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Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A Deer Stalkers Daily Carry

On the grounds that a successful deer stalking outing for me usually involves a fairly heavy carry out, what I carry in is always kept to an absolute minimum!

 Everything I take fits in my pockets and a very small light-weight pack, the largest single item is the 
Roe Sack which is used to carry out a deer in the event of my success. This is folded as small as 
possible and tucked into the small pack and only deployed as required.

Of course the most essential item for me on a deer stalking expedition is my rifle. A trusty Browning 
X-bolt synthetic stalker, in 6.5 x 55 calibre, with a sound moderator and telescopic sight, I carry it by 
means of a sling which is permanently attached.

In my pack I carry

 The Roe Sack, a very strong and water proof canvass bag with shoulder straps and pockets which carry a deer or occasionally 2 or exceptionally even 3 and has a washable lining, which is normally cleaned by a good hosing.

 A compact bone saw for assisting in the carcass preparation and typically is used to saw through the pelvis of a deer, prior to moving the elementary canal complete from the carcass.

 I normally carry at least 2 knives, one is an inexpensive fixed blade knife with a red handle so that it is harder to loose in the grass and vegetation. It is in a hard sheath to reduce the risk of it protruding from the ruck sack in case I should fall or use it to rest the rifle on. The other knife is a folder but has a ‘gut hook’ which I much prefer for gralloching a deer as it reduces the risk of damaging any of the guts or stomach which can contaminate the meat and render it unfit for human consumption. Disposable surgical gloves are also carried to ensure hygienic butchery and clean up.

 I carry a pouch of ammunition, 14 rounds of ammunition protected from damage and permitting carriage silently for replenishment of the magazine as required, many outings only use a single round but you need to have enough.

My trusty binoculars
 The bolt and magazine for the rifle, without which it is just a high grade club!

 I carry a large dressing too because its good practice, although a close range wound with deer legal ammunition is likely to be beyond the capability of a dressing to contain it.

 I carry a pair of 7 x 35 binoculars which I have had for a very long time, over 40 years in fact but I have recently wrapped them (originally black) in camouflaged duct tape to be a little less obvious and reflective.

my strobe light

 My final item is a signal strobe so that if I need to attract attention for a medical evacuation, I can do it effectively after dark.

As a creature of habit and so that I know where everything is in a rush or in failing light, I try to put everything in the same pouch or pocket, every time I go out, I also put the same number of rounds in the rifle so that counting them and loading them is also easy and instinctive.


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Foragers Diary; May 2018

May is still a good month for wild greens which I wrote about in last months foragers diary post, this months post will focus on blossoms and preparing for the rest of the foraging year.

May is a great chance to get a head start on the fruit harvest, if you work out where your local raspberry patch and other fruits grow well in advance you can beat the birds to the harvest and get yourselves a great haul of wild fruit. 

You can spot the raspberry canes early, ready for later in the year, in the background the gorse blossom can be used as it is to make a delicious drink.
You can see the currants forming already.
Blossom is another great giveaway for where fruit will follow, these rowan flowers will soon be replaced by fruit which is a marvellous source of vitamin C and can be combines with apples to make a wonderful jelly to accompany meat.

The first of the elderflowers will appear in May and although you only have a short window for collecting elder flowers at their best they may be available into the fist weeks of June as well.
One of my favorite wild treats is the root beer like drink I make each year with meadow sweet flowers. Although the gorse and elder flower will be ready to harvest now meadowsweet comes a little later but you will be able to spot the plants, the jagged trident shaped leaves growing on the end of a red stem with smaller oval leaves along it's length gives the plant away. You will tend to find it in damp areas along ditches and waterways. 

Meadowsweet leaves, the flowers which you will need for your root beer making will follow later. 

Mushrooms may start to put in a stronger appearance in May, although it is still early for most species, I normally find a few field mushrooms in May, never many but enough to improve a bacon sandwich or accompany a fry up. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Why The Martian is a better survival movie than The Revenant

The story of Hugh Glass is a true adventure story (PROBABLY, although it was widely reported the details of his survival have been embellished over time and were never corroborated by Glass himself). It is full of great feats of endurance and real survival and a retelling of it could have been a fantastic opportunity to look at the hardship of survival and the realities of how difficult it would have been to survive, horrifically wounded and without equipment, the harsh American frontier. 

