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Here you can find a collection of our thoughts, reports and ramblings together with some fun things we find along the way. We try to update the blog at least once a week and more often during busy periods so make sure you check back regularly..

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Oct 8 2017 11:00AM

Conkers are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree. The trees, which can reach 35m tall, produce beautiful white candle shaped flowers in May followed by their famous spiky seed cases (each with two conkers inside) which fall in September and October.

Horse chestnuts aren't native to Britain but were imported from the Balkans in the sixteenth century and widely planted in parks and public spaces during Victorian times.

The game

The game of conkers has been played in Britain since the 1800s. The following rules have developed over the centuries and are fairly universally accepted. First, a grown-up needs to prepare each conker by drilling a hole through the centre. Now thread the conker onto a string or shoe lace and tie a big knot to stop it sliding off. Your string should be more than 30cm long so that, when you have wrapped it round your hand, there is at least 20cm between your knuckles and the dangling conker. Next, prepare for battle!

1. Toss a coin to decide who strikes first.

2. Each player must have a minimum length of 20cm of string between his string hand and the conker.

3. The striker draws back his conker in his other hand and then swings it down onto the receiving player's conker.

3. The striker has three goes to hit the receiver's conker.

4. The receiver must hold his or her conker still.

5. Once the striker has hit the receiver's conker (or if he misses three times) play passes and the receiver becomes the striker.

6. If any player drops his conker, his opponent is entitled to shout "stamps!" and stamp on it, unless the other player shouts "no stamps!" first.

7. Absolutely no deliberate hitting of the other player's knuckles!

8. If your conker comes off its string but is not smashed then you are allowed to re-string it and play continues.

9. The game ends when one player's conker is smashed from its string (having a small bit of shell left doesn't count).

10. If both conkers smash at the same time, the match is a tie.


Every fresh conker starts as a "one-er". A conquering conker assumes the score of its victim. So, if your one-er beats another one-er then it becomes a "two-er". But if your one-er beats a two-er, it becomes a "three-er", and so on.

How to cheat

Although banned in most official competitions, the following methods can all be used to toughen up your prized conker:

- Store it in a dry place for a year.*

- Bake it in the oven.

- Soak it in vinegar.

- Paint it with clear nail varnish.

The best (legitimate) way to ensure a strong conker is to make sure the hole you drill is neat and doesn't split the shell. The hole should be no wider than you need for your chosen string. Also, before you drill the hole, check that your conker sinks in a glass of water. If it is damaged or rotten on the inside it will float.

*Roald Dahl recommends this method in his diary, My Year.

According to custom, when you find your first conker of the season you should say "Oddly, oddly onker, my first conker" for good luck during the season.

Did you know...? The origins of the word 'conker' aren't completely clear. Some say it derives from the word "conch", a type of shell that was originally used to play the game but others believe it is a shortened version of "conqueror".

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Oct 8 2017 11:00AM

Britain's arboretums (technically it's arboreta) are some of the finest and best managed tree collections in the world and October is a great month to visit one. You'll be treated to a dramatic display of colour as autumn really takes hold.

Here's our top 10 arboretums to visit but there are plenty more out there and there’s bound to be one near you.

The National Arboretum, Westonbirt – the country’s best known collection and simply stunning throughout the autumn.

Bodenham Arboretum, Worcestershire – more than 150 acres in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey – a National Trust property, deliberately planted to produce a dramatic autumn display.

Harcourt Arboretum, Oxfordshire – a historic collection, now part of Oxford University.

Kilmun Arboretum, Argyll and Bute –part of the Argyll forest and recently named as the best arboretum for autumnal photography.

Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal Water Garden, Yorkshire – not strictly an arboretum but a stunning garden and medieval deer park that form part of a World Heritage landscape.

Derby Arboretum, Derby - the first publicly owned urban, recreational park in England and now Grade II listed by English Heritage.

RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey – the Royal Horticultural Society’s flagship garden in glorious Surrey countryside.

