may-day-posy-5I can’t believe it’s already May 1st and Morris Men are prancing about. It’s at least 20 years since I saw a Maypole and sadly crowning a May Queen is often seen as no longer politically correct’. Which is a shame as traditions are being lost which date back to our pre-Christian, pagan festivals – celebrating fertility, abundance and marking the start of summer.

May Day replaced both the Gaelic festival of Beltane and Floralia – the festival of Flora (the Roman goddess of flowers). One way Flora was honoured was by wearing floral crowns, made from the many blooms to be found wild at this time of year. But I recently stumbled across another faded tradition thanks to Lou’s blog, where the revival of the May Day posy is underway. ‘May Day Posies’ are small posies of flowers left on friends or neighbours’ doorsteps to celebrate Spring (originally May baskets left hanging on doorknobs).

So here’s my posy, made from small Spring blooms from my garden. Hopefully a lovely treat for my friend who needed cheering up. And I enjoyed looking at these tiny blooms close up before I played ‘knock and run’.

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Share your posies on Twitter and Instagram with the Hashtag #MayDayposies

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honey-lemon2I’ve been knocked off my feet by the flu, the real, I can’t get out of bed, rubbish flu. I blame the mild Spring for bug after bug and the two sessions of antibiotics for leaving me feeling wrung out. But after plenty of rest I’ve added some natural healers to the mix to help shift the remaining cough and cold symptoms.

spoon-of-honeyA spoonful of honey.
Honey is fantastic for irritating coughs and has been said to work more effectively than many cough mixtures. I like the organic honey with the comb in it. Eat the comb and all. Not only is honey naturally antibacterial but it coats your throat, soothing the tickle, perfect before bedtime.

honeylemonaboveHot honey and lemon.
I poured hot water onto the juice of half a lemon and added a squeeze of runny honey, it’s good for all coughs and colds as the vitamin C supports the immune system. Don’t use the honey with the comb in it this time because the wax comb will melt and float to the surface, ruining the drink.

elderflowerteaElderflower tea.
Elderflowers make a fresh, light and floral tea that actually tastes nice as well as being good if you have a cold or sinus problems. Dried elder flowers are great for reducing mucus and catarrh. You’ll need a teapot for loose tea rather than a strainer as it allows the flowers to steep before drinking. As well as helping to fight phlegm, elderflower can also reduce a temperature.

thyme-teaTea Thyme.
A few springs of thyme bruised in a pestle and mortar then popped into your teapot with boiling water are in order if you’ve had a bad hacking cough, sore throat or bronchitis. It used to be called the ‘whooping cough herb’. Thyme is an acquired taste – but it is antiseptic, antibacterial and has antiviral properties. It can be gargled or drunk as a tonic. It works as a respitory relaxant and lessens the urge to cough – so it’s best used for non productive coughs (these shouldn’t be surpressed as you want to cough out any mucus). It also encourages sweating which can fight a fever.

I’ve always been fascinated by old herb-lore and am happy to try these traditional remedies on myself but use with care as some herbal remedies can affect medication and aren’t suitable for everyone.
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me-reg-bradgate-8I’ve been a bit absent from blogging lately, partly because it’s Spring and truth be told I’ve felt decidedly unspringlike. Not only has the weather been cold and mostly wet but Bank holidays are a bit pants when you’re single.

Time off always makes me wish I was going somewhere more exciting or having fun but when the rest of your friends are settled it can be a bit flat.

But in the spirit of Spring I have discovered small glimpses of better things to come and I’ve decided to make the most of this time of renewal and fresh start to make new plans. Ok, so I actually wimped out on going it alone – and got myself a new friend. Meet my slightly loopy but always optimistic, whippet buddy Reggie. Who’s taught me a surprising lesson…

I have a very good friend (you know who you are;-) who believes in mindfulness. Now I don’t get mindfulness really – I thought it was making do with rubbish situations or overthinking. I’ve always preferred to pull out the wellies and stomp off a bad mood.

