Ancient Spring

It is March, and a Hampshire sun meanders quietly over the crest of Butser Hill in Chalton. Dawn brings a murky light not yet unburdened from the mists of winter, but the South Downs are swept by the splendour of spring as morning arrives and the song thrush begins his opera. Nestled in downland and protected from Solent winds, an ancient farm lies across the landscape, a cluster of roundhouses and prehistoric dwellings all that remain of Britain’s past. These little houses form witch-hat silhouettes against the sun and soak up the warmth like baking bread; it will probably rain in an hour.

12314543_910817515638111_6325359578163485874_o

In the half-light a shadow stirs on the hillside. New lambs seem to spring from the earth overnight like woolly mushrooms. They are spindly, feeble things protected by haughty mothers overindulgent with warm milk; these are the latest descendants of an ancient breed called Manx Loaghtan, bringing meat and wool to mankind since the Iron Age. Both rams and ewes grow up to six coiled horns on their heads, left to wander the thistled fields and face salted gales from the sea. Today this lamb huddles close to its flock; three nights ago a more fragile newborn was taken to the woodlands nearby, natural sustenance for a vixen and her bundle of cubs.

12800365_10153527310622252_637293008377129765_n (1)

The morning sun wakes two cockerels from their roost in the Neolithic longhouse roof. These pompous fowl are the closest of chaps, two free range bachelors roaming the kingdom in search of life’s greatest gifts: ladies and luncheon. They totter from paddock to paddock, startled frequently by Fagan the farm dog and eternally outraged by the pheasants invading their realm, that strange symbol of the British countryside who wander lost about the land, constantly searching for their Asian motherland. The pheasants hide jade eggs in the dew-drizzled hedgerow, mottled females cloaked perfectly in the hues of surrounding foliage, the males consistently poor in disguise or dignity.

12745817_10153485425367252_1968972144710876786_n

By noon the goats are clambering on the logs in their paddock, each trying to stand a fraction taller than the others to prove their caprine prowess. They share the nettles with spring’s first solitary butterflies; common blues, meadow browns and gatekeepers all rest quietly in the long grass. A small tortoiseshell flitters through a forest of rosebay willowherb, whose lofty foliage cones are not yet warm enough for mauve frothy blossoms. On the gatepost waits a mottled comma like an autumn leaf, frozen in time. The farm’s avian population are in full chatter as the March sun begins to descend into the undulating hillscape, snapping up invertebrates and shouting raunchily at potential lovers. Goldfinches fill the trees that line the cobbled track, as near as they can be to the wild teasels that grow along the bank, and by the old feed shed stands a towering conifer, its branches home to three tiny goldcrests hopping along like a toy train.

12633591_941230345930161_978952229598970560_o

Somewhere in a dusky hedgerow the yellowhammer calls goodnight to his companions with a little bit of bread and no chee-eese. They sit like browning lemons in the hazelnut trees, too fleeting to watch but easy to hear. Overhead the kites soar, kestrels hover and buzzards mew, one last crepuscular hunt before sleep takes hold. In the Saxon hall, built of solid chestnut timbers and woven wattle panels, a barn owl has taken to devouring its prey, sheltered from wind by the dry thatched roof. It swoops and twists in the air like a ghost of ancient England, trapping voles and bulging rats between its talons. Tomorrow morning a pellet will be found on the chalk floor, with little skulls and mouse tails tangled in a clump.

The song thrush has finished his opera now, later than he did yesterday and just a little earlier than he will tomorrow; the roundhouse fires have simmered away and the lambs are squashed between guarded ewes. A waxing moon beams down upon the Roman walnut tree, oak leaves and sprouting primrose. The farm will sleep through another spring night beneath a blanket of stars, a wild, snoozing capsule hidden from modernity.

