The Controversy of Reintroducing Species

IMG_1991I recently attended, unfortunately in a professional capacity, the Confor forestry show at Longleat in Wiltshire.  I say unfortunately, because on that occasion I was representing the organisation for whom I work, and was therefore limited in how I could express my opinions.

However, this is my own blog, and I will say what I damn well please…

On the day that I attended there was an interesting seminar on the reintroduction of the beaver and the pine marten, which was panelled by a number of representatives of various organisations including the Vincent Wildlife Trust, BASC and the Forestry Commission.  Despite no-one in the audience or panel raising any objections on the subject of beavers, which was encouraging to say the least, the subject of species reintroduction will always raise the heckles of certain people, and usually people who represent those who were responsible for a species extinction in the first place.

In previous entries on this blog I have outlined some of the problems we face in woodlands, particularly with the grey squirrel.  Aside from trapping and shooting, and with the justifiable demise of Warfarin as a legal poison, a more natural method of controlling their exploding population is to ensure the stable reintroduction of predators that once roamed the countryside freely, and the pine marten is one such.   To me and to many others, the reintroduction of species which were formerly native to these islands is a no-brainer.  During the course of mankind’s expansion we have certainly been thoughtless in some of our actions, and have caused the destruction of species and natural environments wherever we have been.  The problem inherent with reintroduction of Martes martes, however, is that they were originally killed off by perhaps the single biggest cadre of rural mafiosi that exists in England; the pheasant shooting fraternity and their legions of gamekeepers.

This post will win me no friends amongst that particular crowd…

Whilst it is true to say that I have issues with the manner in which pheasant rearing and shooting is frequently undertaken, not least due to it’s exclusivity to a certain “class” of person, I also understand the economic importance to many landowners of running a shoot, and I can accept that it has a place in the modern British countryside.  I believe strongly that there are ways in which both sides of the argument can compromise and come together for the benefit of all.  However, a colleague of mine recently argued that one could view pheasant rearing as akin to the raising of free-range chickens.  My argument to him was that free-range chicken farmers have not yet been responsible for the persecution to extinction of a species, and that anyone, from any socio-economic background, could easily buy a free-range chicken in the supermarket.  I have come across “stink pits” full of hundreds of birds that have been shot and thrown away after the clientele has paid an exorbitant fee to take his place at the stake, which is categorically unforgivable by anyone’s standards.  It’s also true that I have purchased, from a particular award-winning butcher in Much Wenlock, a brace and a half of undressed pheasants for a paltry £3.  This, and the general unavailability of pheasants to most of the urban population, illustrates clearly that pheasant meat is really just a by-product, almost an afterthought, of a much more economically important rural industry; that of blasting things out of the sky with a gun.

This being the case I found it even more unacceptable, then, that the SW regional chair of BASC suggested at this seminar that the so-called “British Association for Shooting and Conservation” would only accept reintroduction of the pine marten if they could expect recompense for any birds lost from release pens due to pine marten predation.  Considering that this organisation is the most powerful lobbyist for the very people that ultimately oversaw the demise of the pine marten, I found this to be simply astounding in its arrogance.  Needless to say after these statements, and coupled with the unashamedly pro-Tory propaganda of BASC during the UK general election earlier this year, I revoked my membership immediately and have since sought shooting insurance elsewhere.

“Conservation” indeed…

A recent study in central Ireland has proven that the introduction of the pine marten has a negative effect on the population of grey squirrels, (and thus a positive effect for foresters and woodland conservation).  Yes, this is a simplified summary of the findings, and whilst it is true to say that pine marten reintroduction is not a silver bullet, it is one that should, in my opinion, be welcomed by anyone charged with land management or custodianship of the countryside.  Yes, it is also true that pine martens predate native species of songbirds, dormice etc etc, but at one time in this country we had a balance, and I firmly believe it is a balance that we can have again.  The key is to take a sensible approach to where reintroduction efforts are best placed, and to work with what is there.  What we absolutely should not do is be held to ransom by the shooting lobby, or those that claim to have an “understanding of the countryside that townies don’t have”.  This is unfortunately an attitude I come across a lot, and one to which I always respond with an anecdote about a man I once knew in Portugal who could hunt truffles without pig or dog, but still swore blind that young cork saplings died because a viper had a biological imperative to bite them.

My point being that “knowing” the land by virtue of birthright alone is not akin to knowing the land…

 

 

A Wiltshire Ramble – Day 1

Having decided that the best part of two years without much of a holiday was too long for anyone, and after postponing my motorbike trip to Spain due to family illness, I decided to go for a walk.  Just a small walk, nothing too onerous, just a few days of rambling around the ancient barrows and stone circles of Wiltshire, trying to reconnect somehow with my past as a hippy traveller on the psychedelic solstice train.

The plan was simple enough.  I’d spend a day or two with Nick near Wooton Bassett, try and bag a roe buck to stock the freezer with wild meat, drink some cider and have a laugh, then leave my car with him and set off for the escarpment which rises to the chalk plain a mile or so from his house.  I pictured myself in no particular rush to go anywhere, sitting with my back against my pack on a verge of the Ridgeway, smoking my pipe and reading W.H. Davies or Emerson.

Of course, in daydreaming all of this, I hadn’t really accounted for the one variable that inevitably lays low the mightiest of adventurers on any sojourn in this green isle; the English weather.  We had had several weeks of mediterranean temperatures.  The leat at the back of my house was low, and it seemed that we were going to have continuous sunshine all summer long, so I had just made the assumption, stupidly, that any rain that were to come my way would be little more than a refreshing shower to clear the air.  Of course, you’d think I’d have known better.

