Wild Encounters#3: Meles Meles

badgerWe regularly meet badgers in children’s stories, usually as the wise old elder, (e.g. Wind in the Willows, Fanastic Mr Fox), or occasionally as a savage and cunning baddie (e.g. The Tale of Mr Tod, Watership Down), but either way, if there is an anthropomorphic tale set in a woodland, Mr Brock Badger will be there. Adopted as the symbol of the Wildlife Trusts and blamed for the spread of bovine TB, they seem equally loved and loathed and stand in the middle of the battleground of our attitudes towards nature.

So you feel you know badgers, but you never see them.  In a whole life, a good part of it spent in woodlands, the only badgers I have ever seen were dead by the side of the road. With all the roadkill encounters and news of horrific government culls, it seemed possible to imagine that badgers are nearly extinct, but as part of my quest to see British wildlife for my Wild Encounters blog, I enlisted the help of the Lancashire Badger Group, who offer visits to a hide for a small donation.

One May evening we left rainy Yorkshire and drove across the Pennines to find Lancashire bathed in sunshine.  Meeting Sue in a pub car park, we drove to a nearby farm and checked in with the farmer, who is rightly observant about who is visiting the badgers.  The evening sun cast long shadows as we walked through a meadow to reach the woodland where a wooden hide is tucked into the side of the hill.  It was obvious from this vantage point that the many holes dug into the woodland banks were bigger than rabbit warrens and this was the home to a large network of badger setts.  The children helped Sue scatter peanuts around while I set up my daughter’s wildlife camera in the hope of catching some action.  We then retreated to the hide to wait for nightfall.

2017-05-17 20.39.57We had brought the children out of necessity, (and because they were as keen to see badgers as we were), but I was nervous about how on earth they (and I) would be able to keep still and quiet for hours.  But it was amazing how restful it was just staring at a darkening woodland. For a long time we honed in on any movement; a crow in a tree, a rabbit hopping through the grass.  Soon our senses were tuned in to the tiny details such as hovering midges, the snap of a twig and the shake of a leaf in the breeze.  As the woods grew still darker my hopeful mind was turning the trick of light and shadow on the ground into a badgers distinctive stripe.  However as minutes turned to hours we were starting to doubt we would be lucky enough to see any badgers at all, and trying to think of ways to not appear disappointed. It was nearly 10pm when Issy whispered she could see one in the undergrowth.  I could not, but within seconds, a striped snout appeared behind a tree and sniffed the air.  We sat up in our seats, fully attentive.

Cautiously at first and then with more confidence, the badger snuffled out into view and started munching on the peanuts.  It was soon joined by another and together they noisily hoovered up the scattered nuts, shuffling along the ground, while their hyper-sensitive noses continually sniffed for information.  At one point they seemed to detect a sudden danger, perhaps they had caught our scent on a gust of wind, and they darted back into the undergrowth.  But they didn’t stay away for long and reappeared at another side to snuffle around for more snacks.  At one point a fox cub peeked out from behind a tree and the scene was almost impossibly sylvan, but the cub thought better of it and left quickly.

We were regretting the angle we had set the wildlife camera, but as if on the instructions of a film director, the bigger badger left stage right, triggering the camera’s movement sensor.  He  wandered down the bank, paused to get his best angle, then trundled off into the woods.  Smaller badger also took his/her leave and although we waited a further half hour, there was no more sighting so we woke the by now sleeping girls, closed the hide, collected the wildlife cam and returned to the car, thrilled to have finally encountered the elusive Mr Badger.

All the anthropomorphising in the world will not protect this amazing species from the threats of traffic, loss of habitat and an outrageous and unjustified government cull.  A heartfelt thank you to groups like the Lancashire Badger Group and the Badger Trust who work hard to protect them.

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Wild encounters#2: Lepidus timidus

Mountain Hare at Dove Stone credit Ken Gartside I think!

Photo by Ken Gartside RSPB

Growing up hares seemed much more common a sight, hiding in the long grass or boxing in the fields.  These days I rarely see them, but when I do they delight and transfix me, like the one last summer that appeared when I was lost down a country lane and lolloped along in front for several minutes, as if to guide me in the right direction.

For my Wild Encounters blog I researched where I might see some brown hares, and discovered that the Peak district has its own colony of mountain hares, whose coats turn Artic white in winter.  Unlike brown hares, which arrived with the Romans, mountain hares are native to the UK, but only naturally in Scotland.  They arrived in England probably thanks to introduction by landowners interested in increasing the variety of game to hunt.  As with much wildlife, mountain hares are at risk due to habitat destruction and illegal hunting, but in the Peak District, the RSPB  conservation work is helping the population of mountain hares to recover.

One snowy day in January a friend and I drove our children to Dovestone reservoir to walk up the valley and see if we could spot the mountain hares.  I had thought it would be wonderful to see the white hares in the snow, but obviously that was a ridiculous notion – it makes them harder to spot! We walked up the steep valley with binoculars in hand looking for anything moving amongst the rocks, but saw nothing but black grouse.  Near the reservoir we met a couple who had seen one and followed their directions on the top paths.  We excitedly followed unmistakable trails of hare footprints in the snow, but sadly the mountain hare alluded us.

