Saturday, 28 November 2009

Wallington West Woods

I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon at the observation hide in Wallington's West Woods yesterday. The weather was fine, if suddenly very much colder after the recent mild spell.

Activity at the two feeders was frenetic: Chaffinch, Nuthatch, Robin and Blue, Great and Coal Tits were all regular visitors. Happily, the ground-feeding chaffinches were joined by a group of four Brambling; I was particularly pleased to these as they are still to return to my Redesdale garden this year. Two male Great Spotted Woodpecker's were present and a Jay put in an occasional appearance. A single Red Squirrel popped in and out to feed from nuts it found on the ground.

A male Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

A male Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

I include a picture of the Jay (Garrulus glandarius), only because I am pleased to have photographed one for the first time (it's certainly no prize winner).

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


A small selection of Fungi pictures taken in Coquetdale and Redesdale.

Hypholoma capnoides

Stag's Horn

Granny's Bonnet

Sulphur Tip

Below, Dr. Gordon Beakes, of Newcastle University, describing Granny's Bonnet fungi on a decaying branch in Rupert's Wood, Redesdale, during a visit to the wood by members of the Redesdale Society. Rupert's Wood is a large ancient woodland which forms part of Lord Redesdale's estate.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Glen Elg

In the second of two pieces about my recent trip to Scotland, I have a little of the highland countryside to share with you.

The day following the visit to Chanonry Point was devoted to a drive into Glen Elg. The weather was much less reliable than it had been the day before and the first stop of the day, to take in the Map of Scotland view at the western end of Loch Garry, was rather overcast ...

I saw a post-sitting Hooded Crow and a small group of distant Red Deer while passing Loch Cluanie. A pair of Golden Eagle, a Peregrine and numerous Buzzards were also seen. Shortly afterwards we began our climb of the Ratagan Pass where we stopped to view the Five Sisters of Kintail ...

and the view across Loch Duich to Sgurr an Airgid ...

A short stop at the Kylerhea ferry landing, opposite the Isle of Skye, in the hope of glimpsing sea otter, left us otterlessly car-bound in driving rain.

If views of wildlife were few and far between and the landscapes were not all that was hoped for because of the weather, the after-lunch visit to the Glen Elg brochs certainly provided ample compensation. The two brochs, at Dun Telve and a short distance away at Dun Troddan, are the best preserved in mainland Scotland and date from between 2,300 and 1,900 years ago.

Above: The remains of the Dun Telve broch; Below: the Dun Troddan broch

Both the brochs are twin-walled circular structures with a single doorway; off to the side of the doorway is a short passage between the walls which may have housed a guard or watchdog. Once within the inner enclosure, there is also an inner entrance leading to other passages between the curtain walls, and parts of the stairways still survive which gave access to upper levels.

Top left & right: The entrance and the 'guard-room'; Bottom left & right: An inner passage and stairs between the curtain walls and a selection of mosses and lichens growing on the walls surrounding the site.

The brochs stood around 10 metres high and both approach this height today in places. There are remains of wooden post holes at various points in the structure, and it is thought that the inner circular courtyard may have been roofed, giving comfortable living accommodation during times of attack.

It is believed that the Dun Telve broch survived almost complete until the eighteenth century when it was partly demolished for buildings nearby. The site was excavated and poorly recorded in 1914 when coarse pottery, stone tools and several lamps were found.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Chanonry Point

I visited Chanonry Point on the Black Isle last week during a short trip to Scotland. The main purpose of my visit was to look for the pod of bottlenose dolphins which live in the Moray Firth. I positioned myself on the south-eastern tip of the point with the lighthouse behind me, traditionally the best place to see the dolphins. The conditions were perfect; the Firth was quite calm and the late afternoon light was ideal for photography. Sadly, both time and the absence of an incoming tide were against me and the dolphins didn't make an appearance.

Looking towards Rosemarkie

A pair of long-tailed duck flew up the Firth towards the Kessock Bridge and a lazy common seal surfaced occasionally and glanced about. Gulls and oystercatchers were also feeding at the waters edge.