Cardinham Wood, Cornwall – a Forestry Commission property criss-crossed with walking and cycling trails, perfect for enjoying the Cornish scenery.

Rowallane Garden, Northern Ireland – one of the most beautiful gardens in Northern Ireland.

Why do leaves change colour in autumn?

During the summer trees produce two chemicals that they need for photosynthesis (the process by which they “breath”, converting water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen). The first chemical, chlorophyll, is green and the second, carotene, is yellow. To produce chlorophyll, trees need both warmth and light so when the cooler days and longer nights of autumn come, chlorophyll production stops. As the green chlorophyll fades away, the carotene remains - this is the yellow that you see. Anthocyanin, a third chemical, is produced when sugars in the leaf become concentrated and trapped in the leaves as the tree prepares for winter. This is the red colour that you see - it’s the same chemical that makes some apples and grapes red.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Sep 1 2017 11:00AM

September often starts with a few weeks of sunshine and warmth but as we head towards October, we'll definitely be seeing wetter and cooler weather.

The slightly soggier conditions in early autumn mean softer ground and the opportunity to collect casts of animal prints - a great way to spend the last few weeks of the school holidays.

Animal Track Casts

You will need:

• A 1kg tub of plaster of Paris (try any art supplies shop)

• A 1 litre bottle of tap water

• An old medium-sized mixing bowl or plastic container, ideally with a spout

• A wooden spoon

• An old 2 litre plastic bottle, cut into sections about two inches thick

• Some old newspaper

• Plastic bags (for the messy bowl and spoon)

• Vaseline (or other petroleum jelly).

First, find your tracks. Look on soft ground near to shelter or food and water sources – under trees or near streams in woodland or field edges. See our guide [on the next page] if you need help identifying them.

Once you find a good print, clear away any loose twigs and stones so the print is as clear as possible.

Smear a thin layer of the petroleum jelly around one of the plastic rings (this will make it easier to remove later), then press into the ground around the print, making sure the print is centred. Press the ring a couple of centimetres into the ground so that when you pour the plaster in it won't leak out.

Now mix your plaster in the bowl. Follow the directions on the packet to get the right plaster to water ratio (usually about 1.5 to 1). The mixture will get hot as you mix it. You should have a glossy liquid, similar in texture to double cream or pancake batter. Once mixed, leave for a minute or two and gently tap the mixing bowl to ensure any air bubbles float to the top (trapped air bubbles will weaken your cast). Now pour the plaster into the plastic circle, filling to just below the rim. Try not to pour the plaster directly onto the print but off to the side, letting it run into the impression.

You now need to leave the cast to set for at least half an hour. Mark your spot with a tall stick (so you can find it again) and hunt for more prints or go for a circular walk.

When you are ready to remove the cast, very carefully lift it (including the plastic collar) and wrap it in the newspaper. Don't worry at this stage about cleaning any mud off - it is still very fragile. Leave to dry for another full day at home. The cast will then be properly set and you can cut off the collar and rinse off any mud.

You can paint the cast to highlight the footprint if you want to, or varnish it to give it extra strength. Be sure to label it with the species you have identified and the location you found it. As you add to your collection you will learn more about the animals and their behaviour. What sort of woodland do deer like to live in? What do wild boar like to eat? It's a fascinating way to learn more about the animals that live in our countryside. Incidentally, if you're lucky enough to find larger animal casts, such as a badger's, you can also use long strips of card, secured with paper clips to surround the print, instead of the plastic rings.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Aug 13 2017 11:00AM

Our rivers and streams are full of different species of fish, large and small. But perhaps the best known and certainly one of the easiest to catch, is the minnow. These small olive-brown fish can be found in most small streams and rivers, usually close to the river bank.

An afternoon on the riverbank catching minnows is a childhood memory that every seasonal family should share. The traditional jam jar and a piece of string will make a rudimentary trap but can break leaving shattered glass in the river. With a little work you can make a more sophisticated and safer version.

