Book Club: Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?

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‘I can’t imagine devoting seventy years to the song of the dunnock. And perhaps there’s my problem. It’s why the Great Lego City never got past the planning stage.’

The world of modern birding is a strange one. At the core it’s full of love and fascination and connection with all that’s sweet in life. But on the Outer Rim, in the Tatooines and Dantooines of the birding Republic, it’s not always so simple. I’ve met well-meaning birders obsessed with rarities and nothing else; who silently judge as you stare dumbstruck at a chaotic swathe of waders to find one shitty Med gull; who can’t believe you can’t identify that bar-tailed godwit. But these are the exceptions. 99% of birders are warm and welcoming people, happy to share scopes and point out those harder-to-spot species. The problem is that the birding community can seem exclusive without meaning to, and for those wanting to develop their knowledge alone, birding books tend to be either A is for Avocet types aimed at beginners, or 600-page encyclopaedias on treecreeper toes. Many are also written by extremely skilled birders who assume the reader already possesses a certain level of birding knowledge.

Cue Lev Parikian. Orchestral maestro, father, husband, wordsmith – and the Everyman of birding. Lev’s new book Why do Birds Suddenly Disappear? is a journey into birding from the outside in, and one that the majority of us can happily relate to. How many people loved watching wildlife when they were small, only to get distracted by growing up and booze and jobs and offspring? Suddenly you realise you haven’t taken the time to connect properly with nature for over a decade. This is exactly how I fell back in love with birding – or ‘birdwatching’ as I foolishly thought it was still called when I was 21. I’ve still got my childhood birding notebooks at home (complete with the compulsory first entry of ‘woodpigeon’), but over my teenage years I became much more interested in boys and parties, and it wasn’t until I finished my undergraduate degree that I started noticing the natural world again.

A passionate birder as a boy, Lev also fell victim to the distractions of growing up, until one day he decided to try and see 200 birds in one year – and this book was born. It’s an honest and self-aware narrative, exposing the fallacies of obsessive behaviour while at the same time, illuminating the magic of nature and the joy of drawing on the energy of other living creatures. From merlins in Northumberland to dippers in Edinburgh, traipsing for miles to see the slightest suggestion of a bird, Lev captures both the sublime and infuriating sides of birding with the storyteller’s charm he is so clearly gifted with.

I love birders. Hardcore, standing-in-the-rain, plumage-analysing birders that think about feathers from dawn to dusk. They are passionate, fascinating, and a great community to get involved with if you’re also bird-mad. The problem is – I’m not. If I have to give myself a label, I’m a naturalist. I love being outdoors in the trees listening to a nuthatch drip-drip-droop above my head, but I’m not bothered about actually seeing the bloody thing. And while many people today are disconnected from nature, I can’t help feeling that if this connection were reforged, they too would simply enjoy being outdoors rather than focusing all their energy on wing bar patterns. Birding can be an intimidating hobby for newcomers, but it’s narratives like this that will reassure and welcome them into the fray.

The beauty of Lev’s book is to remind us just how easy it is to reconnect with nature. You don’t need tick lists or money or expert knowledge – just a little patience and the alacrity to let the world surprise you. He also reminds us that it’s fine to start again, to pick up the threads of a passion from the past and begin to weave them back into our lives without the guilt of thinking you abandoned them in the first place. This is a warm, joyful and hilarious book; an uplifting read for those who have ever suffered at the hands of modern life, or for those who simply love the velvet symphony of a blackbird at dusk.

Lev Parikian is a conductor, writer and hopeless birdwatcher. His first book, Waving, Not Drowning, was published in 2013. Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? is published by Unbound and is available to buy on Amazon, Hive and all good bookshops. You can also check out his next Unbound project here

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Bonjour Bretagne!

Last month we watched waves of fresh European ocean sweep slowly past as we stood on a helipad, calling farewell to southern England as it disappeared into the darkening twilight. We’d come up for a little sea air, sailing across the English Channel on board the Bretagne, a ‘super ferry’ built last century at the Chantiers d’Atlantique Shipyard in St Nazaire. The Bretagne is one of a fleet belonging to Brittany Ferries, and we were traveling over to France with our little campervan stowed below, ready for a long weekend in the beautiful forests of Brittany. As our voyage was an overnighter, we watched the darkness settle before finding our way back inside to the Piano bar, sipping apple martinis before heading off to sleep in our cosy cabin.

