The First Signs of Spring / A Day in the Woods

Its early morning and me and my camera man Dave have set off to the woods to spend a day filming. the morning is very cold but not the frosty biting cold of winter, the cold feels different. Along side the cold the woods are not quiet as they are early in winter, throughout winter the woods are still & silent you’ll occasionally hear the snap of a twig or the shill cry of some bird in the distance. But now as the day starts to warm with the rising of the sun the woods are bursting with sound, squirrels chattering & fighting on tree trunks birds singing in their hundreds and less obvious sounds, creatures are stirring all over the forest and if you sit and listen you begin to hear all of life beginning its new year.

As the sun rises, just sit and listen, you will learn a lot, this time of year is truly a fantastic time to attune ourselves to our environment.
Sitting and enjoying the day

This time of year is also a fantastic time to teach ourselves the value of looking closer to our surroundings. to those who do not know how to look, the trees of the forests and woods may look lifeless and dead the same as they have throughout the winter months, but look  a little closer and you will notice that the trees have begun forming leaf buds already. Some trees have even begun to flower, the swaying pendant like catkins of the hazel stand out bright pale green against the steadily changing brown backdrop.

Catkins on a hazel tree New buds on a bird cherry tree

these changes are also visible down on the forest floor, disturb some leaf litter, or overturn an old log and chances are you’ll see the shoots of the years new plants beginning to appear, but you needn’t even look this close as you move around you notice that the ground is littered with the white specks of snow drops signalling the tiny world of bugs and mini beasts back to life.

snowdrops

But this time of year isn’t just a time for the animals and plants to begin a new year, this is a fantastic time for us to get out and learn some new skills & set ourselves new challenges. A brilliant skill to practice in spring is to learn some new plants and fungi, don’t just focus on the edible or the useful, get used to looking at everything that is around. that being said, there are also plenty of wild edibles available at this time of year, for example the striking scarlet elf cup fungi, which is easy to spot even at a distance because of its bright red interior.
scarlet elf caps Elf caps on a stick

As or day goes on and we begin filming, Dave the camera man gets frustrated with me as i wander off and start looking for new and interesting things instead of getting on with the videos, but that is the real beauty of this time of year, the world suddenly begins to feel ‘full’ again after the challenges and stillness of winter, above us we can hear a wood packer searching for grubs & various other birds add to the cacophony of sounds going about the business of building their own nests.

Filming is done and the sun begins to set, the day are still short, but this give s way to a spectacular sunset & as the light dims the cachophany of bird sounds
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The elder tree in summer

Before discussing the uses of the elder tree, firstly i will give some information on how to identify it.

The easiest time to identify the elder tree is during the summermonths when it has leaves on it, and it is also flowering. The leaves of the elder tree are Pinnate (meaning that they are feather like or split either side of the main stem of the leaf, in the case of the elder making one leaf actullly look like several leaves) the size of the leaves of the elder can vary from small, to quite large dependant on where the leafe is growing on the tree, and if it is getting much sun light.

examples of elder leaves one with 5 parts and one with 7 parts

examples of elder leaves one with 5 parts and one with 7 parts

The bark of the elder tree also makes it easy to identify, as it it is mostly a creamy brown colour with darker brown nobbles all the way along it. Though newer branches will have the same texture as the rest but will be dark green in colour, and very bendy, but easy to snap. During summer the elder tree also has very distinctive flowers, each individual flower is VERY tiny but if you look closley you will see that each has five tiny petals and they are white, though most of the time you will simply see bunches of flowers. if you touch these flowers on a dry day you will find that you get an awful lot of very yellow pollen on your hands, and it is this pollen that makes them taste good!

Bark on a mature elder branch

Bark on a mature elder branch

The flowers of the elder tree are very usefull indeed, with these you can make cordial, wine, elderflower fritters or you can just eat them as they are. the best time to collect the flowers is on dry days as there seems to bemore pollen in them and they taste much stronger. At the end of this article i will post some simple recipies explaining how to use them.