A passing Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus)

Great Black-backed gull (Larus marinus)

Saturday, 7 November 2009


On Remembrance Day, I thought it would be appropriate to offer another of the poems by the Hexham-born poet, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, this time entitled Otterburn.

Gibson was very good at telling a story in verse, and some will be familiar with his fine narrative poem Flannan Isle which was published in 1912. In that year, at the age of 34, he took a train to London where he met Rupert Brooke and, at about the same time, Geraldine Townshend who was to become his wife. The couple moved to Gloucestershire where they set up home in a cottage called The Old Nailshop in Dymock. There, they walked and drank cider with Brooke and other poets, among them the American, Robert Frost, whose first visit to England was prompted by his wanting to meet Gibson.

The start of the Great War, when Gibson already had half-a-dozen books of poems in print, brought an abrupt end to this rural idyll. From the beginning, he was concerned about the fates of ordinary soldiers and was publishing poems depicting their sufferings as early as October, 1914, long before any other writer. Although he served as an Army clerk in England, his ill health prevented him from being accepted to serve abroad; this makes the poems published in Battle, portraying the horrors of war and the terrible effects on the young men who went to fight in the trenches, all the more remarkable.

A carved sandstone lintel over the entrance to Otterburn Memorial Hall records the names of the nine local men who died in the Great War. Two carved stones on either side of the door name fifty seven others who served in the conflict. Whether Gibson had in mind any of these men when he wrote the poem Otterburn is unknown but it prompts us to remember them all, and others, on Remembrance Day.


The lad who went to Flanders -
Otterburn, Otterburn -
The lad who went to Flanders,
And never will return -

Though low he lies in Flanders,
Beneath the Flemish mud,
He hears through all his dreaming
The Otterburn in flood.

And though there be in Flanders
No clear and singing streams,
The Otterburn runs singing
Of summer through his dreams.

And when peace comes to Flanders,
Because it comes too late,
He'll still lie there, and listen
To the Otterburn in spate -

The lad who went to Flanders -
Otterburn, Otterburn,
The lad who went to Flanders,
And never will return.

W. W. Gibson's poem Otterburn is included in a collection of his work entitled Homecoming, published by the Wagtail Press in 2003 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his birth in Hexham. It is included here with the publisher's permission.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Rose-hip (2)

In the second of this two-part piece about the Rose-hip I describe making Rose-hip and Apple Jelly.

From the same recipe book that provided the recipe for Rowanberry Jelly, one first published by the Agricultural Press Ltd in 1935, comprising the favourite recipes of country housewives living in every corner of Britain, I used the following simple recipe:

"Take 4lbs of windfall apples, after any bruised or damaged parts are removed and 2lbs of firm, just ripe, rose-hips.

Cut the apples and put into a preserving pan with enough water to cover and one pint extra for the rose-hips. While the apples are cooking, put the rose-hips through the coarsest cutter of a mincer.

Add the minced rose-hips when the apples are cooked and simmer for ten minutes. Move away to stop it simmering and leave for another ten minutes before straining through a thick jelly bag. Leave to drip over night.

Next day, measure the juice and allow 14oz of sugar to each pint of juice. Measure the sugar and put it in the oven to heat through thoroughly. Bring the juice to the boil and add the warmed sugar. Boil until it reaches the setting point and pour into warmed jars.

This jelly has a most attractive rose colour and has a delicious flavour

I picked two pounds of road-side rose-hips I found near Greenhaugh and used four pounds of the windfall apples I had been given. As I don’t possess a mincer, I used my food processor to gently chop the cleaned and washed rose-hips.

Top: The cleaned and washed rose-hips; the rose-hips after being chopped in the food processor; Bottom: Four pounds of windfall apples; The cooked apple pulp and the chopped rose-hips 'infusing' before straining in a jelly bag.

