June, 2015

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Families blog

Here are some ideas and guidance to help your family make the most of the UK's fantastic wildlife
  • Personal barriers, blisters and bug homes

    My kids absolutely love bugs. Anything small that scuttles, crawls, slivers or flies is right up their inquisitive and rather grubby street. It’s simply amazing how much joy and caring instinct the average garden snail can extract from a child.

    Manning-up

    I’m all for bugs... at a relative distance! Shameful to admit it as a grown man but I’m rather less keen than my children are. I wouldn’t say I’m scared but equally, I don’t go out of my way to hold (or even kiss – yes they really do!) such critters. My wife’s pretty cool with bugs but me less so. In fact, when our first child was born, I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to "man-up" and show the children that spiders can be removed from the house by hand and without the paper and cup “song and dance”. I hasten to add, with just a smidgen of pride, almost six years later the "song and dance" appears relatively infrequently - unless there’s one of those big so-and-sos I swear could borrow my shoes without needing so much as an insole!

    Bear Grylls and flailing saws!

    It was last weekend whilst the kids were playing in the garden that I decided to continue my manning-up mission and asked if they’d like to make a bug hotel. Well, they were frenzied with joy – in six small words I’d solidified my status as the coolest human on the planet. Let’s do this – bugs aren’t that bad, the kids love them and they're great for our garden and wildlife...

    We set gathering some old wood and garden matter from the garage. Despite my youngest initially wanting to use an eight foot scaffolding board as the basic frame, we decided to go small and have a go at something a little more shoebox-sized using some floorboard off cuts to make the frame. Word of warning at this point: compressed bamboo flooring is VERY tough, proven with two broken pilot drills and blistered palms (pathetic I know but I work in an office and driving screws into wood harder than Bear Grylls is not something my hands are used to!). But we got through this minor obstacle thanks to Mummy suggesting the kids gave Daddy a few minutes to "concentrate" while the kids painted a welcome sign for the house.

    So not even the threat of the kids wielding saws when my back was turned (seriously, please take care) got in our way and in relatively little time we had a lovely, characterful bug home complete with welcome sign:

    Give it a go

    So our humble garden has its very own bijou bug house and we couldn’t be happier. I’m basking in the glow of being a Daddy superhero, the kids have a venue to meet with their friends and our scuttling, crawling and slithering nature has a home!

    If you fancy giving it a go I’d wholeheartedly recommend it  - instructions can be found on the RSPB Giving Nature a Home pages (just steer clear of bamboo floorboards!) But if you’re pushed for time, don’t fancy getting blisters or would like something less rustic, you can always buy an array of homes from the RSPB online shop.

  • Wild food - Samphire

    Seaweed spends its whole life floating in seawater so is well adapted to being underwater, land plants have to put up with an occasional downpour but can generally get used to the dry. But what of those bits of land at the whim of the tide, the salt marshes?

    Most plants baulk at the challenge of living here. It’s a hard life spending half the day in potentially baking summer sun and half the day soaking wet with salt water. But one of the few plants that has risen to the challenge is samphire.

    There are two types in the UK 'marsh' and 'rock'. Here I’m talking about marsh samphire as that’s the one widely available (in supermarkets if you can’t make it to the sea). Rock samphire is actually in the carrot family and completely unrelated.

    Samphire on salt marsh by Mark Robinson

    To be honest my favourite way to eat this  succulent plant is simply to boil it for 3 mins, drain it, mix it with some butter and have it with some fried fish and mash. It’s unexpectedly tasty (given its habitat), crunchy and a great seasonal alternative to standard greens. Some people refer to it as 'sea asparagus', but I reckon it tastes good enough to be recognised in its own right. 

    Samphire with sea bass by Stijn Nieuwendijk Flickr CC

    If you do go foraging on salt marsh by the sea and end up with an abundance of this little plant there’s a tasty recipe you can use to make it last longer.

    Ingredients

    250g samphire

    400ml white wine vinegar

    70g brown sugar

    1 tsp all spice

    1 tsp mustard seed

    Half tsp turmeric

    Half tsp coriander seed

    2 bay leaves

    Method

    This should make two large jam jars full. 