Black Forest Garden

The Black Forest region in Baden-Württemberg was named silva nigra by the Romans due to its murky thickets and impenetrable darkness. On the bench where I’m resting in a nocturnal spa garden, the trees enclose us like a brooding cobweb silhouetted by the milky pallor of starlight. I’m on a wooden stool outside an earth sauna; this is one of Germany’s famous spa suites in the mountains … and nudity is compulsory. What started as an awkward half hour of a twenty-something fighting every impulse to be throughly British has now blissfully transformed into one moment of silence, while I contemplate and cool off. My toes are pushing into cold, wet grass and the night air swells with aromas of pine cones and burnt wood. It is inescapably dark and quiet. And it’s zero degrees. Back to the sauna…

image

Adventures in Cheesemaking

This post was also featured on the Countryfile blog.

Aside from the drizzle and close proximity to manure, working on a farm is quite pleasant. Early this morning a carpet of frost had settled along the turf as two red kites swept through the sky above our random pheasant population, the dregs of an old shoot that died out long ago on a neighbouring farm. There are no rifles to fear now so they just totter around eating grain and infuriating the chickens.

Of all the naughty livestock living here, my heart truly belongs to our four lady goats. Yarrow, Bella and Sorrel are grandmother, mother and daughter; all are stroppy and bewitching. But the most meek and temperate of the four is Áine, who shares her name with the Irish goddess of midsummer, sunshine and fertility. In September she gave birth to a son named Comfrey, who has since gone to live the bachelor dream as a stud on another farm. This means that for the last few months she has kindly provided us with fresh milk (in exchange for fruity snacks), and I have been experimenting with making my own goat’s cheese. By Christmas I believe I cracked the caseiculture process, so I thought I’d share..

IMG_7998.JPG

Ingredients:
5 litres fresh goat’s milk
1 vegetarian rennet tablet
1/8 tsp mesophilic culture
1 tsp salt
Optional: Chives or black pepper

Equipment:
Large cooking pot
Food thermometer (like the ones used in coffee shops)
Wooden spoon
Colander
Teatowel

IMG_7955 (1)

If you happen to have a goat handy there’s nothing better than fresh milk from the udder, although you do have to watch out she doesn’t kick it all over. At Áine’s peak she was producing around a dish of milk each time, which freezes really well if you want to store it up or cheese it later.

IMG_7938

Once you have around a gallon of fresh milk, it can be beneficial to pasteurise it. Pasteurising kills off lots of potentially harmful bacteria, but it does also mean that the cheese can rot if left out too long; unpasteurised cheese simply becomes more pungent. If you do want to pasteurise your milk, warm it slowly to 30°C and then remove it from the heat.

IMG_7947

Once the milk is heated, sprinkle in the mesophilic culture and stir slowly with a wooden spoon until it is fully integrated. Allow the mixture to rest for 45 minutes so the culture can develop, and then dissolve the rennet tablet in a small amount of water. Add this to the milk and continue to stir until the mixture is fully combined. Transfer the milk to a bowl and leave to rest in a warm place for 12-18 hours, covering it with a teatowel.

IMG_7948

The mixture should now resemble a thick, yogurty substance. Line a colander with a teatowel and place over another bowl. Transfer the yogurty stuff into the lined colander and allow any the curds to separate from the whey as it drips into the bowl – this may take up to 12 hours depending on consistency. As the curds and whey separate, the acidity of the cheese is developing and enriching the flavour of the cheese.

IMG_7964

Once the curd has drained, place it in a bowl and work in the salt, which adds flavour, promotes the shedding of moisture and slows bacterial growth. At this point the cheese is ready to eat so if you would like to add other flavours, now is your moment. I chopped fresh chives into one and mixed cracked black pepper into the other. Due to the nature of the recipe this cheese is best eaten fresh – I recommend with caramelised onion chutney and digestives…

You can also use the whey to condition your hair! It sounds odd but I swear you won’t smell of curdled dairy. Have a glass of it beforehand to lock in the nutrients, and the whey makes everything really shiny.

IMG_8003.JPG

Listening to the song thrush and yellowhammers tooting away in the hedgerow, I am very excited for spring to arrive this year; I will be hunting around to create delicious treats from natural plants, fungi and farm produce. If I can just make my elderflower champagne as potent as last summer’s, I’ll consider it a good year…

Wild January

I’ve literally eaten five hundred truckles’ worth of stilton this festive season, so although I was reluctant to say goodbye to the Christmas break it was wonderful to be back outside doing a little physical activity at the farm.

