Search This Blog

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Foragers Diary; November 2018

At this time of year we are very lucky as foragers and wild food enthusiasts to have plenty of game and fungi available; 

Cellophane wrapped, battery farmed chicken can't compete with these roast pheasants for Sunday dinner. 

And I've rarely had steak anywhere that can compete with these venison steaks;

Crusted with crushed chillies and herbs

The plate is waiting for it's steak


Sometimes game and fungi can be married together in a single delicious dish;

Wood blewits and field mushrooms that my son found on his way to school, we added them to a venison chilli and it was fantastic;

Finely diced venison ready for making chilli, the knife in the picture is an Extrema Ratio Scout and you can read a full review of it HERE that we posted earlier this month. 

Ready to add the mushrooms to the chilli. 

At other times the mushrooms can stand on their own feet; 

A great haul of shaggy parasols and oyster mushrooms with a couple of blewits and common ink caps.
My children love helping chop up our foraged mushrooms. 

A delicious stroganoff is one of our favourite things to make with foraged fungi. 

As well as game meat and fungi there are a few late fruits to harvest including black nightshade. They are an edible member of the nightshade family and taste like very sweet tomatoes but are small and black. They can be easily distinguished from the deadly nightshade, which also has a black berry, as black nightshade berries grow in small clusters rather than a single berry like the deadly nightshade.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Hunter Gatherer Ethics; Environmental Miss-Education

The difference between moorland managed for shooting on the right of the fence and grazed and denuded of heather and anything but grass on the left. (Image by Richard Guy)
Misunderstanding about the environment and about the work that goes on in the countryside abounds, often championed by well meaning individuals with the welfare of animals and the conservation of the natural world at heart but without the practical experience or appreciation of the relevance of wildlife management to accept that sometimes humans need to manage the environment rather than just let nature do it's own thing.

Mark Avery, former director of research for the RSPB published Inglorious in 2015 criticising grouse shooting and supporting his call for a ban on driven grouse shooting. While he does cite some very credible literature and does make some very good arguments against large scale driven grouse shooting he completely overlooks the benefits of land managed by game keepers. 

I take a dim-view of 'celebrity environmentalists' like Chris Packham and Bill Oddie who should know better than to make some of the claims they do about grouse shooting and game keepers, although there are some in that industry who certainly do break laws and persecute wildlife the work of gamekeepers is still very important to the character of the British countryside. I do though have a little more sympathy with the kind of environmental 'miss-education' that can occur in schools.

'Environmental Education' is part of the curriculum in the form of topics such as climate change and sustainability and in a 2003 paper about environmental education in Australian National Parks *1 highlights the issue of teachers without the necessary understanding of the environment to deliver effective environmental education. The authors comment specifically that although teachers may have understood environmental issues from a social or cultural perspective they lacked a sound understanding of the ecological and management issues. 

I have a similar concern having experienced first-hand the effects of misguided people who were concerned about the environment, they had certainly taken a position about the environment and were attempting to influence society which are two of the highest goals of environmental education but their position and action were informed, not by sound fact and local ecological knowledge, but by media and schools where the preoccupation seems to be to presenting global ecological and conservation issues without the context of local issues and badly informed teachers who will preach, rather than teach, about a specific, possibly emotional interest they have in the environment. To put this in context over my years of working in the countryside I have had traps and snares stolen or vandalised, valuable livestock released and been yelled at and verbally abused for cutting down trees and have been reported to the police for carrying out perfectly legal, necessary and beneficial environmental management activities. 

Contrary to popular belief it is still legal to trap and snare many species of vermin and predatory mammals as well as some birds under the conditions of the General Licences as well as use snares which meet certain design criteria under the UK's laws. These traps fill a vital role in controlling species such as grey squirrel and mink but many dismiss them as illegal and cruel without any proper understanding of their role, function or the lengths which have been gone to to ensure modern traps are humane. 
I do not believe that it is the role of teachers and environmental educators to address the issues or specific difficulties I have faced due to ‘environmental mis-education’ but there should be a responsibility to provide local context for peoples experiences in the environment rather than them forming perceptions of nature and the environment from TV documentaries of exotic animals, deforestation, global warming and other, very important, but very distant and intangible environmental issues. 

Lacanja burn.JPG
Deforestation to make way for agriculture in Mexico By Jami Dwyer, Public Domain, Link
If instead of using the easily accessible, celebrity endorsed, well marketed, neatly packaged but flawed examples of the negatives of wildlife and environmental management teachers were a bit more critical of the material they delivered and were willing and comfortable to step out of the school building onto a local farm, nature reserve, shooting estate, beach or hillside their students would see the day to day activities that go on out there and be able to relate to the climate and sustainability issues in their own community rather than form the opinion the cutting down trees is bad because deforestation in the Amazon is bad and that's all they have learned about at school. 

