April 25, 2013
Today, I began the process of making linden bast. “What is that?” you may ask, or indeed, you may already know. Bast are strips of fibre made from the inner bark of the lime tree that can be woven into cordage, clothing or shoes and have been used for thousands of years for such purposes.
The lime avenue to our village church was recently pollarded. Pollarding is when branches above head height (or sometimes above the height of grazing animals) are cut off reducing the crown, rather like coppicing but higher. The branches will re-grow until the next pollarding. It is a way of reducing upward expansion or of creating a sustainable harvest for firewood, animal fodder or other uses. Unfortunately, this was simply destined for the bonfire. I took my folding saw to the pile of brash and removed all the smooth straight, thicker stems in lengths of about 2m to 1m.
When I got it home, the next step was to remove the bark. I found that the best way to do this was to split the stem near the edge and deliberately break the wood causing it to run to the bark – the last thing one would normally want in a splitting process, but it was the bark that I was after. I was then able to peel the bark off in long straight strips. By flexing the it back the other way I could remove any wood that was clinging to it.
This is a process for spring at the earliest and one that works even better in May and June when the tree gets very sappy – it is said to almost peel itself. The names lime or linden, are derived from old European roots, particularly the Anglo-Saxon word lithe, meaning pliant and the Swedish linda, meaning a band. Tree names were descriptive – thus the linden tree is the tree that provides bands.
Having acquired a good quantity of nice flexible bark the next stage is to macerate (soak it in water to start decay) it for some time. The process may take up to six weeks. I am using our rain barrel. During the process scum forms on the water and a bit of a (not too unpleasant) smell develops. This will wash out later. Flowing water works better but you will need something like a net bag to contain the bark and a weight to hold it down and something to tie it all to. The water butt refreshes when it rains as surface water overflows and drains away. And there is no shortage of rain.
When the process has run its course, I’ll take you through the next stages to the end result. Give it a go, if you get a chance. And stick with it. Lime bast is one of the most pleasing materials in nature.
January 28, 2013
This weekend the sun has shone more than I remember in a long time. With that in mind, this morning the family packed into the car and we headed over to Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. The main objective was to see if we could spot any Hares; but at the same time could be a great opportunity to brush up on my knowledge of birds. You see I know common garden birds, but outside of that my knowledge is minimal to say the least.
The Isle of Sheppey offers great opportunities for the ornithologist. There are a number of well-known spots, but the whole island is a haven for wildlife.
We headed up the pot hole ridden track towards the Nature Reserve and were quickly greeted by fields full of Lapwings; a punk rocker of a bird with a single black Mohawk spike on its head. This is an easy bird for the amateur bird spotter to recognise. The Lapwing is a predominantly black bird with a white belly which follows under its wings and a black crest on its head and is apparently often referred to as a Peewit, in reference to its call.
We carried on up the track; eyes peeled, and harmoniously squealed in excitement at the distant shape of a Hare lying up in the grass. I pulled the car over at the side of the track and rummaged about in the glove box for a pair of binoculars. We spent the next ten minutes admiring a hares head in the distant grass before moving on. It’s always a special moment seeing a hare, and this was no different; we just wish it had been a little closer so we could have seen its true beauty.
Following on up the track we happened upon a small flock of birds with long down turned beaks. This was another bird that proved easy to identify, the Curlew. This is Britain’s largest wading bird and I would suggest that its beak is an easy give away to its identification. I would describe its plumage as Thrush like in colour, although the bird is much bigger. I was really enjoying this.
We made our way along the track until we reached the car park. Fenn (my 16 month old son) was fast asleep by this point, so we decided against walking to the hides. Philly (the boss/wife) said I could go on my own, but knowing that with the walk there and back I would be gone for at least an hour I decided against it. I knew that sods law meant that 5 minutes after I was out of sight Fenn would wake, and then scream until my return. So after reading the notice board that details all bird sightings for the week, we turned around and followed the track back out to the main road.
About half way back down the track I quickly stopped the car, and put it in reverse. I had spotted another Hare, and this time only 30 yards from the car. We pulled over at the side of the track, and again spent some time admiring the animal. This time we were able to see right into its big eyes. It was of course watching us back, but it wasn’t worried at all about us being there.
Happy that we had seen a couple of hares we decided to head back home for some lunch. A car going into the Reserve signalled to us, and wound its window down. We were kindly informed that cranes were visible from Raptor Point. Tempted as we were, my stomach was telling me otherwise and we headed home for some food. I had already decided on the way home that we would be going back out later though!!
So later in the day we bundled back in the car and headed back over to the Island. Heading out to Raptor Point we passed a field with 40-50 swans in it which was quite incredible to see in itself.
