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Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Catch 22 of Bushcraft In Schools

B-25 (of Catch-22 fame) making a low pass at Elmendorf (7674536434)
B25 Bomber by Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The only significance of the picture of the B-25 above is that it was the type of aircraft which the main character of Joseph Hellers classic novel 'Catch 22' Captain John Yossarian serves aboard as a bombardier. The popular phrase 'Catch 22' comes from this novel and defines a situation from which there is no escape due to contradictory rules.

That is how I feel about the idea of teaching bushcraft in schools; it absolutely should happen, I'm convinced that it would be in the best interest of young people to be taught bushcraft skills, particularly skills which increase their appreciation for and understanding of the natural world. BUT although I think it SHOULD happen I'm equally convinced that school would be a terrible place for that learning to occur.

Teaching about the natural world and environment is something which the curriculum is not very good at facilitating and something which schools are notoriously bad at. The situation was almost worsened during Michael Gove's disastrous stint as Secretary of State for Education when he almost succeeded in having topics such as climate change and sustainability dropped from England's national curriculum. For someone with that level of apparent disdain for the environment and sustainability to now fill the role of  Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is frankly disturbing.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove by Paul Clarke [CC BY 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
Although I think learning bushcraft skills is a great way not only to learn about the environment but is also a fantastic way to develop resilience in children as well as benefit their physical and mental health. However; just because I think buschraft skills should be taught to children of school age doesn't mean that school would be a good place to do it. As a further education lecturer, forest schools leader and trainer of forest school leaders and having worked with schools delivering extra curricular environmental education, Duke of Edinburgh's Awards and various other things I don't think schools are really equipped to deliver bushcraft in a meaningful way. Also because schools are so driven by the National Curriculum and a desire to satisfy the whims of OFSTED and be ranked favourably amongst other schools in the area teachers and leadership teams in schools will struggle to justify adding something else to what the school delivers.

While many schools do now run very commendable outdoor education programmes the pursuit and delivery of outdoor and environmental education in schools has often been down to the whims of one or two particular teachers who might have a personal enthusiasm for the outdoors or environment. While this enthusiasm might be commendable in an individual it isn't always backed up by technical expertise or subject knowledge.

I have seen some excellent good practice amongst Forest School practitioners I have had the privilege of working with and teaching but this is unfortunately not consistent and is demonstrated by people who already have considerable outdoor experience or experience of other skills such as woodworking, bushcraft and who are experienced teachers already rather than by people who are coming to forest schools leadership because they have a little bit of enthusiasm for it and their school has nominated them to run forest schools. In those cases activities come out of books or from the internet and there is little innovation to their programmes and no challenge for the students. Also a lack of environmental knowledge on the part of forest school leaders seriously undermines it's constant comparisons to the more well established outdoor learning programmes from Scandinavia as most British Forest Schools simply can't deliver the quality of environmental learning that could be provided by a subject expert. That's not to say they have to as Forest Schools in the UK is largely focused on social and emotional development and principles such as free play rather than nature as the Scandinavian (particularly Swedish) equivalents are.

The progression towards being able to influence society on environmental issues as described by the Swedish Friluftfrämjandet and as delivered by their programmes including Skogsmulle which  influenced and is often compared to the UK's forest Schools

I have drawn attention to this issue in the past as it affects the outdoor education sector as a whole:  There is a well used claim by outdoor educators that outdoor education teaches an appreciation of the environment and delivers the objectives of environmental education and have been quite critical of this claim and highlighted a lack of evidence to support it. One of the reasons for my opposition to this general claim is that outdoor educators are not necessarily subject experts when it comes to the environment. Although the outdoor education industry recognises that outdoor educators need some level of environmental knowledge to be able to answer questions about the areas where they are leading groups but this knowledge is the not the same as the subject specialism and expertise required to teach environmental education.

This would be my fear if bushcraft was suddenly added to the national curriculum that a teacher with a bit of enthusiasm for bushcraft and a good collection of Ray Mears and Bear Grylls DVD's would suddenly become the schools 'bushcraft' teacher without the skills and expertise to back up their enthusiasm.

Based on the standard wages for forest school practitioners and teaching assistants I doubt very much that a school would be willing to pay a full teachers wage for a specialist bushcraft practitioner unless a serving teacher was willing to teach bushcraft in addition to their other duties and that's where the problem begins. Suddenly you have an inexperienced person teaching buschraft, which devalues bushcrafts contribution to learning and potentially creates health and safety issues if techniques arent taught properly.