In late August or early September 1823 Glass was in the employ of General William Ashley as a hired hunter accompanying a fur trapping expedition led by Ashley's business partner Andrew Henry up the Missouri River.  Scouting ahead of the main body of men Glass encountered a female grizzly bear with two cubs, bears are fierce in defence of their cubs and it charged him and mauled him severely. Hearing his cries the rest of the party killed the bear but thought that Glass was certainly going to die due to his horrific wounds including severe lacerations and a broken leg. Determined not to abandon him Henry ordered a litter built and the party carried Glass with them for several days but with their added burden they could not travel quickly enough and desperately needed to link up with another party to provide security against expected Indian attacks. Eventually a bonus of $80 was offered for two men to stay behind with Glass until he died and to bury him. Two men stayed, reportedly an experienced mountain man John Fitzgerald and a young Jim Bridger, later to become one of the most famous mountain men of all time, on his first expedition on the frontier. Rather than staying the two abandoned Glass when he was still alive five days after the main party left taking with them his rifle and equipment and reporting that he had died. 

When he realised what had happened Glass set out on his monumental journey to fort Kiowa, little more than a trading post on the Missouri, he could do no more than crawl to begin with and had nothing to eat but insects, a few plant roots and the occasional snake until he was able to steal part of a buffalo carcass from some wolves. Remaining camped for a time while he ate the buffalo meat and treated some of his festering wounds with maggots he recuperated a little and was able to continue his journey. He later was given a hide boat by some friendly Lakota Indians and was able to complete his journey to for Kiowa where he re-provisioned and began his search for those who abandoned him. 

When he eventually caught up with Bridger he forgave him for abandoning him, perhaps because of his youth, and then re-enlisted with General Ashley. On hearing that Fitzgerald was at Fort Atkinson he headed there. More adventures followed and for a time he was without his equipment again when he had to flee from some Rees Indians. Eventually arriving at Fort Atkinson he found Fitzgerald had joined the United States Army and as such the killing him would have meant the death penalty. The Captain in charge of the fort reunited Glass with his rifle which Fitzgerald still had but Glass wisely did not pursue revenge and left. In fact there is no evidence that Glass even had revenge in mind at all, although he did travel to Fort Atkinson that may have been purely to retrieve his rifle and as was demonstrated by his forgiveness towards Bridger he probably completely understood their decision to leave him given his condition.

The key aspects of this story to me are Glass's determination and will to survive coupled with his obvious skill as an outdoorsman, being able to navigate without map or compass the 250 mile journey to Fort Kiowa and eek out a living from foraged food on his six week journey is nothing short of superhuman, a quote by Glass when he again later lost his rifle and equipment on his way to Fort Atkinson sums this up for me;

"Although I had lost my rifle and all my plunder, I felt quite rich when I found my knife, flint and steel in my shot pouch. These little fixens make a man feel right peart when he is three or four hundred miles from anybody or any place."

For a man to be so happy and confident with so few supplies is a sign of a true outdoorsman. Being familiar with this story I was very excited for the release of The Revenant in 2015 and looked forward to the story of Glass, which I was already familiar with, being on the big scree. However I was sorely disappointed as all the film seemed to be was an opportunity for Leonardo Dicaprio to drool and groan his way to an Oscar. The overriding message of the film was not one of survival against the odds or of the hardships of the American frontier but one of revenge. It seems that there can be no other motivation in film nowadays. The remake of the magnificent seven (the original is one of my favourite films of all time) did it too inventing a backstory for Chris (I don't know or care what  Denzel Washington's character is called, in the original it was Chris), which led to him accepting to job of defending the village so he could have revenge on the badguy who had wronged him in the past. The Revenant did this too, but while I can forgive the director of the new Magnificent Seven film, it's fiction after all, I can't forgive the writers and director of The Revenant for tampering with historical fact. They invented a wife and son Glass never had and implicating Bridger and Fitzgerald in the murder of that son who never existed just to add to the revenge theme. Invented an encounter with Arikara Indians in which Glass killed several French trappers and rescued a chiefs daughter and inventing the murder of Andrew Henry (who in actual fact lived to retire from fur trading and take up lead mining dying at the age of 56 in 1832) at the hands of Fitzgerald and ultimately the death of Fitzgerald at the hands of Glass and the Arikaras.

