Thursday, 29 December 2016

Winter Camping, Is It Worth It?

Your summer calendar may be filled with camping trips, but this is not enough reason to completely close your doors to camping during the chillier months of the year. Believe it or not, winter camping has its own set of perks.

Photo Credit: Bushcraft and Survival Belgium

The Advantages of Winter Camping

If the brisk air and the frosty winter mornings are keeping you from venturing into camping, then you might want to take a look at some of the undeniable advantages of winter camping:

  • Less Crowded Camping Sites: Camping off-season is not everybody’s guilty pleasure. With fewer campers on your trails, you can comfortably pick the most ideal camping spot. However, make sure that you are setting up your tent in areas where landslides and avalanches are least likely.

  • Picturesque Winter Views: Camping during the winter season lets you see the world in a different perspective. Basically, you can expect scenic views as the snow slowly covers leaves and trails. The mountains may look a bit frostier, but you’ll never see picturesque winter views during the early months of the year.

  • Bid Goodbye to Mosquito Bites: Just like many campers, ticks, mosquitoes and other bugs go dormant during the winter season.

  • Rewarding Camping Experience: If winter camping has never been a part of your bucket list, you should try it at least once. Offering you a closer encounter with nature, winter hiking is a challenging, yet fulfilling experience.

Despite its plusses, winter camping is not for everybody. If you think you have the experience, knowledge and skills to go camping during the last few months of the year, go ahead and dive into a new adventure.

Just remember, there is no substitute for mental and physical preparation. Before scheduling a camping trip, research on some winter camping dos and don'ts so you would know what to do in case the going gets tough.

Lyme Disease Prevention

Anyone who spends time outside or hikes, works, plays in wooded or grassy places is at risk of contact with infected ticks which are the main vectors (or transmitters) of Lyme disease. The risk is especially high during warm summer days. But, luckily, there are many tips that you can take to protect against tick

What is Lyme disease and how does the infection occur?

Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the Borrelia type. The disease has been found on every continent except Antarctica.
The disease is primarily transmitted by Ixodes ticks: Ixodes ricinus (the sheep tick or castor bean tick) in Europe, Ixodes scapularis (The black-legged tick or deer tick) on the East Coast of the United States, Ixodes pacificus (Black-legged tick) on the West Coast of the USA and Ixodes persulcatus (the taiga tick) in China.

Tick has several developmental stages, but most people get Lyme from the bite of the nymphal, or immature form of the tick. Since they are so tiny and their bite is painless, so many people do not even realise they have been bitten and they don’t notice that the tick is attached to their body. The longer it stays attached, the more likely it will transmit the Lyme into your bloodstream. Usually, the infected tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours before the bacteria can spread to the human body. Lyme disease is treatable, but it can cause serious health problems if you wait too long to get treatment.
Signs and Symptoms
The another name for Lyme is “The Great Imitator,” because its symptoms mimic many other diseases. It can produce a range of symptoms, depending on the stage of infection. Not all patients with Lyme disease have all symptoms. Also, many of the symptoms are not specific to Lyme disease but can occur with other diseases, as well. The incubation period is usually one to two weeks.
Early signs and symptoms, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are rash, fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. These are the symptoms of the infection that have not yet spread throughout the body. The classic sign of local infection is a circular outwardly expanding red rash. It also may be warm but is generally painless.
Later signs include severe headaches and neck stiffness, rashes on the other areas of the body, Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, irregular heart beats or heart palpitations, nerve pain, dizziness, shortness of breath and even the problem with short-term memory.
If you notice any of these symptoms and have had a tick bite, live in an area known for Lyme disease, or have recently travelled to an area where Lyme disease occurs, seek medical attention immediately.
How to remove a tick
CDC recommends following these steps to remove the tick attached to your body:
  1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
  2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist the tick since it can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
  3. After removing the tick, it is important to clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
  4. Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.

Tips to stay safe from infected ticks and Lyme disease
  • Perform a full body check every evening after being outdoors (even in your own garden). Ticks often hide in body folds, like underarms, in/around ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, between the legs.
  • To avoid ticks, walk in the centre of trails and avoid walking through tall bushes or other vegetation.
  • Use repellent on clothing and tent floor. Use a repellent with DEET (on skin or clothing) or permethrin (on clothing and gear). Apply it to the skin and you’ll have a protection up to several hours.
  • Wear light-colored clothing sp the tick is more easily visible before it attaches itself.
  • Try to keep the body covered by wearing long-sleeved shirt and pants. (Possibly tucked into socks or boots), a hat and insect shields.
  • Check your clothing and pets for ticks because they may carry ticks into the house. If you find them on your clothes place it into a dryer on high heat to kill ticks.
  • Always carry tweezers. Use tweezers to grip the head and remove the tick.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Tree Lore: Holly

Botanical painting of Holly


According to the medieval Brehon laws of Ireland, if someone was caught illegally felling a holly tree the culprit was obliged to owe the landowner the hefty fee of two milking cows.

During that time period trees were categorised into four divisions according to their cultural and practical value. The highest value division was the Airig Fedo division.

Airig Fedo is a Gaelic phrase meaning Nobles of the Woods.

Only 7 native trees were bestowed the lofty status of a noble: oak, hazel, yew, ash, pine, apple and holly (1).