You only have to watch a few youtube videos and do a quick search of the internet to see that poor technique and inexperience abounds amongst so called 'expert' bushcrafters; people who would teach someone to carve a feather stick like the one bellow and pass it off as good technique; 

Finished fuzz stick.jpg
By Jim Thomas (Jomegat) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

So that would be my fear for bushcraft if it was taught in schools that it would be done poorly by people who were inexperienced partly because of the education sectors historical reliance on people with an enthusiasm for the outdoors to deliver outdoor elements of their provision and partly because I know, having worked in education long enough, that there would be no proper funding for a bushcraft teachers role if one was suddenly required by the curriculum.

These two obstacles would mean that buschraft was taught poorly, possibly dangerously and without the subject knowledge to back up the learning or contextualise it in terms of it's application to other subjects.

Ultimately bushcraft won't ever be included in the curriculum anyway because it's outcomes aren't measurable enough or closely linked to priority subjects or progression to higher learning. I think it SHOULD be but it WONT, would be done BADLY if it WAS and CAN'T be because sadly it's benefits aren't recognised by education policy makers.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Foragers Diary; July 2018

From top to bottom; elder flower, meadowsweet, sweet cicely and spignel. 
While most of the fruit tree blossom has long since gone, meadow sweet and some late elderflower might still be available especially further up North. But blossoms are a great option for some tasty wild tea's as are a few other wild plants.

Of those pictured to the left meadowsweet and sweet cicely are my favourite. I find elderflower too sweet and spignel is more of a vegetable than a tea, it can be used to make a great broth though and the roots can be eaten as a vegetable. 

By this time you will have missed the sweet cicely blossom but these seed pods give a delicious aniseed flavour and can be used in a range of cooking roles. Beware though they are superficially similar to hemlock so don't confuse the two.  

Illustration Meum athamanticum0 clean
Spignel By Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brewing up in the woods
Sweet cicely and pineapple weed

Summer brings soft fruit season too and walks in the uplands almost never pass without me stocking up on a few berries at least for a snack on the hill and often enough to pack into an empty water bottle to take home for a treat.

Raspberries on the hill
Filling up a water bottle with bill berries and crow berries
A mixture of winberries (also known as bilberries, whortleberries) and crow berries

A close up of some crow berries, also known as heather berries because of the plants similarity to heather. They taste like slightly sour grapes.

Monday, 16 July 2018

EMERGENCY POST; The Offensive Weapons Bill

This is an urgent plea for people to sign the petition to remove article 15 from the proposed Offensive Weapons Bill in this post I will also address the element of the Bill that proposes the banning of knives on FE college campuses. As a practitioner and teacher of bushcraft, a professional deer manager and a lecturer at FE colleges where I train game, wildlife and countryside management students knives and bladed tools are an essential part of my every day life and as the oldest metal tool known to man why should their legitimate and essential uses be criminalised?

Before bronze, copper and  steel our ancestors used flint and bone tools. 
 I put a letter in the post today to my MP and want to share the questions I asked in that letter here, I think they are relevant questions to the issue and it's a shame that a knee jerk reaction to knife crime is going to penalise law abiding users and makers of knives and tools without really affecting knife crime.

So here are my questions;

Does the government have evidence that knives ordered online and shipped to residential addresses are being used in criminal activity and does that evidence, if any, support this aspect of the Bill?

I find it hard to believe that this will in any way affect knife crime. Stabbings are most likely committed with kitchen knives taken from kitchens or bought very cheaply in person by people who are, or appear to be, over eighteen. Additionally screw drivers and other pointed implements are as ‘offensive’ in terms of their ability to wound or be wielded as a weapon and are far more accessible to someone intending to cause harm than a knife is. I feel that this approach will not affect knife crime and is just an attempt to be seen to do something about knife crime. It will unfortunately have a crippling effect on small businesses and craftsmen who specialise in making and selling knives and other bladed tools or sporting equipment online where local demand does not justify a permanent retail presence.