Coppice management in a UK ancient woodland, a whole different kettle of fish to deforestation although tarred with the same brush in many peoples minds because they simply don't understand the difference.

While I don't expect everyone to suddenly start hunting and foraging their own food after a brush with the environment of their local area I do think that it will be much easier to have those conversations about where food comes from and why shooting and fishing are a legitimate and beneficial way of putting food on the table once people understand how the environment of their local area is maintained and managed.

My son mackerel fishing off the Dorset Coast
It's not only about food though or the rights and wrongs of killing something to eat but about respect for the people who make a living out of agriculture and countryside management and an understanding of the UK's unique landscape and countryside. 

As bushcrafters you, and I say you because I am a deer stalker by trade and I train game keepers so to many I am one of the enemy when it comes to their opinions about wildlife and the environment. YOU have a unique opportunity to teach people about those things without being a direct part of an industry that many distrust and find distasteful and can do a great deal to educate people about their countryside. 


*1 Lugg, A. & Slattery, D., (2003). Use of National Parks for Outdoor Environmental Education: An       Australian Case Study. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 3(1), pp. 77-92.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

From the High Seat; Early Season Outing

November sees the start of the Chinese water deer (CWD) season and to open it I often make an outing with a few like minded companions to make a good start on the cull. This is an account of one of those early season outings from a year or two ago:

Before we even reached our parking spot, we saw our first CWD, unperturbed by our presence we could only watch him briefly before trundling on. Once parked, we wished each other good fortune and set off after a careful re-brief on safety and communications procedures and where everyone would be seated on this grey, damp and increasingly windy morning.

A few minutes later we had all taken up our respective positions and began our vigil as the light slowly gathered in the east. Through binoculars, dark shapes could be seen but not yet in sufficient detail to be useful, weeds and the ever present ‘bog oak’ projections, can all take on the form you want them to in poor light and patience is the only solution.

A double Crack and thump told me that Carl had found his mark with 2 rounds in quick succession. I awaited Carl’s call so that I could leave my seat as I could also see deer now, though not close enough for a shot and I was eager to move but didn’t want to rush Carl and safety and communications protocol demanded that we were in touch before I moved. Carl’s report came, he had two deer and was observing another, as was I. We agreed that he would make safe and I would leave my seat to pursue one of my opportunities, Steve hadn’t seen anything yet but the day was young.

I was out of my seat and crossed a very rough track to the cover of some tall weeds, from here I confirmed the position of 2 deer and dropped back into deeper cover to make my advance unseen. Progress was slow to avoid making any noise in the brittle cover and soon I had closed the range to around 75 yards, a safe and comfortable shot even in this morning’s stiff breeze. I opened up my shooting sticks and rested the rifle on top, made a few minor adjustments and slipped behind the stock to take the first view of my target through the scope. It was a good size yearling buck, no fangs to speak of and moving confidently and freely with no sign of impediment. I slipped the safety catch off and as he turned broad side on to me, two deep breaths, exhale as I put the cross hairs just behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The rifle cracked and nudged me gently in the shoulder and I heard the bullet strike its target and saw a shower of hair to confirm the fact. 

Chinese water deer often shed huge clumps of fur when they are hit, this makes is fairly strait forward to track them down if they run from the point where they were hit. 
My phone buzzed almost immediately with a message that Steve had dropped a nice buck and I replied that I had too. The deer I had shot had disappeared in to cover as they often do but experience told me that I was only going to walk a very few yards to find my prize. This was my hundredth CWD. I made safe and started my gentle stroll to the spot where I last saw my deer and as I expected, I found hair and blood at the point of impact confirming what I already knew and a significant blood trail led the 8 or 10 paces to where the little fellow lay motionless in a dry ditch. He was in lovely condition, fine coat and fat. I carried out all of the carcass inspections required for meat to be put in the food chain and got to work with knife and rubber gloves to prepare him for the carry out.

Back at home, the butchery confirmed that the animal was in great condition, very fat from a plentiful supply of quality fodder, kidneys almost invisible in a shroud of thick fat, this is going to eat beautifully!


Thursday, 8 November 2018

Father and Son Bushcraft Trip to Sweden; Gear

This months review is going to feature some of the kit we used on our father and son trip to Sweden, both well tried and tested, there's no point heading so far afield with unproven gear. 

Klättermusen Arvaker 60 litre modelled by yours truly. 