What made holly a valuable tree was its tough, heavy wood which was favoured, during those times, for making spears and chariot axles – both understandably much-valued items during the periods of strife that was widespread during that era.

Holly was also an essential fodder crop. The nutritious, evergreen leaves of holly were the perfect fodder crop for livestock during the lean months of winter.

Holly leaves were an important winter fodder in parts of Ireland as recently as the 1950’s, until replaced by hay as the primary winter fodder (2).

Holly, Ilex aquifolium

Alternative names:    Hulver Bush, Holm, Holy tree, Christ’s Thorn, European Holly, Common Holly, English Holly.

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Distribution:   Generally common in Ireland and Britain, often found as an understory tree of native, deciduous woodlands or part of a hedgerow system. Found throughout most of central and south Europe.


Glossy, dark green, upper leaf surface. Under the surface of the leaf is light green.

Holly is evergreen. Its characteristic, spiny leaves are present throughout the year

Flowers: Fragrant, white, four-petalled & small (6-10mm). Unusually, the petals have a leathery, waxy texture. The flowers originate from the leaf axils (the junction between the leaf stem (petiole) and the twig it's attached to).

The distinctive, 4-petalled white flower of holly

Buds: Small (2-3mm long), green, hairless and pointed.

Bark: In its youth, holly bark is smooth and usually of a light grey colour. With age, the bark becomes progressively rougher. There can also be a number of small protuberances protruding from mature bark.

The bark of mature holly is noticeably rougher in texture and appearance and can have a number of small bumps on the bark

Profile: Holly is generally a small tree, and slow growing. The overall shape is often domed or conical. Often, holly trees will refuse to take on a neat shape and have a somewhat scraggly, dishevelled appearance.

The overall appearance of holly trees can be a little on the unruly side

Berries: Female holly trees produce clusters of striking, coral-red berries.

Poisonous to humans but edible for a lot of wildlife.

Important food item for winter-visiting, migratory thrush species such as the fieldfare, Trudus pilaris, and redwing, Turdus iliacus. Often, mixed flocks of both species can be seen descending on berry-laden hollies during winter – gobbling away to their heart's content.

The hard berries of holly soften after exposure to frost and provide much needed, cold-weather sustenance for not only for bird species but also some mammal species, such as the red squirrel and pine marten (very partial to berries, despite its fearsome reputation).

The striking red berries of holly – an important winter survival food for quite a few mammal and bird species


The holly is a great bushcraft tree. Below is a list of 9 bushcraft uses of the holly tree.

2.   FUEL

The branches of living holly tree possess an unusually high number of attached, dead, thin, long and flammable twigs.

They are often of ideal length, dryness and thinness for the small twig fire, and just as importantly – it’s possible to collect many dead, holly twigs in a short period of time – important if you need to get a fire going quickly.

Holly trees have an abundance of thin, long, dry dead twigs attached to living branches – they are exceptionally good kindling 

The dead wood of holly burns hot and long as a fuel.

A lot of dead wood from holly trees has, for some reason, many small holes running throughout the wood which greatly increases its combustibility (more oxygen). The holes could be the remnant burrows of wood-boring insect larvae.

Many holly trees have large dead limbs still attached to the living tree. These sizable limbs are often vertical, or near vertical, and easy to dislodge (all they often require is a sharp shove to dislodge). The more vertically aligned deadwood is, the drier it usually is (sheds rain better).

Large, dead holly branches can be easily broken into shorter lengths by bashing the dead branches over something hard e.g. a large rock/boulder. No sawing or axe sectioning is generally required. However, be careful when forcefully breaking large branches as they can jar the hands when struck or break upwards – hitting an individual in the face.

Dense, smooth and often of clean, ivory-white colour – the wood is exceptionally attractive.

Although the wood can be hard to carve, it holds a hard-wearing edge and is an ideal choice for robust carving projects, be warned – the wood can be prone to splitting at the ends when dried too quickly.

It’s important that holly wood has been dried (seasoned) gradually, especially if you are planning on using the wood for important carving projects, such as a knife handle.

Admittedly, holly is not a first choice wood for feather sticks.

It’s hard to acquire sufficient lengths of holly wood that is knot-free. Also, dead holly tends not to yield long, multiple-curled shavings when carved.

However, it’s possible to make small feather sticks from holly – it’s just that more of them are required to make a large enough mass of curls for a sure-thing fire in damp conditions – anything between 4-8 feather sticks, even more.

How many feather sticks is exactly needed depends on your feather-stick making skills and the quality of the holly wood that you are using (make sure to make plenty of thin splints as well!).

So, why bother making inferior feather sticks from Holly? There are deciduous woodlands that have a vigorous understory of holly with few other tree species present. In those instances, holly can be the best feather stick choice and since bushcraft is very much about expanding our skill sets for all eventualities…

Birch is not the only deciduous tree in town that has flammable bark.

Mature holly trees, especially standing, dead holly trees, sometimes shed a peeling bark that is flammable – certainly not as flammable as birch bark, nor does holly bark come off in the same copious quantities as birch bark – but off it comes, and it's flammable – and can give you a fire-lighting edge when you need it.

The leaves of holly, when crushed, are fantastically waxy.

Holly leaves make a first-class lubricant for the handheld (bearing block) of the bow drill.