My drive down the track this morning was brightened by those other creatures embracing a crisp, drizzle-free dawn; a hare bounded across flint stones buried deep in the rapeseed field, and as we paused to open the gate a kestrel watched us judgementally from the hazel trees. The copse that runs along the track brims with goldfinches flittering and chortling together in the sun, and as we bundled past in my ‘vintage’ Ford Focus, they gathered together and hurtled away through the bright air.

The goats are much happier now they’ve been freed from their piggery prison, as we were forced to shut them in over the Christmas break due to excessive rain waterlogging their paddock. Upon their release they spent two hours leaping blissfully around in the green, and this afternoon I fed them the shell from my cantaloupe. Perhaps the strangest sensation of this mild winter was hearing the song thrush tinkling his refrains. At first I couldn’t detect anything beneath the brash blast of robin song, but later I eavesdropped on a vibrant conversation between two thrushes in the conifer trees. I couldn’t quite make out the topic of their chat, but I imagine it revolved around gym membership deals and leftover figgy puddings.

1919067_10153420859747252_3235774026150609087_n

Every Child Wild: Techno Kids

This is my next post written for the Wildlife Trust’s #EveryChildWild campaign, all about getting children outdoors and enjoying nature. You can find more information here.

unnamed (8)

How do you tempt a twenty-first century child away from the thrills of Minecraft, YouTube and iPad screens? Technology has become a staple part of children’s lives; even if parents try to reduce their child’s dependence on the digital world, most schools now include hours of computer time and they are bound to be jealous of friends’ gadgets. So how can we get them to switch off and go outside – and better yet, do it voluntarily?

My uncle thought up a superb solution. It was autumn half-term, Christmas had already become a financial drain, and he didn’t fancy spending limited holiday time in motorway traffic. So, he decided that he and my two cousins, both emotionally invested in their tablets and consoles, would celebrate half-term with a family ‘No-Tech Day’ at home.

They rustled up a fire in the garden, surrounded by crisp autumn leaves and robin song, and cooked sausages and fajitas over the flames. They set up targets on the garden wall and practised air-rifle shooting until it was too dark to see – ten year old Daisy was particularly pleased to tell me she got a bullseye! They boiled water in a kelly kettle and roasted marshmallows on twigs, before coring fresh apples and filling them with dark sugar and raisins. These were wrapped in foil over the fire for a sumptuous outdoor dessert, although one of them accidentally exploded…

When I asked if they enjoyed themselves, both of them agreed it was one of the best days they’d spent as a family. Daisy loved the fresh air, and Joe, who is thirteen, said he usually spent his free time playing computer games or doing homework. He thought he’d find it hard being away from the small screen, but he loved being outdoors doing something different and didn’t touch the computer until the next morning.

Technology can be a dream when it comes to keeping children entertained; gadgets are fantastic tools for educating and inspiring everyone, but it’s important to remember that they are a new addition to childhoods. Before my generation, there were no computers to keep children busy. They had to use their imaginations and curiosity to explore the world around them, and we mustn’t forget how important the natural world is in the creation of young, healthy minds. From fostering frogspawn to climbing trees and inhaling the salty air of our coasts, interacting with the wild is vital for children to develop. And fortunately, nature is an awful lot cheaper than a PlayStation 4…

Gifts from the Hedgerow

This piece was originally posted on the advent series for A Focus on Nature, the largest young conservationists’ network in Britain. The theme this year was ‘Gifts from Nature’ – you can read the original here!

12304078_10153336700127252_4469477046821166423_o

Winter is the season of feasting. Somewhere between potted stilton volcanoes and fruit cake heavier than Stonehenge, my most treasured foods are those ripened in the woodlands and hedgerows throughout the year, ready to be simmered, infused and fermented in time for Christmas. Once the blackbirds and dormice have looted the plumpest berries it’s time to swoop in for the harvest; this is nature at its most generous.