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The next morning we arrived at St Malo, blurted a sleepy bonjour to the French customs officers and drove out of port towards the Côtes-d’Armor region of Brittany.  The name originates from the French word côtes meaning ‘coasts’ and ar mor, the Breton words for ‘sea’. Most of the signs were written in French and Breton, the latter being the traditional Celtic language spoken in Brittany for hundreds of years, and it reminded me of the Welsh/English signs found in Wales where the language is also kept very much alive.

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After a quick pitstop at Intermarche for madeleine cakes and crisps (essential fuel), we drove to our first destination – Lac de Guerlédan, an eight-mile manmade lake surrounded by forests. Here we brewed a cup of coffee and found a hiking route that would take us part-way around the lake and into the surrounding farmland. The air was full of cuckoos calling, a sadly rare sound in modern Britain, and we drank in the sound and warm air around us after a very long, grey winter in the UK.

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Our hike took us along the water’s edge and into the trees that grew there, before rising up away from the lake and out into open air. We found swallows just back from Africa and white wildflowers I didn’t recognise growing along the cliffs. The aroma of spring followed us everywhere; even though we were just a few miles south of our home in Hampshire, it was amazing how far spring had already spread through France. We felt like we were getting a sneaky peek of warmer days to come – particularly as the weather back home was, according to WhatsApp, ‘abysmal’.

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Sunlight shone through huge swathes of beech trees, the half-light dappling through to the forest floor. Halfway through the woodland it spread out into clearings made for forestry, where areas of stumps and cleared land were alive with butterflies and other pollinators. We found this fritillary-type butterfly basking on the bracken – I am yet to identify it so any help would be hugely appreciated!

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Such friendly people! We couldn’t be sure if our fellow hikers were residents or tourists, but every single person called Bonjour! as we passed and it became more and more difficult not to break into ‘Provincial Life’ from Beauty and the Beast.

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We stumbled upon the tubbiest shetland pony on our hike, tethered to the ground but able to wander around in the shade next to a paddock full of goats. We gave him one of our apples, and after some gentle nibbling gained his trust.

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Later we returned to the lake after getting slightly lost in the woods – turns out my French skills from 13 years ago aren’t as good as I thought, but Google helped us translate the signs as it always does (Praise It). We’d walked for miles, so brewed up another coffee in the campervan and ate madeleines while overlooking the lake. The swallows were frantic and the cuckoos had been calling all day. A peaceful, sleepy descent into evening.

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I fancied a quick dip in the lake before dinner, and after much summoning of courage I swam a few lengths as dusk settled and washed my hair in the cold, clear water while Dave relaxed on the bank. Afterwards we walked back to the camper to make some food on our little stove, sleeping next to the lake with the sound of cuckoos echoing long after the daylight had faded.

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The next day we drove north to Ploumanac’h, a pretty port from where the Pink Granite Coast stretches along the sea to Perros-Guirec. The area is named after the amazing colour of the rocks and sands that line the coast, and it’s become a mecca for geologists and birders alike, as just off the coast lies one of the oldest and largest bird sanctuaries in Brittany. The Sept Isles are home to 27 species of bird, including tiny puffins and France’s largest colony of northern gannets. We weren’t organised enough to have booked a boat out, but we loved exploring the main coastline and climbing over the rock formations instead. Afterwards we headed west to Finistère and the Monts d’Arrée, an ancient mountain range known as the ‘spine’ of the region. We parked up for the night along a quiet, solitary track surrounded on one side by forest, and on the other by heathland, bleak and spangled with charred gorse bushes.

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The following morning we decided to explore a more urban setting and stopped off at Dinan, a medieval walled town with buildings dating back to the 13th century. It was everything you’d want from a French town – crêperies swimming with the aroma of warm sugar, Gothic churches, sweet shops, coffee houses, cobbled streets, gargoyles and beautiful birds.

