I was a child of the 70s and 80s, so I climbed trees
My friends and I climbed on, through and over everything and anything. Up fences, onto the shed roof and into trees – from gnarled Crab Apples to bouncy Leylandii, getting cuts and scrapes along the way.

The National Trust’s ’50 things to do before you’re 11 and 3/4s list’ puts climbing trees at No.1.

Climbing trees for grown-ups
Ok, so it’s been a while since I tried to climb a tree and I’ve since developed a fear of heights. I haven’t been exercising my tree-climbing muscles or my tree-climbing mind. The Woodland Trust’s website is great for finding tree climbing spots, there are also some great specialist tree climbing sites around now which cater for all abilities. Check out GoApe, The Great Big Tree Climbing Company and Goodleaf for starters.

Fresh air therapy
Tree climbing has proven health benefits both physically and mentally, no matter how old you are. The act of climbing engages your brain and your body with little room for other worries. You’ll improve their flexibility and balance and you don’t have to climb high to get a happy feeling. Cognitive skills are shown to benefit whilst simply by being in a forest can slow the pulse, calm you down boost your immune system and reduce stress. Along with a sense of achievement, post-climb you can experience a rush of happy hormones too.

Vote for your favourite tree
The Tree of the Year 2017 competition has started – and I just nominated my new favourite tree. An ancient Welsh Oak which is both beautiful and easy to climb, thanks to a raised bank of earth behind it’s trunk. The setting is a magical clearing, backed by an old quarry wall, a quiet stage where birds sing their hearts out. And the air is so clean that every surface is draped in green moss and lichen. You can find my tree, just off the beaten track which leads from the fforest camp down to the River Tiefi in Cilgerran. The area is a haven for wildlife – the Welsh Wildlife Centre, The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales is only a short stroll away and you can park here.
The Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year competition helps recognise, catalogue and protect our most special trees, whether they’re especially old, large, or have an interesting history. Nominate or vote for your favourite until July 30th.

Reasons to climb a tree
– get a whole body workout
– get rid of stress
– discover your strengths and limitations
– get better balance
– get skills for life
– get independant
– get happy
– get confident
– get decisive
– get an appreciation of nature
– get to scrump apples or other fruit.
– get a great view!

As I wobbled my way onto a branch which was thicker than my waist, I realised that half of the reason I don’t climb is a fear of falling. The other half, is the fear of being seen by someone. Maybe it’s time to get out of my comfort zone and just enjoy the view.

 

*Source: National Trust

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logs-carrying-1I like a man that can chop wood. Not a metrosexual with his skincare routine and mirror addiction, or the hipster who spends longer worrying about his clothes than I do. But it seems ‘men’s men’ are in short supply. Many guys lift weights to get fit, then wax off every bit of hair to show off their newly acquired muscles. But how many of them could get their hands dirty chopping a batch of logs, or know how to start a good fire? Where are the real men?

The fashion for beards is going strong, so maybe things are changing. Not everyone is going to be an outdoorsy kind of guy, but with rising energy bills more of our guys are looking for traditional ways to get cosy. The popularity of wood burning stoves has shot up, meaning more of us are enjoying a real flame and getting to grips with logs. (Even if they do come pre-chopped, in a builder’s merchants’ one tonne bag.)

Quick wood facts:

Calories burned chopping wood: approx 350 (based on 12 stone guy)

To store a tonne bag of logs you’ll need: a log store roughly 1270mm (H) x 1200mm (W) x 635mm (D) ( a 1m3 tonne bag will actually contain around 0.7 m3 of logs).

To work out what size stove you’d need: measure the length, width and height of your room. You’ll need approximately 1kW of heat output for every 14 cubic meters of space.

You’ll also need: a stump to split logs on and a splitting maul (you only need a long-handled axe if you’re chopping trees down).

log-pile-storageHow to stack logs
When it comes to storing your logs, keeping them under cover with good air flow is important. A log store is a sensible purchase. But if you’re stacking logs outside it makes sense to stack bark side up to protect the logs from rain (a tip from an unlikely bestselling book, Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting).

How to choose your firewood.
Firewood is either softwood or hardwood. You’ll pay around £100 for a tonne, although kiln-dried firewood can be far more expensive. Ensure the logs are well seasoned and dry – knock logs together and listen. If they’re dry, they’ll ring loud and hard. If damp, you’ll get a dull thud.

Where I live, with no shortage of country lanes, I often find bits of branches, blown off trees and lying in, or next to, the road or in woods. But remember that this wood does belong to the landowner – so ask permission before helping yourself to logs or going ‘sticking’ my grandma used to call it.

Which wood burns best?
OAK logs will warm you well,
If they’re old and dry.
LARCH logs of pine wood smell,
But the sparks will fly.
BEECH logs for Christmas time,
YEW logs heat well.
SCOTCH logs it is a crime,
For anyone to sell.

