Garden Birds

One of the most pleasant aspects of taking an interest in bushcraft has been a developing interest in watching wildlife.

I have always been fond of watching wild animals but previously it had been a very passive interest – taking pleasures when they presented themselves rather than actively seeking them. But bushcraft has fostered in me an active interest in going out to sit, wait, and watch what I can. In truth, I have found that going out to watch wildlife has formed more of my outdoor time than anything else, for quite a while now.

In real terms that has meant birds more than anything. Mainly because birds are easier to watch (small mammals are far more secretive), but pleasure is found in whatever comes by.

Chaffinch

Our back garden is ringed by trees and hedges and, though it is an end of terrace house, there aren’t many over-looking houses because the gardens are quite big. Therefore there is a lot of space and privacy for birds to fly from tree to hedge.

When working at home I often sit with my computer on a desk, upstairs, looking out over the back garden, as I am doing as I type this.

This means I have a good view over our garden, the next door neighbour’s, and the house opposite. And I get to see many birds. More often than not I have a pair of binoculars beside me (mainly because they live on a shelf beside the table) so when something interesting lands in the garden I can get a good look.

House Sparrows

We mainly get all the usual garden birds – robins, house sparrows, starlings, collared doves, black birds, crows, magpies, great tits, pigeons, chaffinches, etc. I have noticed a good number of blue tits, despite suggestions that numbers are dwindling. I have also seen frequent song thrushes, though not as many as I remember seeing as a youngster.

Chaffinches and robins are two of my favourite birds, so I am glad they are so common. I have also regularly seen goldfinches, a greater spotted woodpecker, bull finches, green woodpeckers, mistle thrushes, wrens, swifts, swallows, and green finches.

Green Finch

We’ve also had some relatively exotic guests as well – a sparrowhawk has landed on the far fence a few times, and a heron frequently flies over and sometimes lands (the neighbours have a pond with koi carp in it!). And this morning I saw a goldcrest flitting from one tree to another. I have often heard its call but never seen it until today. In fact, as I type, it’s just gone flying back to the spruce at the bottom of the garden, sitting on a branch in the sunlight. Until recently I had never seen one before, unaware that my garden was home to one (or more).

Goldcrest

Other birds I often hear but have yet to reveal themselves are the familiar hoot of a tawny owl, and a cuckoo. There are other bird calls I hear but don’t recognise so there are other possibilities about as well.

Tawny Owl

It rained last night, but now the sun is out and shining, and steam is coming from the fences and bushes. Into this bright light and mist the shadows dash left and right, pausing briefly on a branch or twig, just long enough to offer a glimpse, before taking to wing again.

Rehandling A Mora Clipper Knife

You’re not a bushcrafter unless you’ve owned a Mora knife.

I’ve had mine sometime, which I mainly use for carving since it has a thin blade and a sharp point.

However, I thought I might put a new handle on it, something a bit more evocative and a bit more bushcrafty. A local pet shop sells pieces of deer antler as dog chews but some pieces would make great tool handles. So I went through what they had and bought the most appropriate pieces.

The piece I am going to use on this project is the one in the middle.

So, the first thing to do is to protect the blade. I wrapped it in thick tape. Then get the old handle off. A quick whizz with the Dremel and it was soon off. You can see how short the tang on the Mora Clipper is – it can’t be much more than 2″ long.

Next thing is to clean the tang and give it a degrease with some meths. I also gave it a bit of a scratch so the glue would have something to bite into. Set that aside to dry and then take the new handle and mark it up before cutting the slot for the new handle.

I then took a drill bit the same diameter as the tickness of the blade and then drilled into the bone the same depth as the length of the tang. I did this several times to make a rough slot. To join the holes so the blade goes in I had an old screwdriver, very narrow, which I sharpened and used as a chisel. After a bit of work, and test fitting, the blade eventually went into the slot. Of course, you want this as tight as you can get it.

Don’t worry about how neat it looks – I’m going to add a bolster to keep things looking smart. The bolster I used was made from a piece of sheet brass. I made a butt for the handle from a 1p coin I sanded down, and then drilled a hole in the coin so I could attach it to the handle using a stainless steel nail.

