Mullein for Moths

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I’m still recovering from an awesome weekend at Spurn Bird Observatory for their annual migration festival – tons of amazing birds (wryneck was my fave), plus a chance to hang out with my favourite nature nerds and drink too much ginger wine (no regrets). Go there if you can – it’s wicked.

So this morning I was happy to escape the office and work outside on a project with Fiona Haynes, Conservation Officer from Butterfly Conservation. Our farm is in the South Downs National Park, and due to the surrounding farms restricting their use of pesticides, we have a load of cool species that make their home here. One of these is the rare striped lychnis moth (Shargacucullia lychnitis) which only feeds on the flowers of dark mullein (Verbascum nigrum).

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One of the caterpillars found earlier in the year

After posting a photo of a striped lychnis caterpillar we found in the summer, Fiona asked if we wouldn’t mind distributing the mullein plants further to make the farm into a local stronghold for the moth. A nationally scarce species, they are on the UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) priority list with declining populations, mainly due to loss of habitat. They can only be found in West Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, where dark mullein grows on disturbed, low-nutrient ground.

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Dark mullein flowers

We first collected seeds from the mullein flowers that already grow here. Some were still in flower, but the majority could be shaken into a bag to release their tiny children. Most were growing in our pig paddock, where the pigs spend all summer uprooting the ground, spreading seeds and trampling them into the soil to germinate. For this reason, pigs are sometimes used for woodland management, where they remove larger competitive plants and help make room for wildflowers.

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Petra collecting dark mullein seeds

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Bag o’ seeds

Once the seeds were collected, we found new spaces to plant them around the site. As we’re open to the public and schoolchildren, we do usually strim long patches of grass to keep the place safe and tidy. To combat this, I’ve marked on a map where we’ve planted to ensure we leave these areas longer before cutting back, allowing them time to drop their seeds and regenerate. We used mattocks and trowels to clear little patches in the ground, drizzled the seeds over and stamped them in with our boots.

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Clearing scrapes across the farm

Hopefully, this will bring a little boost to the mullein flowers that tend to pop up across the farm! Next spring I’ll be setting up a moth trap to see if we can find a striped lychnis hanging around, although they are extremely rare to find. They are also very brown and I’m terrible at moth ID, but we must all seek to improve ourselves! A lovely morning out of the office in the autumn sunshine… You can find more on the striped lychnis moth at Butterfly Conservation here!

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Fiona’s pups Shep, Mist & Woody enjoying the sun

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The striped lychnis moth – photo by Butterfly Conservation

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Graduation II

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On Wednesday my mum and I had a lovely day in London for my second graduation ceremony! Last August I finished my Masters in ‘English: Issues in Modern Culture’ at University College London, and due to weird academic calendars my ceremony has only just taken place a year on. It was great! We were wined and dined on champagne and chocolate eclairs in the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. Thanks to everyone who supported me on the course, and particularly those who contributed to the first instalment of my fees when I started my crowdfunding campaign in 2014 – including Hugh Bonneville and Sir Tom Stoppard! Excellent people. I’d like to eventually continue onto a PhD in English or Environmental History, but I think I’ll put this on the backburner for a few years. I’m universitied out.

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Tweet of the Day II

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My next episode of BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day was aired this morning, all about the corncrakes we discovered on the Treshnish Isles while looking for puffins. Corncrakes are absurdly rare, and I have never been more excited to hear the grating Crex crex call of this elusive bird. They are related to moorhens, coots and rails, and up until the end of the eighteenth century were widespread across the rough grasslands, pastures and meadows of Britain. Intensive farming has pushed them to the brink of extinction and they are now the focus of huge conservation efforts. You can read more about our trip to Mull and the Treshnish Isles with UK Wildlife Safaris on my blog here.

Hiking for Curlews

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As August has been so stupidly busy, I’m only just managing to process the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge I completed earlier this month with Sacha and James! Thanks to all your generous donations we raised over £2,000 for the BTO Curlew Appeal, which will go towards the continued monitoring of this iconic wading bird and, ultimately, contribute to the continued conservation of the curlew in years to come. Thank you!