BIRCH logs will burn too fast,
CHESTNUT scarce at all
HAWTHORN logs are good to last,
If you cut them in the fall
HOLLY logs will burn like wax
You should burn them green
ELM logs like smouldering flax
No flame to be seen

PEAR logs and APPLE logs,
they will scent your room.
CHERRY logs across the dogs,
Smell like flowers in bloom
But ASH logs, all smooth and grey,
burn them green or old;
Buy up all that come your way,
They’re worth their weight in gold.

Conifers (Pine) do burn but they burn very quickly and spit. They’re sticky with resin. The resin can coat the flue or chimney and soot can then stick, building up to cause blocked chimneys and even the possibility of a chimney fire. Use sparingly and remember to get your chimney cleaned annually.
“Wood warms you twice …
once when you cut it
and again when you burn it.”
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fallow-deer-bracken

Autumn on my local patch brings stunning trees and bracken the colour of fire. It’s also when the annual deer rut happens. October is when most of the action happens but now the bracken has coloured up and still a lot of activity. I decided to get out and see the spectacle for myself – in the company of wildlife photographer Danny Green, on a visit to Bradgate Park in Leicestershire.

Bradgate Park is an enclosed medieval deer park and home to around 400 deer, around 300 of which are Fallows. Luckily it’s on my doorstep, so I only had to roll out of bed a little before meeting Danny at 6am, for a day photographing both red and fallow deer, in the hopes of a rutting frenzy.

The weather was awful for photography; rainy, dull and grey all day but I still got chance to see some action. When Fallow deer are looking for love they either choose open spaces where males compete for a harem of hinds much like a lec, or they can chase down fertile females, but most commonly a stag will choose a rutting stand beneath a fruiting tree (such as an oak or sweet chestnut). Here he will attract the females to him (they get the added benefit of a feast of acorns) and he bellows his claim.

fallow-deer-stag-harem

By bellowing he is demonstrating his fitness and size to females as well as other males who may try to fight for the mating rights of the hinds.

The females each only come into oestrous for around six hours so he needs to be ready. He will follow a female, curling up his top lip and sticking out his tongue to taste the air for pheromones. When she’s in the mood she stands still (I saw him giving her a gentle head but or two) then he gets his prize.

fallow-deer-mating-1fallow-mating

But all this shouting, chasing and mating takes its toll. A dominant stag doesn’t get a lot of time to eat or rest (hence the acorns being handy) and he needs to keep his weight up because in the wings other males are waiting. Ready to pick their moment to take over.

An almost black stag came a little too close and bellowed a challenge which the resident male rose to. If the ‘who shouts the loudest’ competition can’t be decided they start to parallel walk. Then in a flash they lock antlers and fight.

fallow-deer-paralell-walk

fallow-deer-rut-4The males I saw were very varied in colour. From white (hence so many white hart pubs being named after this prized natural colouring) through spotted fawn, to black.

Keep your eyes peeled though as you don’t want to stumble on a fired up big Red Deer stag taking a breather amongst the bracken.

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toad-toadstool-fly-argaricToadstools are the stuff of fairy tales and folklore. But this is where foraging gets scary.

Toadstool is the name often used to describe an inedible mushroom (although there are many toxic mushrooms not commonly called toadstools, which is a bit confusing).

The association between toxic mushrooms and toads may have come from the fact that toads were considered highly poisonous. There is some truth in it too, toads have glands on their backs that contain toxins, these poisons help protect them from being eaten by predators like dogs. And it’s rumoured that if you lick a toad you’ll hallucinate. Maybe this explains how you might see Prince Charming when you kiss a frog?

Toads became associated with witches, maybe because they crawl rather than jump and they have warts. They were thought to be witches or demons in animal form, as well as being a key ingredient in potions cooked up in bubbling cauldrons. It used to be believed that toads got their poison by eating poisonous mushrooms, hence the old name of toddesmeat or toadcheese given to these fungi.

And so Toadstools got a bad reputation, as either literally a stool for a toad to sit on (the word is derived from the old word tadstooles), or just because they were being poisonous like a toad and could cause madness or death… another word for toadstool is ‘devils droppings’.

Many myths and children’s stories could have been developed to ward children off eating these appealing, pretty looking fungi.

The most commonly recognised toadstool is the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), with its bright red hats and white spots. It is probably our most familiar toadstool and has been painted as a seat for fairies and a home for gnomes so many times that the Fly Agaric is synonymous with the fairytale.

But the Fly Agaric is far from it’s cute image portrayed in Mary Atwell’s illustrations. It is toxic. It was traditionally used as an insecticide, the cap broken up and sprinkled into saucers of milk. It’s now known to contain ibotenic acid, which both attracts and kills flies. And as well as being lethal to flies, in humans it can cause anything from sickness and twitching to hallucinations seizures, delirium, coma and death.

The term going ‘berserk’ is used to describe the war-hungry, fearless rage which was thought to be induced by Vikings taking fly agaric before battle.

Fly agaric can also cause a perceived distortion in the size of objects. It has been said that Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was inviting her to take a bite from a fly agaric…alice-in-wonderland-2

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.

Alice replied, rather shyly,

‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

alice-in-wonderland-inside

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Footage courtesy @elliektaylorphotography

If you want to see Basking Sharks then June to September is when these gentle giants pay our coastlines a visit.

