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!

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Badgers, kestrels & Saxon ghosts

My October began with a glorious ramble through the North Downs in Surrey, surrounded by glittering sunshine and mist. This year I became a member of the West Surrey Badger Group, and we were enjoying a sponsored walk to raise money for the Badger Trust on National Badger Day. We spent a beautiful afternoon clambering through woodland to find active setts, only improved by the consumption of a white Magnum atop Newlands Corner. After eight pleasant miles I had clearly overdosed on fresh air, and almost fell asleep in front of Downton that evening.. (Fear not, I didn’t.)

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IMG_6536(Photos above taken by Martin D’Arcy & Alex Learmont)

At one point we found a bunch of sloe bushes absolutely brimming with berries. If I hadn’t already made a litre of sloe gin I would have foraged some, but I’d prefer to stay awake at least until the cheeses come out this Christmas Day. We were also joined by a hovering kestrel floating about; I love their slender bodies and dark tear marks like bearded tits. We also attempted to identify fungi along the way, but let’s not talk about that.

I tend to go off on one about politics these days, so I won’t ruin these lovely pictures by discussing David Cameron. But it’s important to know that badgers are currently under threat for no good reason, and we must do everything we can to protect them. The Badger Trust were partly responsible for encouraging Wales to scrap culling and embrace vaccinations and biosecurity. Wales now have incredibly low bovine TB rates, yet our government don’t seem to spot the connection… Odd.

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Aside from great company, kestrels and ice cream, my favourite part of the walk was climbing up to  the Church of St Martha-on-the-hill, standing 573ft above sea level. The current building was built around 1087, but the site has been used for pre-Christian worship since the Bronze Age. There are even Druids’ circles hidden beneath the bracken on the south side of the hill! In Saxon times, a mysterious martyrdom took place there (no record of who died or why), and the church stands between two ancient roads, as pre-Roman trackways would have followed the highest ridges to avoid woodland and swamps.

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Thanks to the West Surrey Badger Group committee for organising such a fabulous event, and thanks to everyone who sponsored me!

I raised £90 – that’s 18 doses of badger vaccine!

Autumn Notes

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run..’
Keats, To Autumn

How delicious September has been after the monotonous drizzle sponsored by August. Early each morning the South Downs envelope themselves in a misted cloak, the sun glinting sleepily through hazel trees and hedgerows. This year’s lambs have now been moved into the goat paddock for fresh grazing, while the older ewes plod gently up and down the western hill. One of the lambs, Juliet, was hit by flystrike in August and now boasts a strip of short wool regrowing round her belly, the result of blowfly medicine that makes the wool fall off. Perhaps I should knit something to keep her warm..

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Last week we foraged hawthorn, sloe, rosehip, elder and blackberries from the hedgerows, and turned them into a ruby-coloured jam which we smothered on buttered toast. I’ve been making sloe gin by plopping fat berries into bottles and topping up with Bombay Sapphire; it’ll be ready just in time for festive merriment..

On Tuesday we found a frog warming itself on the damp timbers of a wood pile, and our garden is still home to a family of hedgehogs fattening up for dark winter nights. We leave them crispy mealworms and clean water to drink; in return, they nibble the slugs off our raspberry plant.

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Being a January baby, I look to the cold months with utter glee, but a cocktail of thick jumpers and hot tea makes me accidentally forget the smaller creatures we share the world with. While I settle down inside to endless period dramas, our population of mice, rabbits, foxes, badgers, insects and birds must find food and shelter to survive until spring. They don’t care who inherits Downton Abbey, but they do adore a dry jumble of leaves in which to snooze.

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When Wildlife Wins

I’ve recently been finding it difficult to stay motivated in the fight for a healthy environment. Perhaps it’s the thought of four more years under a Conservative government that drains me of zest; four more years of badger culls, neonicotinoids, fracking plans, raptor persecution and de-subsidising renewables. I’m usually an optimistic kind of lady but some days I cannot understand how little society appreciates our planet; and how can we be so ignorant in thinking that our actions will not come back to haunt us?

