An introduction to foraging from James Reynolds, Head of Media & Communications for RSPB Scotland.
Nature's larder: making the most of spring greens
For the forager, the winter months offer extremely lean pickings. It is a time to hunker down and savour the goods that one invested time and energy in seeking out and then preserving for the leaner times: sloe gin, elderflower wine or port, dried mushrooms or some wild nuts and preserved berries. But it is a simple fact that there will be a distinct paucity of greens on the shelves. Apart from wintercress and wood sorrel, both not at their best but nevertheless still available in winter, there is little chlorophyll-rich herbage to supplement the diet from nature’s larder.
So it is that the arrival of Spring is always an eagerly anticipated event for the wild foody. And when it arrives, and the green shoots begin to emerge, it makes that simple, primal delight of hunting for one’s dinner all the more rewarding. Any humble walk or outdoor pursuit is suddenly enhanced as one looks out for something to munch on the move or pick and take home to transform into a delicious meal.
Amongst the first of such plants to announce themselves – more often to the nostril before the eye - is wild garlic, or ramsons, as they are often known (Allium ursinum). For anyone new to foraging, it is a good first plant to learn to positively identify. Belonging to the same family of plants the onion, it is quite unmistakeable if its smell together with its habitat of damp or shady hedgerows and woodlands, and its appearance, are all taken into account. It has long, lanceolate leaves that taper at both ends, and umbels of small, white, star-shaped flowers that emerge in April.
The leaves are the best part to collect, and are at their very best just before these pretty flowers bloom. Their taste is a little milder than the bulbs of their commercial counterpart, and are fantastic in salads, made into a wild pesto, or combined with spinach to make a delicious quiche.
There are some fascinating facts and folklore surrounding this plant. Though bears have been absent from the British countryside for a very long time, interestingly the second part of wild garlic’s Latin name gives reference to the fact that it is favoured by them as a food plant. However, apart from ourselves, bears are fairly unique in the animal world for finding this plant both palatable and non-toxic. Most animals avoid it, with the occasional exception of grazers, and if they do ingest it can be poisoned by the volatile oils that give it such a potent pong! As John Wright points out in his book Hedgerow: “most dog and cat owners know not to give their animals onions in any form – a compound n-propyl disulphide causes serious anaemia and deaths have occurred.”
Surprisingly, wild garlic wasn’t always thought worthy of picking for the pot, and it seems that even the gathering of wild foods is subject to the vagaries of fashion too. Maude Grieve, in her seminal book A Modern Herbal, first published in 1931, described it thus: “(It) has a very acrid taste and smell, but it also has very small bulbs, which would hardly render it of practical use. But for its evil smell, (it) would rank amongst the most beautiful of our British plants”. She continues: “Many woods are places to be avoided when it is in flower, being so closely carpeted with the plants that every step taken brings out the offensive odour.”
I rather disagree with Maude. The smell is a welcome indicator that the foraging season is upon us again, and a signal that it is time to grab your basket, get outside and see what’s on offer.
Brand new blog from RSPB Scotland Trainee Ecologist, David Freeman. Find out more about the fascinating Bryophytes found on our reserves!
A New Career in a New Town
Back in March, I was delighted to be offered the position of Trainee Ecologist based at RSPB Scotland's Edinburgh HQ. The role is a fantastic opportunity to build on and develop a range of Ecological skills as well as a chance to undertake some real conservation work and make a real difference.
Conocephalum conicum by Li Zhang via bryophytes.plant.siu.edu
In particular, I am focusing on Bryophytes a group of tiny plants commonly known as mosses, liverworts and hornworts. These often-overlooked plants are some of nature’s most beautiful creations and display a range of deep colours and fascinating growth forms. They are also of incredible ecological importance. Their reliance on ambient humidity for water means they are often vulnerable to atmospheric pollution and the production of peat from the sphagnum mosses is one of the most important ecological processes in the world.
My calendar for the next few months is already filling up with fieldwork planned in Abernethy, Glenborrodale, Forsinard, Strathbeg, Orkney and Corrimony. Additionally I am being sent on numerous training courses both internal and external in places Like Geltsdale, Loch Leven and Raasay. These represent a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills as well as increase the amount of work I am able to undertake in my current role.
Thuidium delicatulum via bryophyteportal.org
So far, I have been out briefly to Loch Leven and Loch Lomond each time gathering a range of samples. At both of these reserves I have only scratched the surface of what must be present, but when you consider how overlooked bryophytes are, any addition to the records is a step forward! Highlights so far have to be seeing Conocephalum conicum a common but distinctive plant, Thuidium delicatulum that provided me with a fantastic opportunity to practice some microscope ID skills and the Bonsai tree-like Thamnobryum alopecurum. Spotting an osprey fishing on Loch Lomond was a nice moment too.
Over the next few months, I intend to contribute a blog entry regularly to the website. I hope that this will paint a picture of some of the amazing work undertaken by the RSPB and draw attention to the fascinating world of Bryophytes.
RSPB Scotland Research Assistant, Davide Scridel, is out searching for an elusive bird in the Outer Hebrides. Find out more about his experiences and check out his fantastic photos below!