Personally, I admire the way my drill spins in the handhold when lubricated with holly leaves. Makes drilling a lot easier which enables me to spin my drill as fast as possible with less effort.

Seriously, I’ve found holly leaves to be a great bow drill lubricant and so will you?

Occasionally, I will put a few holly leaves in my backpack when the opportunity presents itself – just in case I decide to make a bow-drill fire in a location where holly trees are absent.

Not a whole lot of deciduous tree species naturally produce straight branches.

Of course, some tree species when coppiced, such as hazel and sweet chestnut, produce an abundance of straight branches. Un-coppiced holly is generous in its gift of straight branches.

Strong, long and tough – the straight branches that grow as secondary growth on the larger branches or a basal growth at the bottom of the main tree trunk have multiple, potential uses – shelter construction, throwing sticks, batons, digging sticks, arrows, walking staffs, spring traps and pot suspension are just a few applications for the straight, tough and long branches of holly.

It’s not hard to see why, historically, holly branches were once used for making spears and chariot axles.

Straight and strong branches growing from the base of a holly tree. Holly branches are also quite elastic 

An unusual application of holly. The dense, evergreen canopy of holly can provide a discreet, well-sheltered site.

Many holly trees have a canopy that reaches close to or to, the ground. Such trees are great for wildlife observation, or as a sheltered spot for sitting out inclement weather (while getting a quick brew on) or as a discreet camping site.

Just be mindful of the spiny leaf litter of hollies – some form of barrier is required to comfortably sit or lie under a holly tree. Alternatively – clear away the holly leaf litter from under the tree.

Bonus: the thick evergreen canopy of holly tends to disperse campfire smoke very well – important if you want to maintain a low-impact presence in an area.

The thick, leathery leaves of holly provide great insulation for natural shelters such as the leaf-debris hut and the leaf-debris group shelter.

Rain tends to be shed off more efficiently from a shelter cocooned in holly leaves. Gathering the spiny, holly leaves can be challenging – usually, some form of hand protection is required.

However, where there are holly leaves there are obviously – holly trees, so making a nice, natural shelter under a benevolent holly canopy can provide additional weather-buffing.

The dense canopy of holly trees can provide a surprising amount of shelter



The above list of 9 bushcraft uses of holly is certainly not a comprehensive list of all bushcraft uses associated with holly.

It’s my hope that you create your own list of bushcraft uses for the holly tree – through your own bushcraft experiments.

Of course, it’s important to avail of training courses, advice, research and experience as regards progressing your bushcraft knowledge, skills and experience.

It’s also vitally important that you draw your own conclusions from your own observations, deductive reasoning and experiments.

A key asset of any serious bushcrafter that actually spends a lot of time outdoors is fostering your own ingenuity – that you strive to acquire the confidence and get-go attitude to create and improvise for yourself.

Learn to trust your own ideas, and test them (as safely as possible). If they fail, so what? At least you tried and learned something about what works and doesn’t work.

When you succeed you will plant a seed of confidence in yourself to trust your own observations.

This is important.

Books, training courses, other sources of valid bushcraft information etc. will only get you so far.

Wild places are variable at the best of times – they demand a flexible mindset to overcome some of the inevitable challenges that wild places will occasionally throw at you.

This is especially important if you plan on visiting, alone or with a group, wilderness areas. It’s also important in survival scenarios.

Besides, figuring things out for yourself can be surprisingly satisfying – even fun. Whether it's experimenting with unusual bushcraft applications of holly, or modifying a natural shelter design – it's important that you occasionally flex and strengthen your ability to try things differently – on your own terms.

The art of applying competent, safe and novel ideas in a bushcraft setting, is a practice that improves with regular application. I will explore this theme more fully in a future article, so keep tuned . For now, I hope you enjoy becoming (re)acquainted with a fantastic bushcraft tree – holly.


Finally, I’m going to briefly step onto my environmental soap box and share a message I think is important.

In many places, there has been a serious decline in female holly trees due to the custom of cutting down berry-laden holly branches for Christmas.

Often there is a disproportionate ratio of male to female holly trees with male trees greatly outnumbering female holly trees because of a local decimation of female holly trees.

If you are considering collecting holly berries, please refrain from doing so. Wild berries serve a much more vital function in nature – certainly more important than human decoration. The true Bushcrafter cares about nature and tries, when possible, to enhance a woodland rather than unnecessarily deplete its natural resources.

As a holly substitute consider the foliage of invasive tree species, such as cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, and rhododendron, Rhododendron ponticum. Although both species lack red berries, the foliage is certainly pretty enough for Christmas wreaths. You will also be helping to control an invasive species.


(1), (2) & (3):  Trees of Ireland, Native and Naturalized, Nelson, E. Charles and Wendy F. Walsh.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Plant Lore: Stinging Nettle

When you find one nettle you often find many others

Stinging Nettle – A Great Gift of Nature
Discover the Many Outdoor uses of Nettle

“Gently touch a nettle and it’ll sting you for your pains
Grasp it as a lad of mettle and soft as silk remains”.

Sean O’Casey, Playwright.

The stinging nettle has a long history of usage by humankind – as far back as prehistoric times.

It’s hardly surprising there is a large body of folklore, as well as traditional uses, associated with the humble nettle.

Widely distributed, generally abundant, a source of medicine and nourishment as well as a source of natural cordage – the stinging nettle is of nature’s great gifts.