But at the weekend it dawned on me that without realising it, walking works like mindfulness (or at least my understanding of it). My body is busy and the rhythm of my feet helps me wind down. Then I find myself noticing the signs of Spring, like how the light catches the reeds or the long tailed tits noisily jostling for a spot in the hedge beside me. And that’s all I’m thinking about. I always feel better afterwards, whether it’s switching off, the exercise or just good old-fashioned fresh air, it doesn’t matter because it works. And now I have an excuse to walk every day, even on those dreary days I’d normally stay put on the sofa.

zAnd when you least expect it the sun pops out, so maybe Spring is starting after all.

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Winterton beach Seal-34During the winter Grey Seals come to have their young and to breed in their thousand’s on our beaches. The UK is home to nearly 40% of the world’s Grey Seal population and as our largest mammals they make great photographic subjects.

Where to see Grey Seals in the UK
Grey Seals can be found on our coasts from the very South of England to the Scottish Islands. The first British pups are born off the Scillies and Cornwall in August and September and the time of pupping is progressively later as you move clockwise around the British Isles, the latest pups being born off the east coast of Scotland and the Farne Islands in late December. Donna Nook in Lincolnshire is a renowned spot. I chose to head for Winterton Beach in Norfolk.

Keep your distance
Seal pups are incredibly cute and I can understand people wanting to get close to them, but by doing so the pup could easily be abandoned by its mother and starve to death. It’s important not to get between a pup and the sea, as its mother may be wanting to return from the water to feed it. I used a Canon 100-400 lens, at full extension most of the time to keep maximum distance.

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Do not disturb
By keeping a safe distance from the seals you don’t interrupt their natural behaviour patterns. It’s great to see them feeding their young and competing for mates but most of the time on the beach is devoted to dozing. Seals are the most lazy and relaxed looking creatures I’ve seen. When napping, they look like they’re smiling.

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Approaching seals
So as not to disturb them, I found it best to keep low, walking slowly. Then to choose a spot, sit down and stay put. That way I was a smaller threat and by not moving around they didn’t need to keep an eye on me and they carried on doing what they were doing, most often…dozing.

It may be tempting to move around but if you stay put different seals will move themselves into range and by keeping your focus on a single individual for a while you won’t miss the moment the light improves, or they start dancing!

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They may seem slow but you’ll need to keep an eye on them. Don’t forget about other seals when you’re watching one closely. I found that if I wasn’t paying attention the fatter pups actually tried to sneak towards me (I think they’re a bit short-sighted). Aggressive males chasing females away can move surprisingly fast too, so staying observant is important.

When a seal feels threatened it will often wave a flipper like this female below, it’s another sign to look out for when gauging distance.

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Get a low angle
I preferred the shots where I kept my camera low, near to the sand – it gives a seal’s eye view and a nice blurry foreground. It was also sometimes easy to be so intent  studying a seal that I didn’t notice until later I had quite a lot of wonky horizons in my shots. Mental note for next time: even if the ground is sloping, the sea should be horizontal.

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Gear to take to the beach
As well as a long lens, I wished I’d taken waterproof trousers with me. The sand was cold after a while of sitting. Luckily I did remember to take a pair of fishing gloves along. They’re great as they allow you to have your fingertips free whilst keeping your hands warm in the coastal winds. On the beach sand gets blown around And it gets everywhere, so a waterproof cover for your lens and camera are a must.

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It’s not just camera gear that sand chooses to try it’s luck with. This male reminded me of a fat sunbather that’s got sand in his suncream.

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Restrictions at Horsey Gap
At Horsey Gap there’s a team of volunteers who watch over the seal colony and intervene when necessary to rescue abandoned pups. During the breeding season the beach is closed, with roped off viewing areas for the public in the sand dunes overlooking the beach. Whilst as a photographer this is disappointing I think it’s vital that there are safe areas for the seals where they aren’t disturbed by dogs or people on the beach.

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After heading a little down the coast to Winterton and taking care to stay a safe distance away myself, I was fuming to see a young family walking right up to young seals to take family portraits (I’ve blurred his face).