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The YTP route takes on the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, and comprises around 26 miles of hiking over challenging terrain. I’d love to say I trained every day for months, but in reality I just did a few little walks and completed one 21-mile walk through the South Downs before the final hike. I’m pretty healthy but certainly not uber-fit, so I was slightly apprehensive about whether or not we’d actually finish. Thankfully Sacha and James shared this sentiment.

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Surprisingly, most of the route was actually enjoyable. The peaks were separated by long stretches of hills and flat ground, which allowed us to rest our muscles between each mountain. I discovered that walking up the peaks was far better than walking down; the worst part of the route was the last five miles from the top of Ingleborough back to the pub. Two of these miles were downhill, and by the end we had completely crippled our knees. At this point we’d also run out of whiskey and Kendal mint cake so it was fairly miserable. Love you, curlews.

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Despite the pain, the landscape was majestic. For miles all we could see were the undulating ripples of the Yorkshire Dales, full of sheep and dry stone walls. Yet half way through we realised something; although it appeared green and pleasant, the land was almost barren of wildlife. I was walking with an ecologist and an excellent naturalist, and we were hoping to find at least a few butterflies, birds or wildflowers. Unfortunately the landscape was heavily managed for sheep, and while the grassy views were pleasing to the eye, the lack of wildlife was unnerving. The only birds we saw were two grouse, a kestrel and a few wheatear, and our only butterflies were hiding in a nature reserve, where sheep were kept out and the plantlife was more diverse.

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We managed to complete the hike in 11.5 hours, and aside from the last few miles it was an awesome experience. And I have never been so grateful to get to a pub! I ordered a huge pint of dry cider and a goat’s cheese lasagne, and we all just sat in a quiet slump filling ourselves with carbs. Huge thanks to the lovely people at Ingleton Hostel who provided me with great advice, cups of tea, a warm bed and hot shower.

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Thanks to the BTO for all their support in helping us complete our challenge and raise money! The curlew is one of Britain’s fastest declining bird species, with a 46% decline in numbers between 1994 and 2010 alone. The causes of this worrying trend remain unclear, but with Britain holding around 28% of Europe’s curlew populations, it is vital that something is done now to protect the species. Thanks to everyone who supported our challenge – you are awesome.

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The view from Ingleborough

Food You Can Forage

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I’m delighted to reveal the final design for the front cover of my first book, Food You Can Forage. Many thanks to the fantastic design team who have made it look so snazzy – I took the photo in my sister’s garden on the wooden border of their vegetable patch!

There’s still six and a half months to go until the publication date, but after weeks of editing, proofreading and updating photos, it will soon go to print. Watch this space for further updates, including future events and other details… I’m so excited!

Food You Can Forage will be published on 8th March 2018 with Bloomsbury – you can pre-order it here!

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Being a Blacksmith

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With my coracle and wooden spoon in pride of place, it’s time to try my next heritage craft from the Radcliffe Red List! This month I’ve been having a go at blacksmithing, the ancient art of forging iron and steel.

The ‘black’ in blacksmith comes from the black fire scale that builds on the surface of metal during heating, formed by a layer of oxides. In Britain, it wasn’t until the Iron Age that people started smelting and melting iron from ore stones. According to legend, the Saxon blacksmith Wayland Smith, known in Old Norse as Völundr, was known for forging beautiful gold rings and gems, but was captured by a cruel king who hamstringed and imprisoned him on an island. Wayland took revenge on the king by killing his sons and forging objects from their skulls, teeth and eyes, before seducing the king’s daughter and escaping with metal wings he had forged in secret.

I wasn’t too bothered about wings or skulls, but I did want to forge myself a few nice items… My tutor was Joe Tyler, a professional blacksmith who runs the course at Chichester College. Biscuits opened and goggles donned, off we went!

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The fires of Mount Doom

Although ancient people would have used foot-powered bellows to heat their fire, we made use of modern technology and electricity, although the ‘electric bellows’ were actually just a bouncy castle machine! When the fire glowed orange, it had reached around 800°C and was ready for action.

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Closing up a spiral

We started with a spiral candle holder. An iron bar is placed into the fire until it glows orange, and basically blends into the background of the fire. If it turns cherry red it’s too cool, but if it’s white it can get too hot. Unfortunately we both got distracted at one point and left the iron in the fire too long, so the holder handle melted off… But it still looked lovely – I’m now using it as a tealight holder!

