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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bushcraft Babies; Owl Pellets

I know teachers shouldn't have favourite students but I do, my favourite students are my children. I love sharing bushcraft and the outdoors with them and I'm constantly thrilled by their fascination with nature and wildlife. 

One thing they particularly enjoy is a bit of nature detective work, working out what is inside owl pellets is an exciting piece of detective work for them to undertake. I ran a workshop on owl pellet dissection for children at the Wilderness Gathering a few years, owl pellets are fascinating and dissecting them to see what they have been eating doesn't just satisfy idle curiosity but is a method used by ecologists to study small mammal populations. The contents of an owl pellet can reveal not only what an individual owl has been eating but the rough abundance of it's prey. 

Although they get called owl pellets, pellets are not only produced by owls in fact a lot of birds produce them, certainly all birds of prey produce them and so do corvids. Just as cats produce hair balls as the indigestible fur they collect when they clean themselves is coughed back up birds of prey do the same, the hair, bones, teeth and other indigestible parts of their prey are coughed back up in compacted pellets. Typically we think of these pellets as compacted masses of hair and bones but jackdaw pellets are often just lumps of seed husks and beetle shells, little owls eat lots of beetles too and their pellets are often made up largely of  beetle shells. 

Short eared owl pellets are particularly large. You can see the bones and hair of it's prey here and a fragment of a voles jaw bone identifies at least one of it's recent meals. 
Teeth are particularly useful when it comes to identifying the contents of an owl pellet and the children love spotting the tell tale colours and patterns that help them identify what little mammals the owls have been eating. 

The broad skulls and 'zig zag' patterns of voles teeth give them away while the narrow pointy muzzles of shrews and their pointed red teeth make them obvious, a bit of judgement and a keen eye is required to tell the difference between, water, common and pygmy shrews. Their teeth really are red too, all the mainland UK shrews have red teeth, also as carnivores their teeth are pointed to deal with their insect diet. All the skulls above came out of the same barn owl pellet, barn owl pellets rarely contain mouse remains, as their diet is based largely on shrews and voles. 


I've always found that children are fascinated by owl pellets, my children certainly love dismantling them and investigating the contents. They have got very good at spotting what species of mammals the owl has been eating and even at what part of the animal the bones they find come from. 


The worksheet from our owl pellet dissection workshops allows the children to catalogue and identify what they have found in their owl pellets. 
If you ever happen to find an owl roost you will have a ready supply of pellets gate and fence posts are a good place to start for barn owls while the others are a little less predictable. Give it a go though, the looks of disgust from children as they decide whether they are looking at owl poo or owl  sick are worth it. 




Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Foragers Diary; February 2018

February is another lean month in the Foragers Diary. The 'Hungry Gap' is in full force and the wildlife are struggling for food, this is the time of year that you will see deer and rabbits eating tree bark when their preferred food is scarce. 

The pheasant and partridge seasons are over, although wildfowl can still be shot below the high water mark until the 20th so there is still scope for some duck and goose in the diet. The last of this seasons pheasants and partridges have been eaten or frozen for later in the year. 

Pheasant and Partridge being jointed to go in the freezer or strait into a game curry after the last days partridge and pheasant shooting on the 1st . 

Jelly ear fungi are still available in great quantities in February and are a good addition to stir fries. 
 
I love getting the children involved in preparing wild food, here my youngest has helped prepare some pheasant and jelly ear fungi for a stir fry

Just a few shop bought veg and the meal was ready. 

Next month you will start to see wild greens start to reappear in the foragers diary, there are a few things that can be had at this time of year but not much. Next month though wild greens will be back, in fact I've already seen bluebells, dogs mercury and other plants starting to make an appearance and the crocuses and snowdrops are already flowering, the wild edibles will follow soon.





Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Preparation Pays!

To write about scenes from a high seat, first they have to be installed! Well before the season started some like-minded friends and I went to the farm and installed some high seats, these were mounted 8 to 10 feet above the ground and usually secured to a nice solid tree and access gained via an integral ladder. The purposes are multiple but primarily to facilitate observation over a wider field of view than would be possible from ground level and second, to permit the bullet to go downwards harmlessly into the ground after it has passed through the target or, heaven forbid, if you should miss!



