Category Archives: Bushcraft

Pine Resin (Part 2: Salve)

As you’ll know from Friday’s blog post about pine resin and rosin, I’m currently exploring foraging potential of pine trees. I’ve been collecting pine resin (this is not the same as tapping for sap as in the blog post I did this time last year about birch tapping) – resin is a fluid produced by pine trees to heal and protect wounds in the tree, whereas sap is a mix of sugars and water found in the xylem and phloem tubes of a tree. Sap is a sugary water, and flows readily, while resin is usually super sticky!

I’ve been reading about a variety of uses for pine resin, which is fat soluble and, as such, will infuse into oils really well. Pine resin salve is a traditional herbal remedy, particularly in the Americas.

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This post on the Mountain Rose Blog says:

“Here in southwestern New Mexico, many people think of Pine resin salve primarily as a treatment for pulling out splinters, embedded glass, drawing out boils, and for general first aid. It’s so common that it’s often sold in gas stations, and most any local logger or farm worker knows about it.”

Heralded to increase circulation to stiff, sore muscles and joints, help to treat psoriasis, eczema, scabies, heal cracked heels and dry skin on elbows, this herbal salve is surely worth a go?

To make it, you simply take a container/jar and pack it with pine resin and include some chunks of beeswax. I used about 100g of beeswax for two jars of wax (filled to about 2/3) and then covered with olive oil. The traditional method at this point is to place your sealed jars in a warm, dark place for a few weeks, but you guys know me – I don’t have the patience for that kind of waiting unless sloe gin is involved! I decided to render down the sap using a bain marie (called a double boiler in the USA).

I balanced the two jars inside my slow cooker on some tiny flan rings (you could use any type of trivet – just to keep the base of the jars off the bottom of the pot). I just PLACED the jam jar lids on – I didn’t seal them as I didn’t want to risk a pressure-induced explosion, but likewise didn’t want any condensation dripping in. I then poured hot water around the jars up to the level of the top of the resin, switched the slow cooker onto low and went to bed! In the morning the debris and gubbins had sunk to the bottom of the jars, and it was easy to pour off the infused (and lush-smelling) oil into clean jars. Stir as it cools, and you end up with a soft pine-scented salve for use on cuts, scratches and insect bites.

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*I want to pop a disclaimer here – many people are actually allergic to pine resin, which can be an irritant to sensitive skin, so you should test your exposure if you’re not sure if you’re one of them, and obviously, if you are, avoid exposure to pine resin, salve or rosin.

I’m still working on a few uses for the rest of my pine resin stash – I’m quite keen on trying pine resin honey (good for sore throats and coughs) and even pine resin tincture (which you have to infuse into overproof alcohol as resin is hydrophobic and ‘normal’ alcohol has too much water for it to infuse properly. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Pine Resin (Part 1: Rosin)

I’ve been playing about with pine resin this week – there’s like a million uses for the stuff, but I was mainly interested in its fire lighting properties. It burns really well, and is particularly useful if you’re trying to get a fire going with damp or green wood. I managed to get so much of the stuff that I thought I’d have a go at a few other traditional uses for it – ergo a two-part blog post. To harvest the hardened pine sap, you just need to gently pry it off with a knife. Look for natural wounds, rather than trying to make your own and tapping. (There is no shortage of sap in pine forests, especially at this time of year, and no need to go carving up trees!)

First, I thought I’d have a go at making rosin. Basically, pine resin can be split into two substances: turpentine and rosin. Turpentine (yes, this is the turps in your shed!) is usually made by distillation from resin, leaving rosin as a by-product.