It was all glued together using epoxy resin. I let gloops of it go down into the hole for the tang, slipped the bolster over the blade, and then put the blade in. I put a smear of resin on the butt and then tapped in the nail/coin. The force from the tapping was also enough to sink the blade deep into the hole. Then you leave it for 24 hours to set. Here it is before tidying up

I profiled the handle by chamferring the edges around the top. I used a grinding disc in the Dremel to shape the coin butt-plate. Then I used sanding discs on the chamfered bone and on the metal fittings. Then I went over to the polishing discs and finally a cloth mop with a bit of toothpaste (as a fine-grade polish) to bring the metal bits to life.

Here’s some final pictures of it. I gave the handle and blade a bit of oil to bring the colour out. The curved nature of the handle means it sits really nicely in the palm. Putting a new handle on an old tool is a great way of giving a new lease of life to an old friend.

Animals In The Woods

On Saturday just gone Paul and myself had a day out in the woods. We were exploring some new woods I found not too far away. I’ve been there a couple of times myself trying to get a sense of the layout and bearings, but there was over half of it that I had yet to explore.

So we set about exploring that…er…unexplored half.

It was a windy but mild mid-autumn day. Once we started walking we soon warmed up a bit. It had been raining for several days before and some of the pathways were very muddy. We started out following the paths and then headed off. The woods are typical Forestry Commission – mixtures of sweet chestnut coppice, deciduous, and some impressive pines. Very impressive.

Cutting through the woods we found a stream, which we decided to follow. This was also going to be a day of refreshing navigation skills, using map and compass, and also using land and natural features.

There were lots of chestnuts around so we snacked on them as we did our circuit of the woods before making our way to a spot we had found earlier beside the stream, where we wanted to test a couple of new pieces of kit – Paul had a Grilliput for a birthday present, and I had treated myself to a small penknife by Joker.

Rain clouds kept passing over, so we got tarps up just in case. I put up a chair for myself as Paul got the fire going (eventually). Lunch was going to be sausage sarnies!

Whilst I sat there I saw a large dark object just move into my peripheral vision. I’ll confess to a moment’s brief panic (mainly because recently I’d been reading a book about a man-eating tiger in the Siberian woods), but just a brief panic. And then I saw what this large dark object was – a stag!

Yup. No more than fifteen or twenty feet from us, a wild stag, complete with antlers and beard, came grazing through the woods. Quite stunning is all I can say. The two of us stood stock still, seeing how long the stag would stay there. He stared back at us. The real pain in the backside was that my camera was out of reach, and I knew that the second I moved to get it the stag would run. So close to such an amazing creature and no way of capturing it. Then I remembered the phone in my pocket – it wouldn’t be a good quality picture but it would be better than none. Carefully I took it out and managed to get a couple of pictures before the stag turned and ran. This would easily be the highlight of the day. Experiences like that don’t come along very often.

Ruins of Romney Marsh

This is something I have been meaning to do for a while.

Across the Romney Marshes there are several ruined medieval churches and I have been meaning to go for a walk across the marshes to find them. So that’s what I did the weekend just gone.

For this route I used OS Explorer #125.

The first destination was a place called Chapel Bank (TQ928297). In actual fact, there is no ruined church atop this hill. Because what happened is that in the mid-nineteenth century the church was moved, stone by stone, and rebuilt about 1km to the northwest in Reading Street, where it still stands. Like a complete bell-end I forgot to take a picture of the actual church – a very fine example of an early medieval chapel as you’re likely to find anywhere (details of the church, and pictures, can be seen here: http://www.kentchurches.info/church.asp?p=Reading+Street).

Chapel Bank used to be known as Ebony Isle, and is located at the eastern tip of the Isle of Oxney.

Chapel Bank from afar

Getting to the sight can be a chore. You can clearly see it from some way off but the problem, as you can imagine trying to navigate over the marshes, is getting there due to the number of drainage ditches and streams. But get there I did. The public foot path leads through farm land and across hedgerows and fields that were full of tits, finches and meadow pipits.