A plant well worth befriending…

Nettle Sayings

“Nettle in, Dock out”  – A belief that the leaves of dock plants (Rumex spp.), when crushed, will release a juice that provides relief for nettle stings.

“To Grasp the Nettle” – To force yourself to be brave and do something that is difficult or unpleasant.

To ‘Nettle’ Someone  – To pique, irritate, vex or provoke.

Nettle Facts

Common name:    Stinging Nettle

Identification:     Upright, herbaceous plant with opposite, hairy, heart-shaped, toothed leaves. Green flowers in long, branched clusters springing from axils of leaves. Adapted for wind fertilization.

Scientific name:    Urtica diocea (Genus name, Urtica, is derived from the latin, Uro, to burn)

Alternative names:     Nettle, Greater Nettle, Common Nettle, Burn Weed, Burn Hazel, Burn Nettle.

Irish name:     Neantog (pronounced Neean toag), (Scottish name: Deanntog).

Family group:     Urticaceae (about 500 species worldwide, mostly tropical).

Distribution:     Vast geographical range.

Stinging nettle is a tenacious coloniser of great swathes of the Northern Hemisphere and is abundant throughout Northern Europe, North America and much of Asia.

The fine, stinging hairs of nettle

Nutritional Value:     Exceptional. Vitamin, mineral and protein rich. Most notably high in iron and protein (can be a whopping 25% dry weight).

In short, nettle is a nutritional powerhouse – and well worth adding to your outdoor diet for overall health and well being.

Simple Nettle Recipes:     Both the roots and leaves of nettle are edible.

Nettle Tea: Place 1-2 finely chopped nettle leaves into a cup. Fill cup with boiling water. Allow to steep until cool enough to drink.

Nettle Root Powder: The root, when thoroughly dry, can be sliced thin, then ground into a sprinkling powder and used as a nutritious condiment for outdoor dishes. Can be stored as a long term food.

Medicinal Uses:     Anaemia, constipation, allergies, chest infection, blood tonic…(there are many more).

Outdoor Cosmetic Uses:    because nettle is so nutritious it can be used as a hair tonic. Simply steep a palm-full of chopped nettle leaves in hot water. When water is cool, rinse hair through nettle-infused water. Great for extra lustre and thickness of hair (sadly not a concern for my balding head).

Nettle Cordage:     The tall fibrous stalks of nettles can be processed into an excellent string – certainly strong enough for fishing line and shelter bindings 

Selecting the Best Nettle

The peculiar Habitat Preference of Stinging Nettle

Nettle grows best on fertile, deep, moist soil that is partially shaded.

However, nettle can grow on open, dry soils.

The difference in texture and appearance between nettles that grows in the open and in partial shade is striking.

Nettle that grows on damp, fertile soil generally has leaves that are generally larger, softer and better tasting than the usually dry-textured, smaller leaves of nettle that grow in the open.

Nettles from damp, rich soils are usually taller – making them a good choice for string-making.

Learn 2 Quick Ways to Eat Nettle

1. Eating Raw Nettle

Eating raw nettle is a great, quick way to obtain a filling, nutritious snack to stave off hunger pangs when outdoors.

Who needs shop-purchased snacks when surrounded by a wholesome plant like nettle?

How to Eat Raw Nettle in 5 Easy Steps

1. Gently grasp the under surface of a nettle leaf (most of the stinging hairs are found on the upper surface). If in doubt cover your fingers.

2. Cut the leaf free, by slicing through the leaf stalk.

3. Begin to fold leaf over – from the under surface only.

4. Keep folding and pressing leaf – this action will crush and neutralise the stinging hairs of the upper leaf surface.

5. Make sure all the stinging hairs are crushed by repeatedly folding.

Pop into mouth, chew and enjoy.

Warning: do not select nettle that is frequented by domestic dogs – there is a small chance that domestic dogs will urinate on nettles. If in doubt, select uppermost leaves from tall nettles (that are above dog-pee level, usually 2 feet and above).

2. How to Wilt Nettle in 3 Easy Steps

Wilting nettle leaves over a campfire not only neutralises the stinging hairs but can impart a pleasant, slightly roasted, crunchy texture to nettle leaves.

1. Rub the base of nettle stalk with the back of your knife or with a stick – this action will rupture and neutralise the delicate, toxin-filled, stinging hairs.

2. Cut the nettle free at the smoothed section of the base.

3. While holding the stalk base – pass the leaves over the heat of a campfire – this action will quickly wilt the leaves. Wilt the leaves until the preferred texture is acquired. Be mindful of passing the nettles too close to flames as this can burn the leaves too much. Be thorough – make sure all the stinging hairs of the leaves are neutralised by heat from the fire.

When thoroughly wilted – eat heartily and enjoy.

Top Tip

Dead Nettle Stalks as Tinder & Kindling

Each autumn, wild patches of nettle can be seen wilting, eventually dying.

The dry, hollow stalks of dead nettle make an exceptional tinder or kindling for starting a campfire.

Even during wet weather – cracking open the stalks lengthways – into long-as-possible lengths and exposing the dry interior of these stalks to a flame will greatly increase your chance of igniting a campfire during foul, wet weather.