So, if you trawl the internet, you’ll see several videos and websites showing a variety of methods, most of which involve setting the sap alight in a sieve of sorts, and letting the rosin fall through into a receptacle. Simple, right? I thought so… My first attempt utilised a stainless steel egg strainer, above a shallow dish of tin foil formed over the top of an enamel mug. This worked a charm, until burning drops of rosin dropped from the strainer and set the rosin in the collector on fire! I blew it out, and poured the rosin onto foil to cool and harden, and set about starting again. Take two…

Rather than trying to be a smart arse and reinvent the wheel, I just did what I’d seen in this awesome video – using just a mug and tin foil. You basically line a mug or container with foil, then make a shallow receptacle out of another piece of foil, into which you poke some drainage holes (I used a split match to do this!). It worked a treat – seriously, remind me not to think I’m my own kind of genius and just do what works in future. :-S

So, basically, the gloopy fluid that falls into your receptacle is rosin. It takes a while to cool, so if you wanted to, at this point you could add ground charcoal and mix to a paste, allow to harden, and then use as ‘pitch’ – pine resin glue. This is the type of glue that is traditionally used in things like birch bark canoes, etc. The ratio is 1/4 charcoal to 3/4 rosin.

Alternatively, give the rosin to your favourite violinist – it is used for string instruments:

“Johnny, rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard.
‘Cause Hell’s broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals the cards. And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold,
But if you lose the devil gets your soul.”

Part 2 tomorrow – let’s just say that this involves my slow cooker!

Brining & Smoking Mackerel

So here’s a little project that you can do in your garden, and it’s proof that barbeques aren’t just for summer! I did this for the first time last summer at a camp site, after spending the day fishing. There’s no meal quite as satisfying as one that you’ve caught and prepared yourself, but this is a very close second: Brining and Smoking fish.

I used mackerel (6 fillets), but only smoked 3 at a time. (You can smoke just about any meat or fish.) You’ll also need 1 cup of salt, 1/2 cup of brown sugar and a litre of water for the brining process of brining the fish, and you’ll need a barbeque, some charcoal, and some smoking chips (I used Apple Chips) which you can get on the internet and at garden centres.

1/2 cup of salt mixed with 1/4 cup of brown sugar

1/2 cup of salt mixed with 1/4 cup of brown sugar

The purpose of brining the fish is to help draw out the moisture prior to smoking. It also conditions the fish so that the smoke is absorbed well. I brine mine in a little lunch box/cooler which has a closeable lid, but is water-tight. You could just use a bowl, to be honest, but if you’re brining outdoors a lid of some kind is advisable.

Empty into about 750ml of water & stir well
Empty into about 750ml of water & stir well

This is the easy part – you want to mix your water, salt and sugar together, stirring until (at least mostly) dissolved. The water should be cold. Then you simply submerge your fillets in the liquid and leave for an hour.

Add mackerel (or whatever fish) fillets
Add mackerel (or whatever fish) fillets

After that time, remove and pat dry with kitchen roll. You’ll see that the look and feel of the flesh of the fish has been changed slightly.

After an hour, remove from brine & pat dry
After an hour, remove from brine & pat dry

Next, start a barbeque, but with coals only on one side (or the edges if it is circular). You are going to want the fish to smoke without being directly over the heat of the fire. Once the coals are nice and hot, take about 2-3 handfuls of smoking chips and scatter them over the coals. Place your prepared fillets on a few layers of tin foil (if the foil is lightly oiled that will help the fish to not stick).

Prepare hot coals in 1/2 of your grill, when ready sprinkle wood chips over them to create smoke. fish should be on foil in the OTHER half of the grill
Prepare hot coals in 1/2 of your grill, when ready sprinkle wood chips over them to create smoke. fish should be on foil in the OTHER half of the grill

Pop the lid on, and open the vents so that the smoke is drawn over the fish. With my barbeque, which is the Weber Go-anywhere, I close the vent over the coals and open the one over the fish, and make sure the base vent is open. Keep an eye on it and make sure you’re getting lots of smoke coming out.

Cover, open vent above or nearest to fish, wait 15 mins
Cover, open vent above or nearest to fish, wait 15 mins

Fifteen minutes later, your fish is ready. I ate this immediately, when it was still hot, but took some home for dinner too (which my hubby made into a really amazing pasta dish). Please let me know if you have a go and how you get on!