You will need:

• Two large (2 litre) clear plastic bottles of the same size and shape.

• About 2 metres of nylon string

• A pair of scissors

• Twist ties (the sort that you seal freezer bags with)

• A few pieces of stale bread or plain crackers for bait

• A bucket

First cut the neck off one of the bottles. Using a sharp pair of scissors, cut right around the bottle, at the bottom of the neck (where the bottle reaches its maximum width). Then, cut all the way round the middle of the other bottle. Discard the base of both bottles and one of the screw caps, into your recycling bin. Now, turn the smaller neck around and insert it into the base of the other neck. (The idea is to make an opening which is easy for the minnows to enter but harder for them to get out.) Firmly hold the two pieces together whilst you very carefully pierce six holes around the sides of the bottles, about 1cm below the cut edges. Firmly secure the two pieces together using the twist ties in five of the holes. Thread the string through the remaining hole and tie it securely (this knot needs to be strong as the trap will be heavy when you retrieve it.)

To use your trap, drop a few pieces of bait into the opening. Throw the trap into the water, (keeping hold of the string!) and allow it to sink. Leave for a few minutes (use this time to add some water into your bucket). You should see the fish shoaling around the bottle trap and, once there are some inside, you will see the bait moving as they take little bites. Smoothly pull the string to retrieve the trap from the water and you should have some minnows. Unscrew the cap (which is now at the base of the trap) and pour your catch into the bucket.

Minnows aren’t for eating so make sure you release them gently back into the river before you leave.

Did you know…? The word "goujon" is commonly used to refer to a thick finger of meat or fish (usually breaded and deep fried). It comes from the French name for another common freshwater fish, the gudgeon.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Aug 6 2017 11:00AM

Our harbours, piers and quaysides are teeming with crabs making the most of the calm waters and plentiful food. What trip to the coast would be complete without a crabbing competition?

Although there are 65 different species of crab found in British waters, the significant majority of the ones you'll catch when crabbing will be the Common Shore Crab. These efficient scavengers thrive on all kinds of waste but particularly enjoy discarded catch from fishing vessels, one of the reasons they love our harbours so much.

You will need

• A crab line or length of nylon string – at least 5 metres long.

• A washing tablet string bag or the feet of some old tights (not essential but makes refreshing your bait much easier)

• A small lead weight

• A bucket

Lower your baited and weighted line into the water, leave it to sink and wait a while. When you think you might have a crab, gently life your bait and carefully bring your catch to the surface.

Top tips for successful crabbing:

• Don’t put too many crabs in one bucket. Empty it when you have 10 or so.

• Keep your bucket out of direct sunlight and add some seaweed or rocks to give your crabs some shelter

• Use a smelly bait that the crabs can find. Both bacon and mackerel give off a small oily scent trail that the crabs can easily follow.

• Leave your bait still long enough to ensure the crabs can find it.

• A smooth retrieve is essential. Crabs will usually continue to grip the bait as long as it isn't jerked too suddenly.

• Be careful! Even small crabs can deliver a nasty nip. If you need to handle a crab, grip it gently but firmly from behind on either side of its shell.

• Remember to return your catch safely to the water before you leave.

If you want to tell the difference between male and female crabs, turn them over and look for the "abdominal flap" on their underside. The male flap is thin and pointed while the female's is wider and more rounded (it is used to carry eggs in the mating season).

Did you know…? The name for a group of crabs is a "cast"

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 2 2017 11:00AM

There are 18 species of bats in the UK (making up a quarter of all our mammal species) and summer is the best time to spot them.

Our bat populations are declining due to a loss of suitable habits and over use of pesticides but you still have a good chance of spotting them in most parts of the country. They live both in the countryside and towns and are most active during the warmer months after they emerge from hibernation. Any area with a combination of old buildings, dead trees and water is likely to be home to a population of bats.