Meadown Pipit

Although the church is now gone what still remains is the church yard with plenty of tombstones. There are also memorials to the Sinden family – Donald Sinden, the actor, lives in nearby Wittersham and plaques to his deceased wife and son can be seen atop Chapel Bank (I don’t think they were actually buried there, since the church would have been long gone and the site is heavily overgrown, though I believe it is still sanctified ground).

Tombstones on Chapel Bank

Moving on from Chapel Bank I headed for a church that not only still stands, but is still in use – Fairfield Church (TQ966265).

Fairfield Church

You can see why this church is popular with film and TV programme makers. I know it’s been used for at least one adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’. The church, dedicated to St Thomas Beckett, is in a sheep field crossed with ditches. It can clearly be seen from the road. I made my way over, hoping the church would be open, but unfortunately it was locked. A peer through the windows showed it to be draped with hops.

Fairfield Church

The church is all that remains of the village. There are still scattered farms about but the actual village itself disappeared many centuries ago. The church dates from the 13th century when the land was reclaimed from the sea by walling it off, and was originally wooden, though it has since been partially rebuilt in red brick.

After stopping for a wee and a brew up I moved on to one of the actual ruined churches – All Saints at Old Romney (TR049258).

Hope All Saints church

This one was also viewable from the roadside with a public foot path leading a couple hundred yards across a field to the enigmatic ruins. Built in the 12th century to serve the parish of Hope, it fell into disuse and ruin by the 16th century due the local population suffering from malaria and other waterborne diseases.

Hope All Saints Church from the east

Substantial remains still stand – a large section of the west-end as well as portions of the nave. Best of all, not only are there physical remains, but there are also some good stories surrounding this church – stories of smugglers! Romney is rife with tales of smugglers (interestingly, the Kent coast saw more smuggling activity than any other part of the UK, mainly due to its proximity to the continent). Groups of smugglers were said to meet and plan in the ruins of the church until, one day, they were seen and a party of Preventative Officers laid in wait for them to return…

My final destination was another ruin in the middle of nowhere. The ruins of Midley church (TR031232).

Midley church

This was another ruin that you can see as you approach but getting there is another thing. Not only do you have to find a way across the drainage ditches but there is also the steam railway line to cross! Situated in the Walland Marsh, all that remains is the west end of the church; but there are still architectural features that can be seen. A bout of the black death in the mid-fifteenth century saw the local population decimated, and the church no longer had any parishioners (although that didn’t stop the clergy from collecting the tithes!).

Window and doorway

My day across the marshes had been a very enjoyable one. Romney Marsh is one of those landscapes that is far from pretty, yet it is beautiful, and sublimely bleak. The day was overcast, and humid, and the long damp grass and muddy fields left my feet caked in mud. I was exhausted by the end, and pleased to finally get back to the car. And even more pleased to have explored the landscape that I have driven through many times, but never before had I travelled it and been part of it.

Lots of Bushcraft and Nature Images!

I’ve been a bit remiss.

A while ago I put together a Youtube vid with lots of images, but forgot to post it here. And since I’ve just done another I thought I’d post them both together.

Hope you enjoy watching them…

Campfire Cooking

I thought I’d put together a film of a few recipes that you can make when out in the woods.

There’s three different recipes, and each is cooked differently, so you can vary your cooking depending on how inventive you’re feeling or how much time you have.

They all have one thing in common, though – they’re dead easy to do!

 

Summer Night Out

Last weekend the two of us had a night out in some nearby woods.

For me it was a chance to try out some new kit – a DD Travel hammock, a Karrimor self-inflating mat, and a Snugpak sleeping bag. A whole new sleep system!
I’m pleased to say that they all worked well – I had a nice, warm, comfy night. By morning the wind had picked up quite a bit, but that was good because it kept the insects and humidity away.

We also found that during the night (or some time early morning) a bird of prey had picked up a rabbit and riped it apart just a few yards from our camp. It must have happened just a few hours before we got up because the remains were still fresh.