A bunch or ‘head’ of elder flowers

Other uses for the elder tree are for making a hand drill for fire lighting, and also hollowing out to make various items such as pipes, whistles, pea shooters or using as a blow pipe to heat specific parts of a fire. ( will of course be posting articles and videos to cover all of these uses!) Due to its many uses the elder tree has become very steeped in mythology across most of Europe. much of this mythology concerns the fairy folk, mainly due to its use in crafting musical instruments, though traditionall elder trees were planted by houses to keep out evil spirits.
One of the more famous myths of the elder tree is that Judas Iscariot, Betrayer of Jesus hanged himself from an Elder tree, and whilst the mythology of trees in bushcraft may seem superfluous in many cases it is well worth knowing your mythology as it can often be helpful with identification. In this case the myth does not, however help with the identification of the tree, but rather a particular fungi that likes to grow, almost exclusivley on old, dead elders. This fungi is the Jews / jelly ear fungi (Auricularia auricula-judae). legend has it that wehn judas hanged him self from the tree, only his ears remained afterwards, and whilst this seems silly its handy to not as the jelly/jew’s ear fungi looks just like an ear when it has been saturated with water.

This particular mushroom is very very easy to identify and is edible making it an excellent starting point if you are looking at learning to forage for your own fungi. On dry warm days the fungi looks liek a small black dried up fingernail sticking out of the tree, and is quite hard to spot in this dried state, however is perfectly okay to collect in this state. on a wet day this fungi will swell much much larger than it is in its dried state and really does resemble (and feels like!) a human ear. if collected in its ‘wet’ state the mushroom can be dried and saved for later. though edible it is very tough and not very nice on its own, to cook its best to soak in water for 20 minutes then slice very thinly and put in a  stew or a pot roast. Frying this mushroom is risky as it likes to jump out of the frying pan when it gets hot!

RECIPIES;

Elder flower cordial

Ingredients
20 Elderflower heads
1.5 -2. litres water
4 lemons
1k bag of sugar

Firstly clean the eldrflower heads of insects (using your hands DONT wash them!!) then add your water to a large pan and bring to the boil. Add all of the sugar to the water and allow it to dissolve, then juice & zest your lemons and add to the mixture (I also usualy chuck the squeezed lemons in aswell)

allow the water to cool to a simmer and then add all of your elderflower heads into the mixture, ensure they are all covered by the water, then turn off the heat. cover the mixture and allow it to sit for 12 -24 hours stirring occasionally.  Then remove all of the elder flower heads and strain the rest of the mixture through a mulsin cloth and bottle it up. to serve add water to your liking to dilute the mixture (it also goes very very well with vodka!) keep your cordial refrigerated and it will keep for approximatley 6 months!

Swedish log stove/fire torch

The Swedish log stove is a traditional Scandinavian method for lighting an easily controllable fire that is raised up off the ground, and creates a flat platform on which you can place a pot or kettle.

The things you need to make and use a log stove are pretty straight forward, firstly a dry log (pine works best as it burns well) which has been cut using a hand saw or chain saw down through the log in a cross shape 2 -4 cuts will be enough for an average sized log. in addition to this you will also need some very thin dried twigs and birch bark to get the log ignited and a sustainable heat source to get these lit.

To start find some where to place your log that is safe and where you are allowed to start a fire, just like any fire lighting method.
once you have a suitable location begin by placing your bark and twigs inside the cuts that have been made in the log. In the video i also used a little pine resin to help the fire get started. once these are in place begin lighting the bark, which will in turn ignite the twigs and set the inside of the cuts in the log burning. This process can take a while and require practice!

In the video getting  the twigs lit was quite difficult due to reasonably strong winds, so in order to aid the process off camera i lit a small fire on the top of the log to force more oxygen through the slits which were cut. doing this got the fire burning really quickly and it burned for a good two hours with very little need to tend the fire.

