Thursday, 6 November 2008

Challenge eight: Leave the Island

As I write this there are tears welling in my weather-beaten eyes. It's time to leave Brownsea and I can hardly bear it! Autumnwatch is over, winter has nearly come and my two weeks of wild living are now at their end. The M4 commute and office life in sunny Swindon calls and as yet I have found no way of preventing its return. There may yet be a freak storm that will confine me here with the animals, plants and Brownsea staff that I've come to know and love but I can't help feeling that this is probably unlikely.

Though the days have been full of fun and there has been very little stress in my life, the time has passed unbelievably fast, that sunset arrival 2 weeks ago seems both like last night and a lifetime ago.

And there's so much MORE I wanted to share with you. More challenges to complete, more people to meet and wildlife to see. For example, the things below that I could have eaten for the wild food challenge but didn't -

My colleagues who have been nothing but warm and helpful, if at times a little rude to me. Among many - Steve, Mike and Justin. And the comedy squirrel that feeds from the kitchen window at the Villa -

But I suppose the marching of time is unstoppable and, like the avocets, I'm not really meant to be a permanent resident of Brownsea, for my home is elsewhere. It's been an immense and rare privilege to be here for two weeks, getting to know the Island, learning masses about the wild world, working with the BBC and writing daily. I hope you've enjoyed it because I certainly have.

So for now goodbye! Thank you for joining me on the adventure.


Don't forget to -

Subscribe to our monthly wildlife and countryside podcast. There will also be a wild-food podcast up shortly so you can hear the sounds of wild-food wednesday.

Get involved with the Waxcap Watch

Keep connected to the Autumnwatch website

Enter our amazing Autumnwatch competition! Quick though, it closes on monday 10th Nov.

Challenge seven: Live off the Island

Apologies for the delay in this one guys - as you see, I've been rather busy!
After a week of scouting out all that Brownsea has to offer, and discussing with the staff here how I can do this without killing myself, I stepped up to the mark for Andrew's challenge to live only on foraged food for the day. He added the disheartening p.s. "Food foraged from the BBC canteen doesn't count!" Well Andrew, thanks to the oddly skilled warden Justin and boatman Mike I not only fed myself from the Island, but did it in style with three delicious meals - taking fresh, local and seasonal to the extreme! As Justin said "any idiot can be uncomfortable"

What follows is a little diary of my delicious day and a few of the things it taught me.

7am - get up and start the hunt for breakfast. To be honest, this one was easy due to the large number of very free-free range chickens that roam the island so it was really just a matter of finding where they lay. Fresh Brownsea eggs, not a bad start!

8.30am - Begin the forage proper, on the hunt for acorns, chestnuts, fungi, fruits and greens for lunch. After several hours wandering the island, head in the vegetation I did begin to appreciate what life for our hunter-gatherer ancestors must have been like. A lot of walking, not much reward! At this time of year the main autumn food glut has passed and with an island full of extremely efficient squirrels the truth is that it was hard work to find food.

As my stomach began to rumble and I rooted through pile after pile of neatly shelled nuts at the base of the chestnut trees, I wondered how it was that I'd suddenly dropped several places in the food chain. I found myself reduced to being entirely at the mercy of the red rodents, hoping they had left me some scraps to glean lunch from...And then I found it, the mother of all chestnut trees where there was food enough for us all. I loved that tree because it meant I didn't have to eat insects for lunch.

1.30 - Met Justin at his cottage for the grand cook-up. Five hours, broken up by our daily production meeting with the BBC team, had earned me about a dozen chestnuts, two acorns, a handful of fungi, some rosehips, 18 blackberries and a bunch of nettles. Riches! Oh, and some beautiful Brownsea rabbit... Now at this point I should come clean about the source of the rabbit. Mike and I did faithfully put traps out the night before, baited with carrot and chocolate (a rabbity favourite apparently), but alas, not a nibble. So bearing in mind that the residents routinely eat rabbit here and not particularly wanting to go out with a gun, I kindly accepted the offer of a rabbit from property manager Angela's freezer, caught on the Island a few months ago.