Anyway, here’s a film of our night out…

Testing Natural Tinders

Firelighting is an essential part of bushcraft and s******l skills. Ideally one should be able to go out into the wilderness and be able to sustain one’s being with what can be found around you. Ideally.

So what I thought I would do is a test of the most popular and well known natural tinders. By ‘natural tinders’ what I mean are those things that can be found and can be used with minimal preparation, ‘in the field’ as it were. In some cases the tinders can be used straightaway (e.g. birch bark), in other cases it must be allowed to dry (e.g. fungi tinders).

In my test I have used two different methods of providing a spark – a traditional flint and steel, plus the ubiquitous firesteel.

Firelighting

AMADOU – Amadou is a name given to the soft, suede-like, layer found in bracket fungus. It can be found in most types of bracket fungus, Horse Shoe Fungus being the most popular since it often yields a thicker layer.

Amadou

The amadou is best extracted whilst the fungus is still soft. Soft is a relative term, of course, because bracket fungus is notoriously ‘woody’. You can see the amadou in the above photo, it is the auburn brown layer on top (in the photo – in reality it tends to be toward the bottom layer). To get the amadou you have to cut away the tough outer layer and then slice away the amadou and leave it to dry. This is the stage at which I used the amadou. Many people go further and then soak the amadou in water before leaving it to dry again before soaking in salt petre. This extra preparation will provide an even better tinder, but for my purposes I wanted to test it as you may use it when found. So all that’s been done to the amadou I used in this test is that it was removed from the fungus and allowed to dry.

Before dropping a spark into the amadou you have to rough the surface. It can be quite easily scrapped with a knife to create a mound of downy material that will take the spark.

Amadou2

Once the spark has hit the amadou and taken you will see it smoking. Gently blow on it to give energy to the ember. As the smoke increases so must your breath, until you can blow quite hard into it.

Amadou3

It is worth noting that amadou will not provide you with a flame. You will need to transfer the ember into some other combustible material and blow this into flame.

DRIED BRACKEN –

Bracken1

Dried leaves and grass are perhaps what we most associate with fires. But experience has shown that they tend smoulder a lot, and give off a great deal of smoke. Bracken, however, has a good reputation as a tinder mainly due to the fact that it dries out quickly, lessening the amount of smoulder and smoke given off by other dry leaves.

Bracken4

I found that it readily took a spark from a firesteel, though the flame was short-lived. It was important to get the spark at the bottom of the pile so the modest flame could lick through the tinder. This can often be the problem with lighter, more insubstantial, tinders since the material burns too quickly before you can get your kindling going. So add more!

I found that it proved a considerably greater challenge lighting the bracken with flint and steel. That said, it was a bitterly cold day with the low temperature taking the life out of the sparks. Be that as it may, it is on cold days that a fire is most needed, and so cold days are the best days for testing skills and materials! I found that if the bracken was roughed up by rubbing it together then that created smaller fibres that were more likely to catch. That said, not an ideal tinder for flint and steel.

Bracken3

BIRCH BARK – An old favourite! Birch bark can be collected by carefully pulling at the wispy strips of bark one often sees as the birch tree naturally shreds its bark to make way for new growth. The great thing about birch bark is that, being a bit more woody, it also provides a more substantial tinder fuel, giving rise to a more robust flame that lasts long enough to get your kindling alight.

Birch bark1

It also requires minimal preparation and can be collected more or less all year round. It took very well from just the first strike of a firesteel.

Birch bark2

It’s not all good news though. It was less susceptible to a spark from a flint and steel. That’s only natural though – the sparks are cooler and I was testing on a particularly cold day. That said, by scrapping up the birch bark, in a similar way to that you would for amadou, it did take a spark to which more tinder can be added.

Birch bark3

CRAMP BALLS – Another tinder fungus, also known as King Alfred’s Cakes. Cramp balls can be widely collected from dead trees. They look like shiny black mounds, about golf ball size.

Cramp Ball

This has long been a favourite of mine. What I like about cramp balls is that they take a spark quite easily and just smoulder away, which means they can be used to hold an ember if you need to travel and transfer your fire.