Even during the colder months of autumn and winter – nettle keeps on giving…

Finishing Thoughts

Next time you are on a wander through a patch of wild land – and you stumble across some nettle – consider taking a break.

Maybe light a small fire, cook up some nettle and relax.

The more wild edibles you can sustainably harvest from different habitats the more connected you will become to these places.

It’s a big part of improving an individual’s bushcraft skills.

It also imparts a sense of belonging to wild places.

There is a large range of skills and knowledge associated with bushcraft. This is a good thing – because a range of bushcraft skills and knowledge is required – when living outdoors on self-propelled excursions with minimal equipment.

But bushcraft is not just about technical mastery.

Bushcraft is also be a means of emotionally connecting with wild places – places that can encourage a sense of gratitude for what nature can often generously provide.

The nutritious, medicinal, utilitarian and generally common stinging nettle is a strong example of what nature can generously provide.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Mora Pro Robust Knife Review

Mora knives have been crafted in Östnor for over a century. Once they were made in every home by local craftsmen who passed down their skills from generation to generation. Today those skills are all under one roof and no matter who you talk to in our factory they can all tell a family story in which knife manufacture plays a central part!

I bought this knife to use as a secondary, smaller knife when I am camping or kicking around the woods. For that purpose, it is extremely handy. The blade is carbon steel and ground to a zero edge scandi. This makes it bite very good into wood as well as almost everything else I have tried it on. Straight from the factory, this knife will shave hair and slice paper without any problem. The blade is under 4" and just seems to be about right for this knife. There is plenty of belly to this blade which is different than some of the Mora blades. It will whittle very good one minute and field dress game the next.

The Mora Pro Robust uses the robust blade thickness of 1/8". For a Mora that is very stout. They have moved the scandi bevel up a bit however so they are able to have a sharp 27-degree edge even with the thicker blade. The normal thickness Mora blades are about 23 or 24 degrees. When I have tested these knives side by side I will admit that the normal 2.2 mm thickness knives do tend to slide a bit easier into wood. Of course, the slightly larger angle will hold up just a bit better to hard use. However, the difference is minimal. This thickness feels very stout and gives you more confidence to use it roughly. I have even pried some bark off of a tree to shave tinder without any ill effects. (Prying is not recommended, though, for ANY knife).

The blade spine is not finished sharp. If you want to have the sharp 90-degree spine that everyone uses for bushcraft you will need to grind it gently. It won't take much to get where it throws sparks from a Ferro rod or scrapes bark from your marshmallow stick.

The handle is extremely comfortable and secure. Someone with very large hands might find it a little too short however. My Medium-large hands fit right in between the guards both in a normal hold and in a reverse grip for chest lever cutting. The rubber over mold is slightly tacky and makes controlling the knife very easy.

The sheath is the basic plastic one you get from Mora. The knife snaps in a little but will come out if inverted and shaken. A little bit of OD green shock cord provides good retention for me. The sheath clips onto a belt easily. It also has a drain hole in case things get really wet for you.

With minimal care, carbon steel would be fine for camp use and is easier to sharpen.  It looks like a good compromise with added strength while keeping with the inexpensive and utilitarian aspects of the Mora knives. This would be excellent for food prep, cleaning fish, general repairs and camp stuff, as well as whittling and bushcraft projects.

I would say that for the price of this knife you absolutely cannot go wrong.

Friday, 25 November 2016

How to Track Wild Animals in the UK

Incessant rain. Muddy ground. Diminishing hours of daylight. With the headlong plunge into inclement weather almost upon us, staying in might seem the only sensible course of action at the moment. But get outside and you can find the traces of a hidden world almost everywhere you look.
The ability to track wild animals – the ultimate huntsman’s hack – is akin to learning a new language. It’s simply a process of familiarising yourself with patterns. Once learned, this endlessly rewarding skill is never forgotten; instead it stays with you, deepening your connection to the landscape and the creatures we share this earth with.

Recent rain and the mud it creates provides a good canvas, especially if you find a stretch of it before any dog walkers arrive. Get up early enough even in the heart of a city and you can find easy-to-follow records. I’ve discovered roe deer slots on Hampstead Heath before, as well as (inexplicably) a single badger print on the edge of a muddy puddle by Regents Canal. But for obvious reasons, rural areas are the most productive, having the highest density of animals and being less disturbed by humans. Head for the intersections between habitats: the field and forest, the forest and stream, the stream and the field.

Areas of loam soil receive clearest impressions. Look for prints around walls, hedges, gateposts and at the edges of woods. Investigate any ‘runs’, paths cut by regular animal use, leading to and from feeding and breeding grounds. Telltale signs are flattened grass, holes pushed through thicker vegetation and clumps of hair trapped in low fencing wire.

The best times to be out are at sunrise and just before sunset, when the height of the sun shows up prints better. Record any you might find so you identify them properly at home. Familiarity is the key to learning this language. Photograph it alongside something that adds scale, such as a coin.

A good starting point in both town and country is to look for the fox. At first you may take them for a dog’s print, but a fox’s will be longer and more slender, 5cm long and 4cm wide. There will also be a separation between the front two pads and the two outer pair; a matchstick placed between them will touch neither. In a dog’s print, it would bisect them all. As winter approaches you may even see the traces of hair pressed in between pads as their coats thicken for the colder months.