The first review is my rucksack, the Klättermusen Arvaker. They don't make it anymore but I've had this for about eighteen months and it's seen extensive use in Scotland and Sweden in that time. It's by far the most comfortable rucksack I have ever used and although at 60 litres it doesn't have a huge capacity, they do also produce a 100 litre rucksack, the model that was contemporary with the Arvaker was the Mjölnir which has now been replaced by their Tor model. 

Even when it's loaded heavily it is extremely comfortable, you can hardly feel the weight in it at all and I really wouldn't want to switch back to a rucksack without the proprietary load bearing system.  

The rucksack has an aluminium frame which spreads the load and the hip belt is a perfect fit and is adjustable from four points so it can be tighter at the bottom or top depending on how your prefer it. The hip belt also includes the loop fields which can be found all over the rucksack. These can be used to attach a range of pockets and accessories. They are not designed for use with MOLLE but they do just about fit and a Maxpedition map and compass pouch fits perfectly on one side of the hip belt for convenient access, this means I don't have to carry my map and compass around my neck, and I hate carrying things around my neck. 

The external stretch pocket fitted to the arvaker using the loop fields

A closeup of the butterfly bridge feature on the right pack strap, you can also see them in the picture above.

The shoulder straps feature Klättermusens unique 'butterfly bridge' technology which is best explained in the manufacturers own words;

"Key for carrying easier and increasing your endurance is transferring the load to the skeleton in an efficient manner, which our Butterfly Bridge does efficiently. 

The benefit of load transfer is twofold. By carrying directly on your skeleton, you can simply lift more with better endurance. On the other end, the strain placed by regular systems on the muscles and ligaments is relieved letting blood pass freely through your muscles keeping you both free from pain and more alert."

All I can say is that this feature seems to work beautifully; I often find that the muscles of my left shoulder get uncomfortable when carrying a heavy rucksack but not with this pack. It is a little on the heavy side due to the frame but any actual weight the construction of the pack adds is more than made up for by the way it spreads that weight so well. 

Although it is a roll top pack like many dry bags, it;s not guaranteed to be waterproof so anything you need to keep dry should be packed up in waterproof bags inside the bag. Although it resembles a dry bag it is constructed far more strongly and the Kevlar reinforced bottom  will put up with being put down in brambles, bushes and on sharp rocks without you having to worry about damaging your pack. 

The only bad thing about the Klättermusen pack is the price. The Arvaker used to retail around £250 as far as I remember and it's equivalent product that is available now is about £300 but the quality is undeniable, if you spend a lot of time on expeditions you will struggle to find anything more comfortable and it is comparable in price with other very high end packs like the Fjällraven or some tactical packs by Karriomor SF, TAD Gear and Mystery Ranch.  


My Arvaker at a trig point in Scotland

Another piece of kit we took with us, and which despite the craze amongst 'survivalists' for one tool knives I would recommend everyone include amongst their bushcrafting gear, was an axe. The fact that on a bushcraft trip to Sweden I didn't take a Swedish axe may seem a little blasphemous to some but for the last two years I have been using an axe by a Basque company called Jauregi. They make axes by hand to a traditional pattern and rather than having the axe handle inserted into  the bottom of the head and secured with a wedge these axe heads are fitted to their handles in a similar way to tomahawks. The model I have is one of their pruning axes and it has a 50cm handle and a head weighing 0.8kg's. 

When I picked one up a few years ago i wasn't necessarily looking for an alternative to my other axes out of any sort of dissatisfaction, I have a Wetterlings Swedish Forest Axe which I have had for over ten years now and which is as close to being the perfect axe as I've ever found, but it is a bit on the big side for every day bushcrafting, and for taking in hold luggage. I also have a Gransfors carving axe which is a specialist tool and not one to take on a bushcrafting trip. The Jauregi pruning axe is a little larger and longer than a hatchet  making it more powerful for cutting and chopping but it's lightweight handle means it weighs no more than a hatchet. 

Clockwise from top; Gransfors Bruks carving axe, Wetterlings Swedish Forest axe, Jauregi pruning axe
The beech handle is the only disappointment I have with this axe, it's a little on the skinny side, it has to be for the handle to fit, but that does make it a little uncomfortable so I wrapped a small portion with tape to provide a slightly chunkier grip, it can easily be unwrapped if I want to get the head off.  Additionally beech is not going to be as strong as the hickory used in most modern axes. I understand that they are using traditional materials but there is a reason that Wetterlings and Gransfors use hickory and it's not that it's native to Sweden. Hickory is an American import and before we had access to it tool handles in Europe would have been mostly made of ash and while ash is an excellent material for tool handles it's not quite as resistant to impact as hickory and I'd prefer something other than beech but it's not the end of the world.