Like amadou the cramp ball must be allowed to dry out thoroughly before use. And, like amadou, all it provides is an ember to which you must add other material to create a flame (birch bark, for instance). The trick is to drop your spark on to the concentric rings on the underside of the fungus.

Crampball2

Once done, the cramp ball will glow quite hot. Blow into the fungus to allow the ember to take firm hold.

Crampball3

The advantage with cramp balls over amadou is that the amadou ember is nestled in the down you have scrapped up so you have to be careful you don’t blow too hard and send the ember flying. Not so with cramp balls – the ember is in the body of the fungus.

CLEMATIS DOWN – Also known as ‘Old Man’s Beard’, these are the wispy balls of down you often see in hedgerows and gardens during the winter months when the clematis flowers have died.

Clematis

This was a new one for me, having never tried it before (and also been given a pointer to what to look for by Paul).

Very soft, very wispy, you can tell this one will catch nice and easily. Which it did. However, the insubstantial nature of the material means that, like the dried bracken, it can burn out very quickly. Which it did. It took a spark very well, even from a flint and steel, but it flared up very quickly and burnt out very quickly. You need a lot of this, or be lucky enough that your spark hits near the bottom.

Clematis2

CONCLUSION – Before this test I had never used amadou or clematis down before, so was looking forward to seeing how they would perform, particularly the amadou, which a lot of people like.

I must say, I was underwhelmed with the amadou. I should emphasise though, that I was just using the dried material with no other preparation done to it. Although, that was the point of the test  – tinders you can find and use with minimal work. Don’t get me wrong, it worked well enough, but there are other tinders that work just as well, and are less hassle. Of course, if you are in a survival situation and it’s the only one you can find, then you will use it. For that reason, it’s as well to be aware of, but as a natural tinder then it was my least favourite of the lot. If you’re going to the extent of more extensive preparation then I would sooner use char cloth.

Next comes clematis down. It takes a spark really well but it is so insubstantial that it burns too quickly. You need to shelter this one well, and have lots of it!

Third place goes to cramp balls. Two things let them down – the need to let them dry out (this could take several days) and the need to transfer them to another material to produce flame. On the plus side is the fact that they take a spark really well, and hold it, giving you a bit of ‘play’ time. Larger balls can be used to hold an ember whilst you move camp.

Second place goes to dried bracken. If wet, then this also needs to be dried out, but dries better and quicker than fungi tinders – stuff it in your pocket and your body heat may be enough to dry it out (this does work. A couple of years ago Paul and myself were out on a very wet day. We collected dried grasses and leaves, stuffed them in our pockets, and did get a fire going after a great deal of effort. But it did work). Damp dried bracken would be a sore test to get going with flint and steel. But then any damp natural tinder is going to be difficult – therefore, look after your tinder! The only reason I put dried bracken over cramp balls is that bracken will provide a flame. If you had both, then I’d use the cramp balls to take the spark and move the ember into the bracken…

The golden child of the test was birch bark. It takes a spark well and it also provides a good flame that can be put straight to your kindling. Maybe not the best tinder for flint and steel, but still possible with preparation. It’s also widely available, easy to collect, and can be used straightaway. What more could you ask for?

Making Clay Pots

On a whim I decided I wanted to make some pots.

It has proved to be a very interesting and valuable experiment that has taught me a great deal.

I did cheat in getting the clay. Instead of dredging some from a local river and then having to clean it and purify it I took the easy option and went and bought some from Hobbycraft instead.

Anyway.

The first dilemma was in adding temper to the clay. I was unsure of how much to add. I did some research but all advice said more or less the same thing – it depends on the clay and what you want the pot for. Some clay needs more temper than other clay. And pots that will be used for cooking will need more temper due to frequent temperature changes. The recommendation was to use temper that had hard edges so it ‘clung’ to the clay better. Some sands are made of smooth particles and may not be best to use. I used some modellers ballast.

So, how much temper to add? Between 20-30% seems like the best advice, but be warned you may need a little more or a little less, depending (see above). So I went with that kind of ratio. Once all mixed up I rolled the clay into a sausage about half-inch thick and coiled it up into a simple pinch pot.