The seeds of the rose-hips are covered with stiff, sharply pointed hairs, and these can become a dangerous internal irritant, especially for children. It is for this reason that the minced rose-hips are added to and strained with the apple pulp. The picture shows that plenty of colour is released from the flesh during the ten minutes the rose-hips are simmering with the apple pulp; the further ten minutes when the pulp is off the heat allows additional colour and lots of flavour to infuse the pulp.

Next day I followed the recipe. When the setting point was reached I poured the jelly into the warmed jars and sealed and labelled them.

The jelly is delightful spread on a home-made fruit scone and served with tea.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Rose-hip (1)

Rose-hips (Rosa canina)

“The fruit of the wild rose, the hip, is the star of one of the great success stories of wild food use.” So begins, Richard Mabey in Food for Free, his classic guide to the edible wild plants of Britain, first published in 1972.

The fruit of the wild rose, Rosa canina, is an orange-red, oblong, berry, sometimes as much as an inch long, and is found on bushes between late August and November. It is the only completely wild fruit which once supported a national commercial enterprise - the production of rose-hip syrup

It was in 1934 that the fruits of the wild rose were discovered to contain more Vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable - four times as much a blackcurrants and twenty times as much as oranges - but it was not until the Second World War, when imports of citrus fruits were virtually cut off, that the potential of rose-hips as a source of Vitamin C, was first taken seriously.

In 1941, the Ministry of Health proposed a collection scheme resulting in 120 tons of wild rose-hips being harvested by voluntary helpers. In the following year, the responsibility was transferred to the Vegetable Drugs Committee of the Ministry of Supply and 344 tons were harvested. The Ministry of Health established a crash programme in identification and gathering techniques and for three years from 1943, voluntary pickers working under County Herb Committees harvested an average of 450 tons each year.

The story continued after the war years and the BBC website has two interesting film clips from 1956, one showing school children collecting rose-hips, the other showing the manufacture of rose-hip syrup at the Delrosa factory in Newcsstle upon Tyne.

Some weeks ago I gathered two pounds of rose-hips and I was given a very large supply of windfall cooking apples. In the second part of this two-part piece, I will describe making Rose-hip and Apple Jelly … from road-side bush to plate.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Lonely Tree

How often do we stand and look in amazement at a tree, standing entirely alone on a remote hill-side, and wonder at it being there? The Tynedale poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was moved sufficiently by such a sight to write:

A twisted ash, a ragged fir,
A silver birch with leaves astir.

Men talk of forests broad and deep,
Where summer-long the shadows sleep.

Though I love forests deep and wide,
The lone tree on the bare hill-side,

The brave, wind-beaten, lonely tree,
Is rooted in the heart of me.

A twisted ash, a ragged fir,
A silver birch with leaves astir

W. W. Gibson's poem The Lonely Tree is included in a collection of his work entitled Homecoming, published by the Wagtail Press in 2003 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his birth in Hexham. It is included here with the publisher's permission.


During a recent walk in the woodland surrounding Cragside, the Northumberland home of the Victorian industrialist, Lord Armstrong, I could not help but observe the vast stands of Shallon (Gaultheria shallon), a leathery-leaved shrub native to western North America.

Shallon flower

Both its dark blue berries, which are actually swollen sepals, and its young leaves are edible and have a unique flavor. In North America, the berries were a significant food resource for the native people, who ate them fresh or dried into cakes and also used them as a sweetener or as a flavouring in fish soup. More recently, shallon berries have been used in jams, preserves and pies and as an efficient appetite suppressant.

Shallon fruit: the calyx (above) and enlarged and fleshy (below)

The medicinal uses of this plant are not widely known or used. However, the leaves have an astringent effect, making shallon an effective anti-inflammatory and anti-cramping herb. By preparing the leaves in a tea or tincture, the herb can be taken safely to decrease internal inflammation, heartburn, indigestion and other illnesses. A poultice of the leaf can be used externally to ease discomfort from insect bites and stings.

Shallon was introduced to Britain in 1828 by David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who introduced some 240 species of plants to Britain including the Douglas fir. Douglas initially intended the plant for ornamental use but it also came to be planted as cover for pheasants on shooting estates.