So I turned to my lovely pals from A Focus on Nature, the young conservationists network where I’ve discovered my greatest nature allies. Of all the positive replies I received to my predicament, one of the most powerful was the reminder to think of how different our landscapes would be without conservationists. From rainforests to marine protection zones, the conservation movement has achieved so much since we started to realise the damage caused by human expansion.

This was just the ticket to jumpstart my eco-passion once more, so here are five British conservation success stories that have helped me remain focused on keeping our planet vibrant and healthy, for the sake of human survival as well as the homeless polar bears..

European Otter (Lutra lutra)

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Since nearing extinction in the 1970s due to pesticides and persecution, the happy otter has now returned to every county in England. When conservationists lobbied to change water quality laws and vastly improved freshwater habitats, otters slowly started paddling back to our waterways, and just five days ago a young otter was spotted on a trailcam in the River Rother, very near my home! However, as otters are slow to reproduce and freshwater can be a very changeable habitat, it’s essential that we keep our waters clean and healthy to ensure their continued survival.

Short-Haired Bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus)

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This little fuzzball was declared extinct in 2000 – yet it’s one of the most recent examples of how conservation efforts can bring species back from the dead. The short-haired bumblebee was once widespread throughout the UK, but loss of grassland habitats caused a major decline until the last bee was recorded in Dungeness. In 2009, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and other charities launched a reintroduction programme that proved successful in 2013; worker bees have now been found within 5km of the original nesting site.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Red KIte (Milvus milvus) A great shot of a kite in fight, with lots of light in its back, which enhances the rufous colour of its tail feathers, and frames the raptor in a halo of light. Gredos, Avila, Spain

Throughout continental Europe, the UK is the only country in which these magnificent birds of prey are on the increase. Under Stewart and Tudor reign in England, they were accused of scavenging and their persecution encouraged. Unfortunately, this persecution continued until just a handful of pairs remained in south Wales, but with conservation efforts numbers have rapidly increased and can now be found across the country. If you live in the southern half of England there’s a high chance you’ll see kites riding the thermals above rural areas, identifiable by their large size and forked tail. There are now so many pairs that the RSPB cannot survey them all!

Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris)

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Despite their legal protection in Britain, water voles have suffered a 94% decline over recent years. This is primarily due to predation by the American mink, which was introduced to British waters in 1929 for the fur trade.  With habitat degradation and pollution also playing their parts, this little vole almost disappeared from our rivers before conservationists stepped in. Although they are still endangered, a reintroduction programme by the South Downs National Park has been incredibly successful and water voles can now be found up and down the Meon Valley.

Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)

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The great booming bittern has been a reedbed resident for centuries; it is both secretive and silent as it scours wetlands for fish. But the reedbeds on which bitterns depend are disappearing rapidly due to excessive water extraction, and bitterns have suffered a huge decline as a consequence. However, thanks to habitat recreation and careful monitoring, this year saw the highest number of bitterns in England and Wales since the 1900s!

While it’s wonderful to remember every conservation success in recent years, there is still lots of work to be done. Please visit my About page to see which wildlife charities I support, and perhaps consider supporting them too. (You get good magazines.)

Note: Just after I published this, Twitter informed me that pine martens have officially been restored to Wales after a successful recovery scheme. Hoorah!

One Percent

There should probably be a little disclaimer before I continue with this post… I fully support refugees entering other countries and I believe they have the right to settle somewhere safe. Their homes have been devastated by a combination of forces, none of which are their fault; the question of their religion or culture should not even be entertained. I think most European countries are affluent enough to share with those in need, and I fully support the #RefugeesWelcome movement. With regard to long-term strategy, I’m not a politician and I don’t know enough about world affairs to pose a solution.

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What prompted me to write this post is a statistic I’ve seen floating around the Twittosphere, mainly by refugee supporters trying to hush the pesky racists. The meme explains how refugees aren’t trying to steal our jobs, incinerate National Trust properties or turn every fish and chip shop into a mosque… Yet this particular little box grated on me slightly. More than slightly.

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It’s this 1% stuff that’s bugging me. The idea that only 1% of the British Isles is developed is undeniably misleading. To the average Briton with little knowledge of ecology or geography, that would imply that 1% of the country is concrete jungle; all that remains is rolling hills and woodland as far as the eye can see, birds, butterflies and bunnies cascading out of every shrub.

