Finlay – The Naturalist

For the last three months I have been out on regular bimbles with my son Finlay to observe and learn about nature for his Naturalist badge at Cubs.

This is not an easy badge to obtain and takes three months to complete with a number of different standards to meet (some of the standards have different options to choose from).

The standards/options Finlay chose to do were:

  1. Observe a natural area over a three month period a number of times to observe and record changes in nature
  2. Learn to identify six trees and six wild flowers
  3. Learn the Country Code
  4.  Build a Bug Hotel

Rather than just observe one natural area we spotted three good areas around the village to observe.  We visited each area five times  over three months to observe the changes occurring in nature.

Area 1 – Scrubland

This site was next to one of his playgrounds and initially seemed very promising (in the hope we would see a variety of different spring flowers) with all the Dandelion seed heads. They were still there on our second visit however the thick grass seemed to be inhibiting the growth of many of the spring flowers we were hoping to see.

Area 1 – Scrubland – Visits 1 & 2

Over the following visits we spotted a few White Campion flowers and some Green Alkanet however it was the grasses,  Docks and Cleavers (Sticky Willy) that seemed to dominate in the end. Finlay seemed happy with that as I usually found loads of Cleaver strands stuck to my back when we got home 🙂

Area 1 – Scrubland – Visits 3, 4 & 5

Area 2 – The Pond

I have been observing a particular pond in our village over the years and knew it would be good for Finlay to observe changes in nature.

The pond is full Reedmace (aka Cattail), Iris, and ringed by Marsh Marigolds and Mare’s Tail.  Initially all the growth was very subdued however you can see in the second picture below (2nd visit) that there was far more shade as the plants had started to grow. Finlay is in the same spot in each picture to observe and act as a measure to the growth.

Area 2 – The Pond – Visits 1 & 2

There is always something happening at the pond with wildlife. Usually we disturbed a duck or two but we did spot plenty of frogs and insects. One visit we found a dead pidgeon by the side of the pond and noticed that the Iris had started to  produce its seed heads near the end of our visits.

Area 2 – The Pond – Spots

Over the last 3 visits the Iris and the Reedmace soon came to dominate the pond and the outer ring of Marsh Marigolds generally died back.

Area 2 – The Pond – Visits 3, 4 & 5 

Area 3 – The Stream

We have a culvert near our house and there is a good patch of Reedmace growing beside it. This spot I thought ideal to show Finlay how quickly this plant grows.

Initially it was the last years growth that dominated the stream with a lot of Hedge Garlic growing beside it. Over the subsequent visits the spring flowers all died off and the Reedmace shot up.

The growth you can see below happened over a two and a half month period.

Area 3 – The Stream – Visits 1 to 4

On our last visit we spotted that the pollen spikes of the Reedmace had appeared. These are a great plant for any bushcrafter as the young spikes can be boiled and eaten, the roots are edible as well as the young plant shoots.

As this plant grows frequently beside (as seen by the pond) its lookalike poisonous neighbour – Iris, learn to 100% identify both plants before attempting to forage Reedmace.

Area 3 – The Stream – Visit 5

Trees and Flowers

Over the last three months we studied our trees and wildflower as well as Finlay had to learn to identify six trees and six wildflowers.

For trees we focused on Oak, Hawthorn, Sycamore, Beech, Holly and Hazel. We started this on our first forage way back in  in May when we went out on our first foraging hike together – Foraging with Finlay. He is pretty confident with most of the trees now however he still has to think about some of them. We remember them by shapes i.e. the star for Sycamore, ear lobes for Oak, spikes for Holly etc.

Some of the flowers we saw regularly included White Campion, Forget-me-nots and Herb Robert. I think he struggles with White Campion as that one disappeared early but then again not many people can easily identify it.

Trees and Flowers

One he does remember easily is Green Alkannet (something to do with the blue flower and it having the word ‘Green’ in its title I think), Self Heal and Wild Strawberries. The white flowers of Strawberries he remembered well, in anticipation of the feast we had on the last visit.