Fish is ready when golden and cooked through
Fish is ready when golden and cooked through

Horizontal Pot Hanger

Okay after last week’s simple pot hanger setup, as promised, here is another setup which is good if you’re bedding in for a few days somewhere – a great horizontal bar arrangement from which to hang your billy or even from which to hang meat for smoking, cooking, etc., depending on the height. (Stay tuned later this week for a ‘how to’ on brining and smoking fish, by the way!)

So, what you need is two long, straight poles with a branch (just like in the last pot stand, you’re looking for essentially straight pieces with the branch making an ‘L’ shape, rather than a splitting branch making a ‘Y’ shape – this is so that you can whack them into the ground without splitting the pole.  I used hazel (my favourite wood) from our coppice, but anything will do really.

You’ll also need a plain, straight pole that is at least as long as the width of your fire area. Place your two branched poles either side of your fire and hammer them into the ground with a mallet (or a thick branch) so that the branches are the same height – these will be what you’ll balance your crossbar on. You can notch the crossbar where it lies on your supports to stop it slipping about (and also in the centre where your billy will hang) but this isn’t essential. *If you do, this is done easily by running your knife around the pole and removing a small amount of bark and wood between the two circles you create.

Next, you’ll need to make a hanger, which will basically be two L-shaped branches placed back to back and carved so that they notch together (take a look above and you’ll see what I mean) so that one branch points forward and one backward. Securely tied (another post coming up shortly on how to make natural string and cordage from nettles) this will hook over your crossbar, with your billy hanging from the other branch. *Make sure you get the length right so that your billy will hang right over the coals at the correct height. (I can show you in a future post how to make this setup more adjustable with height, etc.)

Your billy will now hang beautifully over your coals. I really love this setup and it doesn’t take much more time than last week’s. The supports are also great for hanging other stuff from (like I did with my kelly kettle in the pic above!)

The Crucible. Of Fire Bowls.

Well, not exactly a crucible. For a while now I’ve been using the Grilliput Firebowl for general bushcrafty shenanigans, and although I’ve been delighted with it, and took it across Scotland this summer, one thing was bothering me: the size. The one I got was the XL, which is awesome for camp fire use, and you can get grills that pack flat but pop up over the top to turn the grilliput into a ‘proper’ barbeque. But, if I’m honest, I don’t have ‘proper’ fires anywhere near as often as I’d like, and more often than not, the bowl is used as a nice, stable, off-the-ground base for my Kelly Kettle (which is the Trekker size – 600ml).  So, in the grand scheme of things, the XL firebowl is slight over-kill (and takes up a lot of space in my pack, in spite of the fact that the bowl collapses rather satisfyingly.)

So the smaller ‘standard’ size arrived this week, and my initial unboxing, I’ve got to say, was an excited ‘squeeeee! it’s so cute!’ followed by immense disappointment at its one fatal flaw: The XL firebowl I’d hitherto been using has legs that fold down flat to help it to pack down as neatly as possible. My new, super cute and tiny firebowl has four rather annoying welded-on pegs that don’t fold down, but stick out stubbornly, defeating the object of packing small. You can’t even unscrew them.

I should say, actually, that the standard size is not intended to replace my XL one, which I still intend to use regularly, but in my everyday pack, I’ll be using the standard size.

Anyway, I christened it today and did a few comparison shots so you can see the difference in size, and those annoying feet. (I am still deciding whether to drill them out and replace them with something packawayable – which is DEFINITELY a word.)

So, in the end I’m still keeping both, but will probably end up ‘modding’ the standard, depending on how much the pegs irritate me, and if they rip through the exped I keep it in. To be continued…

New Year’s Hootenanny

I’ve been working on an awesome project with the Brewood Bird Ringers and the Middle Earth Weavers – we’ve been making nesting baskets for Long Eared Owls. The hope is that the 15 baskets we make (to be installed at secret locations around the Black Country and South Staffordshire) will be taken up by Long Eared Owls. (There has been success in similar projects like this 1998 study which piloted this type of scheme!) The owls and their breeding success will then be monitored and ringed by the Brewood crew.