This may account for its presence at Cragside because it readily colonises heathland and acidic woodland habitats. Such colonies often form very tall and dense evergreen stands which smother other vegetation, causing it to be widely regarded as a problem weed on unmanaged heathland. It is, however, browsed by cattle, especially in winter, and where traditional grazing management has been restored, the dense stands become broken up and the plant becomes a more scattered element of the heathland vegetation.

Monday, 21 September 2009

A Sunday Drive

One of the great pleasures of living in Redesdale is that, within a very short drive of my home, whether it be to the north, west or east, I am sure to find myself in the midst of some of the best upland country in Northumberland.

I have one particularly favourite drive, a circular journey of little more than twenty-five miles, which encompasses Trevelyan's wide horizons, remote settlements such Craig and Yardhope comprising a shepherds cottage, some simple outbuildings and little else, and remoter locations still, such as the pedlars stone, where in days past I fancy that shepherds wives would congregate to meet an itinerant tradesmen and exchange their eggs and rabbits for flour and other household essentials. At the half-way point is the hamlet of Holystone and, as the circle closes near to home again, I always stop to take in my favourite view, looking down the Grasslees Burn and over Billsmoor where the stone wall of the deer park encloses a herd of gentle fallow deer.

A view across the woodland surrounding The Raw to the wooded Beacon Hill with Simonside in the far distance on the right

Craig, left of centre, nestling amongst the trees. The Pedlar's Stone is just beyond the walled wood on the hill and the long flat back of The Cheviot can be seen in the far distance. The land to the left of the road includes the MOD's Otterburn Training Area.

After taking the picture above, I just missed standing on this solitary Shaggy Ink Cap (Comprinus comatus)

Standing amongst outcrops of fell sandstone at Black Hill looking towards the ford which crosses the Holystone Burn at Yardhope, the woodland at Cats Law and Lanternside Edge beyond.

The heather (Calluna vulgaris) in Northumberland was probably at its best during all of the August rain; some clumps are still in flower but there was none of the heady, warm-day honey smell on Sunday.

The delightful, and tiny, church at Holystone, dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. Nearby, at Holystone Grange, I saw two Curlew in a road-side field, probably the last of the summer.

My favourite view of all, looking down the Grasslees Burn with the deer park at Billsmoor filling the open land and hillside to the right of the farmhouse.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Rowan Tree (2)

In the second of this two-part piece about the Rowan Tree I describe making Rowanberry Jelly.

I have an old recipe book, first published by the Agricultural Press Ltd in 1935, comprising the favourite recipes of country housewives living in every corner of Britain; the recipes were collected over many years by Farmers Weekly magazine. It includes the following simple recipe:

"Take 3lbs of ripe rowan berries; pick the berries over, wash them, place in a preserving pan with just enough water to prevent them burning. Cook slowly until the berries are reduced to a pulp. Strain through a jelly bag.

Next take 3lbs of crab apples, wash and quarter. Barely cover with water, then boil gently until soft and pulpy. Strain. Mix both juices, weigh, and to every pound of juice add 1lb of sugar. Boil rapidly for 20 to 30 minutes or until the jelly 'sets' on a cool plate.

This is a firm, bright pink jelly, with a delightful piquant flavour. To those who think that equal quantities of fruits produce too acid a preserve, this jelly may be made with 2lbs of rowans and 4lbs of apples

Top left & right: The collected berries cleaned, washed and ready to cook; The juice from the strained berries after cooking; Bottom left & right: The apples ready to cook; The apple pulp straining

The Redesdale Rowans are covered in berries at present, but I knew of only one crab apple tree locally, one I had seen in fruit last year; unfortunately, when I went to look for it again I couldn't find it. As result I used cooking apples in the suggested alternative ratio of 2lbs of berries to 4lbs of apples.

Some of the 15 small jars of jelly I made; I bottled the jelly purposely in small jars so that it would be used more quickly once opened. The picture shows how clear the jelly is; I was particularly careful during the cooking process to do nothing that would leave the finished jelly looking cloudy.