Flowers and Foraging

It was not all learn, learn, learn as we had lots of fun along the way. Sometimes his sister Catherine joined us, there was lots of time spent in the parks , some beautiful insects were spotted and best of all we got muddy and spent quality time together.


The Countryside Code

We spent time talking about how we treat the countryside while out and about. When I was a young lad we all had to be able to recite the country code however that list has now fallen out of favour now. The main aims now are to ‘Respect, Protect and Enjoy’ the countryside. Our trips would touch on these aims and a good pamphlet on the current code can be found here at the Peak District website.

The Bug Hotel

The last  standard for the badge was to build something for nature. We opted for a Bug hotel in the garden. Finlay, Catherine and one of his friends (another Finlay) spent a long time collecting and building their Bug hotel. I wrote a separate post on this titled – Building the Bug Hotel.

The Bug Hotel

It has been great fun working on this project with Finlay. He really deserves his Naturalist badge now and I look forward to working on some of these more challenging badges with him in the future. One day he will no longer need me to help him but in the meantime I intend to get out and about with him as much as possible.



Building the Bug Hotel

One of the requirements for Finlay’s Naturalist badge at Cubs was to build a Bug Hotel. So off to the woods we went with his friend Finlay (yep, two best friends called Finlay) and his sister Catherine to get supplies.

We collected a range of material including twigs, spruce cones, elder shoots and bark. We only took a little from each area we visited but we did visit a lot of different areas and soon had a good haul.

Collage 2016-06-14 20_28_43

I had prepared some extra material including bricks, timber, drilled logs, plastic plant pots and grass. I got some good ideas from the RSPB Giving Nature a Home project and also from the blogs shown on the 30 Days Wild site.

To begin with the kids dug up a load of dirt to help build up the base and then set to building the base of the hotel.

Collage 2016-06-14 20_58_20
Laying the foundations

They built two layers of material to attract different insects. I got them to hollow out the pith from lots of elder sticks and they also stuffed grass inside some plastic plant pots. The plant pots have holes in the bottom of them so the hope is they will make good bug nests.

Collage 2016-06-14 21_02_32
Building the Bedrooms

I had found some old roof tiles at the back of the shed and we used four of them to create an overlapping roof to keep the rain out. These heavy tiles also helped lock the rather wobbly bricks into place.

Each of the tiles though had some residents already in place on their undersides 🙂

Collage 2016-06-14 21_05_29
On goes the roof

To finish off they stuffed more material into the hotel and tidied it all up a little.

The longest part of this whole process was the collecting of the material however combining it with a good walk in the woods worked well. I did a little bit of work in the garage sawing the timber to length and drilling holes into the tops of two birch logs. Other than that the kids did most of the work.

Collage 2016-06-14 21_11_52
Finishing touches

I am looking forward to seeing if we get any residents over the next few months. I do hope the hotel provides a snug over-wintering spot for our local bugs and that it is teeming with life next year.



Foraging with Finlay

My little lad Finlay is a member of the Bramley Cub pack and when he was invested recently we received a little book on all the badges they can work towards.

There are badges for hiking, navigation and nature observation (amongst many others) so we decided to get out last Sunday and start earning some.

Photo 09-05-2016, 18 18 18
Not the usual bimble

Now this was not a usual bimble around the village but a proper hike. Finlay packed his rucksack with water, food, suncream, waterproofs, map, compass and a first aid kit. The manual stipulated that the hike needed to last for at least three hours and have a purpose.

Our hike was to be around Wasing Wood near Tadley in Hampshire and our purpose was to learn to navigate and to forage (and throw in lots of fun in the middle).

Our hike around Wasing Woods
Our hike around Wasing Woods

Very soon we spotted a clump of white flowers which turned out to be three-cornered leeks ( the leaves have three distinct corners) and some very fresh-looking beech leaves.