I didn’t get the buck for the freezer, but I did bag a hare that Saturday afternoon.  Oddly, more than any other creature I have ever been responsible for the death of, that hare shot me back.  I always feel a sadness whenever I have killed, and a deep and solemn reverence for any life one takes is, for me, what sets apart a true hunter from the countless hooray-Henrys and spineless trophy hunters that treat all life on this earth as if it were their plaything.  I truly despise such people.

At the moment I took the killing shot it was as if a part of that noble animal, every moment of its life of raw freedom, wildness and beauty, were condensed into one tangible bolt of energy that shot from its now lifeless body and straight into my chest.

If I had been on my own at that moment, I probably would have said a prayer out loud and marked the moment of its passing with more ceremony than I did.  As it happened I was not alone, so I kept my prayer silent and resolved that the next tattoo I adorn myself with will be an honourable representation of that one powerful and beautiful creature.

The hare was butchered in the back garden of Nick’s house as the cider flowed and some duck breasts went on the barbecue.  We made merry and the following morning, the grey sky looming and threatening rain from the west, I organised myself and got my kit together.

The rain started, as Sod’s Law dictates, just as I was packing the tent up from where it had been pitched in the field behind the house.  I waited half an hour to see if it was a shower just skimming past, but of course, it wasn’t.  Unperturbed, and with the weather being warm, I just decided to set off across the fields with my pack dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, which at least I could in theory dry out easy enough when it stopped.  I crossed the back field, skirted the edge of the copse and entered the field where I had killed the hare the day before, speaking a quiet thanks as I avoided the herd of inquisitive cows who now occupied the space.

Crossing the road and passing by a wealthy farm, I noted the remains of the medieval village nearby; now just a series of ditches and mounds where no doubt once there had been a throng of activity.  This escarpment, like much of the county, boasts the remains of scores of these former settlements, and the evidence of them is clearly visible in aerial photographs.  I stopped for a drink in the hay barn and considered the rain.  Already now halfway up the escarpment and above the flat clay lands below, I could see that the sky to the west was moody and sullen, with blankets of grey rain growing ever more dense and ever more close.  It seemed that there was to be no respite.

IMG_1107Still, onwards and upwards.  There are always funny microclimatic changes going on in a landscape, so I wasn’t too disheartened and was determined to make the top of the ridge to see if anything changed.  I struggled up the steep bank to a field where my path was blocked by an enormous herd of extremely boisterous cattle.  Ordinarily I would have walked through them, but this particular herd were bordering on aggressive, and were not in the least bit intimidated by my shouts and the occasional jab of my walking stick when one got too close.  I was in danger of being completely surrounded, so I opted to hoist my pack over a barbwire fence and walk around the margin of an adjoining field of rape.  This transpired to be far more arduous than I had anticipated.  Although at the point where I leapt the fence there was a good 4 metres of margin, this quickly became narrowed and choked with chest-high goosegrass and hogweed.  Cutting through the crop wasn’t an option either, as a rape crop of this age was just as impenetrable, and in any case it would have likely been met with more animosity from the farmer on whose land I was trespassing.  I beat the weed down as much as I could with my stick, but by the time I reached the road and picked up the trail again I was exhausted, scratched to hell and bleeding from both arms and legs.  My only consolation was that the sun wasn’t shining, for hogweed is phototoxic and its sap can bring you out in a serious rash.  Fortunately for me, it was now pissing down even harder, and the sun was no-where to be seen.

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Goosegrass. I had no idea it could be so violent.

A kindly woman at a nearby house filled up a bottle for me, although I can’t imagine what she made of this soaking wet, wild-eyed, bearded and bloodstained man knocking on her door.  The path marked on my map now looked very simple; just a straight line across several fields, followed by a left turn onto another straight trail along the edge of more fields, before emerging onto a byway a few kilometres away.  Simple.  And wrong.

The track in question had apparently seen neither man nor beast along it for a long time, and the biodiverse, DEFRA-funded set-aside was chest high with all manner of grasses that conspired with every footstep to tangle themselves around my legs and trip me up under the weight of my rucksack.  Added to that, I was now on a high, exposed plain of arable land, with the rain beating down and a strong wind behind it.  The grasses were already soaked from rain, which resulted in a deluge finally entering my German Para boots and me sloshing my way along the hedgerows with the grace of a man with two full buckets on his feet.  I stopped on no less than three occasions to empty my boots and wring out my socks before emerging, after what seemed like an age and just shy of 2 miles later, on the hard gravelled byway.

IMG_1111The green lane, BOAT, or Byway Open To All Traffic, is ubiquitous in this part of the country.  These are usually old, sometimes ancient trackways that would have been used historically to get from outlying villages to the centres of population, and travelled by foot and by cart.  The tarmac roads nowadays follow only a few different and more direct routes, and in any case with the falling into ruin of some of the villages, the green lanes frequently now go to nowhere in particular.  Due to some obscure laws, they are still, however, open to any vehicle that chooses to try and travel them, which inevitably means 4×4’s and motorbikes.  In some places one may see a sign asking for a “voluntary restraint”; which generally means that a track has fallen into serious disrepair and the council just can’t go chucking money at it at this point of the financial year.  I thought at the time that this was a hilariously polite way of saying “please don’t go tearing up the track in your Land Rover for a while”.

I followed this green lane to the dormitory village of Yatesbury, which was once the location of an aerodrome during WWI, and a more serious RAF base during WWII.  Now there is an expanse of arable fields there which are a favourite location for crop circles, although as I trudged through them towards Avebury I could see nothing of the sort through the bleak and dismal rain.

I made the Red Lion in Avebury for about 7pm that evening, having covered a distance of 12 miles and averaging 2.5 miles an hour through the grim rain.  I wasn’t overly happy about the distance, but then again, I hadn’t left until about one in the afternoon and I’d made those miles on a breakfast of only two rashers of bacon, one duck egg and a slice of black pudding.