Hugh Glass Monument.jpg
Monument to Glass Grand River Museum, Lemmon, South Dakota. By John Lee Lopez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
A film which could have been a truly inspiring account of survival and mind over matter turned instead into a story of revenge and violence unworthy of Glass and the other mountain men of the era. Instead a science fiction film, the last genre you would expect, embodies the hardy spirit of Glass and the mountain men much better than The Revenant does.

In the Martian Mark Watney, a NASA botanist and astronaut is stranded on Mars during a planned month long expedition when the team have to evacuate due to a massive sand storm which threatens to damage the rocket which should return them to their space craft. Missing and presumed dead after he is struck by debris he is left on Mars.

So in much the same condition as glass he is left in an alien landscape wounded and abandoned. Perhaps if the directors of The Revenant were in charge we'd have seen Watney undertake a mammoth effort to reap revenge against the crew who left him behind, or later against NASA who didn't reveal his survival to the rest of his crew for several months. But no we see in him the qualities that the real Hugh Glass must have had, of tenacity and of an application of knowledge which would ultimately lead to survival. This is why we will always need bushcraft skills, even when or if people do travel to Mars and beyond. The key skills of survival, being able to adapt, improvise and overcome, is fantastically demonstrated here as Watney makes water with the hydrogen from rocket engines, fertilises martian soil with human waste and grows potatoes inside his artificial habitat. He undertakes a massive journey in a rover vehicle heated to protect him from the freezing martian nights by a 'big box of plutonium' a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. He doesn't have to crawl, treat himself with maggots or fight wolves for discarded buffalo meat  but he does complete a journey against the odds, with incredible determination and perseverance. In fact all the qualities that Glass demonstrated in real life.

Yes I know that The Martian isn't a true story, but after all the changes neither is The Revenant, and I also accept that the true story of Glass is probably not fully known due to poor records and the Mountain Man penchant for telling 'tall tales' but the fact remains that he survived a horrific ordeal through determination and skill, something not depicted in The Revenant, instead it seems that Mark Watney was channelling Hugh Glass while I half expected Decaprio to come out with "I am Hugh Glass, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife and I will have my vengence" a'la General Maximus in Gladiator.

That's why The Martian is  better survival movie than The Revenant. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

From the High Seat; Seeing Things

Isn’t it amazing that despite the boast we often make as country folk that we are far more observant than ‘townies’ that we can often be tricked by the simplest things. 

Is it a buck or a doe? It's standing on a rutting stand, so it might be a buck,but it's quite small and skinny so it might be a doe, you can't see any antlers though so what is it really? 
One occasion I remember particularly clearly occurred many years ago, at the time I was a relatively inexperienced, but very enthusiastic, deer stalker I had woken well before dawn to get down to my chosen spot well before light to await the muntjac I was sure would be there. I quietly made my way through the ditches and along the hedgerows until I was at my chosen vantage point and waited. As the sky started to grow light I saw a shape, a slightly hunch backed, dark shape moving slowly from left to right at what I thought was about one hundred and fifty yards distant. I watched it intently through the binoculars waiting for there to be enough light to allow a safe shot at what I had convinced myself was a muntjac. I never took the shot though, when it became light enough to see what I was looking at it became clear that it want the 150 yard muntjac that I thought was there but a badger seventy five yards away. The combination of the darkness obliterating the colour and making it hard to judge range had me completely fooled for the best part of twenty minutes. 

As well as showing just how easy it is to be thrown off by low light and less than ideal conditions this highlights a really important safety consideration. Scopes should not be used to identify quarry or targets. That’s what binoculars are for, while it might be common practice to use scopes to observe with, or to scan a potential target in military situations in the countryside good practice and plain common sense dictates that we don’t point our rifle at anything until you are sure it’s a muntjac not someone’s Alsatian or a fox and not just a pair of eyes that might just as easily belong to a Chinese water deer, badger or someone watching owls with night vision goggles. 

I’m sure these mistakes don’t only happen when we have a weapon in our hands though, I remember several occasions when I have been watching deer without a rifle, either as part of a deliberate census or just to take a few pictures and I have been convinced that I have been watching a buck only for it to take a step and the tree branch that was behind it no longer looks like an antler and it’s suddenly a doe. I’ve also been stood behind a student who was taking part in a deer census as part of his practical studies towards a college qualification in game management who had not noticed a group of three young fallow bucks sitting amongst a patch of gorse because all that was visible was the top of their antlers which just looked like twigs. They were only forty yards in front of him but almost completely invisible until they stood up. 