The advantages of using this type of log stove is that you don’t need to spend much time searching for fire wood and the fire itself needs very little attendance, whilst all the while burning very hot and leaving a good solid platform on which to cook. the log stove also means that you can have a fire in an area where you otherwise would not be able to, such as on dry peat or grassland with little threat of causing a larger fire.

the major disadvantage of using a log stove is that it is not very mobile, if you are walking to a campsite you don’t really want to be lugging a huge log around! also it does require some preparation, in getting a seasoned log, cutting it & getting the materials to start it burning.

overall i highly reccomend this as a style of lighting a fire especially for group camping trips, as sitting around the log stove and cooking can be very sociable and require little work!

 

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Cotton Grass

If you go walking about on our moorlands and heathlands at this time of year you are likely to see little pools of white in amongst the  darker greens and browns which are characteristic of these areas. These bright white pools are made up of the fruits of the cotton grass plant. Whilst many of these pools looks quite small from a distance (moors play havoc with our perspective) upon closer inspection you’ll usually find that many of these patches of white contain quite a lot of cotton grass plants.

The fruit of the cotton grass plant is a fluffy white seed, which is incredibly useful for fire lighting. Because this plant grows so prolifically if you get out onto the moors in the summer you can collect a good amount of it and store it for the winter months. Be carefull not to take ALL of the cotton grass after all you’ll want more to grow next year so that you can get out and collect it again.

As well as being highly useful as a tinder for  fire lighting cotton grass also makes an excellent ‘coal extender’ for use with friction fire lighting.

there are more of them than you realise when you get up close!

there are more of them than you realise when you get up close!

Here you can see just how fluffy those cotton grass heads are!

Here you can see just how fluffy those cotton grass heads are!

Cotton grass

How to set up a basic Tarp and Hammock camp

First post in a while so im just going to jump straight in!

My favorite way to camp is to sleep in my hammock under a tarpaulin. THis has become my preffered method of camping for a few good reasons. Firstly for comfort hammocks are very very comfortable to sleep in if they are ‘pitched’ correctly, there are never nay hard lumps of ground underneath you – just AIR so you can be sure that where evr your put up your hammock you are not going to end up with something digging into your back or side all night. All so, when you are in a tarp rather than a tent you get penty of fresh air moving through your sleeping area, meaning that unlike in a tent when you wake up in the morning your sleeping area isnt stuffy and uncomfortable especially on those warm summer mornings. Using a hammock gives that added bonus of having somewhere comfortable to sit through the day, instead of having to cart a chair around or sit on a wet floor.

Another reason for using a hammock and tarp set up is that it it is a very lightweight set up to carry around, far lighter (my set up is roughly 1.200 kg), and much much smaller than most tents. in adition to being very light and small the brand of hammock and tarpaulin that I use are very easy to set up and you can have your whole camp area ready within about 15mins with some practice.

the DD brand hammocks & tarps come supplied with everything you need to set them up, excepting parachord for putting up a ridge line – I tend to carry around 20 meters with me as extra is always usefull, and a few spare tent pegs incase i dont have the time or anergy to make some on site.

OK so how to we put up our hammock and tarp?

Start by finding two strong looking trees that are opposite each other and more than 3 meters apart (but not so far apart that your hammock wont fit between the two!), try to avoid using dead trees as some can be weaker than they look. then take your parachord and tie one end to your first tree at roughly head height. ensure that the chord goes around the tree more than once to help it grip and use a firm knot that is easy to untie, i tend to use a round turn and two half hitches as it is incredibly simple, this knot does however have a habit of pulling quite tight in strong winds making it fiddly to unite. then take your chord and tie it off to the opposite tree, ensuring that you pull it as tight as possible to give you a good strong ridge line.

once your ridge line is up,take your tarpalin and  throw it over the top of your ridge line, if you ensuring that the central rungs of the tarp line up with the ridge line. once the tarp is over use the central rungs on the edge of the tarpalin to tie your tarp to the ridge line using a prussik knot. One your tarp is tied to your ridge line, pull it taught along the centre and then peg the corner guylines out as tight as possible (use as many of the guylines as possible in very bad weather). If you are struggling to get the pegs to stay in, try tying the guy lines off to tree roots, stumps, branches and trunks. Your tarpalin is now set up.

