Bugs, Badgers and Elderflowers

Image Tom Oeste

This article was written by Ranger Dan and first published in Little Tigers 3 years ago. But it is every bit as relevant in 2016 – young children simply love being outside exploring, getting dirty and learning about nature.

Spring has always been a busy time of year for me. Not only do I start to get loads of school visits and party bookings, now that winter has finally loosened its grip on the country, I also have my summer season to prepare for.

Animals are doing the same: in springtime, many birds which have overwintered in Africa and other hot countries fly back to the UK to pair up, nest and lay eggs. Once hatched, the chicks can feast on the banquet of bugs, berries, fruits and seeds during the summer. Throughout spring our woodlands become a hive of activity. As the Beech trees begin to bud, the gaggling calls of pheasants and partridge echo throughout the woodland canopy, whilst rabbits and Roe deer nibble cautiously on bluebells and snow drops.

This chorus and the sudden splash of colour signals the beginning of the Gamekeepers’ egg harvest. Gamekeepers manage the woodlands for the benefit of all wildlife. Jobs like coppicing hazel and willow, clearing ditches and laying hedgerows improve the health of the woodland and provide better habitats for many small nesting birds and mammals. The gamekeeper places eggs in large warm cupboards called incubators; they keep the eggs cosy like the mummy bird would. After about two weeks the eggs hatch and they are then feed until they are big enough to go back to the woodland. By doing this the eggs are free from predators such as magpies, stoats and badgers and the next generation of woodland birds can then returned safely to the wood.

Living in Cheshire we are never too far away from a river or stream meandering through our sandy farmland. Not only are they great places in spring to spot wildlife like mayfly, kingfisher and trout, many edible plants can also be found along the river bank. The easiest plant to forage along the river bank is the Ramson. It’s hard to confuse Ramsons with anything else as they stink of garlic, have pretty white flowers and long dark green waxy leaves. You can add Ramsons’ (wild garlic) to salads, casseroles, and roasted vegetables it’s milder than normal garlic so children should eat it!

Elderflowers are another spring favorite. I pick mine from down the canal towpath, I can easily spend the whole day collecting elderflowers! My best use for them is to shake the fresh petals into a greased cake tin then pour a simple Victoria sponge cake mix over the top. Whilst the cake bakes in the oven the elderflower scent rises through the sponge giving it a lovely lemony taste.

To wash down the cake you could make elderflower cordial. Here is a simple recipe which makes 2 litres of cordial to be diluted to taste and drink or freeze as ice lollies for the kids.

  • About 25 elderflower heads.
  • Finely grated zest of 3 un-waxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)
  • 1kg sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp citric acid (optional)

Then:

Pour 1.5 litres of boiled water over the mix and bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes, stirring the mixture so all the sugar dissolves. Leave to infuse overnight then strain the liquid through muslin. Decant into sterilised screw top bottles and store in a dark cool cupboard until use or freeze into lollies.

During spring I plan to harvest Lime bark to use to make string, rope and stitching cordage. I’ll also be visiting many schools possibly wildlife tracking and making animal print plaster casts. The bug hunting season is also truly upon us by the end of March. Although it’s only a short season, spring is the best time to stick on your walking boots and get out exploring. Not only will it help shake off your winter cobwebs but you’ll also experience sights and sounds which can only be observed at this really special time of year.

Ranger Dan