There were a few other people at the Point, but it was pretty quiet. It was getting late in the day, and although it had been a nice warm dry day the wind had picked up and brought a chill with it. I spoke with a kind gentleman at the top of the Point who had seen a number of raptors, and was more than willing to talk to me about what he had seen. He was also kind enough to let me use his spotting scope to watch the Marsh Harrier playing in the wind in the distance. There were three of them together enjoying the strong gusts of wind; only an hour earlier he had been watching both Marsh and Hen Harriers and two types of Buzzard. No explanation for the site name needed! He also informed me that in the group of swans we had passed there were not only Mute Swans but also Bewick Swans; something to look out for on the drive home. Whilst we were talking, a group of about 20 corn buntings flew past. To be honest they look a bit like sparrows to me, but that is what you get with years of experience. He knew what they were by their song.
Twenty or so minutes later I returned to the car only to be told by the wife that whilst I had been busy talking, the cranes had flown past!! I had missed them!
It was wonderful to get out in the fresh air and really good fun trying to identify the birds we were looking at. Furthermore, I really recommend heading over to the Isle of Sheppey if you fancy checking out both Hares and birds.
February 8, 2012
The latest snowfall, mainly over eastern England, differed from snow events of recent winters. Did you notice, for instance, that the snowflakes were thin needles rather than the hexagonal star-like plates? Snowflakes come in a variety of shapes, depending on the temperature at their genesis and where they were formed. Stellar dendrites (starry and plantlike) – the most popular form of snowflake – are grown in temperatures from about freezing to – 4°C. Needles, on the other hand, crystallise in temperatures around -5°C and descend from mid-level clouds (e.g. Altocumulus). At -5.5°C, hollow columns are formed and at -12°C flakes start forming again. The best part is, no-one knows exactly why.
The snow was deep (around 18cm) in my neck of the woods and took an imprint well. Unfortunately, because it descended throughout the night, by dawn it had obscured the activity of most of the nocturnal animals that bothered to venture out.
A pheasant, however, had been roosting in the big tree above the gateway in the photograph and it’s descent in the morning was beautifully captured by the snow. The fan and sweep of the cock bird’s tail is perfectly preserved, as is the random meander away. The only thing missing is the racket he makes, but I’ve heard that often enough, thanks.
Diurnal creatures – birds, squirrels and the odd fox left their mark on the first day but after a night of lying snow the ground the following morning was criss-crossed with trails. The fox trots in deeper snow with his body at an angle in a peculiar form of dressage, so that his tracks form a single line. If you look carefully you can see where the sweep of a foot joins up alternate tracks on the left and the right.
The back foot of each side lands in the spot where the front foot of the same side fell. At my place of work, a visitor wondered ‘what one-legged animal’ had made such trail.
The fox steps daintily, as always, while the low-slung badger goes through seven inches of snow like a snow-plough. Look closely and you can see the longer heel of the badger’s hindfoot as it too lands where the front paw was a moment before.
There is so much study in just one night’s activity, I have spent entire days from first light to dusk following the trails of animals and birds. This hunting fox is a typical example of recapturing the previous night’s play.
Why hunting? Because of the slow gait, frequent pauses and points where it turns around sniffing for food under the snow.
How can I tell what it is doing? Look carefully at the snow and notice the soft imprint of a nose.
October 31, 2011
Sunday October 30th
The prospects for finding fungi had improved over the previous week with the arrival of the damp but mild weather. Two of us had recently had successful outings; Mafro harvested Field Mushrooms – Agaricus campestris and the previous night I had dined on Shaggy Ink-caps – Coprinus comatus. Both of these are open grassland species and, as it turned out, down in Dering Woods there was still insufficient ground moisture to kick-start a serious fungal recovery.
This was partly evidenced by the lack of ectomycorrhizal fungi, the ones in beneficial association with trees. The mycelia join up with the tree root systems and as such are found further down beneath the soil. Mushrooms such as Boletes, Russulas (Brittlegills) and Amanitas are of this kind. When you pick the fruit-bodies (remember this is what a mushroom or toadstool is – the fruit-body of an underground organism)you have to dig your fingers into the soil to gently free the base, as many are relatively deep rooting.
We found three representatives of this kind; Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria, Common Yellow (or Ochre) Russula (or Brittlegill) – Russula ochroleuca and a solitary Brown Roll-rim – Paxillus involutus. The latter is curious because despite having gills it is closely related to the spongy-pored Boletes. Close examination of our specimen revealed the gills becoming tube-like where they ran down the stem.
It is also noteworthy because it was historically widely eaten until it was discovered to contain a cumulative toxin – an antigen, in fact – that, once tip-over point is reached, causes a person’s immune system to turn against them and fatally destroys their red blood cells. This can even happen a year after eating the mushroom with no ill-effects, upon eating a second meal. In parts of Eastern Europe, apparently, some people still gamble their lives with this one.
The rest were mainly saprobic types, either deriving their nourishment from decaying wood or leaf-litter, apart from the destructive Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea, which attacks living trees. Many, but not all, were LBJs – Little Brown Jobs, originally a birding term, meaning obscure and hard to identify, in this case small fungi with many similar species that require microscopic examination to separate. However, after lunch, our basket provided a challenge for the different levels of experience within our group – to sort them into Genera based on their shared or differing macro-characteristics. I was impressed by how well everyone did.