According to Good Old-fashioned Jams, Preserves and Chutneys by Sara Paston-Williams (published in a revised edition by the National Trust in 1999) "the orange-red jelly ... is a traditional and best accompaniment for venison, grouse and hare". The writer adds: "I also like to serve it with mutton, lamb and goose". As a vegetarian, you would not expect me to discuss these uses with meat (a neighbour also tells me it is good with pork), but as a simple semi-sweet jelly, it is truly scrumptious spread on fruit scones for afternoon tea.

What's next? The Rowanberry Jelly is sharing a store shelf with my homemade lime marmalade and my made-from-a-tin orange and lemon marmalades. I found some bushes laden with rose-hips last week so I hope to gather some of these and make rose-hip & apple jelly. And if I find suitable elder berries this autumn, they too will find that I've arranged an appointment for them with the preserving pan.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Rowan Tree (1)

The Rowan, or Mountain Ash as it is also known (even though it is a member of the Rose and not the Ash family), is a deciduous tree with a slender crown, ascending branches and smooth greyish bark. It can grow as tall as twenty metres, flowering between May and June and bearing clutches of small red fruits between July and September. The picture shows that its leaves are pinnate, with oblong leaflets all of the same size and shape and in five to seven pairs. The leaflets have toothed edges and are dark green above and bluish-green below.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

The Rowan is found in a wide range of habitats including open woodland, scrub-land, rocky mountain outcrops, river banks and on acid soils. Because its seeds are often bird-sown, rowans are also common around the ruins of ancient settlements and stone circles. And in the event that such droppings land in a fork or hole on a larger tree, such as an oak, where old leaves have accumulated, they may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree. Such a rowan is called a flying rowan and was thought to be especially potent against witches and their magic.

Such beliefs may give rise to the tree's many names in mythology and folklore, including quickbane, roan, rune tree, sorb apple, Thor's helper, whispering tree and witchbane, and to uses including being carried on vessels to avoid storms or kept in houses to guard against lightning or even being planted on graves to keep the deceased from haunting. While the density of its wood makes it suitable for walking sticks, druid staffs have traditionally been made from rowan wood and its branches have been used as dowsing rods.

And probably because the Rowan, in its different phases during the year, evokes memories of country days and gentler times, it has found a place in literature, poetry and traditional music such as here in the words of this old Scottish song:

Thy leaves were aye the first o' spring, thy flowr's the simmer's pride
There was nae sic a bonnie tree, in all the country side ...
How fair wert thou in simmer time, wi' all thy clusters white.
Now rich and gay thy autumn dress, wi' berries red and bright.

The Rowan has both medicinal and edible uses: infusions can be made from either its flowers or its fruit and taken for a number of ailments including rheumatic pain and as an aid in the treatment of kidney disorders; contrary to common belief the fruits are not poisonous. They are however rather bitter but this does not prevent them being used to make wine, syrups, soup and jam.

It is this latter use that has engaged me this week and in the next part of this two-part piece, I will describe the process of creating Rowanberry Jelly ... from tree to plate.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Fifty Posts

When I started writing these regular pieces I had two aims: the first was to focus afresh on a life-long interest in natural history; the second was to broaden my interests, or at least resurrect old interests beyond ornithology. To achieve both aims I certainly needed to get out more, not because I had been house-bound but because I had become destination-bound; I needed to find new places to visit, new habitats and most of all, new wildlife.

It got off to a good start at Kirkwhelpington in May when, for the first time in a long time, I looked seriously again at wild flowers. That in turn led me to the hay meadows at Barrowburn; seeing the Chimney Sweeper moths there fed a renewed interest in butterflies (and moths) and later, an entirely new one in dragon and damselflies. And all along, I have remained alert to the birds and animals around me.