In spring the countryside is still recovering from the bitterness of winter. There is little to eat amongst the shrubbery, but our woodlands almost swell with the unmistakeable aroma of wild garlic, whose latin name Allium ursinum refers to the brown bear’s habit of digging up their bulbs for a pungent snack. Combined with nettles, wild garlic is the perfect ingredient for homemade pesto, and using Old Winchester cheese instead of parmesan deems it vegetarian friendly.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 14.29.47.png

Summer brings boughs strewn with sprigs of elder blossom (Sambucus nigra), reaching their prime in the month of June. The lime-cream flowers should be picked in whole florets, after which they can be transformed into cordial, cake or sparkling wine, which is terribly alcoholic… this year we added unwaxed orange zest to the barrel for an extra kick.

As the colder months creep in once more, sloe berries (Prunus spinosa) grow fat and mauve on their thorny branches. These should be plucked, slitted and crammed into bottles of gin, left to infuse with sugar for at least two months to make a delicious concoction. The combination of sloe gin, elderflower cordial and tonic also makes a fantastic cocktail…

IMG_6343-e1447443371836 (1)

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) are abundant in autumn, and if you can locate a few apple and pear trees to scrump from, nothing beats a fruit crumble with porridge oats scattered on top. For those skilled in berry identification you can also gather hawthorn, rowan, sloes, rosehips and elderberries, simmer them into gloop and set it as hedgerow jam – wonderful with roast dinners or simple bread and butter.

I had a chance to taste something new and intriguing this year when one of my workmates visited the West Country and returned with a bucket of sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). When eaten raw, these bright orange berries taste like those Toxic Waste sweets that make you cry, but they contain lots of vitamins and are a favourite winter fruit for fieldfares! It mainly grows on coasts where salt spray from the sea reduces competition from other plants, but if you can find it the juice makes an excellent addition to champagne.

buckthorn.jpg

And so, with a cupboard full of gin and jam, I shall settle into winter and grow fat like a bear with too much honey. I love everything that nature has to offer, but there is nothing more satisfying than foraging free food from the trees and not worrying about packaging or pesticides. Here’s to a happy Christmas and a fruitful new year!

Every Child Wild: My Childhood

I’m very pleased to say that I’m now blogging for the Wildlife Trusts’ #EveryChildWild campaign on the Hampshire Wildlife Trust website here! It’s a great campaign about getting children outside and exploring the natural world – you can read my first post below…

photo1-1 (1)

It’s only been a decade since my childhood came to a close. The most magical memories are infused with conker trees, riverbanks, pet woodlice and blackbird song, roaming the South Downs and beyond with my big dog and even bigger family. My grandparents once lived within five acres of ancient woodland, and every weekend after tea and battenburg we would concoct mud pies oozing with beetles, feed finches, build dens and explore gardens speckled with derelict statues abandoned years before. I particularly remember my first birding notebook, in which I can proudly recall recording my riveting first twitch – a potbellied woodpigeon.

In the time that’s passed, the lives of children have changed dramatically. I was one of the last generation not to have the technology overlords come to power; we were allowed a few offline PC games and I think we inherited a PlayStation at one point, but we didn’t have Minecraft and it still cost a bomb to use dial-up. But it isn’t just the digital age that’s caused the shocking statistic that a quarter of 8-15 year olds have never played outside their garden by themselves. The school curriculum neglects natural history and outdoor learning, the media panics us with horror stories of lost children, and as busy parents have to cope with the tribulations of modern life, a child’s right to roam can lay forgotten.

I now work on an educational farm, where we meet children from an array of different backgrounds every day. And while it’s true that many are accustomed to fresh air and mud, there are even more from particularly urban areas who seem to visit green spaces about once a year. In September, one child informed me with excitement that a ‘sheep’ had escaped! It turned out to be Millie, the farm’s border terrier… Despite such a range of visitors, the most rewarding aspect of my job is that by the end of each day, every child has forgotten their fear of germs and dirt, and has rekindled their natural desire to play outdoors, explore the world, stroke animals and be marinated in mud.

My eldest sister is about to have her first baby, and I’ve been designated as the one to ‘teach it about birds and stuff’. While I am of course very happy to do this, I hope that in the future my children will be able to discover this for themselves; not only in the playground and classroom, but by being allowed to embrace their natural instinct to explore and love the wild world around them.