The location of the seat is decided based upon multiple observations during the closed season, how many deer have been spotted in an area which can be overseen by the seat, is it safe, away from public access and is there a tree to attach it to. The locations for the 2 seats we set up pre-season  had been carefully considered based on the points above.

The first was placed against a big old oak tree, slightly withered by a lightning strike at some time in its history. The size of tree and softness of the ground required some ingenuity to get it rock solid but we got there in the end, aided by a ratchet strap for further solidity, a chain and padlock for security and a little pruning to improve the view! Job done.

On our way to the next tree we saw a big old buck Chinese Water Deer standing defiantly and looking at us all in turn, in a couple of weeks, such a defiant posture at such close range will have him in the freezer but all we could do was watch and smile!



Murphy’s Law is alive and well in the countryside as we found out on arrival at tree 2! We found that there was something already living in it, a wasp nest deep in the tree had a continual stream of busy and threatening looking workers entering and leaving through a hole where a small branch had rotted off. None of us felt like sharing, so we found an alternative tree close by!


Always good to have a plan B! Whatever plan you’re on, enjoy it! 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Drop Leg Panels for Bushcraft Knives

Drop leg rigs are the topic of this months gear review, they will also aim to teach in this review a little bit about how to choose a knife for bushcraft and how to set yourself up to comfortably carry your bushcraft knife.

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Drop leg 'rigs' are normally associated with tactical equipment; pistol holsters and the like. I am normally dead against using 'tactical' style equipment for bushcrafting but for the last year I have been carrying my bushcraft knife on a drop leg rig and have become firmly converted, it has turned out to be a very practical solution to knife carry even if I'm not really keen on the way it looks. Aesthetically I'd much prefer a leather sheath on my belt, but I have found drop leg carry to be very practical.

First lets consider what to look for in the sheath of a 'user' knife; these criteria will be important as the review progresses. Next month I will address the difference between a 'user' knife and an 'ideal' knife as although the criteria below set out what I look for in a knife I would need for every day use a knife I would really WANT may be slightly different.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A 'USER' KNIFE
  • A hygienic sheath which will not soak up blood, fat and other contaminants from skinning and butchering game or preparing food (realistically this means a plastic like kydex)
  • A sheath which will not be uncomfortable when worn in conjunction with the hip belt of a rucksac (so no 'scout style' which honestly is a ridiculous way to carry a knife whether you are wearing a rucksac or not (sorry Tom Brown Tracker fans)) .
  • A sheath which is accessible without unnecessary 'faf' even when wearing winter clothing.
  • A sheath which I can wear directly on my person  (ie; on a belt or around my neck or on a baldric style over the head under the arm arrangement) rather than strapped to my rucksac. This is important so I can't be separated from my most important survival tool if I was to loose my rucksac.  
  • A sheath which is easy to detach from my person without un-threading my belt so it can be stowed in a rucksac while I'm travelling to and from places or situations where I need or can justify wearing it on my person.
  • A sheath which is secure and doesn't dangle, swing, rattle or bump (ie; securely on my belt not around my neck or on a baldric under my arm).
  • A sheath which is easy to access without unnecessary contortion.
So these are my basic requirements of a bushcraft sheath, notice that none of those requirements is that the sheath also contain a fire steel, sharpening kit etc... sometimes that is nice but it's not essential. I've come to realise that a drop leg arrangement is the best way to meet all these requirements. I have been using Maxpeditions 'low profile drop leg PALS panel' to mount knives on for about a year now and I'm as happy as I have ever been with my bushcraft knife carry arrangements.  
Maxpedition Low Profile Drop Leg PALS Panel
Maxpedition low profile drop leg PALS panel
Image result for blade tech molle lok
Blade Tech MOLLE LOk
These panels come in two parts a nylon belt loop which can be threaded onto your belt and forgotten about and the panel it'self. The two can be joined by  a robust plastic buckle. The panel also has a loop at the bottom to allow a cord to be threaded through to be tied around your thigh to secure the panel in place. Because these panels are equipped with 'PALS' or 'MOLLE' attachment points some sheath will not immediately fit them. A lot of quality Nylon sheaths are already MOLLE compatible so can be easily attached to these panels without modification but as I have mentioned before they are not my favourite option as they are very absorbent and can easily soak up fish slime, blood, fat, plant juices, oil and other contaminants presenting a potential food hygiene risk which would be undesirable at best. Avoiding that hygiene risk and making your knife compatible with these panels if it originally came in a leather sheath is a simple fix though; Blade Tech Molle LOk's can be easily attached to most kydex sheaths and used to secure your sheath to the panel. As kydex (or at least some non-absorbent material, zytel or other plastic material is equally acceptable) is one of my requirements for a general purpose bushcraft knife I haven't had to think about how I would attach leather sheaths to one of these panels and it isn't a problem I intend to spend any time solving or thinking about as if I intend to use the knife for general bushcrafting I will always make a kydex sheath for it if it doesn't already come in one. I know this might go against the grain for those who like their bushcraft kit to have that 'traditional' appearance and there is a lot of good to be said for traditional materials like leather, canvas and oilcloth but as I come from a deer stalking and gamekeeping background the need to keep my knife clean and hygienic is really important and something I always stress with my students that good practice requires them to use knives with impervious handles to avoid contamination of the meat they may be selling into the food chain. This has stuck with me and although I wont dispute the beauty of a full grain leather sheath my personal preference for reasons of practicality and hygiene is a plastic sheath. 