The pint of Aspyll’s cider I  had was the best that I had tasted, and they do a very decent gammon, double egg and chips for a mere £6.50, so I threw caution to the wind and decided to fill my belly in the pub before trudging another mile or so further on to the Ridgeway where I would camp for the night.

A Basic Day Course on the Principles of Bushcraft

The Perfect Course Camp

The Perfect Course Camp

OK, so I know that reviewing your own course isn’t really the done thing, but I’m probably my harshest critic, and I figured on my own blog page it would be acceptable..

At the end of May we finally went ahead with the “Introduction to Bushcraft” course at Prime Coppice.  This day-long course was intended to be an introduction to a few of the philosophies and disciplines of what is obviously an enormous subject, but more than that it was for me to gauge a feel for how to deliver a quite intensive day for people without making it onerous.

Despite advertising through social media and a few professional networks, the turnout in the end was a disappointing, albeit it not unexpected, three paying customers.  This was probably as much as anything to do with some crossed wires as to who was advertising what and where, but in fairness to the owners of the site they had just had another addition to their family, and with them trying to juggle day jobs and parental responsibilities, it was bound to be challenging.

Ideally the course numbers would be between 6 and 10, but in any case I decided that three people was enough to give it a more-or-less ‘dry run”, and recoup some of the costs of buying some of the equipment that I had for such courses.

The day started with the domestics; location of facilities, health and safety, and the round-robin of personal introductions.  Following this I had planned on a brief discussion about the philosophy of bushcraft, and what it meant to each participant, but this discussion was partially hijacked by one Italian client who didn’t quite grasp the concept of “brief”.  Nonetheless, it was a good example of when to allow people to take the floor, and when to exercise a little crowd control..

Following an introduction to basic knife safety, I then doled out the Mora knives and set to work demonstrating what to look for in a good bushcraft knife, and how to split a round of wood with it.  And herein lay the first mistake of my day…

I had previously taken from the wood pile some suitable diameter small roundwood to give to each student to work on, but what I had neglected to consider was that the hazel that I had given them was well-seasoned and had a nice, tight twist in the grain.  Within minutes I had three students who had all got their knives stuck, and I was counting my blessings that there hadn’t been twice as many who signed up to that first day.  Turning tragedy into triumph, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the use of a small wedge to free a trapped tool from a workpiece, but nonetheless it left me a feeling a little more humble and not a little stupid for the oversight on my part.

I then set the students to work fashioning feather sticks, with the assurance that we would be using them later in the day in the construction of our demo fires.  For most bushcraft-type people, the feather stick is the ubiquitous first workpiece that anyone ever learns how to make, and with very good reason.  It teaches a number of controlled knife techniques, the importance of a razor-sharp edge, and the end result is something you can never have too many off to help light a fire.  Massimo, the Italian, seemed to excel at the task, and in a short time proudly presented a number of fine examples, complete with blood-stains where he had been catching the knuckle of his thumb on the workpiece in his enthusiasm.

After breaking for a brew, it was time to start talking fire.  I had decided that on a day course it wasn’t worth trying to teach people the fundamentals of friction firelighting, although including it would undoubtedly have attracted a few more paying clients.  There is a good reason, however.  In my experience, a few people will absolutely nail the bow-drill technique in a short period of time.  Most however, and I count myself among  them, can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, or even weeks to pin it down.  So much depends on the technique, the skill of the student, the materials available at the time, the weather, and any number of other factors.  I have seen well-respected instructors at the top of the industry take three hours to get an ember from a bow drill on a wet day, so I wasn’t going to tempt fate on a  one-day course.  However, in hindsight it would have been prudent to take a set and demonstrate the technique, if not actually getting the students to try it for themselves.

Always a Magic Moment

Always a Magic Moment

During the demonstration which covered natural tinders the traditional flint and steel came out, and this generated a lot of enthusiasm amongst the students.  As I was taught myself I used hay for the tinder medium.  The benefit of this is that it holds moisture, so is generally a little more difficult to get to burst into flame, and if you can light a fire with hay you can pretty much do it with any other natural tinder bundle.  Consequently everyone wanted a go at lighting some char cloth using the traditional method, and from that blowing into flame a bundle of hay.  This was a good opportunity to demonstrate coal-extenders, and to dispel some of the more common myths about natural firelighting, such as the use of cattail down.  (It makes a useful coal extender or addition to a mixed tinder bundle, but it ignites too quickly to be of much use as a tinder on its own).

This last section led nicely on to demonstrating a few different fire lays and their respective uses, although we had at that point spent so much time over the flint and steel technique that we had eaten into the afternoon session, and we still had the wild food walk to do.  Consequently, the feather sticks that the students had made earlier in the day didn’t see use, which I think was the greatest mistake on my part.  It is important to allow a student to take to a natural conclusion a given task, and I was more than a little disappointed by my oversight here.

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On the plant walk I was happy to let one of the course students do some of the talking…!

The final part of the day was the plant and track walk.  I had walked the route the day prior, assuming an extra half an hour on top of that time to discuss findings etc.  What transpired was a two-hour walk, a full hour more than I had anticipated, although I had allowed enough time at the end of the day to accommodate such deviations in the schedule.  On this particular occasion we were fortunate that one of the attendees was a plant expert in their own right, so I had the opportunity to pick his brain as much as the students mine.  One of the greatest things about running a course, however small, is the nature and expertise of some of the people that attend them.  Bushcraft is a multi-disciplinary pastime, and most people attracted to it have a specialist interest of one kind or another.  It can be enormously rewarding for both the teacher and the student to have a two-way exchange of information, and this philosophy is very much a part of my own approach to teaching.

