October, 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
  • Wild food: versatile gorse with Fiona Bird

    This month's wild food blog has been written for us by Fiona Bird.

    Fiona is a graduate of The University of St Andrews, mother of six and a former BBC Masterchef finalist. She divides her time between Angus and the Outer Hebridean Isle of South Uist, where her husband is the local doctor. Fiona is often seen on her bicycle with a basket full of seaweed or wild edibles and is usually late for church.

    Fiona is the author of Kids’ Kitchen (Barefoot Books 2009), The Forager’s Kitchen (Cico Books 2013) and Seaweed in the Kitchen (Prospect Books 2015). She is a wild food blogger for The Huffington Post UK and is currently working on Let Your Kids Go Wild Outside (Cico Books April 2016) and a book about Christian Food Celebrations (Wild Goose Publications 2016).

    ***

    Folklore has it that "when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion". An older saying is "when furze (gorse) is in bloom, my love is in tune"; it's a relief then that gorse is always in flower at least somewhere in the UK.  Although the best profusion of these yellow flowers are displayed in summer, gorse is a possibility for the November forager.

    Late autumn foraging

    You may also spy late autumn berries on hedgerows as well as fungi and nuts in woodlands, but as the days draw in and temperatures drop, a forager’s basket is likely to lighten. Bletted sloes and hips are best for a digestif, so worry not about a frost or two. Sorrel and chickweed will provide wild greenery to top up a November salad bowl. However, winter will be the time when the organised forager uses ingredients squirreled away - in the freezer, dehydrated or preserved; but with any foraging the mantra is: pick a little here and there though not enough to feed the neighbourhood. This should mean that your freezer bags are small, as are your store cupboard jars - just a soupcon of wild tastes and scents.

    Gorse bush by Fiona Bird

    Gorse through history

    The Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus, who established the basic taxonomy system we use today, is said to have fallen on his knees and wept for joy at the sight of English gorse bushes. One presumes that he’d spied gorse on Swedish scrubland before; perhaps it was the coconut scent that overwhelmed him. I marvel at a plant that can grow with such scented profusion in poor soil. What’s not to love in a blast of yellow sunshine on a barren hill or cliffside? Before the days of centrally-heated houses, gorse provided fuel for homes, potters and bakers, and was used as thatching and, when milled, animal fodder. So scented and useful, if albeit a tad on the prickly side.

    In nature

    Gorse is an important wildlife habitat, providing perches and nesting material for linnets, stonechats and yellowhammers. It also gives cover for small mammals – its prickles keeping larger ones at bay. It’s an important source of nectar too, frequented by bees, while giving shelter to a multitude of other insects.

    Beyond its cheery colour, scent, and the kissing, what you may ask does gorse offer 21st Century families? Its flowers may be eaten in salads or made into wine and the buds pickled or used in syrups and yellow vinegar. The yellow is one of its favourite tricks.  

    Recipes

    Blossom syrups or vinegars capture scent and taste of the countryside and are easy to make.

    To make gorse vinegar (Taste Alert: it doesn't taste of its coconut scent):

    • Steep sun-warmed (as much as the November sun will allow) gorse flowers in vinegar (white wine, cider or rice) until yellow and gorse-flavoured.
    • Strain the yellow vinegar through a fine nylon sieve or jelly bag (or a paper coffee filter) into a clean jug and pour into sterile bottles.
    • Seal with vinegar-proof lids, label and store in a cool, dry place.

    Pickle gorse buds and use them like capers (like nasturtiums).

    Others may prefer to use gorse flowers to make tea or gorse blossom-steeped water (yellow) to make a floral syrup. I usually add sugar to blossom water in a 2:1 ratio e.g. 100gm sugar to 50ml scented water. Dissolve the sugar over a very low heat. Sometimes it will crystallize and the colour fade, so keep floral syrups to the front of store cupboards, and so keep a watchful eye on sugar crystal gremlins.

    Gorse – a natural yellow icing:

    • Throw a handful of gorse flowers into a bowl and cover them with minimal hot water.
    • Once the water is yellow stained, strain it and mix with icing sugar and ice your cake.

    If you are into natural dyeing (you should have designated a pot for dye use), gorse flowers are one to experiment with. Practice is the name of the natural dyeing game. Use rainwater and a natural fabric and for plant dyes, sorrel or vinegar as a mordant. My results are so inconsistent that I’m happy to recommend it as child’s play – you could try it out on hard boiled eggs too.

    When you forage wild ingredients to use as natural dyes, only pick a small amount and never more than one-sixth of any plant or berry. Wild plants and berries take time to grow. I suggest that you have fun dyeing a handkerchief or two, no more. Enjoy foraging without destroying our beautiful countryside. Parental tip:  small children usually walk for longer distances when they’re out on a foraging treasure hunt.

    Fiona

    You can find gorse all over the place from golf courses to grassy hills. It grows well in open areas in dry, sandy soils. 

    Fiona's fascinating blog on seaweed can be found here: seaweednamara.blogspot.co.uk/ 

    You can see her foraging prowess in action here too: theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/video/2014/jun/30/let-the-child-go-wild-foraging-on-the-edge-of-europe-video 

     

  • Looking after hedgehogs in winter

    Without wanting to sound like someone from a popular fantasy-drama, 'winter is coming', and while some animals like bats go into a sort of deep sleep (torpor), others like hedgehogs go into full blown hibernation. This means they need a really cosy place to hole up for the winter.   