Bats are nocturnal so the best time to see them is either at sunset or sunrise. On a warm, dry day when there are plenty of insects in the air, find a patch of bright sky surrounded by trees or buildings and you'll see the bats flittering around, silhouetted against the sky at dusk and dawn. Different bats have different feeding patterns so look for them up in the air, skimming the top of hedgerows and over flat areas like fields and lakes.

The four species that you're most likely to see are:

• Pipistrelles (common and soprano) - the most common bats. Small and fast, you'll spot them flittering across the sky at sunset.

• Noctules - these bats usually fly in straight lines, high in the air.

• Brown long-eared bat - emerge later at night and are harder to spot because they stay very close to the trees where they feed. If you're really lucky you'll spot one hovering up in the branches.

• Daubenton's bat - also known as the water bat, most often seen skimming over rivers and ponds.

If you do manage to spot bats you can help conserve them by taking part in a Bat Conservation Trust survey. Available online, these simple recordings of sightings and numbers help the trust compile valuable conservation information. You should never disturb or interfere with roosting bats; they are protected by law and it is illegal to handle one without a licence. But you can (and should) encourage them into your garden by building a bug house (see February).

Did you know…? Bats can eat 3000 insects a night. That's up to a third of their own body weight.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jul 2 2017 10:00AM

One of the great family days out for any seasonal family should be rockpooling on one of Britain's may rocky beaches.

Rockpools are harsh environments. The creatures that inhabit them need to be able to survive extremes of temperature, moisture and salinity as well as rough seas and constantly crashing waves. Taking a slightly more scientific approach to your rockpooling will open your eyes to these brutal and competitive self-contained worlds.

The equipment you'll need is very similar to pond-dipping (see June) but tide tables and suitable footwear are essential extras.

You will need:

• A net

• A light coloured bucket or tray

• A magnifying glass

• An identification book

• Tide tables (the biggest rockpools with most life in them are revealed at low tide)

• Wellies or water shoes

As with pond dipping, half fill your tray or bucket with water then use your net to explore the pool, especially the weedy edges and gently turn your net out into the tray. You'll be able to pick some shells and slower-moving crabs out by hand. With some creatures, especially hermit crabs, they will retreat into their shells as you approach or touch them so wait for a few minutes and watch them re-emerge.

Look out for:

• Small fish like blennies, goby and pipefish

• Crustacea like shrimp, crabs and lobsters

• Molluscs and other shellfish like mussels, whelks, winkles and limpets

• Seaweeds like kelp, sea lettuce and bladderwrack

• Anemonies, starfish and sea urchins

Carefully return everything to the rockpool when you leave and always be aware of the rising tide. Rocks covered in seaweed or algae can be extremely slippery so tread carefully.

"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."

Jacques Cousteau

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 4 2017 10:00AM

Hunting for aquatic mini-beasts is one of the best ways to learn about the diversity of our freshwater pond life.

From the smallest garden pond to largest lakes, any established body of water will be teaming with fascination organisms. Although you certainly don't have to attend an organised event at a nature reserve or wetland centre, they will usually have a specially-constructed dipping platform, to enable safe access to the pond, as well as pre-printed identification sheets for you to tick off. Any entry fee you have to pay will go towards their conservation efforts.

You will need:

• A net

• A light coloured bucket or tray

• A magnifying glass

• An identification book

Start by half filling your tray or bucket with pond water. Now start your dipping. Using a figure of eight action sweep your net though the water. You'll find most life at the edges of the pond and near plants but try to avoid scooping up too much mud and silt. After a couple of sweeps, gently turn your net inside out, into the tray or bucket. Wait for a few minutes to let any silt settle then take your magnifying glass and see what you can identify. Look out for:

• Nymphs like mayfly, damselfly and caddis fly.

• Crustacea like freshwater shrimp.

• Molluscs like pond snails and freshwater mussels.

• Insects like water boatmen and water scorpions.

• Vertebrates like toads, tadpoles, frogs and newts.

Make sure you take time to look around the pond as well, particularly for bird life including ducks, and if you are really lucky, the electric blue of a darting kingfisher.