Back at the camp there was an opportunity for a feedback session.  Overall, and despite a few teething issues, I was pleased with the outcome of the day, with all of the course participants saying that they would recommend it to a friend.  Massimo, the energetic Italian, suggested that I should include an element of killing things.  Although the suggestion was the cause of much mirth around the fire at the time, it was also perhaps a good pointer that next time I could set up and demonstrate a basic squirrel snare.  So to summarise, a bit more time playing in camp, a little less time walking around looking at plants and animal tracks.   The course gave me a huge amount to look forward to re-planning for the next one.  But that’s the trouble with trying to squeeze a lifetime of interest into one single day…

 

In Response to Militant Veganism…

I’m really only posting the following excerpt from a Facebook page I operate, for the sole reason that I find the attitude of some militant vegans disheartening.  In a world where we could be positively improving our systems of consumerism through a mass change in consumer habits, it is sad that some of those who practice a lifestyle which could otherwise be seen as exemplary are positively a hindrance to progress in this regard.

“It is unfortunate, but entirely predictable, that the first troll this page gets is from the militant vegan side of the fence, so I will add this post for all of those that come subsequently:

Personally, I have been a vegan, a vegetarian, and a hunt saboteur. I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with any of these choices, and in fairness, when I first started hunting my own food some 18 years ago it was more readily accepted by my veggie friends than from my meat-eating ones. However, one should be aware that not everyone who hunts does so for sport or pleasure, and that a real hunter will never feel gladness at the act of taking a life, unless one’s own life were utterly dependent upon it. You do no good at all to your cause or your ideological brethren by ranting about how no-one has the right to take life, or by illustrating that people who are anti-hunt are ignorant to ecological principles.

I know, and will have used at some point in my own life, all of the arguments you can muster. If people wish to rant or do little more but to express their ire and lack of comprehension, there exist other, more useful fora in which to do it. All you’ll achieve here is to get banned, and no-one can really achieve anything with that, can they?

I will save those antis their collective breath by stating the following:

Vegetarian/veganism is a life choice in the “developed” nations, and one which deserves respect on the proviso that it isn’t preached as a religion. There are many sound reasons to be vegan or vegetarian. However, we are omnivorous as a species, so don’t bother with the argument that we were historically herbivorous. Were this the case we would have evolved to have had a rumen, or otherwise to have the ability to digest cellulose like other herbivores. The archaeological record is rich enough to prove that hunting has always been an intrinsic part of our nature. We are fortunate now to have the option to choose since our development of farming.

Which brings me on to the next point: If you think you are somehow morally superior for being vegan or vegetarian, you are arrogantly delusional. Farming to sustain a global population of 7 billion people has done more to damage our environment than responsible hunting ever will. Moreover, damage to wildlife and to rainforest ecosystems on a catastrophic scale has been done to produce the soy and palm oil you depend upon in this modern age. Again, far more than a respectful hunter will ever do.
As a privileged Western consumer, vegan or otherwise, you are a contributor to this damage as much as anyone else is. Moreover, you consume all manner of other things in life that contribute to the destruction of this Earth.

So leave the “holier-than-thou” attitude at the door, as there are very few in the West who could even come close to attaining the moral high ground, and those people most certainly are not arguing the toss about it on Facebook…

If you have the notion that it is morally reprehensible to take life, you are oversimplifying the issue: Were this were the case, I would suggest you have a quiet word with every carnivorous, omnivorous (yes, including your pets), or parasitic organism on this great planet of ours. Nature simply does not work that way, and if you try to argue otherwise, all you are doing is illustrating that even “caring vegans” consider themselves to be separate from other denizens of the planet.
And as a side point, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that deer, in certain harsh environments such as the Scottish Highlands, will eat ground-nesting bird chicks to supplement minerals in their diet.

So even Bambi can be an arsehole…

Finally, if you argue against a conservational need to control populations of deer, grey squirrel or rabbit by hunting, you need to take a lesson in basic ecology. First of all, here in the UK, of the nine species of free-roaming mammal I would personally advocate eating, (although there are others), only three of them are native.

Since the time of the Roman empire the wealthy and privileged have introduced numerous species for food (in the case of rabbits) or, most commonly in the case of all deer species excluding the Roe and the Red, for hunting pleasure. These species have gone on to wreak havoc in an environment where we have also, ironically, eliminated all of our natural top predators such as the bear, wolf and lynx, and fragmented through farming our natural havens. The remaining species in question is the wild boar, which are now only back in our countryside due to escapees from farms.

Anyone who loves the woodlands of this country, as I do, will know the damage that squirrels and deer can do to them. If you love the mighty English oaks, for example, you may wish to consider that every one of those fine veteran trees that exists today grew to maturity before the American grey squirrel really got a foothold here after it’s introduction in the 19th century. If you really love the woods, you may also wish to consider eating them, because when left unchecked they will ensure that we have no veteran oaks of the future. Yes, there is an argument for reintroducing the Pine Marten, which I thoroughly support, but in the meantime there is nothing wrong with a squirrel pie…

Those are a few of the arguments against the inevitable questions that will come from the anti-hunting/militant vegan encampment. I’ve written them here to save the effort in future. Please feel free to distribute…”

On the Ethics of Hunting

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So, as those who have followed this blog will know, right about now I should have been returning the great Iberian run, something I was planning and preparing for with great anticipation.  Sadly, after a family illness it would not be prudent of me to discuss here, I have had to postpone the trip for another time.  This didn’t come as a great blow, as a little while ago I decided that the Sprint really wasn’t for me.  Basically, it’s just too damn shiny, and I can’t really feel comfortable ragging around the dusty roads of the Iberian peninsula on something that I’m worrying about scratching or having stolen.  So, it’s on the market while things develop and I plan my next move.

In the meantime, I have not been lazy.

