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.