Early steps in the right direction are the ability to recognise a fungus in all stages in its development from immature to over-mature and to differentiate a mushroom that has turned funnel shaped with age like an umbrella blown inside-out by the wind, from a species that is naturally a funnel shape with decurrent gills (those that run down the stem).
Whilst out and about we encountered several interesting animal field-signs. The burrow of a Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, is more often in a slight rise or bank than the one pictured, with a characteristic fan of earth outside the entrance. This one was a bit more sprawling and less neat than usual with a very distinct digging channel.
Carol led us to a Hornet’s nest that she had found earlier in the year. It was no longer occupied and something – probably a squirrel, or possibly a woodpecker – had opened up the lower levels and emptied the queen cells of any remaining larvae. Nature’s interactions are absolutely fascinating.
Back on the farm, and in the middle of a field, something similar had happened with this wasp nest, only the culprit was most definitely a Badger – Meles meles. With their good sense of smell they can sniff out and with their powerful claws, dig out a wasp nest quite easily. Certainly they attack at night and the wasps will be disorientated in the dark, nonetheless, you’d expect a badger to take quite a few stings, especially around the head and mouth where the fur is thinner. Also, when they devour the plump, nutritious grubs they are bound to ingest adults and indeed, may do so deliberately, in which case they must get stung inside the mouth. Perhaps they are immune, or simply don’t care? I’d love to watch the actual scenario play out, having seen the evidence many times.
Despite the afternoon wearing on and the light beginning to fade, a last wander produced more surprises and delights. The adjacent arable field turned out to be overflowing with wild Field Mushrooms – Agaricus campestris, so that everyone who wanted some took home a basketful – or a hatful.
Even more thrilling for me was the fact that the dominant weed of the field was an obscure plant called Sharp-leaved Fluellen – Kickxia elatine, a plant that I had not seen for over 20 years! As if that were not enough, to my absolute delight, a companion plant in the same field turned out to be Round-leaved Fluellen – Kickxia spuria, a species new to me. These plants seem to have the ability to lie dormant as seeds for some time. They can disappear and reappear years later if conditions become right and the seed bank is disturbed. Both are members of the Toadflax family (note the little snapdragon-like flowers) and are by no means common, occurring, as on this occasion, in little local pockets, on cultivated land, though widely distributed across southern England. They are archaeophytes, meaning they were anciently introduced to this country. During the Middle Ages the bitter juice was used as an astringent and K. elatine as a medicine for skin disorders. Like many other important plants they suffered from the over-use of pesticides, but perhaps the maize crop that had previously been harvested was organically produced.
Bad light stopped play. This was too brief a visit for re-acquaintance or a first encounter. The shared feeling was come back as soon as we can.
Saturday October 22nd, 2011
Despite the arid conditions that have prevailed throughout October in this corner of England our seasonal Bushcraft Magazine fungus foray turned up around 30 species, by my reckoning. Mind you, we had to walk over 5 miles through King’s Wood, Challock in Kent to find them. This is the worst year I can remember for a poor October show, although some of the late 1990s were close. Below are two spreads of the collection that came back (with a few fungi repeated in both).
Amanita muscaria – Fly Agaric was the first specimen of the day, under birch in the car park, though it had been smashed to pieces by a mower or strimmer. Several very fine specimens turned up subsequently. In my opinion the best fungus of the foray was a beautiful Tawny Grisette – Amanita fulva growing in moss at the base of a tree . I didn’t photograph it despite its photogenic qualities and I didn’t collect because it would have spoiled its perfection. The brown volva was clear for all to see and the shiny, conical brown cap still retained a fragment on top. We had a small Grisette – Amanita vaginata for comparison (see above).
In addition to those illustrated above we found Deceiver – Laccaria laccata, Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea ,and what I believe to be a young fruitbody of Stereum sanguinolentum - Bleeding Conifer Crust. The spectacular amber and bloodlike drops are a characteristic feature of two other members of this family that are found on dead broadleaf tree-stumps, while this was on coniferous wood.
The weather was benign, and the warm Autumn sunshine led to us surprising a basking Adder – Vipera berus that had not yet entered hibernation. We also encountered numerous Dor Beetles – Geotrupes stercorarius. These are dung eaters but they also feed on decaying fungi. I have seen them doing this in the New Forest.
As for edibles – not many really. The Deceivers were not in good enough condition. The birch boletes would not have gone far. I elected to try to find a way of making the ‘Witch’s Egg’ of a Stinkhorn – Phallus impudicus palatable on everyone else’s behalf. I took home and baked three of them sliced with onion on top of marinated pork belly topped with pickled peppers and beans. What can I say? Everything around them tasted good. That was my third attempt. I give up now.