I received all these knives in the post the top one is a custom made knife by a Texas based custom knife maker by the name of William Collins and I certainly can't travel to Texas to pick one up. The centre knife is only available from one Finland based retailer and is not stocked by any brick and mortar shop in the UK, neither is the bottom knife. None of these can be obtained without postal delivery. Do I now have to complicate my purchase of these TOOLS by having to travel a long way, incurring significant inconvenience and additional cost to pick them up from a 'collection centre'? Also what if I wanted to send equipment for a bushcraft course ahead to a venue by courier  will this also be prevented? 

As a freelance bushcraft and survival skills instructor will this new legislation now mean that I can’t order knives and tools, that I provide for my students to use on my bushcraft courses, online and have them delivered to my home which is the same address that I conduct business from?

As well as knives I use other wood working tools in my teaching and practice of bushcraft, these particular tools were made in The Ukraine and I could only have received them in the post, why should I or other people practising traditional skills professionally or recreationally  be penalised, who is going to buy one of these for the purpose of committing pre-meditated crime? 
If, as I suspect it will, this new Bill does prohibit people who work from home from having knives and other bladed tools delivered to home addresses how does the government reconcile the loss of earnings and inconvenience I, and many others, will suffer with the forecast benefits of this Bill?

How will the system of receiving mail ordered knives now work? Presumably picking up these items from post offices or approved collection centres will incur an additional cost somewhere? Is it fair to pass on this cost to law abiding people ordering, making or selling specialist tools online? Especially if there is no data to suggest that mail order knives are being used in crimes.

Additionally I imagine there will be some sort of data collection and record of who has purchased and collected knives or other bladed tools including a record of their contact details and address carried out when people collect their mail order knives, why should this be?

Surely that is an invasion of privacy for individuals and effectively licences knives and provides police and government with precise information on the personal details of people who have purchased knives for legitimate and lawful purposes. I personally would feel that my privacy is being invaded to have all these details recorded and kept especially as it would not be by an official body such as the police force but by a ‘collection centre’, perhaps a post office, why should they have access to the information? Especially if I was purchasing very expensive handmade or collectable knives why should other people know that? Surely then my security and property is placed at risk? 

Also will we start to see cases here as have been seen in The States with the Starbucks debacle? I’m sure you are aware of that incident but just in case; the police were called because several black gentlemen were sitting in a Starbucks restaurant waiting for a friend and hadn’t ordered anything at the time. Are similar things going to occur now in the UK with knives, will ‘collection centre’ employees refuse to hand over the legal property of a person collecting a mail order knife because they don’t like the way they look, maybe I will pick up a package during a hard day’s work, my hair might be full of sawdust I might smell of camp fire or be wearing scruffy clothes will my knife be denied me or will the police be called because someone has profiled me a certain way just because I have been working hard out of doors? This all seems a bit like an Orwellian nightmare but I don’t think it is an unrealistic forecast of what may come as a result of this Bill.

How can the government justify this particular aspect of the Bill with the fact that it will effectively drive many craftsmen and artisan knife makers, who operate almost exclusively by mail order, out of business, or at least subject them to crippling additional costs?

These beautiful handmade tools from UK based craftsmen are essential tools in my work and I take great pleasure in having quality tools at my disposal. Because I use them every day I like to have tools that are comfortable to use and built to a high standard that I can trust. But craftsmen who operate on a small  scale will no longer be able to ship knives to their customers under the new Bill and will also not be able to order bladed tools to be delivered to their places of work because they often work from home. Does that also mean that  makers who do not heat treat their own blades will not be able to ship blades to be heat treated or receive them back from heat treatment in the post?
What benefits and reduction in crime are the government expecting to see as a direct result of the banning of the delivery of knives to residential properties?

With regard to the banning of knives on Further Education premises: FE colleges teach many specialist courses which include the use of knives and edged tools, additionally the college I teach at has a 360 acre farm where I train students in game and wildlife management and where I also fill the role of gamekeeper. I require a knife several times a day to do this work and we provide knives and edged tools such as billhooks to students during lessons as they are essential tools as students engage in vocational countryside management training particularly for topics such as woodland management and green woodwork.

Will this proposed bill ban the vocationally relevant use of knives on college campuses?

If so how are my students to complete their studies and take part in the full scope of vocational training?

Does a college’s farm and countryside estate count as part of the ‘campus’ for the purposes of a knife ban?

Are employees of a college’s farm therefore prohibited from carrying or using knives in line with their work?