The handle was fairly rough when it arrived and while some might complain about that just pause and think for a moment that the Gransfors carving axe, which will cost you at least £50 more than the Jauregi is deliberately made with a rough handle, according to the design criteria of celebrated wood carver Willi Sundqvist, to aid gripping it. If a rough handle is a problem for you use it more and get some callouses. 

Clearing a trail from windblown trees in Scotland last year

Looking out over Ullsjön and having a hot meal thanks to the firewood cut with our axe. 

The carbon steel head does seem to be a little more prone to rust that some of my other axes but it sharpens easily and came with a very robust leather guard that secures with a buckle.
The Jauregi 50cm pruning axe and a home made froe
I've only found one place to get these axes from; the Finland based online knife, tool and outdoor supplier Lamnia. While I can't recommend it above Wetterlings or Gransfors axes it is a unique design and very effective and lightweight. 

Whatever approach you take to choosing your gear make sure before heading off far from home to practice your bushcraft that you take tried and tested gear, don't head off on an expedition with a brand new rucksack or brand new boots use what you know and are comfortable with.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Father and Son Bushcraft Trip to Sweden; Ullådallen, Åre and route planning

A marshy hike into our camp site at Ullsjön

When Michael and I headed out for our adventure in Sweden we planned in advance where we were going to spend our time. Any outdoor activity, especially if you are far from home needs, to be properly planned so you can leave a detailed plan with someone at home so rescue can be arranged if you don't come back or get in touch according to schedule. 

While you should be able to navigate from map and compass even if you haven't previously planned a route there really is no excuse for heading out somewhere without doing some planning in advance. This is especially important if you are taking a child with you, there may be terrain you want to avoid, or particular features you want to include in your route. I am fascinated by maps anyway so spending a few hours poring over a map is no hardship and has always payed off. 

It's also important at the planning stage to make backup plans and 'escape routes', especially in mountainous areas where weather can change drastically and very quickly.  These plans might include a route around a particular feature that could be dangerous in bad weather such as river crossings that might be too dangerous when water levels are high or mountain tops and ridges that might be too dangerous in snowy conditions or high winds. These routes might also be used in the event of injury or the need to depart from a route and head back to civilisation in an emergency. 

This route with all necessary camp sites and  escape routes can then be left with someone at home so if the worst was to occur and you didn't get back in touch when you said you would or you don't come back on schedule they can pass those details on to whoever becomes responsible for your rescue.  We ended up having to use one of our alternative routes  on our trip; we had hoped to get to the top of a mountain called Åreskutan a 1420 meter mountain which overlooks Åre,  a popular ski resort during the Winter on our first day in the mountains but as there was snow already on the top of the mountain when we arrived we decided to reverse our route and head off up  Ullådallen first. Taking an eight year old up a a snow clad mountain top without proper winter climbing kit would not have been a responsible thing to do and would have added significant unnecessary risk to our trip. 

We were expecting snow on the last day of our trip but it had snowed before we get there and was settled above about 1000 meters so we stayed a bit lower down and headed up into  Ullådallen on our first day instead of our last. 

Manuscript Ullr.jpg
A depiction of Ullr from an Icelandic manuscript from  the 18th Century showing Ullr on ski's with his bow.  Image is in the Public Domain. 

Ullådallen takes it's name from the Norse God of Hunting Ullr. According to mythology Ullr was the son of Siv and foster son of Thor. He was skilled at skiing and a talented bowman and is also celebrated as the God of skiing and archery. It is a popular destination for skiing in Winter and for hunting and fishing. 

A sign informing hikers that hunting was in progress and that dogs may be loose in the area.
We had planned to camp near Ullsjön on the second and third nights of our trip and do some fishing and exploring but now this was to be our first stop, it was important that our trip not be all about hiking each day. I've done my fair share of expeditions when I have needed to hike day after day after day and they haven't always been fun and I wanted to make sure this was fun for Michael and not something he had to endure. 

The hike up Ullådallen from Åre started on the 'trollstigen' or troll tail and fittingly considering that our destination takes it's name from a Norse God the troll trail starts with a a crossing of the mythological 'bifrost' the rainbow bridge that links Asgard (the world of the Gods) with Midgard (earth). 

Michael heading through the bifrost, the platform above him is one of the many mountain bike routes that are popular around Åre outside of ski season. 
On the troll trail we saw signs off all sorts of mythological creatures such as trolls and hob goblins.
We needed to plan a route that wouldn't be too strenuous for an eight year old but was remote enough  to feel like a genuine adventure for him and the troll trail and some of the well marked hiking trails got us up out of the valley to the head of the trail we would follow to Ullsjön. We had picked a camp site there where we thought we would have access to a small shelter, these are marked on maps in Sweden and are popular places for people to stop and stay while hiking and camping, they can be a bit hit and miss though so I never know what to expect, some are positively luxurious others are a bit more spartan. 