Around about the Autumn of 2014, having decided that I was going to settle where I am for a while in the south west of England, I applied for my firearms certificate with a view to expanding foraging activities.  After all of the intensive checks, and the three month period usually common in any new application in the UK, I finally received my firearms licence in February.

In the past, (and having learnt early on that I can’t hit the side of a barn with a slingshot), I have hunted predominantly using an air rifle, but this has obviously limited my quarry to squirrels, rabbits and the odd pigeon or two.  I have had the good fortune to be able to purchase for next to nothing whole deer carcasses from the wildlife rangers where I work, (and to irritate the hell out of them by asking for them to keep the legs attached for me to save the tendons, which renders hanging them on a gambrel extremely difficult).  However, like getting my motorbike licence, I had put off applying for a shotgun or rifle licence as I was always on the move.  Now done, I have set about equipping myself with both the tools and the knowledge to start some serious hunting activities.

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Natural food, natural materials

I’m fairly used to inflaming the ire of people, and with hunting it is no different.  I am probably equally despised by both the pro and the anti hunting lobbies for my views, but then again, I’ve never been put off by such things.

Working as a woodsman and a forester, I am well aware of the damage that the deer will do to woodlands, particularly to new woodlands.  Here in the UK we are also in quite a unique position in that we have efficiently and ruthlessly eliminated all of our top level predators, so we have no natural means to keep in check the flourishing deer numbers.  Add to that the fact that over the centuries wealthy people have introduced a number of species of deer which have no place in our fragmented woodlands, and what you have is a recipe for continued erosion of our delicate forest ecosystems.  Precisely the same is true of the American grey squirrel, a species which now makes it all but impossible for our native broadleaves to flourish, much less to grow quality hardwoods.

Of course, I will always argue vehemently for the reintroduction of those predator species that we have driven to extinction here; the wolf, the pine marten, the lynx, and even the bear.  But I’m not naive; I am well aware that on this tiny, overpopulated little island of 65 million people living on 244’000 square kilometres, it will simply never happen in a way that will ever redress the imbalance.

The other side of the coin is that we, as humans, are omnivorous.  We are designed to eat meat, amongst other things.  It is true that over the course of our evolution we have lost the enzymes necessary to digest raw meat, but we are otherwise not so far removed from our omnivorous primate cousins.  The denial of this is a fanciful, not to mention arrogant argument frequently used by the animal rights movement to justify their life choices and give them some sense of a higher moral ground.

All of this said, I can not, and will not ever condone hunting for sport or for trophy.  The idea of people charging clients a lot of money to stalk around the countryside in search of a gold-medal roe buck head is anathema to me.  In the first instance, it shifts the bias of any kind of stalking toward eliminating the best in a gene pool, and in the second instance it does little or nothing to address the issue of keeping a population in balance with it’s environment.  Moreover, it makes the business of hunting a pastime for the wealthy and the privileged, (most of whom come from elsewhere in Europe), and keeps it out of the reach of ordinary people, like myself, who want little more than to put natural meat on the table.

So there you have it.  Despised in equal measure by both the anti and the pro hunting fraternities…

In my view, hunting is something that is both natural and, in some circumstances, necessary. Regardless of this, there is no pleasure to be gained from the taking of a life unless you are of a mentally unhinged or psychopathic disposition.  Moreover, if one takes a life, it could be argued that one has a moral obligation to honour that life by utilising every bit of the beast.  This is not so far removed from the ways in which our ancestors would have honoured the animals that provided them with their food, clothing and tools, and although we now live in a world where virtually everything we use is derived from petrochemicals, there is still absolutely no reason why it should not continue to be the case.

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Roe buck hide and antler, wrapped and ready to be processed into buckskin

Review of Woodsmoke’s “Woodlander” Bushcraft Course

Another of Ray Mear’s former chief instructors, Ben McNutt runs Woodsmoke; a hugely successful bushcraft and expedition skills school based in the English Lake District.  He is currently one of the most well-respected and sought-after instructors in the UK.

I undertook the week-long Woodlander course in August 2013, having previously done a number of other courses of a similar ilk.  What immediately struck me was Ben’s charisma, humour and boundless energy.  However, being the cynical old bugger that I am, it takes a lot more than a quick wit and some charismatic banter to convince me that what someone is offering is worth parting with my hard-earned cash..

Fortunately, there is no such cynicism needed.  The course instructors who lead many of the sessions are chosen by Ben for their enthusiasm, skill, and ability to inspire the attendees, and Ben himself is as personable and engaging as his charisma suggests.

The course itself is more practical and covers a wider ranger of skills than others I have done, with the methodology of learning by repetition.  That said, it is not assessed, and attendees are free to focus on whatever particular skills appeal the most.  If the attendee wishes to really gain some brownie points, they can opt to undertake an informal assessment at the end of the week, but this is really just about motivating people to practice their cordage making, fire craft or carving skills during the down-time.  Not feeling the need to impress anyone by going all-out to make 10 metres of nettle cordage by the end of the week, my particular bent was to turn my hand to a number of areas I had little experience in; traps, snares, and carved fish hooks.

Fortunately, the course is designed with this in mind, and you are positively encouraged to do your own thing rather than begrudgingly squeak away at trying to get a friction ember if bow-drilling is not your cup of tea.