I have taught land-based students for years at three different land based colleges and have observed them using knives, tools and guns and have NEVER seen a student under my tuition behave irresponsibly with these tools. I realise that the students I deal with are a very different group of people from those who are involved in violent gangs and urban knife crime but responsible people must not be penalised in cases like this, especially where this Bill does not address the root cause of knife crime.

So that's my rant and some hopefully thought provoking questions about this new proposed Bill that really needs to be thought out a bit more. 

Sign the petitions submit expert evidence if you are able to during the consultation period on this Bill and hopefully we can end up with a solution that really does address knife crime and doesn't penalise the legal use of knives and tools. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

From the high seat; a doze in the high seat.

My working week consisted of a half day at a remote warehouse, three long days, two short nights, 2 planes, 3 trains, a tram, two cars and a cab, along with two hotels in two cities and I was wrecked at the end of all that!

I arrived home at 11-00 pm on Thursday, barely safe to drive so, after 6 hours of deep sleep, I did the bare minimum in the office on Friday, before taking the rest of the day off to get some rest and recreation in the Cambridgeshire woodlands!

I headed to the woods where our cameras had captured a daily visit from Muntjac and an occasional Roe. I have the faithful Browning X-bolt, with 100 grain hollow points today.

A range of ammunition performs a range of tasks, lighter bullets for foxes and vermin to heavier bullets for the larger deer species. 

The matching Browning x-bolts one in .223 for smaller deer and foxes and one in 6.5*55 for the larger deer. the 6.5 was my choice today. 
I made slow and near silent progress to my high seat. I ascending the ladder and made myself comfortable in my seat for a long, warm afternoon and it really was warm! I think I had a little doze.

Checking my watch, it was close to the time of the regular visit, this is the joy of trail cameras which date and time stamp pictures, I was focussed on the right spot at the right time, the shortening days creep up on you and I was a little surprised as roosting pigeons started to drop in around me and the light faded by the minute. I was wondering if it was going to be a no show day, when, as if by magic, a nice little Muntjac buck stood just clear of the trees about 70 yards distant. I readied myself but I wasn’t going to wait long as it was a narrow field of view and if he spooked, he’d be gone in seconds. I followed him through the scope with the cross hairs over his heart and as he paused to sniff the warm evening air, I increased the pressure on the trigger and sent the bullet on its way.

The little fellow put up his white flag of a tail and sauntered off at a brisk pace, clearly disgruntled but completely unharmed! I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t see straight and that Muntjac should now be lying dead in the leaf litter of the forest! Disappointed, I made safe and climbed down, making for the spot where the deer was standing when I fired. I did all the right things and checked for signs of impact, blood, hair etc but I knew I wouldn’t find any, the deer wasn’t touched, which is the best possible outcome if he’s not lying dead where he should be, no wounded animal to track, no worry about any undue suffering.

Then I saw it, a 2 inch diameter blackthorn stump had been exactly over the Muntjac’s heart as he stood a couple of yards behind it, there was no colour contrast between the deer’s coat and the blackthorn when I took the shot but now there was, the reddish orange of the freshly shattered shaft showing where the hollow point bullet had struck it and come to pieces instantly throwing a few splinters of wood but nothing more deadly than that towards the unsuspecting Muntjac, who had immediately done the smart thing and left the scene! There was nothing more to be done, I cursed my luck and l laughed a bit as I collected my kit and headed for the car. There are no guarantees, this is hunting not shopping and you don’t always get what you came for, today was one of those days!

Enjoy the journey, not just the destination!

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

CRKT Saker Review

About eighteen months ago Columbia River Knife and Tool kindly sent me their Saker bushcraft knife to feature in a series of articles I was writing for The Countrymans Weekly on bushcraft and outdoor knife skills. The Saker is currently their sole offering in the 'bushcraft genre' and on paper looks like it would be close to the perfect bushcraft knife. However in practice it proved to be a bit of a disappointment. 