We’re making the nest baskets to order – 30cm x 15cm (this size is perfect for the owls and also enables the bird ringers to know when the owls are there as their ears will poke up above the rim!) and installing them before the bird breeding season, so the race is on to finish them all in time! (Each basket takes approximately 3 hours to make).

I’ll keep you posted on how the project progresses!

Tasting the Wild in 2015

My year in review. (In photos!) I’ve had another amazing year – looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve fit it all in!

Wild Encounters

From Chasing Violet Carpenter Bees in Andalucia, hunting for Eyed Ladybirds on Barr Beacon and moth trapping on heathlands around Walsall to mist netting for bats in woodlands, ringing birds (including our Peregrines which fledged four chicks!) and monitoring our amazing badgers, I’ve had another amazing year of wild encounters.

Wild in the Woods

I’ve also done lots of playing in the woods this year, and have concentrated on working on my fire craft skills (from just practicing lighting fires to experimenting with different tinders and kindlings). I’ve made a willow crayfish trap and learned some new basketry techniques, honed my corn dolly skills and bashed the heck out of some plants to make hapa zome flags. Culinary foraging has been limited to hedgerow berries and birch sap tapping this year, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my hedgerow vodka!

Travel

Kind of spent a ridiculous amount of my pocket money on travel this year, with a trip to Andalusia in March, followed by Edinburgh in May, the 5th annual Girls’ Birdwatching Trip (Norfolk), camping in the Derbyshire Dales and hiking from Ft William to Inverness. And I wonder why I have no money now that December is here! Highlights were definitely the seals at Blakeney Point and my first ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst camped on Loch Ness – amazing! (You can read the blog and see the videos of the hike across scotland here.) I’m planning on Florida, Cornwall and lots more camping in 2016!

Bats

Oh, the bats this year! I’ve been involved for a few years with the Herefordshire Mammal Group, doing mist netting and harp trapping surveys, and this year their project organisers helped BrumBats to undertake some woodland surveys of our own. With help from the Shropshire Bat Group, we surveyed Cuckoos Nook & the Dingle, Merrions Wood and Sutton Park. At BrumBats HQ we are very excited to get stuck into another season of study!  We also had a crazily busy year of bat care, and with this mild weather, are anticipating some winter grounded bats and (most likely) a very busy (and early) bat maternity season in 2016!

Space

The sun and the moon had amazing things in store this year – a total lunar eclipse, and a near-total solar eclipse. Both events had (uncharacteristically) clear skies. Over 600 people turned out on Barr Beacon for the solar eclipse. Amazing that so many people value natural phenomenon enough to come out and experience them together. The atmosphere was just incredible! I’m hoping to be in the USA for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Botanising

I had a fantastic summer, spending most of it undertaking botanical surveys of grasslands. I think we’re going to get a few new nature reserves out of it, and certainly some relaxed mowing regimes.

Becoming an Auntie again…

In January I became an auntie again – this time to a little girl – the enchanting Eleanor Hughes, whom I’ve got to spend time with twice this year (which is pretty good going seeing as she lives 3,500 miles away!). Can’t wait to see you in March, Elley!

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I hope that everyone has had a merry Christmas full of comfort and Joy, and I’m sending you wish-grenades for a prosperous, healthy and bright new year!

Thanks, as always, for reading. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover in 2016, please let me know!

Morgan x

Talk to the Stand

A bit of a ‘how to’ today – making a pot stand for your campfire. There’s a shed-load of ways to suspend a pot over a fire, but this is a really simple way to use three sticks to create a stable, safe stand for your pot or billy. You need to start by selecting three sticks, each with a fork in them. Keep in mind that one stick (We’ll call this the ‘support’ will be the one from which you will hang your pot, the second will be the ‘fulcrum’ on which your first stick rests, and the third will be a strong ‘peg’ to hold your first stick in place in the ground.)