To set up your hammock remove it from the bag lay it out beneath your tarp and check that it isn’t twisted. Once checked take the chord from one ned of th hammock and wrap it right around one of the trees that your tarp is tied to at around shoulder height. you want the chord to go around the tree as many times as possible without using all of the length of your chord. Then simply tie a shoelace knot in the chord. then do the same at the other tree your tarp is tied to and ensure that your hammock sits completley underneath your tarpaulin!

If your hammock seems a little high once you have tied it up, dont worry when yousit in it it will drop (unsettlingly if its your first time in a hammock) as the chords around the tree pull tight and settle.

the last thing to do is get your fire or stove going make a brew and enjoy it in your hammock!

A few notes on hammock camping:
Aditional kit you will need to ensure extra comfort;
A roll mat, remeber i said you have all that nice comfy air underneath you instead of rocks? well you’ll still need a roll mat or something similar (I actually use a wool blanket) to put into the hammock under your sleeping bag, as just with sleeping on the ground your sleeping bag will compress beneath you, meaning that parts of you are not as well insulated from the cooler air around you, for me these spots tend to be my hips and shoulders.

I have also been asked about drafts under my tarp, whilst personally I have never had any trouble with drafts even in some VERY high winds, you can use a bivvy bag to too keep them drafts at bay and also to guarantee you stay completley 100% dry in your sleeping bag.

Its also handy to bring a very small tarpaulin to put in the ground beneath your hammock to give you a nice dry space to put your feet once you have take your boots off!

Below are a couple of videos i recorded going through this set up guide, please to comment subscribe and give me any feed back that you like!

Thanks for reading,
Fozz

Edible bugs

So, once again i was out and about the other day doing a bit of walking and seeing what I could find in the woods. I was collecting fatwood from a rotten pine tree when I came across a pair of large grubs, which can be seen in the image below.

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After a little  bit of research I found that these are the larvae of June beetles, each of these grubs was about 1 &1/2 inches long and both were pretty chunky. After doing a bit of reading I found that these grubs along with many others are edible and a great source of energy.

It is important to not that contrary to popular beleif insects are in matter of fact very good eating, they are a food source that has been highly damaged by popular culture. All of this bad press comes from TV shows such as I’m a celebrity who use bug eating competitions to be humourous and discusing. However bugs and grubs can be very teast and they can be cooked in a variety of different recipes just like any other meat. Once you get yourself past the misconception about insects as as a food being discusing you can find that there is a whole new world of food out there which is easy to obtain, good for you and the environment.

For further reading there is an whole repotoir of knowledge at http://www.girlmeetsbug.com

Snow tracks

So, given that its been snowing in the UK over the past week or so (incase you didn’t know!) i decided to get my self off to Delamere forest and do a bit of tracking in the snow. Now I am a complete novice to tracking so, if you find anything incorrect here please feel free to comment and correct me. I have tried to be as accurate as I can in identifying the tracks I found using books and the internet! unfortunately the tracks were not fresh as snow was still falling at the time i took the pictures so some of them are a little unclear, however you’ll get a good idea of what to look for and whats out there.

Okay so the first tracks I identified – mainly because they were everywhere were rabbit tracks

Veiw of rabbit tracks as if the rabbit was heading towards you.


Rabbit tracks, pretty easy to identify two large prints side by side at the front with two smaller ones at the back, sometimes they are side by side but if the rabbit has been hopping they will be almost in line with each other. Another key feature of rabbit tracks is that there is quite a distance between each set of tracks since a rabbit hops rather than running.

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Another photo to show more clearly the distance left between ‘hops’
The next set of prints I managed to identify were fox tracks, these tracks were in the same location as the rabbit tracks and again there were quite a lot of them all over the place.

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The next set of tracks I managed to identify were fox tracks, they were present in the same location as the rabbit tracks and again, like the rabbit tracks they were all over the place in long straight lines. Like the Rabbit tracks the fox tracks were quite easy to identify, the prints are quite small and almost all in line with each other, on some of the tracks it was also possible to see where the fox had trailed its tail along the snow, this appeared as a shallow indent that ran along with and over the top of the foot prints, although this is very difficult to see in the photo.
Not the best image but you can see clearly the pattern of the tracks going off into the distance

Not the best image but you can see clearly the pattern of the tracks going off into the distance

Once I moved more into the forest it became a little harder to distinguish between what were animal tracks and what were marks made by droplets of water and ice falling from trees. Amongst the few that I did managed to find were some bird tracks which I think were from a black bird, though I could be wrong.
Not entirley sure what prints they are possibly black bird or a crow.

