Category Archives: Hedgerows

Guest Blog: Owls That for an Idea?

It’s been a while since I had a guest blogger on here, so I’d like to introduce you to David Nixon, who has been working with me on our bat box scheme. He’s an ecologist and the director of Fauna Forest Ecology in Stoke–on-Trent. David is licensed to work with not only bats and great crested newts, but also smooth snakes, sand lizards and barn owls. He runs bat box schemes and is a member of the Derbyshire Bat Group (follow them on twitter – they’re awesome) and also, like me, the super-active Herefordshire Mammal GroupAs you’ll also see from the photos below, he’s also a fantastic wildlife photographer, and he travels the globe photographing wildlife, particularly venomous snakes. I’m not even kidding – get over to his flickr page and feast your eyes….

He also keeps venomous snakes and SPIDERS (Which is why you’ll never catch me round his house, like EVER.) and runs a small education business taking snakes, frogs, inverts and more to visit schools, cubs, beavers and scouts groups. I’m literally exhausted just thinking about it. Somehow David’s also fit in the time to write a blog post for me with some top tips on Tawny Owl spotting, so without further ado… 

Owls That for an Idea?

First of all, I would like to thank Morgan for allowing me to collaborate and write for her blog. I have written a copious amount of blogs before and failed due to time constraints. I hope to write more blogs for the Reremouse – it’s a great blog that I thoroughly enjoy reading.

The dark months: migrating birds have made their way due south to warmer climates, various other cool species such as bats, dormice, reptiles and amphibians are now in hibernation. What is there to do on these dreary, dark evenings, as we wait in anticipation for an influx of waxwings, brambling and other winter visitors? Ask any naturalist, ecologist or wildlife enthusiast what they think of owls – yep, we all love owls!

The tawny owl (Strix aluco) is Britain’s commonest owl – an owl found distributed across much of the UK, with the exception of Ireland. As the summer slips away, young tawny owl chicks face eviction from their parents – usually their father! It is during this time (August/September) when they are most vocal. Jemima Parry-Jones refers to them as “all-night ravers”. Being highly territorial, these somewhat cute, dumpy-looking birds will fight vigorously for territory and become easy to locate.

Now is the time to head out and find your local tawny patch. Trust me, you might not feel like leaving the comfort of your home, but once you locate a territory and become familiar with individual bids, a new passion will be ignited. So when should you leave your cosy, warm abode, in search our rufous woodland friends? Autumn, winter and summer months can be great!

Autumn months see males and females continuously calling in a bid to defend and establish territories, therefore locating them by their call is fairly easy.

Winter is a great time to spot tawny owls – they have settled and are focused on feeding. Courtship sometimes takes place mid-winter although it’s usually a late-winter, early spring activity. By late November, much of the foliage has fallen from the trees, which in turn, makes them easy to spot.

Spring for me, is a difficult time to locate tawny owls. You might get a fleeting glimpse of the male as he tries desperately to find prey for both himself and the nesting female.

Summer is the time to watch young tawny owl chicks. Walk into ALMOST any patch of deciduous woodland during the summer months and you’re likely to hear the desperate screech of young tawny chicks. Sit long enough and you will see the parents feed their young.

Tawny Amongst Red Berries
Tawny Amongst Red Berries

OK, it’s November I’m now inspired to find my first tawny owl – what’s the first thing that I need to do?

Have a think: do you know of a road, ideally a country lane that runs through dense, deciduous woodland… the sort of woodland where the trees join together above the road, forming a canopy? If you do, choose a blustery, rainy evening – the sort of night when you would least fancy venturing out on a quest to discover any form of wildlife. Trust me, these are the best nights!!!! You can leave at anytime after dusk, however, you stand a better chance of success around 21:30-01:00, because the level of traffic is much less and the owls have (hopefully) a full stomach and are less likely to scarper.

Why a blustery/rainy night?

Owls (particularly tawny owls) don’t like to fly with wet feathers. They also don’t like to fly or hunt in windy conditions. By driving slowly (around 15mph) along country lanes with high-beams illuminated, I am almost certain you will locate a tawny owl seeking shelter. Once you have seen one, you will quickly realise how easy they are to spot (an probably how many you have driven past without noticing). Don’t always look up high amongst the canopy – 70% of the owls at the 12 territories that I monitor, sit on branches between 6-12ft off the ground. Keep a look out for their plump outline and pale chest, pushed tight against oak trees covered in ivy. They’re not always easy to spot, but once you have trained your eyes, they become easy. Perched tawny owls make for a superb photo too! Other alternatives to look out for are the steps, fixed to the side of telegraph poles; tawny owls don’t hunt on the wing like many of our other British owl species – they ground-scan for prey and drop like a stone, using their wings as a parachute to break the fall. Fence posts, low branches and telegraph poles make the prefect hunting perch!