2.45 - Sit down to the most delicious lunch of rabbit, nettle and fungi stew with chestnut and wild fruit bannock - see recipes at the bottom. I'm not exaggerating when I say this was one of the most tasty and appreciated meals I've ever eaten. Fresh, foraged fare. Have a go if you can get the ingredients!

4.00 - After a little sit down to recover and let lunch warm me through, I headed to the jetty for a spot of fishing. Boatman Mike met me there for a quick fishing tutorial and a whole lot of doubtful looks. I don't know why, I only caught my gloves in the hook a few times and I think quickly picked up the old flick and throw casting action. "you'll know if you catch one because you won't have a clue what to do" he smiled broadly at me as he left me to my rod and line in the gathering darkness. I've been fishing before, but only in a fish farm where the fish practically jump into the net shouting 'eat me eat me', so after an hour of fruitless casting and reeling I was starting to think fish was off the menu for supper.

And then something extraordinary happened. The line suddenly took on a life of it's own and, as predicted, I had no idea what to do. So I did a fair bit of hopping around the jetty - no doubt to the great amusement of the BBC dive boat who were preparing for Simon's live dive. Assisted by Anna Guthrie, who had come to offer moral support, I eventually worked out how to reel the beast in and landed my very first pollack. Unfortunately, being completely dark, and rather occupied by a large slimy fish, there are no photo's of this momentous moment so you'll just have to believe me.

5.30 - Me, Anna and fish head back to the Villa where I bit my lip and got stuck into gutting, filleting and de-scaling my supper. After a break to watch the penultimate Autumnwatch I sat down to a gorgeous, subtle and outrageously fresh fish supper with a large contented smile on my face.

Three hot meals and a lot of wandering and waiting later, I not only lived off the Island, but ate good food from my immediate surroundings, delivered straight to my plate in the ultimate in sustainable gourmet foraging.
And more than that, I learnt a great deal about the Island, what's growing here, life as a squirrel and the ins and outs of line fishing in all it's slimy splendour. There's been a lot of talk in recent years about how we've become completely removed from our food and I have to say, taking up this challenge did make me acutely aware of three things -

1. In normal life, I eat A LOT! We live in such a world of plenty...
2. Most of the time, I have no idea where my food has come from and the huge amount of work that's probably gone in to getting it to my plate.
3. If it came to it I could totally go bush on Brownsea.
So there you have it Andrew, you may have made me a wild-food convert!

Wild Food Wednesday recipe's -

Rabbit and fungi stew

2 small joints of rabbit, pan fried to sear
6 amethyst deceiver mushrooms, beheaded
1 large field mushroom
2 large handfuls of nettle, washed and chopped
3 small garlic cloves (you'll just have to allow me this one)
Sear the rabbit with the garlic, add the mushrooms and nettle to cook through then pour in some hot water and boil for about half and hour to get all the juicy goodness from the bones. Add a stock cube and a dash of sherry if you're not roughing it like me.

Wild fruit and nut bannock

Sweet chestnuts/acorns/hazelnuts/beech mast, peeled and blanched
Rosehips, halved and de-seeded
Crumble the nuts a bit and roast them before pounding into a sort of flour with pestle and mortar. Add a little water to make a sticky dough. Squash in the fruit, shape and fry like a giant fruity burger.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Challenge six: water vole watching

Check this out, two challenges in one day! Well as there are only two full days of my Autumnwatch adventure left I thought it was time to pick up the pace a little. So today I took up Australian Charlotte's challenge, all the way from Caines to see how many different water voles can you see in one hour on the reedbed boardwalk crossing in front of the villa and is there anyway you can identify them individually to discount any double counting? Photographic evidence please!!
So armed with my woefully under-powered digital compact camera and a large mug of tea I made the short trip from my home at the Villa down to the boardwalk where the water voles live. I once wrote an essay about water voles, most of which I seem to have completely forgotten...I do however have a strong and enduring memory that, on occasion, water voles climb trees after hawthorn berries and, not being entirely built for the arboreal life, sometimes get stuck. So I added the branches and tree tops to my visual scanning as I sat quietly for an hour around dusk.