New field guides joined those filling my already sagging book shelves. Three in particular, the Butterflies of Great Britain & Ireland and the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain & Ireland, both published by the excellent British Wildlife Publishing, and Marjorie Blamey's Wild Flowers by Colour have been at my side on every recent trip. My new-found enthusiasm certainly outstripped my ability when I bought Francis Rose's Wild Flower Key but the arrival at the end of July, in the form of a generous birthday present, of Collins Flower Guide and a hand lens has started to restore my confidence that the mystery of wild flower identification, but probably not all 1,600 of them in Great Britain and Ireland, is something I will master in time.

And it's funny how one thing leads to another when you walk around with your eyes open. Butterflies and dragon and damselflies are, I've decided, rather like buses: you wait for one and two or three, or more, arrive at the same time. I have frequently been surprised by one species when looking for another. Check lists are filling: at Sidwood, Ringlets became Meadow Browns and then Small Skippers; at Sidwood again, then at Falstone Moss and more recently at Bank's Pond, it has been dragon and damselflies that are filling the list. What's next? Well, there's a nice mixed wood just up the road that should be bursting with fungi very soon, while finding and photographing moths is also high on the list of things to do.

Thanks to all of you who have read this and the preceding 49 pieces and join me, vicariously at least, on my wildlife wanderings around Northumberland. Thanks too for the helpful commentary and advice, all of which is much appreciated.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Exmoor Ponies in Redesdale

The ancestors of all our native pony breeds came overland from Alaska approximately 130,000 years ago and became widely distributed throughout what is now the British Isles. Dramatic changes in our climate some ten thousand years ago restricted the amount of open grazing available to mainly the mountain and moorland areas of Britain. The herds became isolated in these upland areas and the British hill pony developed as a result.

First domesticated by the Celts, these herds of ponies can trace their history largely through their first contact with man. Although there is little early written evidence of the Exmoor pony, records from the sixteenth century onwards show that there have been as many as a thousand as few as fifty living on the moor at different times. In the early part of the last century, for example, due almost entirely to the popularity of the Moorland Mousie children’s stories of Muriel Wallace, the breed enjoyed something of a revival. Their numbers then declined for several reasons, not least because of changes in farming practice and the choice of other, more fashionable breeds, for pleasure riding. More recently, thanks to the dedication of a number of hill farmers, their number has again grown steadily and the worldwide population is now more than a thousand. Put into context, this still makes the Exmoor pony rarer than the Giant Panda and the breed is classified as critically endangered by the WWF-UK.

Exmoor ponies are stocky and strong, with deep chests and large girths. They are bay, brown or dun in colour, with black points and no white markings; this allows them to blend in well with their native background of heather, grass and bracken. The large capacity of the digestive system is important in winter as they consume large quantities of rough material which provides them with internal warmth. And because their teeth are well adapted to a coarse diet, the ponies do not damage plants as readily as other breeds. Instead they graze neatly around them, allowing the plants to flourish and increase in number. Because of this, small groups of Exmoor ponies are being pressed into ecological service all around the country, grazing open spaces and helping maintain the natural balance of the indigenous flora.

There are a number of sites in Northumberland where Exmoor ponies are helping in this conservation work. The ponies shown here, living on the moor below Padon Hill, a little more than three miles west of my Redesdale home, are mostly yearlings and are expected to spend the next three years grazing this site. They will be gelded in the autumn and will return to spend the winter on the moor. These attractive ponies would previously have had a very uncertain future; now with the help of the Moorland Mousie Trust they will go on to make lovely family ponies in time.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Common and Ruddy Darters

I was looking through the dragonfly pictures I took when I last visited Bank's Pond. You will recall that I spent quite a lot of my time there looking for Blue-tailed damselflies but I also took pictures of the Common and Ruddy Darters that were about. The first is of a male Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) ...

The following two pictures show female Common Darters, the first perching amongst Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) at the margin of the larger of the two ponds, the second perched in Hawthorn on the bridleway leading to the site ...

This final picture shows a male Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) ...

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Butterflies and Buddleia (2)

Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock feature in the second piece recording the butterflies in my garden last Saturday. If you would like to share details of a favourite butterfly habitat in Northumberland, and what might be seen there, I would very much like to hear from you.

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Peacock (Inachis io)

Both together on one flower