Not entirely sure what prints they are possibly black bird or a crow.

Also in the woods I managed to find some Badger tracks around a badger set, and then follow them along the badger trails leading to and  the set. All of the tracks around the set were very messy and it looked as though the area had been well trodden by the badgers, it was also interesting to see the areas where the badgers had been snuffling in the ground, and area which was made very clear by the fact there was no snow left there at all.

Found these all around a  known badger set

Found these all around a known badger set

How to make a ‘hobo stove’

Ok so this is my first attempt at making a hobo stove, it acctually went really well depite that i couldnt finish it properly due to my dremmel blade breaking!

What you will need ; A metal utensil holder ideally you want one that is already full of holes, unfortunatley for this tutorial i was unable to get hold of one like that. A dremmel tool (or similar) with a cutting attatchment suitable for use on metal, Clamps, a file, and a marker pen.

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Step 2 ; Clamp your  uncut stove securley to something like a work bench.

Step 3: Using your dremmel carefully cut out the sections you have marked. This is the point at which my dremmel blade broke and I didnt have a replacement so I couldnt cut out enough holes to let air in. Ideally you want 1 large hole and then 3 smaller ones evenly spaced around the stove, as close to the bottom of the walls as you can get them,

 

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this is the largest cut out i made in order to feed fuel through

Step 4: File down the edges which have been cut to get rid of any sharp edges. This is now your stove finished.

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My MK1 stove in action – since my dremmel broke i punched some holes in the bottom of the stove using a nail – this seemed to work quite well but cutouts around the sides would have been far better

Step 4: File down the edges which have been cut to get rid of any sharp edges. This is now your stove finished.

All you need now is some suitable fuel, i find that pinecones work brilliantly if you can get them and you can fit them in. You can however use wood like you would in a normal fire or if you want you can use fuel blocks. be aware however that this type of stove does need quite a lot of fuel for its size if you are going to use wood, I pretty much had to constantly feed mine when i was testing it. despite the constant need for fuel though I did find that it brought a pan of water to the boil pretty quickley (about 8 minuites) and that was without a good amount of fuel holes.

In the coming week or so I will be tring the MK2 hobo stove and I will provide a video how to.

How to make Bannock bread without a dutch oven

First off it is worth explaining what bannock bread/mix is. In short it is a type of flat bread intended to be cooked in a fire without the use of yeast. The video attached to this post shows me making a sweet bannock bread, however it can be made with a variety of different things. A particular favorite of mine is to use jerky or biltong in the mix. So without further-a-do here’s the how to!

What you will need:
Flour (Plain or Self raising)
Baking powder (If using plain flour)
Mess tins (The rectangular ones that fit one inside the other)
Salt OR sugar
Anything you wish to mix into your bannock bread E.g Trail mix, chocolate chips, jerky, dried fruits etc.

Step 1: Add flour to the smallest mess tin, usually about a fist full (You can add more for a larger mix) then add your chocolate chips or what ever it is you are putting into your mix. Then add your sugar/salt, you only need a little of each if you are using salt a pinch or two will be enough. Then add your baking powder if you are using plain flour, about a teaspoon will be enough, however I tend to use a single sachet as sachets are far more practical if you are going to be outdoors for any length of time.

Step 2: Add water to your mix and then stir. If you have added too much water, don’t worry you can just add more flour, if you haven’t added enough simply add a little more and mix.

Step 3: continue to add flour/water in small amounts whilst continually mixing until you get a doughy ball that you can pick up in your hands without much of it sticking to you.

Step 4: Pick up your ball of uncooked bannock bread and cover it in dry flour, put some dry flour inside your mess tin and then put the dough ball back into the mess tin.