    Our beloved hedgehog has had a tough time of late, declining by a third between 2003 and 2012, but by creating places for hedgehog food to thrive and by building hedgehog hibernation spots we can help them out.  

    There are lots of models of hedgehog homes, AKA 'hogitats'. 

    For a really swanky home that will survive for years you can simply buy one, or you could try making this one

    But for a simple, snug and perfectly lovely home-made hogitat all you need is:

    • A big, strong cardboard box at least 30 cm deep, wide and high
    • scissors
    • newspaper
    • dry grass, twigs and leaves
    • plastic sheet or opened up plastic bags.

    This example is taken from our young kids magazine Wildtimes, so why not get your little ones involved in the building process? (Excluding the bits with scissors of course!)

    1) Cut thin slits in each side of the box, so the hedgehog can breathe.

    2) Cut out a square about 15 cm by 15 cm on the front for an entrance hole.

    3) Put shredded newspaper and dry grass inside.

    4) Place your hedgehog house in a quiet part of the garden. Cover it with plastic to stop it getting too wet.

    5) Cover the sides and top with grass, twigs and leaves. Now leave the house alone all winter, so that your hedgehog can hibernate in peace.

    Bonfire danger

    At this time of year you might be piling up twigs and branches in preparation for 5 November. Please check your bonfires carefully for sleeping hedgehogs before lighting them. 

    The British Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends moving the bonfire to a new sight before lighting it, but if this isn't possible, use broom handles to lift it from the base and torches to see into the dark spots to check for sleeping beauties. 

    Signs of hedgehogs 

    The two most sure fire signs that you have hedgehogs in your garden are their tracks/footprints and their droppings. 

    Their prints have five distinct toes on the front and back. To improve your chances of seeing these prints you can try making our animal tracker (download here).

    For details about their droppings check out the Hedgehog Street website. Please be careful not to touch them though, for obvious hygiene reasons.  

  • Pumpkin heads

    In case you've been in hibernation and missed the shops turning from school clothes to costumes, sweets and all things orange – Halloween is here!

    Carving capers

    The activity that never fails to get our house excited in the build-up to Halloween is pumpkin carving. Whether you’re a kid who loves spooky faces or an adult who loves to rise to the sculpting challenge, it’s a must-do activity. We’ve tried quite a few designs over the years but this year we decided to take a different tack – pumpkin heads. The idea’s not new (quickly proved by a quick ‘Googling’ of the phrase) but it was new territory for us and as a Dad, the thought of making my kids look ghoulishly hilarious was just too tempting!

    The ‘how to’ is pretty obvious: buy a pumpkin bigger than the wearer’s head (go bigger than you think!), hollow it out, carefully carve a face to your taste and pop it on the wearer’s bonce! Here's one of our creations (before and after it fell to the floor... many times!):

     

    A tip courtesy of my three year old: an old swimming hat is a great way to protect hair from pumpkin slime!

    Waste not want not!

    This year we combined our pumpkin adventures with feeding our garden wildlife the pumpkin's seeds. Simply wipe off any excess gloop and moisture from your extracted seeds and leave them on kitchen towel to dry out over night before popping them on a garden wall, patio or bird table. Ours haven’t had an awful lot of takers yet – possibly given their large size comparative to small garden birds – but I’m going to persist and maybe some of the larger garden visitors will eventually find them (just keep an eye on them and throw them away when they become damp). Give it a go and let me know if you have any takers.

    More than costumes and candy

    For those who have read my blog posts before, you’ll recognise here the approaching potted ‘history’ courtesy of the Worldwide Web (one particularly thorough and informative source being The American Folklife Center).

    The tradition goes back around 2,000 years with its roots in a Celtic festival to celebrate the end of the harvest, the end of the calendar year and the start of winter. At the time, the festival was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) and was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. Not sounding very spooky so far is it? Well, the spooky part we know well today comes from the fact that the Celts believed the ghosts of those who died during the year would mingle with the living at Samhain before travelling to the other-world – wooooooo!

    Get outdoors this Halloween

    Pumpkins and general ghoulish behavior might be the main attractions at this time of year but don’t forget to make the most of the whole half term and your time together by getting out and embracing the wilder side of life. The season's colours are well and truly on the turn and it's a brilliant time to get out and hunt for conkers, admire the fairytale fungi on display and kick through the carpets of crispy leaves. We love to head out and take in the fiery colours (my kids also find it very amusing to bury Mum and Dad in leaf litter!) and another favourite is going on an autumnal scavenger hunt and then using our bounty to make wild art at home.

    I couldn’t write a Halloween-themed post without a mention for our friend the bat. Only a handful of the 1,000+ types of bat across the world are vampire bats (sadly none of which live in the UK or Transylvania!) but all of them are fascinating and in need of a helping hand. Why not give bats a home where you live by building and/or erecting a bat box? Involve the whole family and find all the instructions you need on the Giving Nature a Home website.

    However you choose to spend this Halloween, have fun, be safe and have a WOOOOOOOnderful time!