    1. Put all the ingredients except the samphire in a pan and bring to the boil for 3-5 mins, then leave to go stone cold.
    2. Blanch the samphire in boiling water, drain and transfer to cold water. This ensures the samphire stays crisp.
    3. Drain the samphire and put in sterilised jars. Cover with the spicy mixture and seal. Leave for one month (or at least a week or so if you’re impatient)

    You can keep this pickle in the fridge and eat it with cheese, in a sandwich or as is traditionally the case, with fish. It’ll keep for up to 6 months.  

    Samphire pickle by Theresa Carle-Sanders Flickr CC

    A threat to samphire

    With the rise of the oceans through climate change the salt marshes that play home to samphire are shrinking, as they are caught between the sea and built up areas inland.

    So, as if you needed one more reason to stand up against climate change, it also threatens our stores of samphire.

    You can tell decision makers that you want to protect samphire - and anything else you care about - from climate change at the Climate Coalition's website fortheloveof.org.uk/   

  • Wild food - Elderflower cordial

    Elder is a small tree with a whole load of uses. You can eat its berries (in moderation or cooked), use the dried out pith to clean watch parts and of course if you're a wizard you can use its wood to make an all-powerful wand (attention Harry Potter fans).

    If we’re being honest, it’s unlikely we'll use elder for these things, but a flavour that’s everywhere in supermarkets these days is elderflower. With June's arrival, now’s your chance to bottle some of that wild flower flavour in a delicious cordial. 

    The flowers are only out for around six weeks and their bloom - along with swallows and any number of other things in nature - is considered the start of summer.

    Their heady smell is half reminiscent of lychee and half a bit like something unpleasant, but don’t let that put you off! Once infused into syrup only the good flavours remain.

    This recipe contains loads of sugar but once this batch is made you can dilute it with fizzy water (or even fizzy wine) and it’ll last you all through the summer.

    Finding it

    Elder is actually quite a scruffy little tree and can be found in woodlands, hedgerows and in scrubland.

    The flowers are a wonderful feature of British hedgerows, but ensure you're picking from the right plant, there are various other plants with clusters of white flowers that aren’t good for cordial making (wild carrot, hemlock, hogweed).

    Elder can by identified by its woody trunk with cork-like bark and leaves that look like this:

    Elder by NAT at NKM Flickr CC

    It’s fairly common so keep an eye out on your next walk if you fancy a spot of foraging.    

    Ingredients

    2.5 kg white sugar (this amount of sugar means it keeps for longer and is more like a syrup)

    2 lemons

    20 heads of elderflower (that’s the big round heads not individual flowers) with the stalks trimmed.

    85g citric acid (from chemists)

    Method

    For a recipe that you can print out to try at home click here.

    This is just one of a whole bunch of different activities available in our family members pack

    Elderflower and lemons by Elisabet S - Flickr CC

    This requires lots of space so get the biggest saucepan you have to start.

    1. Pour in 1.5 litres of water into the pan. Pour in the sugar and heat it up without boiling until the sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally.
    2. Get the zest off your lemons then slice them width-ways.   
    3. Now heat up your sugar water to the boil and turn off the heat.
    4. Put your elderflowers in a big clean bowl full of cold water, give your flowers a gentle swish around to get rid of stowaway insects.
    5. Transfer the flowers, sliced lemons, zest and citric acid to the pan, cover and leave to infuse overnight.
    6. Line a colander or sieve with a clean tea towel and sit it over a large pan or bowl. In fairly small batches pour your concoction through the cloth and let the syrup drip through.
    7. Throw away the bits in the towel and transfer the syrup to sterilised bottles using a funnel (you can sterilise bottles by filling and submerging bottles in boiling water then leaving them to dry in a very low oven, this will make your cordial last a lot longer).
    8. Your cordial is now ready! Dilute and enjoy. 

    Elder in nature

    Elder tree by Stephen Craven - Wikimedia commons

    The berries of this small tree provide abundant food for robins, blackbirds, you might even see shy skulking birds like whitethroat

    Small mammals such as dormice and bank voles also favour elder berries and flowers.

    The leaves are a food for many species of insect including the caterpillars of moths and butterflies like the swallowtail.

    As a tree they reach a maximum height of 15m and live up to 60 years. Not even in the same league as our great oaks that can live to 900 years old, but they are quick growing early colonisers, using their berries to disperse their seeds far and wide in the bellies of obliging birds.