Once you spot your owl, draw the car up in front of the bird. If you see the owl and don’t spot it until you have driven past, don’t reverse. Continue driving and turn around (reversing the car  = owl flies off). Under such conditions, they rarely fly off, providing you park facing the bird. I have climbed out of the car and stood 6ft in front them, admired, taken a photo and driven on without them taking off. The headlights and a torch provide sufficient lighting to grab a couple of photos – you don’t need a huge birding lens for this sort of photography either!

In the absence of a car, a similar method works well on foot. Walking around your local patch of woodland with a torch in the rain is perhaps less appealing than driving in a warm car. You will however find one if you search hard enough and again, 9 times out of 10, they will sit and not fly off. Country lanes tend to be slightly more productive because small mammals use the edge of dry-stone walls and hedgerows as a corridor, which in turn works well for our friends with talons!

David wrangling a northern brown snake on the Barkly Tablelands
David wrangling a northern brown snake on the Barkly Tablelands

You can read more about David HERE, see more of David’s photography HERE, and his forthcoming website HERE.

 

Weaving a God’s Eye

Just a quick post this morning – baskets this time! I was teaching a hedgerow basketry course yesterday, in which we used green willow (‘green’ refers to the fact that the willow is freshly cut, and has nothing to do with the colour or variety!) to make framed baskets. I like to teach this course in particular, as it is a basket that you could conceivably make in one day, should you happen to find yourself near a willow carr or pond with enough green material. No preparation is required at all, and the only tool you need is a pair of secateurs.

Freshly cut green willows and dogwoods waiting to be used!
Freshly cut green willows and dogwoods waiting to be used!

As simple and pleasurable as this type of basket is to make, there is one part of the process that people often struggle with: making the God’s Eye. The God’s Eye is the binding that holds the hoop and rim of the basket together, and it forms the base against which the ribs of the basket rest. It is basically the strength of the basket, and so needs to be done right.

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Some people learn best by written instructions and diagrams, so I provide that for them, and I also talk through the process in simple terms, and demonstrate carefully. But one of the attendees of the course yesterday suggested that I did a video showing how it’s done, to which people could refer back. So, here it is!

Have a great start to your week, everyone!

Puttanesca Liqueur

A quickie for you – an easy peasy hedgerow vodka (or you can use rum, gin, etc, but if you really want the flavours of the fruits, use vodka – any old cheap stuff will do!)

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Gather some hedgerow goodies (rosehips, cherries, sloes and elderberries are shown here but you can add crab apples, blackberries, raspberries or whatever you find!- I usually have a stash of stuff in my freezer that I gather throughout the year. Freezing is good because it breaks apart the bigger berries slightly so you don’t have to prick them all over with a fork, which can be quite laborious. This is the Puttanesca of hedgerow liqueurs! Here’s the ‘how to’ – just roll over the images. *I used 350g cherries, 150g sloes, 150g rosehips and 150g elderberries to about a litre of vodka and 200g sugar. I will add more vodka to this eventually, but it looks pretty all rammed into one jar!

Sadly, once beautifully layered and filled, you must now shake it up to distribute the sugar. (Sorry!) Shake once a week at least (or whenever you’re waiting for the kettle to boil) and it will be drinkable by christmas. You can keep tasting to add sugar/vodka as you like. As I said, I’ll split this up into two jars and add another 1/2 litre in a couple of weeks.

Season’s Eatings

It’s the time of year when my thoughts turn to the hedgerow – to jams and jellies, apples and sloe gin. But this harvest season I’ve decided to put a lot more thought into seasonal foraging in the supermarket. Of course, when there is a British food available I will always choose that over an imported one, but what would happen if I just didn’t eat food that wasn’t in season? At all?

There are lots of reasons why eating seasonally is good – it reduces food miles and associated carbon emissions (and is usually cheaper!), it supports British Growers and Farmers and even regional/local ones!, and it means that the food you’re eating hasn’t been ‘forced’ in any way and is going to have better flavour, colour, etc. (If you’re sick of anemic-looking tomatoes then this might solve your problem!)