Now I'm sorry to say that photographic evidence of my success is completely lacking, due in part to the aforementioned pitiful equipment but mostly to the shy and secretive nature of the water vole which made photographing the ones I did see near impossible. But during the hour I counted a total of five actual sightings - scurrying through the reeds, swimming frantically across the open water and nibbling away happily, and about three extra audio-only voles with their unmistakable 'plop'! The picture on the right here is of water vole poo, which I'm afraid is the closest I can get to evidence for you Charlotte. I tried! And below is a much lovelier picture by Kevin Cook of the DWT so you can see what a water vole actually looks like. They're lovely animals and having never seen them before in the flesh I really enjoyed this challenge, thank you Charlotte!

Challenge five: become a creature of the night

Ok so this is a slight cheat, but bearing in mind Angela's bat spotting challenge and my kindly bestowed pair of night-vision goggles I thought it was about time to get a bit nocturnal. So as the BBC crew were leaving the island for the night I headed out into the blackness to see what I could see, hear and smell.

There's nothing quite like a good bit of darkness to heighten the senses and after a few minutes stumbling around wildly in bushes and rabbit holes, I soon became accustomed to the lack of light and entered the world of the nocturnal.

I started my search for sounds down in the Macdonald hide which sticks out onto the lagoon. It's where compost Pete has been filming the spoonbills from. Thanks to my 'sonic listening device' I'm pleased to report a total of 8 different bird noises on the lagoon, though my night vision specs failed me in seeing what they were and to be frank, I'm completely rubbish at birds, even in broad daylight. There was a brilliant avian cacophony when the ridiculously large Brittany Ferries boat thundered its way past the sea wall, scaring the birds off the water and driving me into the forest.

Found a quiet spot where I've often encountered deer walking back late from the office (me, not them) and nestled in for a long wait...After the rutting action shown on last night's Autumnwatch the sika are clearly a bit feisty so I was prepared for a fight. Nearly had one when, after a great deal of rustling, a large stag jumped straight out of the undergrowth and directly into my path, narrowly missing my head! I did my best to remain calm and collected, but blew my cover by making a loud, and no doubt deer-terrifying, squeak which quickly moved my new friend along.

Well as you can imagine, after nearly being battered by a sika stag I was in need of something a little more sedate, so headed back to the Villa, headquarters of the Dorset Wildlife Trust on Brownsea, through the woodland to the sound of a tawny owl calling its classic twit-twoo overhead. Warden Chris and co had set up a moth trap and after Bill's success on the high seas last week, I sat and watched some of our fluttering friends find their way into that before checking it this morning. Not a bad yield with these three lovelies amongst the quarry. They'll live in our fridge for a few hours while the DWT volunteers pot and identify them before making it back into the wild world unharmed.

So there it is, my night-time quest for the sights and sounds of black-out Brownsea. If you've never been on a night-walk I'd highly recommend it. You just never know what you're going to see and it'll give you a whole new perspective on the wild world that never really sleeps.

For some sounds of your own, check out my week one round-up podcast available now! And make sure you subscribe so you don't miss next week's when warden Justin and I go wild-food crazy, plus our regular monthly wildlife and countryside podcast.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Challenge four: find the fungi

After a brief sojurn in rural Devon, I'm back on Brownsea for one more week of Autumnwatch fun. I can't believe how ridiculously fast last week was, a sentiment shared by Series Editor Stephen Moss. I personally put it down to being completely occupied by meeting you insatiable desire for setting me time-consuming challenges. Have loved doing them though so if you're waiting for the right time then now's it! Only 3 more days of challenge time left... Can life go on after this?!

Today I took to the vegetation in order to meet Sophie's fungi challenge of spotting seven different colours of waxcap on Brownsea. Now you might think fungi doesn't sound like much fun, but even the non-mycologists among us must admit that waxcaps are pretty pretty fungi. The National Trust launched its Waxcap Watch last year, trying to get an idea of how widespread these colourful fungi are and it showed up that, thanks to the efforts of the Dorset Fungus Group, Brownsea Island is the 3rd best place in the country for waxcaps, so I must admit feeling a certain amount of confidence about meeting Sophie's challenge.

Waxcaps grow best on tightly cropped, unfertilised grassland, so they're a great indicator of ancient and undisturbed habitats that haven't had loads of chemicals chucked at them. Much of this habitat has been lost to intensive agriculture and development, so National Trust lawns and parks are proving a vital safehaven for these rainbow coloured mycelia.