While it’s true that urban areas do make up around 1% of British land space, that certainly doesn’t mean that the remaining 99% is fresh grassland ready for bulldozing. According to the World Bank, in 2011 the percentage of British land used for agriculture was 70.95%. We may spot a field of Jersey cows or a bright paddock of rapeseed crops, and think we are looking at quintessential British countryside. The truth is that crops, silage and livestock can cause serious deterioration in biodiversity and not provide much healthy wildlife habitat at all. In the last century we have lost 96% of our hay meadows, one of the most important habitats for bees and insects responsible for pollinating our food. How can we think such actions can continue without serious consequences for our world and ourselves?

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I suppose there’s something fundamentally wrong with the term ‘developed’. Britain is a ‘developing’ country; we are supposedly much better off because we have big buildings and a strong currency. The fact that we call urban areas ‘developed’ is baffling to me. We’ve poured concrete over green spaces and filled the surrounding land with litter, and this is ‘development’? This is progress? And now we’re claiming that there’s plenty of room for more people because we can just concrete over the rest of the country…

I do actually believe that we can provide homes for more people in this country through redeveloping wildlife-poor brownfield sites and preventing the rich buying five homes and leaving four empty. But we have to stop seeing our green spaces as blank canvases for more buildings. We pave over flood meadows, designed to naturally absorb water from streams and rivers, and then we wonder why flooding increases? We disconnect ourselves further and further from nature, and we are confused that mental health problems are on the rise. Healthy seas and woodlands provide vital carbon capture services, and if more farmers follow wildlife-friendly farming, our use for pesticides will decline rapidly; yet we continue to undervalue our natural landscapes and we underestimate the power of nature. As Tony Juniper wrote in The Guardian two years ago:

The longer we continue to disregard the roles played by natural systems and to build our economic castles on foundations of sand, the bigger the costs that will fall to future generations. While we might enjoy some comfort now as we degrade and plunder nature, it is our children and grandchildren who will pay.

I think my main point is not to confuse this 1% statistic with genuinely good reasons to help refugees. It’s been wonderful to see how many lovely people took part in the #RefugeesWelcome march through London today – I believe the number is officially ‘tens of thousands’. But last year I took part in the fantastic Climate March along Embankment, where the turnout was only around ten thousand. While it’s brilliant that citizens march for any kind of social justice, it’s quite amazing to see how our priorities can differ.

If you would like to help with either the Climate Crisis or the Refugee Crisis, here are a few useful links:

Calais Action
Médecins Sans Frontières
Refugee Council 

Greenpeace
Wildlife Trusts
Friends of the Earth 
RSPB

Hedgehog Street

This week I signed up to be a Hedgehog Champion as part of the Hedgehog Street campaign! It’s a new scheme coordinated by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The aim is to ensure our humble hedgehog remains a familiar face in British gardens as shockingly, we’ve lost a third of our hogs in the last ten years, mainly because they are losing potential habitat and are often forced onto busy roads.

By registering as a Hedgehog Champion, I have pledged to make my garden into a hedgehog haven, encouraging them to find a home amongst our shrubs and flowers. We have already discovered a whole family of hogs snuffling around our garden after borrowing a trail camera!

To help our hedgehogs further, I downloaded some material from the Hedgehog Street website and sent round a few leaflets to my neighbours. The key is to get lots of gardens to join up by cutting tiny holes in the fences, so hedgehogs have a long corridor to travel through in their search for food and friends. All my neighbours were happy to help, but most had no idea we even had a hedgehog population in our road as they are so elusive.

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It’s particularly important to help our hedgehogs at this time of year as they are trying to fatten up in time for winter hibernation. Please consider signing up to be a Hedgehog Champion and help our little hogs; the safer we make our gardens, the less time they’ll spend on the roads and the more hoglets they’ll make! Hopefully we can halt the terrible decline in British hedgehog numbers and make them a common sight once again.

You can register to be a Hedgehog Champion here and learn more about hedgehogging your garden here. Thank you!

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