I had a particularly inspiring experience during my week there.  At one point during the course we were split into groups of four to cook our own dinners, which naturally enough required a degree of organisation and the division of labour.  One was to prepare and panass the fish, one to gather firewood, one to whittle some feather-sticks and one to get the fire going.  Not a time-consuming or complicated task, one may think.  However, after an afternoon of shelter-building and gathering unbelievably large amounts of leaves with which to thatch them, everybody was tired, hungry, and the dark and despondency were setting in.  The young lad from London gathering firewood just kept coming back with rotten, powdery branches of no use to man nor beast, the lad whittling feather-sticks had produced a fine pile of wood chips but not a lot else, and the lad in charge of preparing the fire lay kept wandering off to look for his mate.  Naturally I ended up getting the firewood, preparing the fish, getting the fire going and cooking everyone’s dinner…

I asked Ben later that night what the secret was to motivating people to help themselves in that situation.  Ben, sat on his log in the orange glow of the fire pit, drew on his roll-up and said simply; “you give people the tools, but you let them learn themselves how to use them”…

The following evening we were set the same task of sorting out our dinners in the same groups, but this time we were to crown a pigeon and make a pigeon pie in two billy-cans.  On this occasion each individual took the task to hand, and in no time we were all sitting around our group fires laughing together as we watched our pies on the embers.

This event illustrates the success of Ben’s approach to teaching students.  If you want to pay over the odds for a week of camping, then you will be well catered for and meet a few interesting people.  But if you are keen use your money sensibly to learn real practical and pedagogical skills, this is a phenomenally good course for the beginner or intermediate practitioner.

I left at the end of the week feeling elated, inspired, and ready to push on with my own personal journey.  When the time and cashflow allows, I will be looking forward to doing Ben’s Native, Nomad and Coastal Forager courses.

A link to the Woodsmoke website can be found on my links page.

Review of The Woodcraft School’s “NCFE IIQ Level 3 Award in Advanced Bushcraft”

John Rhyder’s reputation precedes him.  He is one of the few instructors in bushcraft, who I have come across at least, who does not appear have a hidden agenda or male ego issues, which in my opinion says a lot about him.  It also serves to attract people to the courses he runs who don’t want to find themselves surrounded by men in combat gear comparing the size of their knives..

Quiet, humble, with a dry sense of wit which can be easy to misinterpret but an authoritative delivery style attained over many years of running one of the most successful schools in the UK, his passion and speciality is natural history and tracking.

The NCFE IIQ level 3 is a UK-recognised qualification in bushcraft, and is geared towards both enthusiasts and practitioners.  Taken over the period of 8 days, with 5 days of learning and 3 days of assessment, participants cover a range of core modules and it gives both beginners and more experienced people the opportunity to learn new skills and hone old ones.  It is a course which is very popular with school teachers looking to diversify their skill sets, people to one degree or another already working in the fields of conservation or outdoor education, and people like myself who want to use it as a foundation for further learning and teaching.

With bushcraft having reached a height of popularity with the weekend warriors, and being a relatively unregulated industry at the time of writing, there are many people out there now teaching without any formal qualification in the subject.  In my opinion, this carries with it some inherent dangers, as a little information is a dangerous thing.  One only needs to watch Bear Grylls on the television to see that…

John is a fervent believer in taking responsibility of oneself to get qualified and back up what you are preaching, and this is one of the best courses to start with.

I undertook the course myself during the very wet April of 2013, having decided that I wanted to start getting some bits of paper to augment the last 15 years or so of practical, but unguided, experience.

Despite not being a novice myself, I found the course to be very intensive. and at times even physically challenging. (Trying to get a successful ember from friction in persistent rain and with every scrap of wood in the forest being soaked is never an easy task!)  Nevertheless, one of the real joys of this course for me was that despite the diversity in backgrounds of the attendees, by the time the assessments took place every single person was at the same level.  To bring someone from being a complete novice to successful completion of the course and its assessments is the real testament to John, and his instructors.

From a personal point of view, I would have preferred to have focussed more on learning new practical skills and spent less time covering subjects with which I am already very familiar, but the point of this course is to demonstrably prove that you can competently cover the range of core subjects that it delivers and be assessed on them.  It is also humbling, being designed to acknowledge that every participant brings with them a range of skill levels that ultimately help the group as a whole get through the assessment stage.   In that way it excels above others of its kind in the UK.

I had the opportunity earlier this year to help out on the course, and for me it was a great chance to essentially do the course again without having to pay for it (and without the pressure of being assessed!).  The real joy in doing this course is watching everyone gel, encourage and work together to achieve the award and the satisfaction that it brings.  For that reason alone I would happily pay to do it every year if I could afford to..!

See my links page for the link to The Woodcraft School.

Basic firecraft

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The creation of fire in bushcraft terms always puts me in a bit of a conundrum.  On the one hand, I fervently believe that each and every one of us should be well versed with, have a deep respect for, and be appreciative of the intrinsic value of all of the Earth’s natural resources.  We should be as our ancestors; secure in the knowledge that Nature provides for us everything we can ever need for not only our survival, but also for our prosperity.  On the other hand, so many people coming to a bushcraft course want to learn the esoteric “secrets” of lighting a fire by rubbing sticks together, as if it were some dark and powerful magic that only certain keepers have the knowledge of, and they will readily ignore the fact that in this age we have at our disposal myriad ways of creating the same result.

Fire is a basic human necessity.  We need it in order to cook food, to provide warmth, boil water, and also, perhaps as importantly, provide a focused distraction from the drudgery that many people feel while exposed to the natural elements.

So with that in mind let’s make one thing clear;  There is no magic secret to keeping yourself warm.  It’s very much a case of utilising whatever you have around you in order to make your situation more comfortable.  It doesn’t matter one iota whether or not your fire is lit using friction, or sparks, or matches, solar, chemical or any other means.  The key thing is that you have one when you need it, and that you have the wherewithal to make one whatever the situation you may find yourself in.

Preparation is the key to success, and particularly so with fire.  Expending a vast amount of energy making an ember with friction firelighting techniques is no use whatsoever if you have not first taken the time to prepare a medium in which to place a fragile and relatively cool ember, much less blow it into flame and from it start a roaring blaze.