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By the evening we found ourselves on the beaches of Normandy watching a soft red sunset. The next morning we would be up early to catch our ferry from Caen, so we decided to park up nearby, the beach being only 20 minutes from the ferry port. Here we cooked up a sizzling mushroom and garlic pasta, eating the last of the washed rind cheese we bought from the supermarket. It would be the last slab of cheese we ate as we’ve now officially gone vegan, and where better to say au revoir to the greatest dairy product in the world than the warm shores of France? We dosed away the rest of the evening in peace, watching the sun dip below the horizon with a bottle of dry cider.

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Huge thanks to the fabulous Brittany Ferries team for such an easy, relaxing break across the Channel. As Dave and I are both self-employed and really busy for most of the year, we love taking these short breaks away to unwind and recharge, and this was one of the loveliest weekends yet. You can find more information on the nature and wildlife of Brittany through their website, as well as more details on traveling by ferry on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. Bon voyage!

Thirty Six Days

It’s been just over a month since I decided to start moving towards veganism, and although I originally intended to just start with cow’s milk, I’ve found myself naturally avoiding cheese, yoghurt and butter too. Aside from a pizza one Friday and the odd milky naan bread, I’m really embracing my new lifestyle and the only animal product I now eat on a regular basis is eggs.

The reason for this is because Dave and I are hoping to move from our flat into a house within the next year, and as soon as we do we’re going to keep ex-battery chickens and ducks in the garden. I’ll be eating their eggs with a fairly clear conscience, so I’ve decided to keep eating free range eggs in the meantime, preferably ones from smallholders – the muddy kind you find on the side of the road for £1 – as even commercial ‘free range’ poultry have an unnaturally short lifespan. I know some vegans will disagree with this but I’m happy with the decision and I’ve never been too bothered about calling myself truly vegan – it’s just a label.

*Update: Wednesday 2nd May – After further thought, discussion and a screening of Cowspiracy, eggs are now out of the picture too. Some may pounce on this as inconsistent, but this is a long, open-minded process and one that requires constant thinking and rethinking.*

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Roadside duck eggs in Sussex

I had two reasons for wanting to post an update this early into the transition to plant-based living.

First, to share how the process has made me feel – both physically and mentally. When I switched to vegetarianism four years ago, I loved the fact that I was making a change to protect the environment and stop the slaughter of animals, and this ‘warm feeling’ has always been the best part of vegetarianism. I did feel more healthy not eating meat on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t say it was life-changing.

Now that I have cut milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter out of my diet, I can honestly say I feel like a completely different person.

I don’t have any allergies, illnesses or intolerances; my organs are functional, I’m fit and healthy, and my body behaves in exactly the way a 26-year-old body should (lucky me!). So when I cut out dairy products I knew that any effects I felt would be completely down to my diet and nothing internal.

In the last month I have gained energy, lost weight and just felt happier. I quickly realised how much cheese I had been eating (!!!) and, although many plant-based foods are still quite fatty (avocado, coconut, nuts), they are obviously super healthy fats and consequently, while I haven’t cut down or even been counting calories, the weight is dropping off. I’ve also felt much more energised and willing to exercise. Dave’s been eating the same as me and he’s also felt a difference, although I’m keen to make sure he’s eating enough protein (see below) as he has two physically demanding jobs in building and drumming. It’s also just been wonderful to eat and drink what I like, knowing no animals suffered to produce it. That feels really cool.

All in all I am so pleased I decided to leave dairy products behind – I feel completely rejuvenated and a few lovely people have commented on how healthy and happy I look. From a health perspective it’s been an amazing lifestyle change and I have no intention of going back to commercial dairy. (I may still have the odd glass of hand-milked goat milk from our girls because if they aren’t milked they get really uncomfortable and otherwise it’s wasted.)

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Photoshoot for my Countryfile mag feature on goats – watch this space!

The second reason I wanted to post an update is to share a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way. I’m sure there are veteran vegan brains out there overflowing with recipes and delicious ideas and healthy titbits, but I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen and I wanted to share what I’ve discovered at the beginning of a long and exciting journey. I hope these help if you have also decided to make the change!

1. Nutrition
A plant-based diet can be supremely healthy when enjoyed properly, but if you miss out on the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs to function, you can become really unwell. I’m quite keen on healthy eating so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything vital. I drew up a little pie chart (below) and stuck it on the fridge to help us remember everything we need. Flaxseed is the bomb.