Edit: The baby has now been born – she’s called Meredith!:)

Tea with a Barn Owl

I spend my working days on an ancient farm in the South Downs National Park, and over the last few months we have been constructing an Anglo-Saxon longhouse based on local settlement excavations from the 1960s. The timbers were hand-hewn by a treewright specialising in woodland management and coppicing, and the walls are made of beautifully woven split-hazel wattle. It’s a rather magnificent masterpiece, and the thatched roof has proven popular with a particularly special visitor…

IMG_4228 (1)

Early one November morning, our thatcher arrived at the house to discover a large owl pellet on the floor. Being the so-called ‘nature nerd’ of the farm, I am usually given bits of bone to examine or feathers to collect; someone once brought me a baby bunny in a bucket to look after… The pellet was therefore swiftly brought to my attention and I took it home to inspect further with a lovely cup of Earl Grey; tweezers in hand, I dissected it to discover its origin and gruesome ingredients. It was a barn owl pellet! Dark in colour and notably dense, it was brimming with vole skulls, spindly bones, tufts of fluff and even a rubbery tail.

IMG_7639

IMG_7638

The farmer next door is very fond of wildlife and a few years ago, he found a dead tree and replanted it in his field, complete with barn owl box. As there aren’t many droppings or nesting signs in our house, we think this barn owl simply stops by to consume his grizzly meals, before swooping off into the night to hunt. The next evening we watched in the darkness to see if he would return, huddled round the fire beneath a blanket of stars. We listened to the tawny owls catcalling each other in admiration, but there was no sign of our ghostly visitor. Perhaps tomorrow night?

IMG_7675

Les Étoiles

I was sleepily awake on Friday evening when BBC Breaking News informed me that Paris had been attacked by terrorists. Whilst inevitably horrified, I wasn’t shocked; sadly, the inexplicably evil acts of ISIS have become so commonplace that it’s difficult to feel anything but despair at their continued existence. After the weekend I didn’t want to devote any more of my liberated brainwaves to ISIS, so instead I decided to dwell on peace. Today I also made a sad decision which I may come to regret, so this evening I wanted to think about something more positive.

The speaker of this poem is watching the night sky and wondering how he might reorder the constellations if he could. He sees the ‘Crown of Rule’ (Corona) the ‘Scales of Trade’ (Libra) and the ‘Cross of Faith’ (Crux), and believes the bodies they represent – government, commerce and religion – are just as destructive as the ‘Sword’ of Orion’s belt. This poem epitomises everything I find difficult about modern civilisation; I don’t believe governments work for the people they serve, I don’t give a shit about having a healthy economy at the expense of the environment, and I don’t believe in organised religion. I hope this stirs a new thought or two in your mind, as it did in mine.

The Peaceful Shepherd  by Robert Frost

If heaven were to do again,
And on the pasture bars,
I leaned to line the figures in
Between the dotted stars,

I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

9398807a57f71d737bf5a85b7bd1b454

Coffee with Coal Tits

I’ve done something silly to my back and consequently spent this morning off work, watching the chaotic avian community of my garden enjoying breakfast. We are fortunate enough to find an abundance of starlings and house sparrows in our garden, two species which I know can be hard to find in other regions. When we first moved in they squabbled horribly, but after adding more feeding stations across the garden they now coexist quite cheerfully.

12017469_10153276603062252_4452627378422096055_o

My favourite thing about our autumn garden is the range of colours in the ripening berries. The pyracantha sets the foliage on fire with their tangerine hues, while the dog rose and rowan boughs lay scattered with crimson baubles, waiting to be gobbled by hungry blackbirds.

12119966_10153276603177252_7773590903016427716_o

The blue tits, great tits and goldfinches are particularly fond of the peanut feeder at the back, slightly hidden by shrubbery which I suppose makes them feel safer. Dunnocks are often seen pottering around collecting seeds carelessly dropped by others, and our newest arrival is a chubby coal tit. He flits from shrub to feeder so quickly that we barely have time to say hello, but his bright white crest alerted me to his arrival just in time to take a quick photo through my binoculars, as he shared a morning treat with the sparrows.

10623399_10153276603137252_6535822461678757592_o