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Human scent could prevent the adult from returning to their pup. Seals are also susceptible to viruses and diseases that we carry and we can catch diseases from them – they have a nasty bite. (I’m sure if the guy in my photo saw this angry male he wouldn’t be putting his kids next to it.)

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And finally
Either get set up for the ‘golden hour’ just after dawn or before dusk, or pray for nice light.

Check out my previous post on grey seals by clicking here.

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seal-pup-norfolk-4jpgA storm and a seal pup.
After storm Desmond hit the Norfolk coast in early December there was a likelihood of young pups suffering, so I couldn’t visit Norfolk without seeing how the seals were doing a few weeks on.

The Friends of Horsey Seals confirmed that in 2015 they’d actually had a record number of pups born for the colony, totalling over 900 by the end of December, with 69 found dead. The majority of the colony was unaffected by the storms, and death tolls were no higher than normal. Which is great news.

Pups less than three weeks old were at the greatest risk… the weather being just one of them.

Starvation is the biggest killer, not the storms
Young seal pups are born with a thick white coat called lanugo, it keeps them warm on the beach but it isn’t waterproof and they don’t have the thick blubber to insulate them until they’re weaned. At this stage they’re ill equipped to survive rough seas or becoming separated from their mothers.

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The females come ashore to their Norfolk ‘rookeries’ between November and January, to have their young. The mother immediately bonds with her pup, learning its scent and cries. I saw seals ‘Eskimo kissing’, sniffing to check who’s who.

This bond is vital as the pup relies on her completely for food. She feeds the pup around six times a day for 2-3 weeks, hardly feeding herself, whilst the pup piles on the pounds, gaining 2kg a day. It’ll live off this fat when its mother abandons it abruptly after weaning, leaving it to fend for itself.

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I’d presumed that pups can’t swim during these first few weeks, but I saw this mother taking her tiny pup for an early swimming lesson, perhaps making the most of the mild weather.

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I imagine it’s a risk, too long in the water and they’ll get cold and use energy and vital fat reserves. It’s a fine line between learning to swim and fattening up. But one BBC report claimed that 60% of pups in Norway spent time swimming rather than suckling. These pups soon learnt to hunt and so regained the weight lost, catching up the pups which saved energy, fattening-up onshore.

The little pup I watched kept disappearing underwater, I held my breath watching it but they were in no rush to come back to shore. Mum was really attentive and made sure the pup didn’t venture far.

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The pups shed their white coats around three weeks old, getting a paler version of their adult coats. Yet even with their new coats most of the pups stay on the beach for the next couple of weeks (some for up to a month), lying around, dozing and surviving on their fat stores. Eventually, driven by instinct or hunger all the pups will head for the sea, where they’ll need to learn to hunt fast. Presumably those that have learnt to swim and copy mum already have a head start.

Big males pose a big threat too
Shortly after giving birth the cow is ready to breed again, and the big bulls are ready and waiting. That is when they’re not sleeping!

grey-seal-male-3Male seals are the largest mammal in the UK. The big males are up to three meters long and weigh up to 300kg. Young pups can get crushed beneath the charging bulls, they can also get split from their mothers in the chases and fighting that ensues. This pup has scars that show it’s had a lucky escape.

grey-seal-pup-13The males bellow and fight to prove their dominance. They have folds of fat around their necks much like fighting dogs and many I saw had weeping wounds from fights with well-matched males. The females fight each other too if a cow gets too close to their baby, making the beach a bit of a war zone for young pups.

When the male and female do get together it looks like an abusive relationship but the girls give as good as they get if they’re not ready. Watching them soon destroys the any cute preconceptions. Seals are familiar and playful but they’re also wild animals, with one thing on their mind at this time of year.

grey-seals-fight-breedinggrey-seals-fight-breeding-2grey-seals-mating-2I loved watching the grey seals so much that I can see Norfolk seals becoming a regular slot on my wildlife calendar. I hope to visit again next year to see them return and witness the arrival of the next generation.

My next post is also dedicated to Photographing Grey Seals.

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