
studying for an MSc in Ecology & Conservation. It was based upon a
hypothetical farm trying to determine habitat suitability for Yellowhammers
(Emberiza citrinella).  Based on 6 habitat variables, all measured and spatially
aligned to the base map, a formulae automatically complied all the variables
for a given boundary and calculated the probability of Yellowhammers setting
 up territory in or along that boundary which is what  this output illustrates. The
GIS further allowed improvements to be calculated for different habitat
management  options, in a real world situation potentially guiding or
determining habitat management plans and allowing often restricted funds
for conservation to be effectively prioritised. 
BUT!!... to me these systems are based on how we as humans view the world around us - inspired by mankind’s instinctive and inbuilt ability to blend spatial data with knowledge to use their environment for their own benefit and survival. Allow me to explain my thinking, I hope it makes sense. I promise there is a bushcraft theme if you stick with it. In order to understand my train of thought you need to understand that GIS’s typically work on a layer system with all added data forming a ‘layer’ along with similar data overlaid and aligned to a base layer - a map. This data can then be analysed, cross referenced or compared to data in other layers to show trends or conflicts or whatever else may present itself, which could not be done in isolation.

Every one of us, whether we have considered it or not, has a mental map of areas they use regularly - a base layer if you will.

This will be overlayed (again, subconsciously) with a variety of information ranging from mundane trivia such as the location of the local shops, your child's school (or of course your school if you are one of our younger readers) or your parents home to complex and intricate knowledge based on individuals own specialisms and experiences. We will be aware of where we can access food (shops), find shelter (home), acquire necessary resources to achieve necessary tasks (garden centre / builders merchants / office supplier / bank etc) and much much more.

We could add detail to this hypothetical ‘mental map’ or, now that we have some layers of spatially aligned data, a ‘mental GIS’ ad infinitum based on different people’s use of and knowledge of their environment: but this obviously needs a bushcraft theme and so I shall endeavour to make my ramblings relevant.

Back in the days where humans survived hand-to-mouth as hunter gatherers this ‘mental mapping’ would have enabled them to re-locate (I will expand on why this emphasis on relocation is significant shortly) reliable or safe sources of food or water, or good places to shelter during inclement weather. Simply knowing where something is though is only half the story - some additional ‘layers’ of information are required to make the best possible use of this information.

Knowing where an Apple tree is does you no good if you go to pick apples in March, why? Because they are not ripe, in fact they may not even have flowered yet! Knowing which river Salmon use to spawn does you no good if you go in January, because they are still out at sea. Going to a wetland area to collect duck eggs in October will be equally unfruitful because they will all have hatched and fledged months before. And on and on.

Once a source of food, but only if you get there at the right time of year - a seabird
colony on Anglesey. Now a nature reserve - but you still have to get there at the
right time of year to see the spectacle. Arrive in January and you'll be lonely!
(Photo taken by author).

With almost all plant food sources being seasonal to at least some extent, a deep understanding of seasonal changes and prime harvest period would have been critical to a successful harvest and ultimately survival. Survival does not come from a single crop though; survival depends upon a steady supply. Late summer and autumn are easy times to find wild plant food in the shape of nuts, berries, fruits, seed heads and so on - even the most uninitiated would struggle not to find something to eat at this time of year. But what about in February? or March? Yes the green shoots are starting to make themselves seen by March certainly, but what of something to eat!? That is when a knowledge of what food could be stored comes in useful, because you will need to set aside enough of it to get you through the period of dearth.

Remembering the right place to go becomes a more impressive feat when it has to be linked with the knowledge to look for the right plant and at the right time of year. Without these additional ‘layers’ of knowledge (seasonal changes, nourishment value, storage suitability, botanical identification) survival would have become difficult if not impossible.

Much the same could be said for meat harvesting, except of course the animals are not rooted to the spot so remembering a location becomes a far more general affair. Further layers of knowledge are required to streamline the hunting process - tracking, animal behaviour and habits. Where is the herd of deer likely to shelter / feed / give birth given the conditions? Where will the highest concentration of waterbird nests* be based on the vegetation conditions or water levels at the time? What time of year will they nest? Where is a good place to set a snare for ground game? In the middle of a field? Or in one of many runways through dense brush?

Spot the deer above. Presented with this view where would you look first for the deer? It
would depend on the time of year, as it happens they most often lie up during the day
under the trees to the left in the middle distance, and if you look really carefully you can
see a few on their way out to feed in the open in the shadow.
(Photo taken by author on Cannock Chase)

You get the idea that I am trying to illustrate I hope. That simply remembering a location in and of itself is (or rather would have been) insufficient to hunter gatherers, and therefore largely to us in our practice of bushcraft (well, foraging and hunting at least).

Before I wrap this up, and at the risk of going on for far too long, we have the issue of initially locating these resources. This can of course happen by chance, and there is nothing wrong with that, it just takes time. By adding additional layers of knowledge, or deepening the layers of knowledge we have already mentioned, the finding process becomes more efficient, which to a hunter gatherer would have been everything! On a sarcastically basic level, what I mean is if you are searching for a fish, you know not to look in a tree, or if hoping for apples, you wouldn’t start by digging. At a more realistic level this means knowing which sort of habitats are likely to hold certain plants or animals. This means that rather than walking aimlessly through the landscape you can head purposefully towards an end goal. That could be a wetland area for sedge seeds, a particular deep, shady meander on a river for resting fish (which you are going to find in the middle reaches of a river's course, not right up in the head waters nor on the coastal plain where it is turning into an estuary) and on the examples could go indefinitely.

I hope this concept has come across as clearly as I visualised it… but I suspect not. As in a digitised GIS the more layers of data added (or knowledge we acquire) the more precise and varied the range of useful information which can be gleaned from the system. Our modern day bushcraft application (I got it in!!) for this concept of layered knowledge is largely the same as it would have been for our ancestors, albeit in a environment altered beyond the recognition of Mesolithic man. Of course our relevant knowledge and experience isn’t neatly compartmentalised as I have described for the sake of this analogy. It is very dynamic, with new knowledge being added through current experiences and practice, and other knowledge fading with time through lack of application. However I believe the point stands - perhaps the best tool we can carry into the field with us is in fact a computer system - the GIS we all carry in our heads.


* NB - I have referred to knowledge regarding the nesting season of waterbirds with the intention of collecting eggs as a food source. I wish to make it clear that this needs to be taken in the context written, i.e. a food source of mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities. The collection of wild birds eggs for any purpose is now quite rightly prohibited by law (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 - Section 1) in the UK and these comments do not in anyway infer that it is or should be permissible.

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