But for me, it’s more about connecting with my environment. I’m lucky enough to be out there in the seasons as they pass, and I think that eating this way will help me to reinforce that connection. Not in a hairy fairy way – I find immense pleasure and emotional grounding in being outside, feeling the rhythm of our orbit around the sun, and it gives me a sense of well-being and, well, just makes me happy.

So, I’m going to give it a try. I’ve been scouring the internet this morning looking for resources to help me, and thought I’d share them with you.

BOOKS

Absolutely indispensable is the River Cottage Handbooks series – each one takes seasonality into account.  (To be honest, all of the River Cottage books do this – especially Meat, Fish, Veg and Fruit. My favourites from the handbook series are Game, Hedgerow and Fishing:

New Covent Garden (Those lovely soups in cartons in the supermarket!) do books!  The Soup for All Seasons is fantastic as is their Soup Every Day – also a seasonal guide but with more recipes. One of my other favourites is Sophie Dahl’s From Season to Season.

WEBSITES

Eat Seasonably has a neat ‘best of this month’ feature highlighting the best 2 or 3 seasonal fruits and veggies. This is nice but not as comprehensive.

Well Seasoned is a comprehensive website – and they are on Twitter (I will do a post in the coming weeks about seasonal people on Twitter and Instagram as I find them)

Eat the Seasons is simple and clean, with a ‘seasonal food of the week’.

What’s In Season is a simple, visually appealing website that is organised by month.

POSTERS

There’s a wealth of seasonal eating posters out there (a google image search will throw up loads – a tip is to change your search parameters to ‘large’ images only, and to include ‘UK’ in your search text!)

If you’re after a single chart to print out, you could do worse than this one from Love British Food, which is sort of cartoony so I guess would appeal to families:

The website wellseasoned.co.uk have an array of seasonality charts, including fish, meat and even hedgerows! This is by far the best (for me) of the posters out there – although it is a SERIES of 9 posters. Though this is a drawback for some, it is by far the most comprehensive I can find:

http://www.wellseasoned.co.uk/seasonality-charts/4586429527

FRIDGE MAGNETS

For the fridge you can get these fab Seasonal Food in the UK Fridge Magnets from NotOnTheHighStreet.com – these are pretty cool and, again, might help you to get the family on board. Plus, who doesn’t love fridge magnets?? (Except my mate Martin).

http://www.notonthehighstreet.com/askingfortrouble/product/seasonal-fruits-and-vegetables-fridge-magnets

APPS

If you’re on iPhone (which I’m not) the main contender is Seasons which looks to have good functionality, but does cost £1.49. If anyone has this and can review it, please let me know!

I checked out a couple of free Android apps.  Firstly, In Season is basic but functional, but a neat feature is that if you click on each vegetable there are tips on how to choose ripe or good quality ones, how to store it, and some recipe ideas. Could do with a few more foods, but nice and easy to use.

My favourite free app (and the one that I’ll keep on my phone) is Seasonal Food Fruit and Veg which is pretty awesome – you set it for your region, and you use either the ‘fruit’ tab, the ‘vegetables’ tab, or the ‘preferred’ tab, which includes all the foods that you have given a gold star. (So you don’t have to scroll though foods you don’t like to find ones you do.)

My main tool is going to be the app, I think. I’m not a meal planning person and tend to be a bit spontaneous in the supermarket, so this will help me to choose while I’m there. I’ll keep you posted on how I’m getting on!

Hapa Zome Happiness

Let me warn you right now. If you read this blog post you may become addicted to flower pounding. Hapa Zome is the ancient Japanese art of beating natural dyes into cloth.  My friend Helen and I had a go this morning, and I must confess I’m feeling pretty evangelical about it…

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You will need a rubber mallet (I got mine from Go Outdoors for £2), some material (A cheap, cream-coloured fitted sheet will cost you about £3 from Sainsbury, Morrisons or Dunelm – just cut it into the size you want), and some flowers and leaves – this is where you can go wild – we used a combination of garden flower petals (rose of sharon, lavender, carnations, etc) and fresh herbs from the supermarket (mint and thyme), as well as some roadside plants (fennel works wonderfully) – but you can just experiment and find your own favourites!

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Lay out your plants and flower petals in the design of your choosing, on top of one piece of the fabric. (Do this on a flat, smooth surface that can take a pounding – we used some birch logs.)

Cover your design with a second sheet of fabric and smooth it down so it is as flat as possible…

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Now, section by section, take your rubber mallet and bash the heck out of it. Make sure you don’t move your sheets or dislodge the material – go around the edges and middles of all of your leaves and flowers.