2. Snacks & Lunches
One of the hardest adjustments has been replacing impulse snacks, the ones you reach before between meals and after exercise. In the past I went for cheese or yoghurt with fruit, and it took a while to realise the cheese wasn’t there and think of something else. Nuts and dried fruit are great and I really love Koko coconut yoghurt, but I’ve also started making big batches of falafel for snacking and lunches, as well as homemade houmous and almond butter to have with ryvita and delicious pickles. Lunchboxes are a bit tricky too, but I found Vegan on the Go a really great book for cool ideas, given to me for Christmas by my niece Meredith!

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3. Blitzing
The blender is my new best friend! We only have a crappy hand-blender from Tesco but I’m planning on upgrading to something more sturdy because we use it for everything. Oat milk, houmous, smoothies, soup, falafel, guacamole – a blender will make plant-based living so much easier.

4. Alternatives
Vegan alternatives are a bit of a whirlwind but for every meat/dairy product out there, you can bet some weirdo in a laboratory will have concocted an alternative. Some of these are HORRIBLE and some are miraculous. Where possible I try to make my own alternatives rather than shop-bought stuff (which can be a bit sugary/salty). My absolute favourite recipe is crispy aubergine bacon, as discovered by Dave, and my favourite shop-bought thing is Koko dairy free yoghurt. Some things you’ll like and some you won’t, but it’s fun trying them out. Just remember to look at the back of the packet as sometimes things might taste ok but have very little nutritional value.

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Homemade chocolate, avocado & pistachio tart

5. Try New Things!
So this might be a little tricky if you’re a fussy eater or not into cooking, but the best thing about moving towards veganism has definitely been experimenting with new ingredients and techniques. I really love cooking and I’m not fussy at all (except celery, blurgh), and I’ve managed to make some really fun and tasty dishes using the wisdom of the internet, including working with tofu which I’d never quite mastered before. My latest purchase is This Cheese is Nuts by Julie Piatt – I love the process of cheesemaking and I can’t wait to try some plant-based caseiculture!

6. Chill Out
Vegans have a bit of a bad rep for being militant/angry/preachy, and while I get this can be annoying, once you understand the logic behind a plant-based lifestyle it can be hard to see how other choices can be justified. Having said that, one of the most important things I’ve found when making this change has been not to be too hard on myself for slipping up. One evening we had a lovely pizza, another time I had tea with cow’s milk in. The point is I’m making a cool change and massively reducing my demand on animal products and the environment, and if everybody in the world did that we would have very few problems with sustainability and pollution. So while I’m trying my best not to eat animal products (and really enjoying it), I’m not going to lose focus by guilt-tripping myself about that crisp I ate with dried milk powder in it.

I’ll probably update again in a few months or so, but for now I’m really loving my transition to plant-based living, and it’s been so inspiring to see some of my close friends doing it too. It’s a real movement with huge momentum behind it, and while everyone’s choice is their own, I would love to chat to anyone who is interested in moving away from meat and dairy.

Book Club: Sapiens

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‘Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?’

I’ve stumbled upon a few people in various stages of reading this book, and the predominant observation is: ‘It took me a few goes’. I first started it many months ago and gave up, not because the writing wasn’t engaging, but because the content was so bleak and depressing that I wanted to kill myself.

In a genuinely mesmerising journey through the history of mankind, I was amazed at how strong yet fragile our species is, and how much of our culture is based on absolutely nothing. Our currency, politics, religion, geography – it’s all upheld by a shared belief in something that doesn’t exist. And all of us – including myself – participate willingly. That’s not to say it’s a wholly bad thing, but the frames we build around human society are arguably some of the most fascinating structures in natural history.

But how do you reconcile yourself with the cruelty, destruction and psychoticism unleashed  on the world by your own species? Harari relays with tragic precision the relationship we have formed with the planet and its inhabitants, and it’s a truth that can’t be ignored. By the end, shrivelled like a prune in the bath with a gin and tonic, I was so appalled with my species that there really didn’t seem any option but to end it all.