I will categorically state now and for the record that although I am fascinated from a naturalistic, scientific and anthropological perspective by friction firelighting, it has never been and probably never will be a first choice.  To have the skill to do so if needed is enough, but to rely upon it solely in this modern age is a folly, when there are far more effective and energy-efficient ways of producing the same result.  Personally, (and there is more than a little nostalgia involved on my part), my preference has always been for the old-fashioned flint and steel.

That said, a respect for the natural world around you comes from learning the true value of everything one can find in it, and that is the key purpose of this post.  When one learns the value of a plant as a tinder, or a coal-extender, or when you can knowledgeably choose the right woods with which to make a bow-drill set, you will never wander through the wilderness and feel bereft.  You will know that you carry with you the knowledge that your ancestors carried, and you will be OK.

But make no mistake;  if your ancestors were here today I’m fairly certain that they would far rather have used a match or a ferro-rod to get the job done…

At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what method you use to start a fire.  The key elements are the same.  We all learnt at school the “fire triangle” of fuel, oxygen and heat, (which has since been developed by some theorists into a “fire tetrahedron” by the addition of the chemical reaction needed to sustain a burn), but essentially the elements remain, and in the bush they are these:

Tinder:

It cannot be understated.  Whatever you think you need as tinder, double it.  More embers made through any means can be lost by assuming that you have enough for the job.  Carry some with you and never turn down an opportunity to gather more.

Kindling:

Take the time before making any effort at creating a flame to ensure that you have enough to turn the fast-burning tinder to fuel.  One night many years ago while setting out to walk the 80-odd mile Ridgeway from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury I was caught in a thunderstorm, and three times I failed to light my fire for precisely that reason.  If I had been in a situation which really had necessitated my starting a fire successfully, I would have been stuffed.  If you have not prepared enough it is one of the worst destroyers of morale that can be, and you will save yourself a lot of trauma if you ensure that you have doubled what you think you will need.

Fuel:

The life of the fire.  At worst, once you have a fair amount of it burning and you have a good bed of embers forming, you can take some time to gather more if needs be.  But as always, it is far better to make sure that you have enough to see you through the night and that you can just relax with a warm drink by the fire.  The choice of wood is critical, but a subject perhaps better left for another post.  The main thing is that it is as dry as the elements allow, and that may well mean that you look up, not down, when gathering it.  More good fuel can be found caught in the branches of trees than can be found on the ground, and I have frequently found that in areas which are heavily-used by campers, the ground is depleted of firewood but the branches above are full of it.  This also applies to kindling.

In future posts I will demonstrate a few key fire-lays, methods of flame production, and some do’s and don’ts about siting a fire.

 

Finalising an itinerary for the Great Iberian Odyssey..

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Ok, ok.. I know it’s only just November and the Iberian Odyssey isn’t going to commence until April, but the last few months I have had a brain itch..

I’m not one to make travel plans, if I can possibly avoid it.  To do so invites disappointment.  This odyssey, however, will take me through some country so rich with history that it deserves real exploration.  To not do so would be a missed opportunity.  And the fact that for two weeks of the three week trip I will be on my own necessitates some degree of it..

Las Medulas

In the era when the Romans were busy conquering most of Europe, their minions were busy destroying mountains in search of gold to fund their rampages.  I wonder what the Green movement would make of it now..

Nonetheless, what has been left behind almost 2000 years later is a remarkable landscape which has now been designated a World Heritage Site.  Las Medulas lies only a few hours ride from the Portuguese border and the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, an area I am familiar with and which contains a myriad of Roman and Celtic sites of interest.

25th April and the Carnation Revolution

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Portugal is, was and always will be my spiritual home.  For many years now, since I lived and worked there, I have celebrated the 25th of April wherever I happen to be.

The Portuguese, unlike a number of European countries today, remember what life was like under a fascist and corporatist dictatorship.  Moreover, when the people of Portugal planned the coup which ultimately overthrew what remained of the regime initiated by Salazar, they did so without the use of direct violence and in an unusually inspired way.  At 12.20am on April 25th 1974, “Grândola, Vila Morena”, a song written and performed by Zeca Afonso, a folk musician then banned on Portuguese radio, was broadcast by the radio station Rádio Renascença.  This was the signal at which the rebels in the armed forces were to take over strategic points around the country.  After many people gathered in the Lisbon flower market, the insurgents started to place carnations in the barrels of their rifles, images of which became iconic and gave the revolution the name of Revolução dos Cravos.

Today the Portuguese celebrate the day of their liberty from the regime with a national holiday and by going out into the streets holding carnations. One of the purposes of timing this journey was so that I could once again celebrate the Dia da Liberdade in the company of the Portuguese.

Don Quixote country

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Being a dense book and one written in the idiom of the 17th century, I never quite made it to the end of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s “El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha”.  Nevertheless, from the half to three-quarters or so that I did read, I developed a fondness and a certain empathy with the bumbling and eccentric knight-errant, Don Quijote, as he travelled the land in search of adventures with which to make his name.  I’ve always identified more than a little with the protagonist; eccentric, certainly, perhaps a little deluded, but generally well-meaning and always ready to seek out some tragicomic adventure in order to reaffirm my own perceptions of the world at large.

With this in mind, en route to one of my primary stops, I couldn’t possibly pass so close by La Mancha without at least taking in some of sights that Don Quixote would have seen himself.  And perhaps even fight with a few windmills along the way..

Orwell

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Like many people, I was made to read Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm at school.  It’s a great shame that it is only these insightful but fictitious works of his that are generally taught, because there was much more to the man himself than many of us recognise.

After writing about the lives and living conditions suffered by the English working-class in The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell was put under investigation by Special Branch.  This was a sure sign that he was doing something right.  Always a man of principled beliefs and conscience, he set off for Spain in 1936 to fight against the rise of fascism, several years before the government of Britain decided to decisively take part.