At this time of year the leaves of certain trees are quite edible, beech being one of them. Over the years Finlay has often foraged with me so I was not worried about him having any sort of reaction to anything he would be nibbling on. The walk was more about him learning the key features of certain plants for future safe identification. We left the leeks alone but had a munch on some of the really fresh beech leaves.

Photo 09-05-2016, 18 18 34
Leeks and Beech – Spring greens

One tree that Finlay knew well was the oak, but to help him remember its leaf shape we likened its lobed leaf structure to that of his ear lobe. Also we investigated the very fresh-looking gall we found on one of the oaks. There was no hole in it so we concluded that the gall wasp had not hatched yet.

The next tree we came across was the hawthorn and Finlay’s first observation about it was that the leaves were much smaller than the oak leaves and had smaller and sharper lobes. As this is an edible leaf  we were soon munching again.

Photo 09-05-2016, 18 18 26
Edible and non edible

I introduced Finlay to the Ordnance Survey map for our area and soon he was busy identifying different features on it and tracking our route. We looked at setting the map using features on the ground and using the compass. Also we discussed the scale of the map and features we would expect to find along our route.

We devised a route that was on public footpaths around Wasing Wood (and which had been well documented in a local guide book) however it soon became apparent that the footpaths we were using had been used little recently. The path was overgrown with hawthorn trees and it had also been cut in half by a local business as a testing area for diggers. Soon we were well off our intended route but by looking at the features around us we were able to keep track of where we were.

Photo 09-05-2016, 18 18 40
Map reading and adventuring – The path that disappeared

It was not all hard work as the hammock seat came out when we stopped for a snack (Finlay got it, not me). As well as trees we spent time identifying flowers.

There were plenty of bluebells, a few wild strawberry flowers but we did get down close to look at some Greater Stitchwort – a beautiful little white flower that has medicinally been used to help with the treatment of broken bones.

Strangely, when we were crossing a stile we came across a pair of boxer shorts lying on the ground. Not sure what to make of this, we hurried quickly along :-).

Photo 09-05-2016, 18 18 48
Strange and beautiful sites

Now no trip out into the woods is complete without a little extra iron. There were plenty of new-growth nettles around and we picked a few ‘tops’ (the smallest leaves from the very top of the nettle), rolled them up to kill off the needles and munched away.

Finlay is happy to eat nettles now (he takes delight in doing this in front of other kids) though I am still working on him collecting them himself without gloves.

Photo 09-05-2016, 18 18 54
A little extra iron

Nettles though have a habit of biting you if you do not keep an eye on them 🙂 Finlay was picking a leaf from a ‘Jack by the Hedge’ plant for a little nibble when one of them sneaky nettles popped up and bit him on his arm.

Now a number of years ago he would have let out a loud wail and run about looking for a dock leaf. Now he knows to simply tell me he has been stung and I will grab a couple of the bigger nettle leaves and squish them up to a pulp. It is the juice of the nettle/plantain/dock (to name just a few) leaf that negates the sting – not just rubbing a dry dock leaf on a sting, which I have seen countless people do.

Photo 09-05-2016, 09 45 23
First Aid and final leg

Before we knew it we had been out for over three and a half hours and diner was calling (Alison had insisted we be back in time for tea as we were expecting visitors). Out came the compass and after another quick lesson we were off through the woods and back to the car.

Photo 09-05-2016, 09 44 08
Tired but happy

Finlay had collected a few of the leaves from the trees we had studied but they soon wilted with the sun because they were so fresh. He collected holly, oak, hawthorn, birch, beech and sycamore leaves and spotted bluebells, stitchwort, leeks, wild strawberries, Jack-by-the-hedge and nettles.

The purpose of our hike was to study some trees, flowers and learn about the map and compass. I think you could say we managed that.



Tylney Adventures

While watching my son Finlay play football this morning my friend Katie mentioned that Tylney Hall Hotel had an open day today as part of the National Gardens Scheme (who raise money for multiple charities).