It is best to use green wood (easier to carve, saves your blade!):

Another thing to remember is that in the case of sticks 2 and 3 (the fulcrum and the peg), you want the ‘v’ shape to be asymmetrical – this will allow you to, if necessary, hammer them into the ground. (That way the ‘shock’ of the mallet goes into the ground – if you used a y-shaped fork, you’d just end up splitting it.) So basically you want one vertical branch with an asymmetrical branch going off to one side.

It will be much more stable if you carve a notch into the underside of the support branch, where it will rest on the fulcrum. To get really nerdy about it, you can make your support stick adjustable by carving multiple notches, which will enable you to easily raise and lower your billy simply by moving the support branch along a notch where it rests on the fulcrum.

So the whole thing looks like this:

Now you’re all set up. Even when the ground is damp, I use a firebowl, which you can pick up for around £20 – they keep your fire off the ground and contain it beautifully. So you’re all sorted to light your fire and boil your water. This won’t happen as quickly as when using a kelly kettle, but you have the open fire to entertain you while you wait… *Remember that during the winter months you’ll find a lack of dry material to burn, so if, like me, you don’t have anywhere to dry and season wood, remember to stock-pile a bit towards the end of summer. I still have a dry-sack full of birch bark!

There are ways to elaborate on this basic method, and I’ll go into those in more detail in a later post, plus look at building a more permanent setup, suitable for a week or more’s camping.  In the mean time, enjoy that campfire coffee!

Krampus Ruten

So it’s nearly Christmas and you’re wondering what to get for the wife/kids… How about a home made, traditional symbol of Alpine Pagan origin reported to be wielded by a sinister creature of Austro-Bavarian folklore? Enter, Krampus – is he the harmless, yet impish sidekick to Saint Nicholas, or the cannibalistic terror of Germanic children throughout the millennia? You decide…

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Evidently, Krampus is the new poster child for the holiday season. He is bang on trend, (much in the way that all of a sudden Polar Bears are a Christmas animal… this is a mystery to me… ) With a new film out, Krampus is the newest rediscovered folklore phenomenon. And as he’s trendier than oiling your beard whilst drinking a flat white, I’m totally jumping on this bandwagon…

Krampus is, depending on which Krampuskarten (Krampus card) you have been sent this year, is either a wench-ogling dirty old man, a child-drowning (and eating) kidnapper, or a pestilence to naughty children, chasing and whipping their behinds with his weapon of choice – the Birch Ruten! These bundles of birch twigs (pictured in the stamps and images above) are exchanged as christmas gifts in Austria. So I dragged my mate Nige out to our local heathland on our lunch break today, as we thought we’d make a few and show you how to do it!

“Bundles of Gold-painted birch are hung on the walls year round… as a reminder for children to be well-behaved… so they do not have to endure the wrath of Krampus.” – J.A. Galvan

The ruten below are made by bundling up thin twigs of freshly-cut birch and using a technique called ‘whipping’ (how appropriate!) to create a decorative, yet firm binding. I haven’t bothered to spray paint my ruten gold, as that’s, well, just a bit tacky, but I did make a few tiny ones to hang on my tree! Roll over the images below to see the stages…

Then, of course, you’ll need a cup of tea after all that hard work, so I cracked open the kelly kettle and christened my new hobo stove!

On Hiking

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*This post is part of a series on walking the Great Glen Way with my Husband – Check out the post / blogs on the route!

Let’s get this straight before we start. I am not sporty. It’s only my love for nature that makes me even vaguely ‘outdoorsy’. Luckily, long distance walking has far less than you’d think to do with fitness and stamina than it does with grit and stubbornness (which thanks to my Dad’s side of the family I have in ample supply!)

I’m 40 years old at the time of writing this. And I’m 68 kilos (150lb) and 5’4, which makes me about half a stone outside ‘normal’ BMI range, and a good stone over my ideal weight.* I also have an auto immune condition called Sarcoidosis, which causes pain, inflammation and fatigue, and growths in my lungs.