Staying safe:

Beware - even at centres designed with children in mind the water can be deep.

Kneel by the pond when you’re dipping and don’t lean over too far.

If you have cuts and grazes cover them with a plaster. (Weil’s disease is an unpleasant infection that you can get from getting water in contact with open cuts.)

Wash your hands thoroughly after dipping.

Did you know…? Mayfly were named because they "hatch" from the river in late May or early June. "Duffers Fortnight" supposedly affords novice fly fishermen the best opportunity to catch a trout - the fish feed voraciously on the mayfly as they emerge in huge clouds to mate, lay their eggs and die in a single day.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 1 2017 10:00AM

Many herbs will lose some of their aromatic intensity as the weather really hots up, so June is the perfect time to preserve a few batches for use later in the year.

As we mentioned back in May, early summer is prime time for garden-grown herbs. The simplest and most economical method of preserving some is to air-dry them.

Home dried herbs are a world apart from supermarket varieties. The flavour and aroma from most herbs comes from oils that are a natural defence mechanism against insects and bacteria. Because most supermarket herbs are grown hydroponically they don’t have the same exposure to these elements, meaning their oils are less intense.

You will need:

• A selection of garden herbs (buy some from a market if you don't grow your own)

• Brown paper bags (the large sandwich bags used by delicatessens are ideal)

• String or twist ties

• Somewhere warm and dry to hang your herbs

• Jars and labels for storage

On a dry day, cut your herbs. Cut then mid-morning after any morning dew has dried off.

Rinse them under a little cold water to remove any dust and garden chemicals. Dry by lightly blotting on a sheet of kitchen paper.

Take small bunches of your herbs and tie the stems together. Remove any discoloured or damaged leaves.

Puncture a few holes in each bag, without damaging the leaves, to allow air to circulate. Using a hole punch will ensure the holes are neat and less likely to tear.

Now place each bunch into a paper bag and using the string or ties, tie the neck of the bag around the stems. Use a knot that you can undo easily as you'll want to check the herbs from time to time and the knot may need tightening as the stems dry and shrink.

Write the name of the herb on the bag and hang upside down in a warm, dry space, ideally out of direct


After a few weeks of warm weather your herbs should be dry and crispy. If they are still moist then leave for another week. Otherwise, pack them into airtight jars and label.

For maximum flavour, don't crush your herbs until just before you cook with them. Dried fully, your herbs will last until next summer.

Air-drying is most effective for slightly woody herbs with a low moisture content such as rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. Herbs with a high moisture content like basil and mint, can go mouldy before they dry out so oven drying is preferable. Spread the stems thinly on a baking tray and place in a very low oven (70-80 C) for a couple of hours, opening the door occasionally to release the moist air.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, May 1 2017 10:00AM

As the weather warms up and dries out it's time to collect bark rubbings.

Bark is the outer protective skin of a tree. It prevents the vulnerable inner tissue from attack by disease, fungi or insects as well as insulating it from the elements. Each species of tree has a unique bark pattern – collecting and cataloguing rubbings of them is a great way to spend the day and to learn more about the species living near you. Although you can do it at any time of year, May is the first reliably dry month of the year and new leaves will be out on most trees by now, making them easier to identify.

You will need:

• A roll of masking tape

• Several sheets of strong white paper

• A pack of wax crayons

• A pen or pencil

• A dry day!

Tape a sheet of paper to the truck of your chosen tree. Peel the paper wrapper from one of your crayons. Rub the long edge of the crayon over the paper until the bark pattern shows. Try to keep all your strokes in the same direction. When you have a clear impression of the bark, carefully peel off the masking tape, remove the paper from the tree and use the pen to record the type and location of your tree.

Did you know…? The horizontal dark "dashes" seen on silver birch trees are called lenticels, and they allow the trunk to breath. When the lenticels become blocked, new bark from beneath grows, causing the older covering to peel off.

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