My friend Paul is the head gardener there and I had said before to him that I wanted to come and explore the grounds of this beautiful hotel. Thankfully I had the afternoon free and Finlay was keen to go so I packed some snacks and my camera before heading out.

Photo 24-04-2016, 19 13 36
Tylney Hall Hotel and Gardens

After meeting Paul and getting a map of the grounds Finlay and myself set off to explore the gardens and surrounding woodland. The beautiful landscaped gardens surrounding Tylney Hall were designed by the 19th-century garden designer Gertrude Jekyll and maintained now by Paul and his team.

My aim was to find as many wild flowers as I could and to keep an eye out for beautiful and unusual  spots to photograph. Finlay’s aim was to have a full on adventure by crawling, stalking and climbing his way around the gardens (and to learn about some trees and flowers for one of his Cubs badges).

We headed off first down to Boathouse Lake by rolling our way down the immaculate lawn. We found lovely brown carp in the lake and old buildings nearby to explore.

Photo 24-04-2016, 19 13 37
Views, slopes and nooks

Working our way around the Hall we explored the rabbit burrows, climbed on what Finlay called the Fairy Castle and enjoyed the lovely view from the Long Vista – well Finlay generally mucked about here 🙂

Photo 24-04-2016, 19 13 38
Play areas

Soon we came across the Woodland garden and were confronted with a riot of colours and smells. This garden has such a wide variety of plants growing that I could have stayed there for hours. It was great to spot the Ramsons and the Snakes Head Fritillary.

There is a paper birch in the centre of the garden with strips of outer bark hanging off making it a very striking tree (we did not take any strips of bark from the tree but just explored its colours and textures).

Photo 24-04-2016, 19 13 39
Stunning nature

The woodland garden has a stream, ponds and waterfalls through the middle of it with paths following it and criss-crossing it with stepping stones and bridges – a perfect kids’ playground.

Running alongside the stream we spotted a most unusual tree trunk (possibly cedar) in the shape of an arch and a thicket of bamboo with a little stone creature hidden away in it.

Photo 24-04-2016, 19 13 40

Before leaving Finlay asked to go back to a specific tree he had spotted on the way in so as to climb onto it. It was just situated above the Boathouse Lake and offered stunning views across it.

Photo 24-04-2016, 19 13 40 (1)
Stylish sit spot

We only had an hour and a half to explore the gardens today so when they are opened to the public once again I will be making more time to visit this beautiful place.

Paul and his team have created a beautiful setting for folk of all ages and abilities. Currently I am recovering from a torn calf muscle and the paths were perfectly maintained so I did not feel taxed at any time. Finlay did not want to leave and I want to come back again soon – thankfully Tylney run the open day for the National Gardens Scheme three times a year.



Nature Challenge – Day 6 – Family Fun

Yesterday I picked the kids up from school and instead of curling up in front of the Xbox or the iPads off we went to the woods.

I know we get out to the woods on a regular basis however not normally on a school night. I did not know what we would do with our limited time but as it turned out it was surprisingly a lot.

Photo 22-04-2016, 19 47 31

As soon as we got into Morgaston wood the kids picked up some deer tracks and after sitting for five minutes we were rewarded by spotting a deer crossing one of the paths.

As we trundled along I got them to find some fungi. There was not much around but we did get some King Alfred’s Cakes, some Birch Polypore and some Artists fungi.

Photo 22-04-2016, 19 47 34
Finding Fungi

The Bluebells were really coming out and there were plenty of Primroses around. Just on the edge of the wood though we spotted our first Cuckoo flowers by a ditch. This is a sturdy little plant as it grows in some really exposed areas however it does have a very dainty look about it.

Photo 22-04-2016, 19 47 35 (1)
Wild Flower Spotting

It was not all learning – there was plenty of time to just explore and get muddy – as you do 🙂

Photo 22-04-2016, 19 47 35
Just Fun

This was a challenge to myself as I had to watch every step I took in case I re-opened my torn calf muscle – It was worth the effort though.