A fox's print

Once you have your eye in, it becomes addictive. There is a sense of excitement in following the prints as far as you can, recreating the movements and mindset of wild animals. It’s exactly what our ancestors did when hunting: reading the ground, understanding how prey or predator moved. Nowadays we may be hunting with a camera rather than a spear, but its no less rewarding to lift yourself from the worries and stresses of our human world for an hour or two.

Soon you find yourself on the lookout for other British mammals – the bear-like print of the badger; red, fallow, muntjac and roe deer; squirrels and stoats; wild boar; rabbits and hares. In Wales once, while chancing to look over the bank of a river, I found the clearest imprints of an otter. You could even see where it had stopped and listened to my approach, the point it turned its head recorded an arc of water droplets in the sand.

A fresh otter print

More edgy was a night I spent in a wood in Scotland. Over breakfast the next day the landowner delighted in showing me photographs of big cat prints that he said he’d taken close to where I’d pitched up camp.

Autumn is a time of industry in the outside world so there’s no better time to pick up this language. Have a go at learning some of the prints below and set out to see what you can find.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Wood Ear Mushrooms

Wood Ear mushrooms: hailed as an anti-inflammatory

"Snow for a hundred days". "Britain braced for the worst winter EVER".

These are the kind of headlines writ large on our screens at the moment. I’ll let you into a secret: I love snow. I’m sure it’d be different if I hadn’t just drained my finances on a log-burning stove and recently spent a day sourcing a decent, reasonable wood supplier.

OK, I dread the collective panic, insane driving and strangling heating bills that’ll result from the drop in temperature, but it’s not all doom and gloom when the landscape turns monochrome. Take wild food. Even in the sparest of the seasons, there are things to be found out there that can spice up your life and, with some basic culinary skill, warm the cockles.

Mushrooms and fungi are something of a foraging specialism. And for good reason. Names like Panther Cap, Death Cap and the gruesomely monikered Destroying Angel are more than mere fickle folk names. Containing high levels of the lethal "amatoxin", these little wonders are responsible for nearly all deaths due to mushroom poisoning in humans, with grim and often irreversible symptoms. Call me cautious but I tend to avoid anything that looks remotely like them or even exhibits similar growing locations. I go for "safe" options. And by safe I mean impossible to confuse with anything that’s going to require an immediate liver transplant.

One such fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae, is a hardy bugger. It grows all year and seems largely untroubled by winter. In fact, the best crop of it I ever found was in a sheltered, snowy wood. When I was a kid it was called Jew’s Ear, but a recent realisation that this may have derived from a pejorative Middle Ages reference to all fungi as "Jew’s meat" has seen it re-branded. Now it’s called Wood Ear, Sow’s Ear and Jelly Ear. Notice anything? The presence of "ear" is still there and once located, the reason is clear. This unmistakable brown - sometimes pinkish-brown - fungus has the cold, soft, velvety texture of a human ear and is always a source of intrigue when passed around friends or discovered by surprise in a jacket pocket a few weeks after picking.

It grows abundantly in thick, rubbery, stem-less seams on dead elder branches, with some claiming its less politically correct name was a derivative of Judas’ Ear, a reference to the disciple who hanged himself from a tree. The quick-growing and ever-colonising elder is found pretty much everywhere: on the edges of fields and woods, even in the cities and towns where it is cut back at great expense from roads and railways and left to decay in piles. This makes the fungus that grows on it one of our most prolific.

Pick the larger specimens but leave the small ears to ensure a continual supply – they will be fully grown in a matter of days. You only need a decent handful to make a great, healthy winter-warmer soup. In fact, Wood Ear, as it is known in China and Japan, has long been much prized for its culinary and medicinal benefits. Hailed as an anti-inflammatory, it is eaten to relieve tonsillitis, swelling, but is also regarded as a powerful anti-carcinogen, used to prevent and treat tumours.

In the west, a recent influx of eastern restaurants, Thai in particular, means that you have probably eaten it before, although you may not have recognised it.

Chains such as Wagamama use it in their soups. When cooked, it takes on a black translucent nature and although its texture is a bit odd, it provides a perfect vehicle for flavours. Demand is such that in the typically skewed and roundabout way, many restaurants are now paying to import this fungus from halfway around the world when it actually grows unstoppably outside our doors.

When you get home with your haul, wash the fungus, trim away the hard edge where it joined the branch, pat dry and slice thinly. Fry plenty of chilli and shallots in oil with lardons or sliced bacon. Add the fungus and, after a few minutes, some chicken stock and egg noodles. Chuck in some broccoli if you like, and a dash of fish sauce and lemon juice. When all has cooked through, season and add plenty of fresh, chopped coriander.

The resultant nourishing and good-for-you hot and sour soup is not only delicious but it will keep you going whatever the weather outside. And all for practically nothing.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, energy companies.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

10 Tips to Make a Fire in a Tough Situation


When the weather is great and you have all the time in the world, most anyone can light a fire. But when it’s raining or snowing, your hands are shaking, your decision-making abilities are compromised, and the ground is soaked – and you desperately need a fire – it can be a frustrating, difficult, and often impossible chore.

Fire is life. With it, you can dry out wet clothing, keep hypothermia at bay, disinfect water to drink, and provide a psychological boost in a dire situation.