Island living: searching for twite in the Hebrides
The subject of the 2013 Statutory Conservation Agency/RSPB Annual Breeding Bird Scheme is the twite! The first survey, in 1999, produced a population estimate of 10,000 pairs with the majority of the breeding birds located in Scotland, then England and only a few pairs remaining in Wales. Due to the severe decline that this species experienced since the 1800s, twite are of the highest conservation concern in the UK. It is therefore vital we to reassess its population trends fourteen years after the previous national survey.
Twite perched on rock by Davide Scridel
Twite breed on unenclosed moorlands, hills coast and islands especially near farmland, with nests occurring on heather moor, sea cliffs, in gorse and, more rarely, in conifer plantation. They primarily feed on seeds found in grassland and cultivated habitats such as pasture, meadows and young fallows.
In Scotland twite breed most commonly in the Western and Northern Isles, in the Inner Hebrides and along the coast of West & North Scotland where these habitats are particularly widespread.
I feel very privileged because I have been assigned to survey this understudied species within a series of randomly selected 1x1 km2 in the Outer Hebrides (Uist, Harris & Lewis), some of of my all-time favourite places. These islands are extremely beautiful and are the stronghold for breeding twite in the UK. Such preferences can be partially explained by the fact that the islands offer coastal and moorland habitats as well as the unique, small-scale farming practice called crofting.
Here fields are low-intensively managed to produce cereals or foraging grasses for livestock and the interaction of these human activities and the natural occurrence of a unique calcareous landmark Machair, formed by windblown shell sand, provide enough fertility to support cereal-based livestock production.
This is particularly true in the island of Uist, where I am based. Here cereals are grown using limited pesticides and low fertilizers with fields left fallow traditionally on a biannual basis, allowing very rare plants but also ruderal plants, such as dandelion and common sorrel, to emerge. These are the twite’s absolute favourites and part of our task here is to record the presence of this species also in relation to the amount of flowers we can see in the surroundings.
Golden plover on freshly ploughed machair by Davide Scridel
Small scale-low intensive agriculture practises are very rare nowadays and only persist in isolated areas but they are truly a heaven for orchids, invertebrates and for rare and declining farmland birds such as corncrake and corn buntings. Twite are much more than just “brown” birds. They are true indicators for changes in the way we live and how our needs affect our landscape. It is therefore very important to assess how the twite population is responding to human and non-human changes fourteen years after the previous survey.
It is now a week since I took the ferry from Uig (Skye) to reach North Uist. The journey was remarkable: surreal landscapes and plenty of wildlife, with highlights such as golden and white-tailed eagle and hundreds of razorbills floating around a motionless sea. It was so unbelievably still that even the boat crew were capturing it with their cameras while approaching the Outer Hebrides - such rare moment for this part of the world.
Lochmaddy at dusk by Davide Scridel
I spent the following two days meeting local RSPB colleagues working on the site as well as partners SNH and MACHAIR LIFE+. The latter organisation is of particular interest to me as they are truly dedicated people, with the focus of increasing awareness and protection for this rare habitat full of biodiversity and very important not only for twite but also for rare invertebrates such as the Great yellow bumblebee, confined to a few spots in the whole of Britain.
The first day of the survey involved visiting a 1x1 km2 located in South Uist. We didn’t see any twite but spotted stonechats, ravens, kestrel, whimbrel, wheatear and plenty of meadow pipits amongst others. An excellent introduction to the Western Island wildlife! But things got even more exciting towards the last transect when I noticed in the far distance a female hen harrier emerging from a spot in thick heather while whistling piih-eh to an approaching food delivering male. That made my day...and it was only the first one I’ve seen in the field. After seeing the female returning to the same spot I was then sure I had found a nest and decided to walk off immediately to avoid potential disturbance to the breeding pair.
Stonechat by Davide Scridel
Despite such excitement, I was quite disappointed to have not seen any twite. The weather forecast for the following day was typically Hebridean- rain and winds up to 40 mph which suggested a boring day indoors. Suddenly, those strong winds that brought rain in the morning also cleared away the cloudy sky and a splendid, but still windy afternoon, allowed a visit to a second square.
Similar to the first one, this square incorporated a combination of moorland/coastal habitat and after a few transects and point counts I detected the unmistakable “twit” and a later rambling song or “chortle”. Five TWITE amongst two pied wagtail and a few meadow pipits were confidently feeding on a white sandy beach energetically seeking for seeds amongst the washed up seaweed.
Twite searching for seed by Davide Scridel
No rings on legs but 4 out of the5 birds showed clear signs of pairing. The “chortle” is in fact a reliable indicator of breeding activity and my excitement did not stop when two birds decided to leave the feeding spot and fly towards the grass/moor mosaic cliff less than 100m away from the beach.
One of the birds remained perched on a stone, guarding the mate disappearing into a small crevice. I decided to wait and visit that crevice when both birds went back to feed on the shore. There was a nest there, carefully lined with grass and some sheep’s wool at the bottom of the cup. It was my first ever twite nest containing three light blue eggs with tiny black marks. I left the site quietly and checked for the safe return of the incubating female. It was a confirmed breeding site for twite and a very exciting day for me!
Male twite by Davide Scridel