Pot1

I used wet fingers and a wet ruler to smooth it out and shape it reasonably well. I didn’t spend too much time making it pretty since this first pot was going to be an experiment and could well crack and fall apart when it came to firing.

With the pot made I put it in the airing cupboard where the boiler is so it could dry overnight.

Next day I got a fire going, let it burn well to build up a good bed of coals, and then added the pot. You can see it here, beneath the coals.

Pot2

It was at this point that I realised I had no idea how long to fire it for! I seemed to recall from school, and from TV programmes like Time Team, that pots stay in the kiln for ‘hours’. So that’s what I went for. I kept the fire up for an hour, and then let it cool down in its own time; which meant it spent another hour and half in the hot embers. At the end of that time here’s what it looked like:

Pot3

All was looking good!

Pot4

Once it had cooled enough to pick up I could see that some of the clay around the edge had crumbled.

Pot5

I think this may have something to do with the amount of temper – too much can leave the pot brittle and crumbly. It was otherwise integral and firing had hardened the clay. 

I decided to break the pot up to inspect the fabric and make up of the pot and clay. When making it I had wondered  if the clay ‘sausages’ would knit together and become one, or if it would dry out and break along the sausage rolls. But no. The clay had fused and homogenised with no sign of how the pot had been made. The pot wasn’t as hard to break as I thought. I could easily snap it with my hands.

Here’s a close up of the clay so you can see the make up of the material. You can see the temper grains quite clearly.

Pot6

Although the pot didn’t come out 100% complete I had still learnt a lot from the experiment and think I know where and why things went wrong. So, in that respect, it was a success.

The Sound of Silence

Having been indoors for a few days I was looking forward to getting out. The previous few days had been nice, early-Spring days – warm and sunny in the sun, but a bit chillier in the shade. But come my day for getting out the inevitable happened: rain!

And that worst kind of rain as well – drizzle.

But I decided not to let it beat me. I knew if I stayed in I’d feel frustrated and listless. So I went out anyway!

I had no real plans, just out for a stroll, or maybe find a decent sit spot. In the end I had a fantastic day. Not because anything really special happened, not because I achieved things. But because…well, because I found a nice place to sit awhile and, although it was raining it wasn’t cold, and I managed to get in some quality ‘think’ time.

I went to some local woods. I set off through an area of sweet chestnut coppice and came to a patch of pine woods. The colours were amazing – bright, vivid, greens. The acidity of the pine needles mean you don’t get so much undergrowth in coniferous woods, just lots of moss and bracken.

070313-1

I got a tarp up and made myself home – collecting some fallen logs to make a seat and table. I had a gas stove with me, some sandwiches, a honeycomb Yorkie (!), and a free afternoon!

070313-2

The rain came and went. The sound of the rain tapping against the tarp was a calm and soothing sound – the unwelcome weather outside, but I was there warm and dry and having a peaceful time with a mug of hot chocolate. When the rain abated the birds would come out; they kept out of sight, but their songs echoed throughout the wood. So, with the sound of the birds calling, I decided to do a bit of whittling, and carved myself a songbird, listening to the rain, the birds, the gentle breeze, the joy of having nothing better to do.

070313-4

Unfortunately I had to be elsewhere at a set time and, with that time approaching, I packed up my stuff and made my way back to the path that led to the carpark. On the way back I decided to leave the bird I had carved atop one of the signposts.

070313-3

I wonder how long it will stay there.*

In many ways it was an unremarkable day; just a stroll in the woods and an hour or two beneath a tarp doing a bit of carving. But somehow it was the absolute right thing to do on that day. The place I found to stop was so enchanting and beautiful, so evocative of woodland spirits. And so peaceful and quiet except for the welcome sound of the birds, and even the odd puttering of a light aircraft from a nearby airfield seemed entirely apt. Ahh…I’m being a silly sentimental fool now.

*(13 March 2013) Not long, as it happens. I went past there today and it was gone; less than a week after leaving it.

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