Unfortunately I am not capable of this; my love for life is as strong as my love for gin. So instead I set about, as all good environmentalists do on a weekly basis, analysing my lifestyle and seeing if there was any way I could slightly relieve my own pressure on the earth. To start, I decided to commit to something I’d wanted to for years. Thanks to this book, I’m now en route to a plant-based lifestyle. I’m giving up cow’s milk products for the foreseeable future and the rest will follow. Cold turkey – pun intended – will lead to failure. Since talking about this on Twitter, most people have been very responsive and positive, but there will always be the occasional one who claims vegans are annoying, ‘ruining industry’ or just being preachy. To those I would say: I completely understand – nobody likes a militant or a whiner. But please read this book first and form your own conclusions.

Once the depression subsides, though, this book really is unforgettable. Harari’s storytelling is captivating, unravelling the story of man and woman in a compact way that nevertheless sends the imagination into overdrive. Most of the evolutionary jumps we made were by accident, barely noticed until years later, and many of the things we consider ‘progressive’ have actually made us work harder and experience lower levels of happiness. It’s a fascinating tale for the modern human, and although the central tragedy is unavoidable, it is also a manifesto for real change.

The Home Office: Milk

Having reshuffled my wardrobe at the beginning of March, I’m continuing my mission to make my freelance life as ethical and sustainable as possible. My home is now my office, and it’s a cool opportunity to rethink what I buy, eat and wear, to help reduce my demand on the planet.

I’ve been vegetarian for four years now. It was something I’d wanted to do for a while but, frightened of giving up my beloved chorizo, I had put it off until I was living in London, when I finally realised eating meat was incompatible with my passion for the natural world. I’ve tried to avoid preaching about it too much but, in a nutshell, eating meat is a luxury that is bad for our health and the planet. Humans don’t need meat to survive (in fact, we are better off without it), and I wasn’t able to justify the carbon, water and land usage, and the idea that another animal needs to suffer because ‘it tastes good’.

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The problem is that the dairy industry can be just as bad – and in another convenient nutshell, here is why:

  1. In order to produce milk, a dairy cow is impregnated (either artificially or naturally) to produce a calf. Once the calf is born, it is then taken away and often destroyed, so the milk can be harvested for human consumption. Once the cow’s milk supply starts to dry up, the whole process is repeated until her life ends. Sadly, although vegetarianism doesn’t directly kill animals, it still results in death and extreme distress for both mother and calf. The natural life span of a dairy cow is around 25 years in good health, but many do not reach the age of 10.
  2. Cow’s milk is designed for cows, and while I don’t quite go for the theory that it can be extremely damaging for humans to drink, it has been linked to heart disease and several cancers. Cows are often given antibiotics and hormones to keep them relatively healthy, which have questionable impacts on human health. As with meat, a varied diet would be much healthier without milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt.

I realise that meat and dairy are entire industries on which many people’s livelihoods depend, and I’m also aware that there are some ways these industries off-set some of the damage, such as conservation grazing and good habitat management. But for me, having tried to be as open-minded as I can, I just can’t justify such a colossally destructive industry in its current form. Every day we cause more and more damage to the environment, and while I care about my fellow humans, I’m really not sure we can keep prioritising our own lives over the health of the planet – especially when we need a healthy environment to survive. Trying not to judge others for their own decisions, I’m just focusing on my own lifestyle and how I can make a few changes to improve my relationship with the planet.

Having said that, giving up meat is an awful lot easier than giving up cheese, which is essentially my favourite food group. So to ease the transition to a plant-based lifestyle, I’m starting with milk. Like most Brits, I drink gallons of tea and coffee every day, plus breakfast smoothies, cereal, pancakes, porridge, mashed potato and all kinds of milky goods. So, with a fond farewell to cow’s milk, I’m going plant-based!

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When I started talking about this on Twitter, the lovely gang at Rude Health offered to send me a batch of their entire range of plant-based milks. I didn’t want this to be a sponsored post in any way, but it did allow me to try almost every kind of vegan milk on the market as a controlled experiment. So while I’m not endorsing Rude Health, they did open up my options, and my honest opinion is that all their products were delicious on their own. But I wanted to try using these milks in place of my usual cow’s milk, to see which ones provide the best functioning alternatives.

The products I tried were (all Rude Health and organic): Tiger Nut, HazelnutCashewAlmondOat and Coconut.