So now that we have our kydex sheathed knife firmly attached to the drop leg panel lets see if this carry option meets all my requirements;

  • A hygienic sheath which will not soak up blood, fat and other contaminants from skinning and butchering game or preparing food (realistically this means a plastic like kydex). Yes we've already discussed this one at length above. 
  • A sheath which will not be uncomfortable when worn in conjunction with the hip belt of a rucksac (so no 'scout style' which honestly is a ridiculous way to carry a knife whether you are wearing a rucksac or not (sorry Tom Brown Tracker fans)). Yes; On a drop leg panel your knife will hand well clear of your rucksack waist belt and the fact that the nylon belt loop is so thin is important as well as a bulky strap would cause irritation even if the knife it'self hung clear of the waist belt. 
  • A sheath which is accessible without unnecessary 'faf' even when wearing winter clothing. this arrangement allows the knife hangs well clear of even quite long Winter coats. 
  • A sheath which I can wear directly on my person  (ie; on a belt or around my neck or on a baldric style over the head under the arm arrangement) rather than strapped to my rucksac. This is important so I can't be separated from my most important survival tool if I was to loose my rucksac.  Yes it's attached to a belt and is therefor independent from a rucksac, I could loose my bag but still have my knife to hand. 
  • A sheath which is easy to detach from my person without un-threading my belt so it can be stowed in a rucksac while I'm travelling to and from places or situations where I need or can justify wearing it on my person.
    The picture to the right shows the panel detached from it's belt loop and showing the buckle for attaching the two pieces together. This can easily be undone to allow the knife to be stashed in a rucksac while you are on the way to the woods or until you reach the jumping off point of your expedition.                      
  • A sheath which is secure and doesn't dangle, swing, rattle or bump (ie; securely on my belt not around my neck or on a baldric under my arm). With a leg strap these drop leg panels are easy to secure and do not cause the frustration that carrying knives around the neck does. 'Dangler' style sheaths have become popular among bushcrafters but I personally can't get on with them, they bump against your leg and need to be held still with one hand while the knife is removed and replaced with the other. Among the Sami people living in the Northern latitudes of Scandinavia dangling knife sheaths are popular but the way they carry their knives is very different, generally outside of winter clothes rather than on a belt threaded through a pair of trousers so the bump, bump, bump of the knife against your leg isn't an issue and oriented more to your front than to the side so it's more accessible. An excellent picture of this kind of sheath can be found HERE.  

The top of the handle sits
right next to your pocket. 
  • A sheath which is easy to access without unnecessary contortion. The handle of the knife secured to a drop leg panel sits roughly at the level of your trouser pocket (although this can be adjusted depending on the position of your attachment between sheath and panel) which is an ideal position to reach it without having to reach all the way up to the handle of a knife in a deep carry sheath mounted directly to your belt.  








So all my criteria are met and I'm entirely happy carrying my standard bushcraft knife on a drop leg panel. That doesn't mean I'm opposed to other styles of carry, in actual fact from an aesthetic point of view I think it looks a bit silly, but it just suits my needs better than any other options. 

Real Steal Bushcrafter, Eikhorn Nordic Bushcraft and Viper Tank all on drop leg panels ready for carry. 

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