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Working the serpent, still glowing from the fire

Next, we made a serpent pendant for my inner Viking. This involved lots of tapering and twisting until the serpent had coiled in on itself to make an awesome pendant shape. We even dented the head so I can tie leather around the neck to hang it correctly.  It looks wicked!

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Serpent pendant and botched candle holder

Any finished objects are brushed to remove slag and other bits, and then covered in beeswax to stop the natural oils from human paws corroding the metal. This is done while it’s still piping hot, so it can easily melt across the entire surface. Joe dunked the whole serpent in the beeswax block so it made this cool mould.

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Serpent after being dunked in beeswax

Lastly, I wanted to forge a butter knife to go with my goat’s cheese and butter paddles (I’m basically creating a mini-dairy industry for fun). The funky handle design enables the knife to hang from a Viking or Saxon belt, and the blade is nice and long to ensure large amounts of bread and butter can be consumed at all times (essential).

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My Viking butter knife!

I had an AWESOME time learning how to forge iron, and I can’t wait to make more! Joe is teaching blacksmithing workshops at Butser Ancient Farm next year, and I highly recommend booking on.

Tweet of the Day

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I’m delighted to present my first episode of BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day! A short account of the yellowhammers that live on our farm, who I regularly meet when cycling into work in the early morning. Sadly, most people are surprised to hear how many yellowhammers we have at the farm as they are declining rapidly elsewhere in Britain. Fortunately our local farmers engage with government schemes for wildlife stewardship, and take steps to make their farms wildlife friendly, including the preservation of wild borders around fields and reducing the use of pesticides. This means our yellowhammers have a safe place to live and breed, and I get to listen to them all day long! You can find the original link to this episode here.

The Rare Breeds Show

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We had another fantastic day at the Rare & Traditional Breeds show on Sunday! The show takes place each year at the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex, and it’s the perfect outing for anyone who loves rare breed animals and rural life. Last year we took our youngest kid Sorrel to the show, and this year we took Sorrel (now grown up!) with her two male kids Hops and Burdock.

It was also a great opportunity to catch up with our fellow members of the English Goat Breeders’ Association, dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the English goat breed. English goats are a rare breed in Britain, and we are lucky enough to have six of them at the farm where I work. They are a great dual purpose breed for milk and meat (although we don’t eat ours!), so if you’re interested in introducing a goat to your family or smallholding, this breed is a great choice.

We also bought a brand new Manx Loaghtan ram to refresh our flock! He’s a pedigree yearling called Norman, and is very handsome. Sorrel and Burdock each won 3rd prize in their categories, although Hops was a bit naughty and won 4th. Nevertheless, I am proud of them all and look forward to another lovely day next year!

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Carving a Spoon

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Since building my own coracle in May, I’ve become hooked on trying heritage crafts. I discovered an organisation called the Heritage Crafts Association, who have published a Red List of traditional crafts in danger of dying out. So with my coracle complete, I thought it was time to try a new heritage craft – SPOON CARVING.

The word spoon is derived from the Old English word spon, meaning a chip of wood or horn carved from a larger piece. In Britain, archaeological evidence suggests that Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking people all used wooden spoons, the latter two being particularly great woodworkers. On our farm we have an Anglo-Saxon longhall, a magnificent demonstration of the intricate joints and techniques devised by our European ancestors. Our treewright Darren built the hall, and also owns a piece of ancient woodland that he manages for wildlife and sustainable materials. From here, he found me a chunk of green ash with which to start my spoony adventure.

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The key to carving is sharp tools and soft, green wood. I sharpened one of the axes we already have at the farm, but decided to buy my own straight knife and hook knife from Mora, a Swedish brand of extremely high quality. I used local ash as it was readily available, but lime, pine and birch are also great.

The first step was to draw a spoon onto the wood, to use as a rough guide when hacking merrily away. Then, I used the axe to chip away at the sides until I had a vague spoon shape that I could start whittling with my knives.

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I reached a point where the axe was just too large and clunky to start shaping the spoon, and then switched to my straight knife. This thing was brand new and SHARP so it took me a while to get used to the technique, but once I did it was unbelievably satisfying. Each cut would ease off a smooth sliver of wood, leaving a glassy finish behind.