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I tried these milks in a number of different snacks and recipes over a few weeks, and the first thing I noticed is that they all taste great when added to other cold things. Smoothies, protein shakes and cereal are all delicious with every type of milk, which is excellent! The problems begin when you turn the heat up. Porridge is fine, as the milk and oats are slowly heated together, but when you add the cold milk to other hot liquids, they start to curdle. The horror! I decided to use each milk to make a tester cup of tea and coffee (both Azera instant and fresh ground), to see how the taste and texture varied, and I roped my boyfriend in as a guinea pig. This is the most scientific I’ve felt since GCSE Chemistry.

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TEA
Because black tea doesn’t contain any tiny granules, I don’t think there is anything to make the milk curdle, and so not one of the plant-based milks did. In fact they all made a delicious cup of tea, although each did bring a certain something to the table. Both of our favourites were cashew and oat – the cashew is particularly good as it tastes the most similar to cow’s milk and is superbly creamy. Our other favourites were coconut and tiger nut, but we found the almond and hazelnut a little too nutty, although probably a good choice if you like your tea strong as an ox.

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We tried three different kinds of coffee for this. First, I made a normal cup using Azera barista-style instant with hot water, and then added the milk. Next, I brewed a pot of fresh ground coffee and added the milk to this. Both of these gave the same results, and I think it’s because they have tiny granules in them. The only two that didn’t curdle were coconut and tiger nut, whereas the others all did unless you swirled them with a spoon every few minutes. However, the hazelnut and almond tasted DELICIOUS despite the curdling, bring a lovely nutty flavour to the cup, and for my third coffee test I decided to make a mini-latte (photo above) by heating the milk on the hob before adding it in. Success! Although a little more effort, the mini-latte was by far the tastiest and creamiest, and also worked well with cashew and oat. I’ve decided to either drink my coffee black or make these mini treats on the hob to get my caffeine fix.

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Both Dave and I are already feeling much healthier after giving up cow’s milk for just a few weeks, and we’ve stopped buying non-vegan cheese, butter and yoghurt at home. The main problems with these delicious plant-milks is first, the cost, and second, the packaging. Tetrapacks are not recyclable in my area, which means sending paperboard, aluminium and polyethylene to landfill. The price of plant-milk is also high compared to cow’s milk, although I realise this is because cow’s milk is incredibly underpriced by supermarkets.

To combat both of these problems, I decided to try something else – making my own! All of the products I tried were lovely, but I found oat milk to be tasty and versatile, and the ingredients are extremely cheap. I’m still playing around with quantities, but the method is fabulously easy. I simply blend up organic oats with water (approximately 1 part oats to 3-4 parts water) and a little sprinkle of sea salt, strain through a muslin cloth – et voila! Decant into a bottle and give a good shake for each use, but the final product is delicious and works in everything.

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It’s difficult to convey something when you’re passionate about it without sounding too preachy, so if you have made it this far then thank you! I’m not too bothered about labels and I don’t think you’re evil for the choices you make in the supermarket (I have definitely stolen pepperoni off pizza since ‘giving up’ meat), but it’s surprisingly easy to make little changes in our lives, and without a few sacrifices and compromises, we can’t really expect much to change. I’m excited to continue my journey into plant-based living, and I’m always looking for new tips and advice – so please do share!

More from my ‘Home Office’ series: Threads

Back in stock!

Happy Monday! After lots of (very lovely) requests over the last couple of years, I’m very pleased to reveal that I have designed a brand NEW range of my greetings cards, inspired by foraging and the wild creatures we share our landscape with.

It’s been a while since I’ve produced cards – the process is surprisingly time-consuming and when I was working full time it just wasn’t viable. Fortunately I’ve now gone freelance, which means I have more time to pursue the things I love! The designs are based on some of our most iconic species of wildlife, and the edible plants that we share with them. These include:

• A dormouse sleeping in a nest of hazel leaves
• A comma butterfly feeding on a wild marjoram flower
• A redwing on the hawthorn berries in winter
• A badger hiding in the wild garlic

I wanted to create a set of designs that accompany my new book Food You Can Forage, which is out now with Bloomsbury. Each of the four designs are matched to a British season, and all cards are blank inside for multiple uses. The packaging is also plastic-free and fully recyclable. They are available to buy through the SHOP tab at the top of my website, or by clicking here. Enjoy!