Step 5: Take your larger mess tin and place it over the smaller on upside down with both handles sticking out at the same side so you can pick it up.

Step 6: Place your mess tins into the fire covering as much of them with embers as you can and leave in the fire for 8-12 minutes (Yes this seems to be quite a precise time but this is the time range it seems to cook in the best)

Step 7: Take your bannock out of the fire whilst being very careful not to burn yourself on the handles of the mess tin – being metal they get extremely hot, uncover the bannock and check if it has cooked, if it is cooked it should be a golden brown colour on the outside and fluffy and hot all the way through, not doughy. If it is not cooked all the way through simply recover it and stick it back in the fire for a few more minutes.

Step 8: Take it back out and re-check to see if it is done, if so you can enjoy your bannock bread!

Additional notes – You can also fry bannock mix but if you indent to fry it make sure you bring some oil or butter so that it doesn’t stick to the pan.

– Cooking bannock bread in your mess tins WILL make a mess of them and you may need to let them soak over night to make the cleaning process easier.

As usual here is a video tutorial as well.

How to make a Mesolithic Pit Oven

Okay so here’s my first how to – Making and using a pit oven to cook a large cut of meat.

Step 1 – Find yourself a suitable location, avoid anywhere that is on peat and be aware that plant roots can make digging quite difficult. The easiest place to make a pit oven is on sand where there are also trees near by.

Step 2 – If you don’t have a spade with you make yourself a digging stick (If you are on sand you can dig using your hands but you will need a decent stick or two for a later step!) your digging stick should be a little thicker than your wrist and about the length of your arm, use an axe or a knife to cut one end to a flat ‘point’

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Step 3 – Find yourself some decent stones, igneous/metamorphic pebbles are best for this as they are less likely to pop and explode in the fire, but also the rounded shape of pebbles helps them to hold their heat better. Be aware that whilst you can use sedimentary rocks such as slate or sandstone that they WILL explode and can send small burning hot shards of stone flying into the air so be very very careful when using them.

Step 4 – Once you have collected your stones dig yourself a pit large enough to fit all of your stones and your meat in, but not so large that you will have lots of space left over once everything is in there.

Step 5 – You now need to line your pit with the stones, all of the sides and the bottom of the pit need to be covered by stone as much as possible. This will provide you with the best level of heat and prevent you from getting dirt/sand all over your dinner! After doing this ensure that you also have a stone large enough to use as a ‘lid’ on your oven.

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Step 6 – Light a fire inside your pit. This can be quite difficult to start as it is hard to get air into the fire initially, but persevere and eventually you will have a nice hot fire. You need to ensure that the fire is well fed and tended to keep it blazing for 2-3 hours depending on the size of your oven.

Step 7 – Whilst your fire is burning use this time to collect some large thick pieces of wet moss. If there is no moss available in the area I have in the past used a soaked piece of canvass, though this isn’t quite as effective it does still work.

Step 8 – After collecting your moss gather some sticks, about finger width thick and green is possible, these sticks need to be long enough to span your entire pit oven.

Step 9 – Once your fire has been burning long enough to heat your rocks until they are glowing hot use your digging stick to remove the embers from the pit as quickly as you can. It is hard to get all of the embers out however I have found that they seem to disappear during the cooking process. Once the embers have been removed place the meat in the center of the hot rocks and carefully place your ‘lid’ on top of it, then take your green finger width sticks and place them across the top of the oven to create a platform, then on top of the sticks place your moss. The more coverage of moss you get the better as this creates an air tight seal and traps the heat, once the moss is on top of the platform bury the whole thing using the dirt that came out of the pit originally. I have found that you may need a little extra dirt to cover the oven with to stop All of the smoke/steam escaping (As this is an indication that heat is escaping)

Step 10 – Leave this for a few hours (For a leg of lamb/joint of beef this is between 1.5 and 2.5 hours) then carefully uncover the whole thing. Be careful when uncovering everything as the oven will still be extremely hot on the inside!

Step 11 – Enjoy your pit-oven-cooked meat!

For a video Guide on how to make a pit oven please watch the video below –