Amongst these does is a Busk with a broken antler, he blends in well, can you spot him? 
While we do sometimes convince ourselves something is there because we want it to be, we want to see something that’s in season, or bigger and better than the last stag we shot or something unique in some way, that strange abstract shape becomes that massive buck, a bit like modern art I suppose. Sometimes though we aren’t seeing things and just get distracted by something even more awesome that we were looking for in the first place. This has happened to me plenty of times out in the countryside. On one occasion, out on a stalk I was walking alongside a drainage dyke, where I have often walked before, mostly concentrating on what was in the field to the side of the dyke I was suddenly distracted by a movement in the water, not a duck or a moorhen but a mammal, jumping to the conclusion that it was a mink I began to unsling my rifle only to see it joined by another, and another and it became clear that they were too large to be mink, I got out the binoculars and it became clear, three young otters, joined a second or two later by two adults from around the bend in the dyke. I was mesmerised, all thoughts of muntjac and venison forgotten I sat on the dyke bank for a good twenty minutes, totally still and captivated by these otters. I had seen otters before in the wild but never in a family group and had never expected to see them there. After a long time they moved off and I was released from whatever spell they had me under as I stood up I saw stood not more than fifteen or twenty yards behind me a muntjac buck stood still watching me, as I moved it ran off but I didn’t care. On another occasion I lost the best part of half a days work on a deer farm in New Zealand because I was watching kingfishers catching crabs in the estuary and smashing them open against a log when I should have been feeding the deer. 

A New Zealand king fisher catching crabs.
So while I should probably not publicise how easily distracted I am to my current or future employers it’s great to work in the countryside where so many distractions can be found and where as long as we are safe a little bit of wishful thinking about the size of the buck we are looking at is absolutely fine.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Survival Knives with Built in Survival Kits

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo is perhaps the most famous person to use one of these 'Survival Knives' but are they any good? 

John Rambo.jpg
By Yoni S.Hamenahem - Yoni S.Hamenahem, CC BY-SA 3.0Link

Generally I would say NO! the kind of survival kit that can be crammed into the handle of a knife is likely to be so small as to be fairly ineffective. It might have just enough in it to improvise a bit of fishing kit or make a single snare, light a fire (which may well be a life saver), contain a scalpel blade for skinning (although you already have a knife so why bother with a scalpel blade), or a single plaster dress a tiny wound. So while none of those things are useless you would be far better off having those things on your person because in my opinion you are just as likely to loose your knife in a survival situation as anything else. Really I suppose the kit in one of these knives is meant to be a last resort, you wouldn't willingly head off with nothing but what was contained in the handle of your knife (unless you really wanted to test your skills) and would probably have (SHOULD DEFINITELY HAVE) proper, full size, kit as well as what's in your knife should you choose a knife of this type. 

These knives are generally weaker than I am comfortable with though, the handles of the knives you will often find on Amazon and Ebay will definitely break and realistically will probably be made of appalling steel that certainly won't arrive with a decent edge and probably won't ever take a decent edge either, these knives will DEFINITELY break even moderate use putting your main tool out of action and posing a significant risk of injury. 

There are some that seem robust enough to use;

The Cold Steel Survival Edge is a no frills affordable hollow handled survival knife that as well as coming with a good sharp blade contains a small survival kit and houses a fire steel in the sheath. It is remarkably robust, almost miraculously robust, I can't quite work out how it's so strong without a full tang. Other hollow handled survival knives are far too fragile unless you move well up the price range and go for something very expensive. Even then your options will be limited and I would suggest your money is better spent else where but for the £30 you'd spent on this cold steel offering you are basically getting a hollow handled Mora. It wont break the bank and it will perform just fine. The one complaint I have about it is the handle is bit too fat, it's down to the perfectly cylindrical shape perhaps but it just feels a bit uncomfortable. Maybe I have small hands but I can handle a British army 'survival' knife which has a notoriously large handle.   

Another option is this style of knife which does not have a hollow handle but comes with a survival kit in a waterproof container attached to the sheath. In this case a Marco Polo survival knife which isn't made of great steel and has a very oddly placed bottle opener instead of a choil (not that I'm a fan of finger choils on knives, I'll explain why in a later post) but the decision to add a bottle opener there seems very odd. This design does mean I'm not sacrificing strength for a hollow handle though and the specially designed sheath contains compass and a substantial survival kit as well as being engraved with morse code and a ruler. 
The survival kit comes in this waterproof clear plastic case and contains matches, sharpening stone, plasters, fishing kit, magnifying glass and a few other odds and ends. However once you have removed it from the sheath the knife wont go back in and be held securely. But again everything in this kit is so small that it is of very limited use. 