He arrived in Barcelona and was assigned to the POUM before being sent to the trenches of the Aragon Front.  After waiting at Alcubierre for days before he was even issued an old German rifle dating from the previous century, he was then sent to the trench positions in the mountains overlooking Zaragoza.  He describes life in them as being almost farcical, quoting his comrade and commander Georges Kopp as saying “This is not a war, it is a comic opera with an occasional death”.  It was cold, hard and boring, with the enemy hardly ever in sight and the constant problem of lice infesting in his clothing.  Ten years ago one February morning I was driving from the Pyrenees to Portugal when I stopped in the region to take a picture.  I had several jumpers on and I was only out of the jeep for a few minutes, but it was bloody freezing…

Being a huge admirer of George Orwell, I can’t make a solo trip around Spain without spending a few days paying homage to him in those areas where he saw the inspired, but ultimately futile efforts of the resistance against the tyranny that held Spain for the next 39 years.

Jeg kommer fra Basque Country…

In 2003 I was working in a park in Copenhagen and sharing a small flat with a bunch of international students.   They had come back from a basic Danish course and one of them, who everyone else identified as Spanish, repeated what he had learnt in that day’s lesson;  “Jeg kommer fra Basque Country”…

I admired him immediately.  Iker didn’t sound like a particularly Spanish name, but it was “more comfortable” for people to label him as Spanish nevertheless.  Good-looking, intelligent and articulate, Iker taught me a lot about the pride in which people from the Basque country have in their home range.  Comfortable enough with being labelled as Spanish for other people’s sake, he nonetheless was fervent in his identity as Euskal herritarrak.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, it was years later, while travelling from Donastia (San Sebastian) to visit him in Iruña (Pamplona), I swore to myself that I would buy a motorcycle and travel those pristine roads alone.  At that time I had come from the small town of Deba, where on that particular day there had been a public holiday, and everyone had gone to the one tiny beach which sits amongst the otherwise inhospitable rocky crags of the Basque coast.

Being flat broke, I was sitting on a plastic chair outside a seafront cafe and scavenging the leftover potato tortillas and beer which had been abandoned by departing customers.  I ate pretty well that day, as I remember.  The thing that was immediately obvious as I sat there,  was that although the beach was rammed with people of all ages enjoying their day off, there was hardly one identifiable soul among them that was not tattooed, pierced and sporting a punk hairdo.  This made me think of all of the rebel punks at home.  In our relatively sedate countries, and secure in our intrinsic national or cultural identities, we are used to the iconic “rebel without a cause” persona.  But the spirit of rebellion against Spanish identity in the Basque Country is both innate and strong, and this appeared to manifest itself in populace of that little town.  I loved it immediately, and I was only sorry that with the travelling I had to do I didn’t really have the time to engage with many people before I travelled on.

The return from Orwell country in Aragon toward the ferry terminal at Santander will finally take me back there on two wheels.  Sadly for me, on this journey at least, Iker is now living in the Mexican free state of Baja California, so I won’t get to see him to chew the fat.  But the inspiration that he, and the people of Deba gave to me all those years ago will be with me, and on this occasion I should have the time to stop and linger.

In keeping with the revolutionary theme of this adventure, and after years of wanting to, I will be making Guernica one of my final stops before the return home.  Famously razed to the ground by the Nazi Luftwaffe acting on behalf of Franco on April 26th 1937, and portrayed in Picasso’s painting of the same name, to me it epitomises the Basque resolve to remain independent, whatever an obtuse dictatorship may wish, and it serves as a reminder that from the rubble can rise a people who are undeterred in their struggle against oppression…

A word of warning on fungi..

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OK, so it is about time I posted something on here specifically about bushcraft skills…

I don’t pretend to be an expert on what these days are called “bushcraft” skills or any particular discipline of them, and generally in this game anyone who tells you that they are is blatantly not.  At best they are egotistical, and at worst they can be leading people to make what can be life-threatening mistakes.  That said, I have had the privilege of having been taught some skills by a few people who I consider to be genuine experts in their fields (see my links page for recommended teachers and courses).  Even these excellent teachers, however, have particular disciplines in which they specialise, and they do not overemphasise their own skill sets or pretend to know what they do not have practical and tested experience of.

It is that glorious time of year when the fungi are abound in our woods and pastures, and right on cue the social media fora on subjects of bushcraft are going crazy with people posting pictures of mushrooms they have found and asking people to ID them.  On a disturbingly regular basis someone claims to ID it in the comments, gets it wrong, and the original poster goes merrily off with the impression that what they have found is some mycorrhizal delicacy.  Make no mistake; this can be a fatal lapse of judgement.

I first started getting interested in fungi and wild foods at about the age of 15, and over the last twenty-odd years or more I have spent a lot of time trying to get it right.  However, I still rely on referring to books, seasonality, spore-prints, learning from others and a plethora of other sources before I will risk making a positive ID on something if I am at all uncertain about it.

The fungi are fascinating, but the range of known species in the UK numbers above 15’000, of which only a fraction are known to be good to eat, with many more classified as “inedible” due to uncertainties around potential toxicity or palatability.  Positive identification of some species is often reliant upon microscopic analysis of spores, chemical testing or other means which the average forager will not have the access or inclination to.

This said, don’t be put off.  Foraging for fungi is hugely rewarding, and a feast of wild food is always far superior to anything you can buy in the supermarket.  But be careful.  Attend a course or two, build up a library and consistently refer to it, and at the very least become fluent with what will positively kill you before you go off enjoying the bountiful fruits of nature’s autumnal harvest.

And never, EVER, just take someone’s word for it on a forum when they tell you that what you have is edible…