I whittled away until the spoon outline was much sleeker and my hunk of wood actually looked like a spoon! Then – time for the hook knife.

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After numerous YouTube videos showing me different techniques of using a hook knife, I started mastering the ‘vegetable peeler’ and ‘twist’ effect. The hook knife is a brilliant little device, but trying to find the perfect biting point took me some practice. Eventually, each slice made a tasty scraping sound as I started shaping the bowl, and finally I had hollowed out my spoon.

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The last step was just to sand it down and oil it! I decided to carve a wobbly handle so the overall wobbliness would look more intentional. It’s not the most elegant or slender of spoons, but I’ve decided it will make a perfect ladle for lentil salads. The whole process was incredibly satisfying and I am completely addicted. Watch this space!

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In the Footsteps of Coleridge

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This piece was originally published on the Wordsworth Trust blog

We had gorged on sticky ginger loaf until, feeling plump, we stepped out into the garden to admire the garlic mustard and bluebells drooped in the April air. Through the tall grasses we followed a pathway to the back of the garden where Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself sat reluctantly beneath that lime-tree bower, his prison. Here we perched too, immobilised not by an injured foot, as his poor wife Sara had burnt him with spilled milk, but by contented bellies filled with coffee and cake. But while Coleridge was forced to stay behind as his friends wandered the Quantock Hills nearby, today we had other plans.

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In the lime tree bower

Easter has never been a biblical time for me; I have a mild interest in religious stories, but find infinitely more thrills in spiced buns and simnel cake. For the Easter weekend we decided to make use of the bank holiday and slip away to Somerset, where we had already completed our rounds of the cheese and cider shops in Cheddar. That morning, after a bristling wild swim in the Kings Sedgemoor river, we headed west to Nether Stowey and Coleridge Cottage, a National Trust property in which Coleridge lived for three years and wrote some of his finest works, including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. It is also the gateway to the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile walk across the Quantocks and Exmoor that was a favourite rambling route for Coleridge and Wordsworth; they walked extensively through the district and composed many of their ‘Lyrical Ballads’ while reflecting on the surrounding landscape.

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The Quantocks

We couldn’t quite manage the 51-mile route before work on Tuesday morning, so instead chose a circular section that within three hours would lead us back to the warm campervan and kettle. We crept out of Nether Stowey and made our way westward through tangled conifers whose clawing branches blocked out the world above us; after a while the track plateaued onto a vast hilltop, carpeted with thick heather and gorse. No flowers bloomed here; the gorse had been burnt as part of a heathland conservation scheme, and now stood dark and twisted against a slate sky. To the north we watched gulls drift over the Bristol Channel.

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Bluebells in Coleridge’s garden

It is thought that in a marshy copse near our walking place, Coleridge, William and Dorothy Wordsworth took a nocturnal ramble that inspired Coleridge’s poem ‘The Nightingale’:

’Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul 
Of all its music!

While nightingales may have been abundant a century or so ago, they are now marked on the Red List of endangered British birds; their vibrant song, like beads of rain falling onto a lake, has become a rare and precious voice in our landscape. Throughout May the RSPB held a Nightingale Festival across the country to raise awareness of their plight and enable visitors to listen to that same song that once hypnotised Coleridge over two hundred years ago. You can find out more about these events here.

Our route ascended once more to the summit of a barren peak, where we discovered a heap of ashen stones piled together by passing travellers; we dropped down into deciduous woodland and stopped suddenly on the path. Before us, a herd of thirty roe deer crossed cautiously between the trees, alarmed by our footsteps and seeking safer ground. We stood mesmerised as they slipped away into the woods, and continued our journey through until we reached the road that would take us back to the campervan, past thickets of wild garlic and a sleepy herd of cows who licked my hand as we passed. On the road I found a rusted horseshoe, which now rests in the sunlight by our kitchen window.

While landscapes shape and reshape themselves over the centuries, there is something comforting in knowing the paths we walk were once crossed by Coleridge and the Wordsworths two hundred years ago. This corner of Somerset is wild but quiet; the perfect escape from modern life’s drudgery.