My take on the all in one knife/survival kit package is a little different, as I've said I think a lot of the items stashed in the smaller kits are a bit too small to be useful but this kit has everything of a useful size. Instead of two plasters in a little plastic bag the pouch on the front of this sheath contains a a CAT tourniquet. If your wound only needs a plaster to fix it it's not serious enough to worry about but this will take care of large wounds that really might be a 'survival' situation. 

There is also an extra large ferrocium rod contained in this sheath, instead of using your three matches from your survival kit that have been beat up in their container for goodness knows how long and have all fallen apart to hopefully light one fire, you can use this to light ten thousand fires.
The small knife is a TOPS mini eagle combining a strait edge and a small section of serrations for tasks that the large British Army survival knife is too big for; skinning, food prep, fine carving etc...
TODAY'S LESSON; Forming Kydex

Kydex is a popular choice for knife sheath, I particularly like it because it won't ever soak up blood, grease or other contaminant and become a hygiene risk, this is particularly important for me as I often use my knives to process deer carcasses which will then be sold into the human food chain. 

Image result for chicago screws
Chicago Screws
Making your own kydex sheath is relatively simple with a heat gun, or even with the heat from the oven or toaster if you are careful. It is a thermo setting plastic so as you apply heat it can be shaped to your requirements. It doesn't take long to soften though so be careful not to ruin it by heating it for too long or burning it. 

Once softened you have two basic options for a knife sheath, you can fold it and fasten it down one edge, this style of sheath is known as a pancake sheath. The other is to take two sheets of kydex and fasten them together, like the sheath I made for my British Army Survival Knife. The kydex can be fastened together with Chicago screws. 

To form the kydex to your knife so you get a secure 'snap' fit you can press it onto the knife as it cools and regains it rigidity. I always wrap some cardboard around a knife when I do this and fasten it with tape otherwise the kydex will form so snugly around the knife that you wont be able to draw it again. Trying to press it with something solid like a book of plank of wood wont work you will need something soft which hugs the form you are trying to create, I use an old foam camping mat folded triple which I have stapled to a piece of plywood.  

These sheaths can then be attached to belts or molle webbing. My British Army Survival Knife Sheath has two strips of Kydex along the back which I then attached to a Maxpedition drop leg panel with TacTies. Smaller sheath can be fitted with belt loops of clips to attach directly to a belt. 


If I'm headed out into the wood by choice I'll take all the tools
I want or need, some people will tell you that's heavy but a
full kit with axe, whittling knife, folding saw and main
knife probably wont weigh more than five kilos, if you
can't manage that then you need to worry about more
than a survival kit
If you are in a real survival situation you are just as likely to have access to the bigger kit than the smaller and by that I mean almost zero chance of having either. Choosing to go into the wilderness an use your skills is another matter though so you may as well use the kit you really want to rather than trying to find a knife that does (or contains) everything. So my personal choice would be not to take any of these things pictured above take a bushcraft knife, an axe a folding saw, a ferrocium rod, a full size first aid kit, if you want to go fishing take a rod and spinners, if you want to catch food using traps take some snares or a rifle. 

My current first pick for a main bushcraft/woods knife.
The Eikhorn Nordik Bushcraft

If you're really in a survival situation innovation is likely to be your best and only ally.  

Take a look at what is in your pockets right now because if in the next ten second's you find yourselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse that's all you're going to have.

A typical EDC; watch, butane lighter wrapped in duck tape, wallet (inside the wallet is a Readyman survival card), pocket knife (a griplock by Boker plus), case of plasters. 

Or think of the cliche crashed plane survival scenario what have you got in your pockets, now deduct from that any pocket knives because you wouldn't have those on the plane add a slight chance that you will locate your hold luggage which may or may not contain some survival aids and your best chance is again innovation. Making something out of nothing and the most of what you've got. 

So are 'survival' knives any good? if they are well made they may not be worse than any other knife but ultimately that's all they are; any other knife, the survival kits are fairly poor and need to be supplemented by primary gear. If you have one in a real survival situation then thats far better than nothing but if you are practising bushcraft recreationally they would be far from my first choice. 

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