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Poke Pudding

The BBC told me it would feel like -6°C today, but I assumed I knew better and decided to go for a run in the snow, which was very unpleasant and gave me a headache. I did, however, find a redshank pottering about in the weeds, and the lake looked very beautiful as it started to freeze over. A coot tried to land in the water and slid over an ice float (amusing).

On returning to the warmth of the flat, I spent the rest of the day wrapped in jumpers, writing about rivers and listening to a favourite Poirot (Cat Among the Pigeons). The day was interspersed with lovely snow flurries, and between them I watched the birds seek shelter in our tree. The long-tailed tits were hanging about, also known by the folk name of ‘poke puddings’ due to their round little bodies, and they are usually so wriggly I find it impossible to take their photo. But today, with the poor weather, I managed to catch this one clinging to a budding twig. Hurry up, spring!

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Subzero

It wasn’t my brightest idea to get my hair cut on Friday, on possibly the coldest week of the year so far. I had a good inch or two snipped off to bring me back up to shoulder length (choppy for spring), but now my neck is exposed and I’m feeling very sorry for myself.

This morning we sipped coffee and watched the sparrows on the sofa, revelling in the sunshine without actually facing the subzero temperatures. Eventually the sunshine was too tempting, but to cope with the cold we decided to run a 6-mile loop through Steep and Sheet, where we could see the Poet Stone from the road and the birds called down to us in the winter sun. By the end our bodies were so warm, and the sunshine so bright, that if we closed our eyes we were transported to the pub garden in mid-July.

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In the evening I made the warmest, most comforting meal I could think of. In July we’d picked wild marjoram and dried a few sprigs in a jar, to revive the flavour of summer in any season. I ground the dried leaves and flowers into a batch of dough and made a crispy garlic focaccia. With the collection of root vegetables we had rolling around in the fridge, I brewed a spicy soup with carrots, parsnips, sweet potato, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, thyme, sage, cider vinegar and borlotti beans, with a scoop of yoghurt swirled in for flavour. On the side, a glass of tonic with homemade rhubarb & lime gin infused with the rhubarb glut from June.

Keep warm, friends!

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The Home Office: Threads

I recently made the decision to leave my beloved job, and finally take the plunge to try living as a freelance writer and artist before I’m burdened with a mortgage or offspring. I’m technically still employed until next Wednesday, but I’ve had this week off (holiday to take) – so this is the beginning, really! A new beginning, and a new life.

To celebrate this I decided to take a closer look at how I run my home, from the coffee I drink to the way I wash my clothes. It’s a space not just for sloe gin and bananagrams, but now my office too, and since I’ll be spending so much time here, writing, painting, cooking, keeping warm and keeping the flat tidy, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to revamp my living/working space and make a few more ethical choices.

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I decided to start easy. The other day I was trying to get dressed for the pub, and I became so irrationally enraged at not finding something to wear, I declared there and then to revamp my entire wardrobe. Over the last few months I’d been running, cutting down on sugar and booze, and generally trying to feed my belly good stuff, and consequently my body was now smaller than yesteryear. Great! But it also meant lots of my old clothes didn’t fit or flatter my shape, and I’d had enough. Enough of clinging onto horrible old jumpers for nostalgia, and keeping endless pairs of tights because I just couldn’t be bothered to sort through the ladders.

Last weekend, I went through every item of clothing I owned and took two thirds of my wardrobe to the charity shop in big, delicious bags. I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard, trying to decide whether I still needed my lime green Duke of Edinburgh polo shirt from secondary school (NO). But afterwards, with just a few beautiful garments left on the shelves, I felt wonderfully free. I’ve always tried to follow this pearl of wisdom from William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ I had rid myself of every item I would never wear, and now I could start anew.

Upon squashing the bags into the arms of a fragile old lady in Sue Ryder, I then enjoyed an hour of guilt-free charity shopping as I closed the loop on my wardrobe revamp. I had given my clothes away to someone who would appreciate them, and could restock with second-hand, well-loved clothes from someone else. Each week I now wander into town and hunt for another bargain, rather than feeding the fast fashion monster we are all inevitably drawn towards.

Today’s treat (above) was an ivory Zara shirt in Moroccan print for £4 from Dog’s Trust. Divine!