Our little shelter on the banks of Ullsjön, you can see the long drop toilet behind the shelter and further up the bank a tiny cabin used by the Sami reindeer herders when their reindeer are ranging in the area. 

Our route around the foot of Åreskutan into Ullådallen took as through Buustamon a little collection of holiday cottages and a small hotel which serves the area in holiday season and which takes it's name from the old jamska dialects word for wind shelter; 'buusta' and a dry place in a marsh 'mo'. And it was indeed the last dry place we encountered on our hike. From there on it was very wet under foot and we had several miles of hiking through marshy terrain until we eventually saw the lake we were heading for. Even though it was a fairly misty, damp day with the low cloud hiding the mountain tops from us the scenery was beautiful and seeing the occasional mountain hare already in winter pelage and flocks of cross bills in the pine and spruce trees was great. We were both happy though when we spotted the lake and realised it would only be a few more minutes before we could get out of our wet boots and dry our socks by a fire. 
fishing at Ullsjön with Rödkullen which we would climb on our last day in the mountains in the distance. 
It was a great place to stay close to the lake and on the edge of a beautiful patch of birch forest with junipers and spruces scattered amongst the lichen bedecked birches. The juniper was a great source of firewood as we found plenty of dead dry branches amongst the thicker, larger growths of juniper and that as well as some dead birch that we collected made the basis of all our camp fires.  

Michael hiking through the birch forests at the foot of Åreskutan on our way out of  Ullådalen. 

We never did make it to the top of Åreskutan, the snow never did clear and actually fell quite heavily the night after we headed out of the hills. We did make it to the top of Rödkullen a smaller 900 meter peak to the west of Åreskutan which Michael had taken to calling Raven Hill after the hill and outpost at the foot of the lonely mountain in The Hobbit. We had been looking at it from our camp site and decided that as it was clear of snow we would change out route so we could climb it on our way back. That route change would also have us climb out of the marshy ground earlier than we otherwise would and get somewhere drier. 

Climbing up our of Ullådalen

Looking back down Ullådalen with Ulsjön in the background. 

While our adventure didn't take us anywhere truly remote in the grand scheme of things it was far enough from everyone to feel like a real adventure to an eight year old and being able to hear a wold cry under the moon by our camp fire one night was a real thrill. Uullådalen and it's surroundings were beautiful despite the fact that we only briefly had clear skies and sunshine and it's a place I fully intend to return to explore more fully, hopefully with members of my family at mys side again.

Hopefully this adventure has only encouraged Michael to pursue more opportunities to get outside and explore, we had a great time and I'm really glad he chose to take me on his adventure.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Foragers Diary; Sweden October 2018

My recent trip to Sweden with my oldest son Michael should have yielded a bit more wild food than it actually did, our plan was to do some fishing, now we dedicated a whole day to fishing but didn't actually catch any fish, we did though find some delicious fungi to incorporate into our meals.

Michael has grown very adept at spotting penny buns or as the Swedes call the karljohann svamp, the year one of the most sought after culinary mushrooms in Europe and absolutely delicious, it was too late in the season to find many but we found enough to supplement our first meal at our camp site near Ullsjön. 
Frying the penny buns in the lid of our billy can before adding them to our meal of meatballs and rice. 

We found plenty of crow berries and blue berries but they were all far past their best and not worth picking. 
We found a really good haul of hedgehog fungi, something I don't see a lot of in the UK although it isn't rare here, and made several meals of them. They are known as blek taggsvamp in Swedish but don't be confused by google translate, if you type 'hedgehog mushroom in Swedish' into google you may find it leads you astray. hedgehog in Swedish is igelkott and the Swedish word for lions mane fungi is igelkottstaggsvamp (literally hedgehog spine mushroom) but that isn't the same as this. 

A billy can lid full of delicious fungi, we made skewers with some of them and picked more for a stew later in our trip. 

It wasn't only in the wilderness that we found mushrooms, I've said before that the UK is behind the rest of Europe as far as wild food, particularly mushrooms, are concerned and this just highlights that. This is Hötorget in central Stockholm and the market stalls are loaded with Chanterrelles and other fresh produce, I haven't seen anything like this in the UK.  

Even the manikins in the outdoor shops are out picking mushrooms. 
Check back in tomorrow for more about our adventures in Sweden. 

Bushcraft Education Videos