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You will see that the colours become immediately visible.  When you’ve finished, peel apart the two pieces of fabric and remove the remaining leaves and petals, and voila! You have two fabulous little Hapa Zome creations!

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I can think of no better time and place for doing this than whilst camping – make Hapa Zome using your tent peg mallet, and then use your creations to make bunting for your campsite!

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One last thing – as with any natural plant dye – if you want your creation to last, you will need to have treated your fabric with a mordant – in this case, Alum is the best one. Rather than order alum directly from chemical suppliers or dye shops, you can pop to your local garden centre and pick up some hydrangea food – it’s exactly the same thing! Simply spray your material using a 10% alum-water mixture until it is wet and allow to dry before you do the Hapa Zome! – Please send me photos of your creations! Spread the addiction!

Blue Christmas

I absolutely LOVE this bluestem willow (Salix irrorata) – made a wreath and small English Randing basket out of it today and I’m just delighted.  its so lovely to work with and looks as if it has been sprayed with spray-snow!  Perfect for Christmas decorations.  This is a natural bloom that appears on the tree at this time of year.  Made quite a few wreaths today, which I’ll post another time, but this week marks the start of the Christmas season.  I’m doing a few workshops around the Walsall area – check Whats On Walsall for info if you fancy coming along.

Hedge Over Heels

*You’ll probably notice that I’ve been consolidating a couple of blogs, and many of my basketry posts are now here.  I need to go through them and sort our feature images, etc., but please feel free to have a rummage through this year’s posts.

‘Tis the season for (amongst other things) basket making, as hedgerow materials are abundant during the autumn.  From Willow and Dogwood to Bramble and Ivy, there is a wealth of natural materials out there to be found, harvested and made into baskets.  I have been doing an intermediate basketry course recently, and we’ve been looking at coppicing / harvesting natural materials to make baskets.  Here’s a few photos of last month’s hedgerow basket (made from green, yellow and buff willow – the buff is bought willow, which I used to ‘tighten up’ the natural materials, which will shrink as they dry.

 Watch this space next week for tips on harvesting, preparing and storing natural materials for basketry…

Pleacher Feature! (Hedging our bets…)

Each month, at work, we have ‘team day’ in which all of our staff members spend a day outside on one of our sites, doing a practical conservation task.  November’s team day (or as we lovingly call it:  “Manual Labour Day”) was hedge laying at Park Lime Pits. Because of the increase in value to wildlife that the process of laying conveys on a hedge, it is part of the site’s Environmental Stewardship agreement to lay certain hedges on site.  It is just one of the ways that we work with the farmer, and with Natural England, to improve the site for wildlife.

Hedge-laying is an ancient craft, and although the different styles of hedge laying employ different techniques, all methods rely on the same basic principle:  You can cut ALMOST all the way through a tree and as long as an intact section of bark remains, the tree will not die, but continue to grow.  (This is because they xylem and phloem tubes through which trees feed are always located in the outer areas of the trunk, just under the bark, and as long as they remain intact, the tree will live.)  Using bow saws and traditional tools called Billhooks, trees in a standing hedge are cut almost all the way through and then leaned over.  The trees in the line of the hedge are laid sequentially and the line of the laid hedge is then secured by putting in stakes to hold it up.  In as little as a single season’s growth the hedgerow looks lush and healthy again.

As well as the benefits to agriculture (provision of shelter for livestock, a natural way to enclose pastures) laid hedges benefit wildlife in many ways.  Whereas standing hedgerows can, as they age, develop gaps, laid hedgerows are continuous, which is important for various organisms for different reasons.  Firstly, continuous lines of habitat allow insects and mammals to travel from site to site, relatively safe from predation, thus the laying of hedges directly combats habitat fragmentation and the genetic isolation that can go along with it.  These linear features are particularly important to bats, which use them to navigate around the landscape, and over which they forage.  The fact that laid hedges are thicker, and have more growth, which means that they are excellent habitat for animals like the Hazel Dormouse.  The increased amounts of dead wood within laid hedges provide habitat for beetles and other saproxylic invertebrates.

You’ll find laid hedgerows all over Walsall’s countryside sites, but the best place to see them is probably Park Lime Pits and Lime Pits Farm, where there are examples of mature and brand new hedges.  Winter is a perfect time to spot them as there are no leaves in the way!  So if you fancy a winter ramble, why not head down to Lime Pits and discover this unique habitat?