2017-02-19 12.21.49Determined, daughter Bea and I signed up for the RSPB’s Mountain Hare talk in February and gathered with others one Sunday morning in a small pub to hear a fascinating talk on the species. As a group, we set off to walk back up the Chew valley as before, but with volunteer guides to help us.  There was no snow this time to disguise their winter coats, however thick fog meant visibility was low and if the hares were there, we couldn’t pick them out.  Bea found several bits of snagged white fur, and Malteser-like brown droppings, which were confirmed as belonging to the hare, but no hares here.  Trying not to appear disappointed, we headed back down, clambering over a few rocks to see what was hiding underneath (discarded plastic bottles, mainly.  What’s wrong with people?).  2017-02-19 13.14.33Imperceptibly, the fog lifted a little and suddenly a cry went up “Found one!” and a volunteer was pointing at a fuzzy white shape on the hillside.  With binoculars it was clear to see it as mountain hare, sheltering by a rock grooming itself.  Nearby was another twitchy nosed hare clearly looking back at us.  It was magical and slightly surreal seeing an animal that looks like it belongs in the Artic, sitting there on a hillside in Greater Manchester, looking back at us.

Mountain Hare credit Ken Gartside

Photo Ken Gartside RSPB

On the way down with the fog lifting I spotted another white dot in the far distance,  just where we had come down the hillside on our previous snowy walk.  We had probably walked right past them in the snow.  Bea and I were delighted our return visit had paid off, showing us that if we want to have encounters with the wild, we are going to need patience and persistence.

With thanks to Miriam Biran and RSPB North West for their help finding the mountain hares and the conservation work at Dovestone that enables the wildlife to thrive.

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Wild encounters#1: Canis Lupus

2017-02-14 11.32.20For my 2017 blog I want to seek out encounters with with some of the UK’s native animals and birds.  Despite working outside in some beautiful Yorkshire woodlands, we rarely see much wildlife beyond birds, grey squirrels and the occasional startled deer.  The time of day and the noise of children enjoying forest school has a lot to do with that.  But significantly our chances of coming face to face with the wild are dwindling as many man-made factors such as development, pollution and climate change are causing nature to disappear at a disturbing rate.

For my first encounter I decided to start at the top, with the animal that to me embodies the spirit of the wild; the wolf.  Wolves are native to the UK, however the last one in England was killed several hundred years ago, hunted to extinction thanks to an extermination agenda initiated to protect  livestock and precious deer in the royal hunting reserves.  The story goes that England’s last wolf was killed at Humphrey Head, a limestone outcrop on the Lake District peninsulas.  Wolf descendants have now returned to Cumbria, in the form of a pair of wolf hybrids living as part of a pack with Daniel and Dee Ashman from the Predator Experience.  On one of their ‘Walking with Wolves‘ experiences, I met Maska and Kajika, a stunning pair of male wolf hybrids; timber wolves with some Czechoslovakian wolf dog bred in to them, or as Dee described ‘as much wolf as you are legally allowed to keep in this country’.

2017-02-14 10.53.41I am fascinated by wolves and would love to see them in the wild, but on this experience I had the chance to get up close and interact with them, in as much as you can interact with a 40kg animal with all its wild instincts intact.  We were shown how to properly introduce ourselves by letting them sniff our hands, and that was all that was required to be accepted into the pack and set off on a walk together.  The wolves are not allowed to run free, which was understandable given their powerful hunting instinct.  Even with 2 of us holding the lead, I was aware of the huge strength that was pulling us along.  This was definitely not like walking the dog.  Daniel and Dee explained how their animals differ from domestic dogs, who even as adult animals are basically arrested in their development at the stage of a 45 day old wolf pup.  Unlike dogs, wolves see no need to please or play; every action is driven by their powerful instincts to work as a pack unit to hunt and survive.

At the top of a hill we came to a reservoir where two swans glided over to check us out.  For Maska and Kajika it was like dinner was coming over to meet them.  Dee and Daniel took over the leads as the wolves strained to get in the water and hunt the swans.  The couple are studied experts in the evolution, physiology, social structure and conservation of wolves and shared some fascinating information about their lives.  I was really interested in complex social ranking system that dictates pack behaviours and the range of howls that communicate sophisticated meanings.  We were treated to a family bonding howl that echoed across the fells and sounded like a haunting cry for a distant time and place when wolves roamed our country.

On the way back down we discussed the reintroduction of wolves.  This has successfully happened in Yellowstone Park in America, where bringing back a keystone species has had a positive effect on the biodiversity, as deer and elk are forced to retreat from open country, allowing the regrowth of plants which in turn increases other species populations.  Sadly however I learnt this would not be possible in the UK as our lack of wilderness area means there is not sufficient space to support the number of wolf packs needed to prevent interbreeding.