The specs as cited by the CRKT website today describe the Saker as follows;

Blade Length 4.53" (115.06 mm)
Blade Edge Plain
Blade Steel 1075 Carbon Steel, 50-55 HRC
Blade Finish Brush
Blade Thickness 0.14" (3.56 mm)
Weight 5.3 oz
Handle Walnut
Style Fixed Blade Knife w/Sheath
Overall Length 9.19" (233.43 mm)

I wasn't fully aware of these specification when I received the knife, particularly the rockwell hardness of the blade steel and it is that which proved to be a disappointment, before I explain why it will be important for you to understand what rockwell hardness is, so that will be today's lesson;

Rockwell Hardness

The ‘hardness’ of a knifes blade is measured on the Rockwell Scale, which measures hardness by applying first a small load and then a larger load to the steel and measuring the difference between the indentations. When testing knife steel the Rockwell hardness is denoted by the letters ‘HRC’ and the indentations are made with a 120° spheroconical diamond indenter. 

Rockwell hardness tester 001.jpg
A Rockwell hardness tester by; Three-quarter-ten - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Knives will generally have an HRC of between 55 and 65, the higher the number the harder the steel, but my requirement for a bushcraft knife is for something in the 58-60 range. Much harder than that and although the edge will be very hard and won’t dull quickly it will be more likely to chip under hard use. Much softer and rather than chipping it may roll and blunt very quickly. Knowing the Rockwell hardness of a knife is important so you can pick a knife that is in this ‘sweet spot’ to avoid picking a knife that blunts too fast and or is too hard to sharpen in the field or that is so hard it chips.

If we go back to the Sakers Specs you will see that the HRC of the knife is 50 and 55 which is very soft, even before I found this out though it was clear that the blade steel was very soft. Even after very light use, carving willow for example, there would be significant rolls on the edge and it would have become very blunt. While it is important to strike a balance in blade steel between it being brittle and too hard to sharpen and good edge retention the ease of sharpening this particular knife was not worth the inconvenience of it blunting so often and so severely.

The grind may exacerbate the rolling and blunting of the knife; It is marketed as a Scandinavian grind, a grind I highly recommend and which is perfect for working wood, you can read more about them in our 'knife' page which is part of our bushcraft basics series.

Scandinavian grinds are normally no more than a third of the height of the grind like on this Casstrom knife, the high grind of the Saker might make it even more fragile. 
However Scandinavian grinds normally start at a quarter or a third of the way up the blade from the edge, this one you can see strait away is at least half the height of the blade making the edge angle very fine and more susceptible to rolling and blunting. 

Even light work like making notches in relatively soft wood caused the Saker to blunt very quickly. 
This soft steel is a real shame, and the 1075 steel for it's retail price of over £100 seems very steep. If it wasn't for the soft steel the design would be near perfect. The sharply pointed blade is really useful for whittling and carving, the handle is incredibly comfortable and the overall shape and design is very pleasing to the eye.

The CRKT Saker on the left features a much more ergonomic handle than the slab sided micarta handles of the Camillus Bushcrafter and Tops C.U.B on the right but they are both superior knives purely because of the well heat treated and excellent quality blades. 
If it was available in a decent steel and with a proper heat treat and hardness I'm sure this knife would become one of my favourites but as it is I dropped it from the Countrymans weekly articles after attempting just a couple of tasks with it as I can't recommend this knife at all. 

I've tried to find it's redeeming features but the quality of a knifes blades is a make or break criteria, however ergonomic, aesthetically pleasing or attractive a knife is if the blade doesn't perform then it's not worth having and mine hasn't been used now since I discovered these issues, it's just not worth the hassle of using because it will need sharpening in a matter of minutes. 

There are some other features of this knife which the designer seems to make a big deal of, infact the little 'tool' that comes with it gets more air time in the video CRKT released about the designers 'vision' for the knife than the knife it'self;

I'm really not sure why the little 'tool' got so much screen time, it's a gimmick and serves no useful purpose, yes you can strike a firesteel with it but you can do that with the back of your knife, a key or a piece of broken glass. The serrations are pointless and it's just the kind of little add on that impresses people who are easily impressed or who have limited or no experience. The sheath also is a bit of a disappointment, the leather is heavy and seems to be good quality but it is roughly stitched and the retention of the knife in the sheath is poor. 

In short the Saker looks the part but fails to deliver, I don't know if that is because corners were cut in steel selection and heat treating to reduce manufacture costs or if the makers and designers sincerely thought that an HRC of less than 55 was justifiable and desirable. If the former is true then I can blame the failure of this particular knife on corporate greed, if it's the latter then it is unfortunately down to  a complete lack of understanding of the requirements of a hard working outdoors knife by the designer and maker. 

A great disappointment. 

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