If you ever hope to be able to make a fire in a tough situation, when the chips are down, you need to know how to make a fire the right way.  It’s all well and good that you have the latest piece of gear that can make a spark under water, but if you can’t make a fire from that spark, who cares?  If you can’t nurture an ember into flame and create a sustained fire, you’re dead.

Here are 10 tips that can help you make a fire in a tough situation:

  • Think Fire.  Always be thinking about the need for your next fire.  Sure it might be a beautiful day, but how will you make fire if you have to?  Having a mindset that you will be required to create a fire helps us to be prepared with our skills and ability, tools, and experience to light a fire efficiently when it counts the most.

  • Carry Fire Tools.  To make fire we need an ignition source, fuel, and oxygen. What ways can you easily ignite a fire?  What are the various tools you are carrying that create a flame or spark? A lighter? A ferrocerium rod? Flint and Steel? Have back up tools and carry them with you. I have a small leather pouch that I use as a fire kit. It contains a Flint and Steel, some petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls, and a couple of Sulphur Matches. I also carry a small butane lighter in my pocket.

  • Think Simple.  When visiting South America I was watching a man prepare to start a fire.  I was hoping to learn some ancient Mayan fire-starting technique. Instead he pulls out an ordinary butane lighter. The expression on my face  must have been priceless. ¡Es sencillo! he says. “It’s simple!” He was right. In a survival situation, use the simplest way you have to ignite a fire. A butane lighter with an adjustable flame is a lifesaver.

  • Collect Tinder as You Find it.  Even if you don’t plan on having to light a fire, hiking with a “Think Fire” mindset means that we get in the habit of collecting fine, dry tinder as we hike.  Ideal tinder materials are resin-rich fatwood, birch bark, cedar bark, tinder fungus, Old Man’s Beard tree moss. dried pine resin pieces, cattails, an abandoned bird’s nest, dead branches at the inside base of conifer trees, dry grass, and the like. Carry the tinder in a safe dry place. I use an old leather pouch  with a drawstring closure that has been wax treated. I also drop a few of those silica desiccant packets into the bottom of the sack to reduce moisture further. You can carry the bag tied to your belt or on a lanyard around your neck. If weather is poor, stick the bag under your coat to keep the tinder warm and dry.

  • Protect Your Fire Making.  While you keep your tinder protected under your coat, in a pocket or in a tinder bag, locate the best place to build the fire.  Use a large stand of trees, a rock wall, or the opening of a cave to shelter the fire from wind, driving rain, or snow. Don’t build a fire under tree boughs full of snow – unless you want the fire extinguished by a mini avalanche of snow when you least expect it. If you have a tarp, set it up. It can protect the fire and reflect heat back to you.  Other members of your group could build a shelter from natural materials that could provide protection from the elements.

  • Fire making is more than Producing an Ember.  Producing an ember is not creating a sustainable fire.  Many people practice sparking a piece of cotton with a fire steel, or creating an ember from a primitive hand drill or bow and drill. These are beneficial skills to have.  However you know as well as I do, that catching a spark or creating an ember is only the start.  Don’t neglect the important skills of transferring spark and ember to tinder, nurturing the ember to flame, and then patiently building a sustainable fire.

  • Master the Tinder Bundle.  Take a look at the type of material that a small bird collects to make a nest.  Those are the same kinds and size of materials that we should collect to make a tinder bundle that could receive an ember or spark to create a flame.  Master the art of nest making like a bird. Try different materials to make the tinder bundle or birds nest.  Scrapings from birch bark or cedar or Old Man’s Beard tree moss can be placed in the center of the nest and will most easily welcome that spark or ember.  Once the spark is in the nest, be gentle, have patience, don’t flood the nest with billows of your moist breath in an attempt to have the ember take hold.  Protect the ember like a valuable jewel in the nest, because it is!

  • Build a Hearth. Clear the fire making area from snow and create a fire hearth or platform of dry wood to get the fire up off the wet ground. Take some dry wood, about 18 inches long and an inch or so in diameter and make a “raft” of sorts on the ground that covers a larger area than the size of your expected fire. This helps prevent your dry tinder and other fuel from absorbing moisture from the ground.

  • Prepare Fuel for the Flame.  Collect various size branches from dead standing trees.  If it’s raining or has recently snowed, you’ll find the driest branches at the inside base of conifer trees. Once you have a flame in the tinder bundle, you will need to feed it this dry wood starting from a very small size and increasing in diameter until the fire is sustainable.  Have patience.  Don’t fuss too much with the bundles of fuel.  Let the fire do its thing. Leave the branches 12-24 inches long so you can reposition them around the tinder bundle.

  • Practice, Practice.  When you can consistently find tinder, kindling, and larger fuel in your familiar forest environment, and you are able to start a fire under the best of circumstances, then start applying these techniques to more adverse conditions.  Challenge yourself.  Keep practicing until it’s second nature. Go out hiking in the rain and build a fire. Use only one match. Practice building a fire with very little daylight left, or in the dark.  There’s no telling what sort of difficult situation you might find yourself in and have to build a lifesaving fire.

May a fire always be burning in your heart – and on your hearth.