2017-02-14 12.46.59After saying goodbye to Maska and Kajika, we left to walk our own very domesticated wolf descendent (our greyhound Jet), deciding to visit nearby Humphey Head.  Standing at the bottom of the cliff looking out across the estuary, it was poignant to imagine the last wolf cowering amongst the rocks as it was hunted down to its bloody demise, a sad end for a beautiful and powerful creature with whom we will not share this country again, but who can teach us a lot about our relationship with nature.

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Connecting with Nature #9: Sticks for Christmas

2016-12-10-11-06-52The humble bare stick, plentiful and coming in all shapes and sizes, is the building block of many winter making activities.  We’ve spent this month at forest school collecting, carving and crafting them into simple decorations to celebrate the season. While many beautiful Christmas craft projects are so intricate they are only possible in the comfort and warmth of your own home, all the ideas below are tried and tested simple ideas to make outdoors.

 

2016-12-22-12-19-07Cork reindeers – these cheeky little guys seem to delight young and old, and are a great idea for all those corks that somehow find their way into the house.  Use a bradawl or small screwdriver to make holes in the corks to insert sticks for legs and neck.  Find branched sticks for the antlers.  Trim the legs down with secateurs afterwards to get an even length to make sure Rudolph can balance.

 

 

 

2016-12-22-12-15-12Log santas– on a trip to Germany a few years ago I saw birch log Santas outside all the houses ichristmas-card-2010n one snowy village.  I’ve copied the idea back home with slightly smaller logs sawn at an angle.  Children or adults can decorate the faces as they wish, (Deco-pens  are great for painting on wood).  One year we made our family in logs for our Christmas card.

 

 

father-christmas-pegsStick santas –  the log Santa idea downscales into an easy carving project for younger children, and you can use potato peelers as a safer alternative to knives.  Take a green (i.e. fresh), straight, finger thick stick and carve one end into a diagonal point (always get children to carve downwards and away from themselves), then colour with Decopens or Sharpies as before.

 

 

 

Stick sta2016-12-22-12-28-30r – This easy star only works if you believe in magic!  Find 5 sticks of equal length  and thickness.  Tie about 20cm of string about 2cm from the end of each stick.  Line up 2 sticks next to each other and tie together using lashing (round and round both sticks) then frapping, (round and round the lashing between the sticks), then tie off both ends.  You will now have a V 2016-12-22-12-22-56shape of 2 sticks.  Do the same again with the next stick so you have a N shape of 3 sticks, then a M shape of 4 sticks, then the final stick so you have a zig zag of 5 sticks.
This is where you have to believe in magic.  Twist and weave the zig zag shape until it makes a firm star shape then tie the 2 ends together to complete your star.  At first you may not be able to ‘see’ star within your zig zag of sticks.  Relax and keep fiddling with it – the star is always there!

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Connecting with Nature #8: The Wild Soup Hunt

2016-10-27-13-35-08It is a little known fact that November marks the opening of the Wild Soup hunting season.  These shy non-native creatures can be found hiding in our woodlands and tracking them down can be a fun sport during our autumn forest school sessions or family walks.  At this time of year their distinctive winter plumage stands out amongst the muted colours of the forest, so the canny creatures will seek shelter in nooks and crannies of rocks and thick brambles to attempt to stay away from hunters’ eyes.

2016-10-27-11-21-26The trick to a successful wild soup hunt is to use stealth and cunning.  Hunters new to the sport may need briefing on the size and colour of the beasts they are looking for before they set out.  Hunting as a pack, a group can spread out and cover a lot of ground, but care should be taken to keep noise to a minimum and not move too quickly, but to look carefully in every corner, as the wild soup can fit into small hollow of a tree or underneath a leaf covered rock. Small pieces of the wild soup’s pelt, snagged on brambles, is often a clue to their whereabouts.

2016-10-27-12-10-00Some hunters arm themselves with bows and arrows, but once cornered the wild soup rarely makes a break for it.  As soon as a wild soup is found the hunters’ cry is heard across the woods and the trophy is promptly brought back to the campfire where the cook is ready to prepare the feast.  It is thought most humane to dispatch the wild soup as quickly as possible and a quick pull on its ring pull will put a swift end to any suffering. 2016-11-05-13-56-15 (On her first  succesful hunt, one hunter asked to be ‘blooded’, but we don’t encourage this bizarre custom.) The delicious wild soup can then be thrown into the pot to create a tasty meal.  Four or five wild soups will be enough to feed a hungry forest school group. The discarded carcasses should be disposed of responsibly

It is often asked how the wild soup came to be resident in our woodlands.  It is hard to be sure, but one theory is that some domestic farmed soup escaped whilst being tran2016-10-27-12-08-22sported to market.  The soup found shelter in the woods and went native, becoming the wild soup we occasionally see today.

NB:  This activity is entirely suitable for vegetarians and animal lovers and no actual wild animals are hurt in our Wild Soup hunting activity

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