So, armed with my waxcap guide I sallied forth, hot on the trail of fungi fun. Not being the most clement of days it was a fairly cold and wet affair but, un-shakeable in my determination to discover, a comprehensive survey of the Island taking in Church Field (the back drop to Bill and Kate's bench pieces), the Daffodil Fields and the churchyard confirmed my initial confidence with a result of...8 different waxcaps! I think. Not being a trained mycologist myself I may of course have got it totally wrong, but as you see below, the colours are certainly different, even if they turn out to be all the same species.
Any waxcap boffins out there want to set me straight and identify these beauties? Please do!

If that's tickled your fancy for fungi, why not get involved yourself with our Waxcap Watch survey? It's good wholesome fun all round.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Challenge Martha sweeping planet Earth

Morning all.
I've just had the most fantastic email that I wanted to share with you. It turns out that Challenge Martha is fast becoming an international hit with followers as widely spread as Canada and Australia. Brilliant! This email and picture came in from Gloria on Vancouver Island this morning -

"Hi Martha ~ I've been following your blog, and I thought I'd send you something for Halloween so you can meet this particular challenge after all! Hope the weather cheers up a bit for you! It's wet and rainy over here on Vancouver Island as well! Kind regards, Gloria"

Gloria I can only say thank you from the bottom of my heart. The fact that someone I have never met on a continent over 3,000 miles away would take the time to dress me up in a giant red squirrel costume for the world to see is genuinely heart warming. If only they were broadcasting tonight I could make Chris and Charlie (and no doubt my colleagues here) very happy indeed.

Does life get any better than this my friends?!
Well it might next week, with the challenges pouring in. Here are a selection that I may or may not be able to take up next week to inspire you if you've not yet set me a challenge.
"Do some batspotting? or with climate change have they hibernated or gone on holiday? Think the goggles will help with this challenge...keep up the good work. Angela"

"How many different Water Voles can you see in one hour on the reedbed boardwalk crossing in front of the villa and is there anyway you can identify them individually to discount any double counting? Photographic evidence please!! Australian Charlotte"

"It sounds like you are having far too much fun. So I'm going to think up some nasty and horrible challenges for you! In the meantime, can you spot seven different colours of waxcap on Brownsea? Sophie"

"Stay out on Brownsea island, building your own home and surving for a whole 72 hours living off the land. Mike"

Mike I know your game...That's got 'Brownsea Boatman' stamped all over it. Are you trying to kill me?!

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Challenge three: get ye to the sofa!

The weather took a turn for the worse today as we traded radiant blue skies for high winds and black clouds; a good day for being a bit more inside I think. Chris and Charlie provided me with a reason to shelter like a wary muntjac with this challenge - get onto Autumnwatch dressed as a big red squirrel. Or failing that just be interviewed by Bill Oddie. Well guys you don't ask for much do you?! And as they claim to be the blog's biggest fans I can only wonder why they appear bent on causing me complete and total humiliation...

Ok, the squirrel costume was never going to happen, and if there's one thing I've learnt this week it's how BUSY Bill and Kate actually are. They arrive on the island between 8 and 10, head straight to the production village to talk through the day's work and then out with the wildlife cameramen to record the little packages that get slotted in to the live show. After that are more meetings, writing scripts (such as there are!) and learning them, doing radio, TV and paper interviews, arranging the following day's filming and rehearsals, not to mention a fairly constant interaction with the Brownsea public - photos with children, autograph signing for grannies and chats with local naturalists, all topped off by the live show. They, and the rest of the BBC crew leave the island on the 9.30 boat so it's a pretty full-on and relentless day.

So, I'm sorry Chris and Charlie but I think Bill and I are destined to continue to live separate lives. However, so as not to fail you and myself completely, I did manage to sneak in to the studio and on to the famous sofa for the pic below. I call it "waiting for Bill". Hope that's enough to keep you happy.
On a separate note, we're officially half way through Autumnwatch 2008! I'm not sure how that happened and frankly I don't think I'm very happy about it. Tomorrow will be my last challenge of the week, before we dive back in on monday. So don't hold back, email me your challenges now! I think...