Shelter building with the Boys

Last weekend I went for a walk in the woods with my lad Finlay and his friend William. I was planning a bit of a hike however I spotted a glade in our local woods where an area has been set aside for kids to build dens.

This post follows the steps I talked the lads through the principles of shelter building. This is not a full on How To…. guide to shelter building but more of an introduction to the principles of it all.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 28
The principles of shelter building

We had a wander around some of the shelters that had been left up by other groups and talked about the positive elements of each shelter. I find that this focuses the mind on what has worked well and how these elements can be incorporated into any other shelter.

We looked at how high a shelter needed to be, how many walls were really needed, how much thatch was needed and what was needed to keep them warm dependent on different weather conditions.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 20
The positives

I told the lads that we only had time to build a small shelter (Sunday Dinner was calling) so they found some rope and wood and I showed them how to tie everything together to form a spar. We had no tools at all so had to work with what we had.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 18
Setting out

After a chat they opted to go for a simple lean to shelter as this they felt would take the least amount off time.

I told them they would need lots of sticks to lean up against the spar (more than they thought) and that they needed to be roughly the same size. After a quick demonstration on how to snap wood using the base of two tree trunks that were close together they were soon hard at work.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 21
Sizing up

We put a pole on the ground to roughly mark out where each pole should be driven in and soon they had the basic skeleton of the shelter formed.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 22
The Skeleton

One of the hardest things to get across to them was the need to always have a tidy working area. we had lots of dead wood lying about so I made them clear it all away from the shelter so we had a safe area to work in.

Once that was all done we had a good forage around for some spruce boughs. There were plenty lying around that had been cut down by the foresters for the kids to use (I wish all woods had an area like this).

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 23
Tidying and foraging

After layering some of the spruce boughs onto the skeleton of the shelter I got the boys doing the penguin walk. This is the way I get the kids to gather up lots of leaves in a very short space of time. They would quickly make little piles of leaves and throw them over the spruce boughs.

Once the bottom half was all done they got some more spruce boughs for the top and covered that in leaves as well. Finally to keep the leaves in place they laid a load of small sticks over the leaves (to try and help stop the wind from blowing it all away).

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 24
The layer system

Once they had finished the outside it was time to sort out the interior design. They spent a little while weaving back in all the loose (well some of them) spruce needles back into the thatch.

Once that was done they foraged for some more spruce and made themselves up a little bed to keep themselves off the cold earth.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 26 (1)
Interior design

We did not have permission to have a fire in the woods but that did not stop us from pretending – after all that is what we kids do 🙂

I got them to build themselves a heat reflecting wall in front of the shelter (about two paces from the shelter). They just pushed two sticks into the ground and stacked some logs up against them.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 26
Reflector wall

All that was left for them to do was construct their long log fire (one step away from the shelter) and relax.

Photo 11-04-2016, 12 40 27
Fire and finish

This took us about one and a half hours to complete and managed to have fun along the way as well.

As I said this was more about the principles of shelter building (done really to help towards one of their Cubs badges) and not a full on How To…. to building a shelter. If we had more time we would have put about 3 times as much debris over the top, the bed would have been raised up with a much thicker mattress of spruce and the sides would have been closed in.

Oh yeah – and the kettle would have been on 🙂



Picture of the Week – Week 14 – Climbing amongst the Bluebells

This afternoon I spent some time in the woods introducing my son Finlay and his friend William into the intricacies of shelter building (a post will follow on this).

We did have fun building the shelter however it was not free fun. I let the lads zoom off into the woods (I am still hobbling along) only to find them as usual at their favourite perch.

A favourite perch
A favourite perch

This perch is all that remains of the root system of a fallen tree. It looks horrifying with all these spikes but they know only to climb up and down it from the back where it is smooth. I thought it looked rather lovely today in amongst all the bluebells.