Where to see basking sharks:
The West is best,
Head for the Hebrides (Coll, Skye, Mull),
Isle of Man,
Malin Head and
South-west England (Devon, Cornwall, Scilly).

On my trip to Penzance last year, I didn’t see any, so to up the odds a bit I set off for Scotland. I left home in a balmy 25 degrees, yet arrived to ten degrees, gale force weather warnings and a big storm, not great news for shark hunting. But I made it to Coll where I met the guys from Basking Shark Scotland. It was great to meet people so passionate about these giant fish and learn a bit more about the sharks before hopefully, getting in the water with them.

Some quick basking shark facts:
Basking sharks can grow up to 10m long – the ones seen around Coll range from 5-8meters, that’s 25ft!
They are the second largest fish on Earth after the Whale shark.
Their mouths are over a meter wide.
They don’t have big teeth (I wouldn’t be so eager to hop in with them if they did. They have tiny teeth, filtering seawater to feed using gill rakers, fueling their huge bodies on a diet of plankton soup).
They eat Zooplankton. These are small organisms, each about the size of a pinhead that look like pink floating dots close-up, like shrimp in miniature. They’re weak swimmers and drift in their millions in ‘blooms’ or nutrient-rich streams, where warm and cold waters meet. Luckily Coll is a real hotspot. These blooms were something we’d be looking for – resembling dark water slicks on a calm sea – hmmm choppy waves were everywhere. The storms messing up the plankton ribbons.
Basking sharks have two penises!!! I know, weird… I know this because we did see sharks on our trip and I got up-close and personal. At first I thought I’d seen two lampreys (fish that attach to sharks and feed off them like vampires), only to be told by our guide that they were its penises (or rather two grooved organs called claspers). If the male shark happens to dock along the right side of the receptive female, he uses his left clasper and visa versa – makes sense.
Basking sharks can be seen feeding together. Shane, our trusty skipper and shark expert, told us that when the plankton streams are narrow and deep he’s seen sharks stacked five high happily cruising their soup trail. Sharks can follow other sharks too, often being mistaken for even bigger creatures.

Basking sharks are huge and yet there’s still a surprising amount we don’t know about them. A small-scale tagging project showed individuals travelling to Newfoundland and others heading for the Med, we don’t know much about where they breed and it is suspected that in the winter they head for deep water plankton but some expects think they may even go dormant, hardly feeding.

basking shark swim blur

Looking for sharks
Over three days we searched the seas around Coll for a tell-tale jaws-like fin rising from the waters. I was surprised how big their dorsal fins are and how high in the water they sit, making them quite easy to spot (especially when the waves calm down).

atseaOnce you find one, the most important thing to remember when swimming with the basking shark is not to chase them or interrupt their natural behaviour. Shane positioned the boat well ahead of a shark in the hope that it would swim towards us on its feeding path. We were told that they can sense us using water pressure so to stay calm and not splash about. Getting too close would cause them to pause from feeding or divert from their feeding paths.

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As we entered the water (only four can swim at any one time), the shark we’d seen looked a long way off. We swam closer and waited. I was quite nervous… then suddenly from the murk appeared a white mouth which grew larger and clearer as the shark came closer.

We saw it feed then close its mouth and filter its haul before opening wide for more. Actually it wasn’t that scary. They haven’t got the heavy bulk I expected and they seem to care about nothing but eating plankton.

They didn’t seem to know we were there, a large male just kept on coming, right on a collision course with me. But maybe they’re like big four-by-four drivers not caring about a tiny vehicle. I kept expecting it to move until eventually I tried to get out of its way. He simply glided a little lower, passing right beneath me. Amazing! I could see its mottled skin and was stunned when his tail flicked past and he disappeared back into the haze of food. I was so shocked I didn’t even remember to film him – so thank you to Ellie Taylor from our group for the footage of a basking shark above.
I had a freezing cold, wet day, spent feeling a bit sea sick – but it was worth every soggy minute, for an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.

seal area

The Isle of Coll (I-love-coll)
The sun showed its face briefly during my stay, so I took the opportunity to take a look around the island. Coll is thirteen miles long, rugged and wild with the winds keeping trees at bay. But it’s also stunning, peaceful and has crystal clear, turquoise seas – especially around the seal lagoon at the north of the island.

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Come prepared though as there is only one hotel/restaurant in Arinagour and two tiny shops for provisions, which aren’t open every day.

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If you’re lucky you could see Otters near the jetty, or a Sea Eagle overhead. Head out on the water and as well as sharks there are Dolphins, Sunfish or even a passing Orca! The news that a killer whale had been seen two days previously made me slightly nervous about hopping into the water dressed like a seal…

imageWe were so lucky on our trip, even with the bad weather we still saw more than half a dozen sharks, Harbour Porpoise and a small Minke Whale. Thanks to the guys from Basking Shark Scotland and the rest of my group for all being so lovely and making it such a brilliant few days. Big smiles all around.

Image courtesy of Rosamund Derby

Image courtesy of Rosamund Derby

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