I hope this post will encourage you to prepare for making fires in tough situations. If you know anyone who might benefit from this post then please share it with friends on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

How to Make a Simple Healing Plantain Salve

Plantain is one of those magical herbs that can be found almost anywhere. It’s used in many cultures as a “healing herb” due to its amazing healing properties. Most people view this herb as a weed. It’s very prolific and will pretty much grow anywhere. Don’t toss it in the compost just yet! Harvest the leaves to make a first aid healing salve.

How to Identify Plantain

There are two varieties of plantain commonly seen in the average yard: Plantago major, or more commonly known as broadleaf and Plantago lanceolata, also known as narrowleaf. I have mostly narrowleaf in my yard. In fact, I have patches of it growing in my garden. I just leave it and harvest from it when I need it. Both varieties have several leaves which surround the flowers and the stem at the base like flower petals.

Plantago major, rounded leaves.

Plantago lanceolata. Pointed, narrow leaves.

Remember, when harvesting plantain, make sure you are gathering them from an area not treated with chemicals.


A handful of Plantain leaves (washed and dried)
½ oz Beeswax (pellets or shaved)
8 oz Heatproof jar (not shown)
Saucepan (not shown)


Add Plantain to the Jar

Tear the plantain leaves into smaller pieces and fill the jar half full. Pack the leaves in there tightly.

Add Coconut Oil

Add the coconut oil on top of the leaves. Put the jar in a saucepan and fill the pan about halfway up the jar with water. Set the heat on a low simmer and let the oil infuse for about two hours.


After the oil infuses for a couple of hours, strain out the plantain leaves. The oil will be a pretty light green.

Add the beeswax

Add the beeswax to the infused oil and put in back into the saucepan until the beeswax melts. The beeswax will help keep the salve firm at room temperature.

Pour into Jars or Tins

Pour the oil mixture into tins or jars—my batch made 6 oz. Let the salve cool. It will become opaque as it cools.

Add to Your First Aid Kit

Use the salve on minor cuts and burns. The coconut oil and beeswax will help keep the skin moist and the plantain will promote healing. The salve is also great for healing chapped hands and sunburned skin. Use the salve on your pets too! It’s great on sore paws.

Plantain is also great for bee and wasp stings, mosquito bites, poison ivy, eczema, psoriasis and nappy rash.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Catching Crayfish

North American Signal Crayfish
Crayfish are a wonderful delicacy, and in the right locations you can catch 20 to 30 in a couple of hours by simply tossing a trap into water where they’re present. Please be aware that you need a license to capture native white clawed cray fish. In many waterways, an invasive species, North American Signal Crayfish are also present, and these are a pest. They spread a disease which harms native stocks, and damage river banks and eat salmon and trout eggs.
You need three things to catch non-native crayfish in England and Wales:

1. A lawful trap;

2. The landowner’s permission;

3. Consent from the Environment Agency in England or National Resource Wales (this is free). This application form should be used.

White Clawed Crayfish
Once your application is approved, you will receive identity tags for your traps and a catch return form. Please be aware that if you catch crayfish without consent and using equipment which does not meet the Government requirements you may be prosecuted. If you catch a North American signal crayfish by mistake and throw it back in the water, this in itself could be a criminal offense. The maximum fine is £40,000 and you could face a year in jail.

If you want to catch crayfish in Scotland, contact Marine Scotland on 0300 244 4000. North American signal crayfish are still relatively rare in Scotland, and licenses may be more difficult to obtain than in England. If you’re going to catch them, do it legally. The risk to the environment from breaking the law (and to you personally if prosecuted for unlawful trapping) simply isn’t worth it.

Identifying Species: The colour of white clawed crayfish claws is lighter on the underside than on the top (hence the name) and the claws are smaller relative to the size of its body. The bottom of North American signal crayfish claws are red with a prominent white or bluish patch in the claw joints (and the claws are large!).

Compliant Traps: Crayfish traps must conform to specific criteria. This is to stop other species such as otters from being caught and drowning. Trap entrances must be no more than 95mm wide, be no longer than 600mm, be no wider than 350mm and have mesh no wider than 30mm.

Be cautious of buying collapsible traps online. Some are not UK compliant. I like the Swedish Crayfish Trap, which is! If you want one which collapses for convenient transportation, don’t buy the ‘luxury’ ones online which tend to be too long (over 600mm). Jackal Outdoors sell one which is the right legal length and width.

Baiting Crayfish Traps: Fish heads, cat food or even salami is used. Most crayfish nets have a small zipped or drawstring bag for you to put the bait in. You’d be amazed at how many you can catch in some waterways, with 80 being caught by one friend in an afternoon.

Placing Traps: In the South of England, crayfish have spread all over the river system. You’ll find it easier to get a license in the south than in the north or Scotland. Place the baited trap in the water course (some take a can of cat food, drill holes in it and use that as the bait. Weight it down with a couple of stones inside to stop it floating away. Tie a length of paracord to the net and stake the other end down firmly on the river bank. It really isn’t harder than that. Come back and check in a few hours. Make sure you wash and disinfect the trap thoroughly to stop the risk of transferring crayfish diseases to other water courses.

Preparing Crayfish: Boil them, skewer them and cook over a campfire, or put straight onto a barbecue. Mr Mears shows you how to humanely despatch them in the video below. You’ve done the difficult part… you’ve got your license, get permission from the land owner, bought a suitable trap, waited patiently… was it worth the effort? For a bucket full of baby lobster… HELL YES!