I’m hardly your ideal candidate for a long distance hiker.

To make things even more awkward, I have had lifelong spinal problems (disc degeneration in my back and a herniated cervical disc with ossification) so I have some issues with sleeping comfortably in a tent. I’m also intolerant of gluten, which makes camping food a bit of a nightmare. Or at least it used to be.  I’m a dab hand these days at gluten free camping food – and my hubby ate entirely gluten free on our last trip too, with no complaints!

If I want to do something, I will find a way. Some of this is accomplished through good doctors, diet, medication, lifestyle changes, and the aforementioned grit. But a LOT of what makes Long Distance Hiking possible is the right kit. You will have to spend some money if you want to be comfortable and dry.

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My 5-point basic kit is this:

  1. Backpack / Rucksack – Get one that fits your torso – YES! They come in different torso sizes! And some are adjustable. You can get women’s packs that also have s-shaped straps to accommodate the chest (rather than squishing it). I can’t recommend Osprey Arial 65 enough – it’s pretty much the industry standard, tested by many awesome ladies.
  2. Sleeping Mat – I have (count ’em) three of these. I have a thick Therm-a-Rest which I use for ‘normal’ camping, and a lighter, slightly less warm (but still pretty warm) Therm-a-Rest for hiking. They make women’s versions that are warmer/thicker around the hips and feet! And yes, I’ve turned into one of those people who cut the end of their toothbrush and weigh it. I also have a solar ridge rest – super cheap, light (if bulky) and keeps you crucially OFF THE GROUND, reflecting your body heat back to you.
  3. Inflatable Pillow – Again, I have two of these – the ‘comfort’ kind for ‘normal’ camping and a lighter kind for trekking. BOTH have a curved design which mimics the tempur contour pillow I have at home.
  4. Sleeping Bag – Girls get cold. I have a super warm sleeping bag, a down one. Pricey but worth every penny.
  5. Treking Poles – Only just bought these but OHMYGOD they may have just saved my life – you know how when you’re dying on the cross trainer, and you can take the heat of your legs by pulling a bit more with your arms? This, essentially is the gist of these – they also give you awesome stability and improve your control and confidence, especially going downhill. Women’s poles are shorter with a slightly smaller handle – almost imperceptible to the eye but you can really feel the difference with your hands.

Clothes are pretty simple and lots will depend on your personal preference, as different brands have different fits, but I tend to wear lots of Rab stuff, but my favourite base layer is by Montane. I always buy Salomon shoes, which come in half sizes! (Yes, I pretty much exclusively buy British Stuff – not least because they know how to make kit for our wet climate!) You will need socks, trousers, base layers, mid layers, waterproofs, hat, gloves and spares of most of those.  (Check out Gear for Girls – lovely people and awesome clothes!)

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Most important are awesome shoes. You’ll need to balance weight with durability, and also decide if you need no, mid, or full ankle support. I remove my insoles and replace them with Superfeet – there are loads of different kinds and you need to go check them out rather than just buy one, to make sure you get the right support.

With most clothes, you’ll be wanting lightweight stuff, so it’s a matter of weighing up weight/benefit in your head. My sleeping bag is pretty heavy compared to my hubby’s, but I’d never trade it. I carry trekking poles because they reduce the impact on me, which more than offsets their weight.  You’ll need to make this decision about everything you buy/pack. Do I really need super warm tent socks?  Yeah, I kind of do. Do I really need to carry a 400g fire bowl? Absolutely. The morale you get from having a fire is a priceless benefit, and I’m all about the leave-no-trace thing, so I won’t have one on the ground.

So it’s all about managing my conditions, knowing (and occasionally pushing) my limits, and planning, planning, planning. I’m really excited to be back into the swing of things, and determined to keep it up, and keep my health under my control. So watch this space!

*Yeah, I know I throw pounds, kilos and stones around like it’s Kibbles ‘n Bits – I grew up in the US and live in the UK so my metric/imperial system is on the fritz.