A fledgling emergency

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The little chubby chick perched at the side of the footpath
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The fledgling calls for his mum
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The little fledgling by the path

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 13th June 2018).

I was on a dog walk this morning when I came across a scruffy, chubby little chick perched by the side of the path. Every now and then, he’d give a few cheeps and look about himself in bewilderment, as if saying, “How on earth did I get here? And now what am I supposed to do?”

I had visions of him bravely leaping out of his nest into the unknown, and landing in unfamiliar territory without any notion of how to take off again. He didn’t look very happy, and I wondered if I ought to help him in any way. I couldn’t spot his parents anywhere.

In years gone by, I would have stood there agonising about what to do, fearing he’d be a tasty meal for the next passing cat. But one of the benefits of the modern age is that we have technology at our fingertips. So I took out my phone and Googled ‘What to do if I find a baby bird’. Those clever people at the RSPB came to my rescue, having dedicated a whole page on their website to just such a emergency.

For those you who don’t know, they say: “It’s common in spring and summer to find young birds sitting on the ground or hopping about without any sign of their parents…interfering with a young bird like this will do more harm than good.” It goes on to say they will not have been abandoned by their parents, who will either be watching unseen, or gathering food, and that you should leave them as they they are. “Removal of a fledgling from the wild has to be a very last resort – then only if it is injured or has definitely been abandoned or orphaned.”

So, thanks to my phone, I was very quickly reassured that I was doing the right thing by simply leaving it where it was, despite its anxious chirping and my worries about dastardly feline predators.

He was quite a chunky, round, fellow, with pleasantly dishevelled feathers, a tell-tale sign that he was just a youngster. He was mostly dark brown, yet speckled with dashes of light brown, and my gut instinct told me he was a baby blackbird, although I wasn’t sure. I took a few photos to look it up on my return, and, sure enough I was right. I think my dad would have been pleased. My countryside knowledge is growing by the week!

Dad just loved the nature that surrounded him, and he described June as a ‘beautiful time’ in his column from 17th June 1978. He goes on to talk about its reputation of being a ‘dry’ month, and the long-range forecast in that year predicted it would live up to that reputation. “However,” he adds, “We must not overlook the possibility of heavy downpours – indeed they’ve already come!”

Which is pretty much the same as now, with the first few days of June being as Dad described 40 years ago. I’ve checked the long-range forecast for this month too and it is strikingly similar, predicting mostly dry weather with the occasional heavy downpour.

He goes on to explain that is also known as the month of the ‘haysel’, an ancient word no longer in use, and not found in any of his trusty dialect glossaries. It refers to the period of gathering in the hay, when the ripe grass is cut, dried and carried into the barns for storage. When Dad was a boy, it was a time of great communal activity, and the whole village would turn out to help the farmers gather in their hay before the next heavy downpour. The farmer’s wife would provide a ready supply of drinks to the thirsty workers, including beer and cider, although according to Dad, the rather unappetising-sounding ‘cold tea’ was more commonly drunk.

Dad’s favourite part was once they were in the yard, when him and the other small children would launch themselves into the barn and, as it was in the days before bale machines, make dens and hiding places in the fresh, warm grass as it was unloaded off the carts. He notes that by 1978, almost all of the hay-gathering was done by machinery, and wistfully observes, “Haysel has gone from our language; I wonder how long it will be before haymaking as we knew it also disappears?”

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No need to get ratty

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 1st June, & the Gazette & Herald on 30th May 2018).

I was driving home late one night along one of our quiet country lanes when a great big rat dashed out of the verge and scurried across the road in front of me, its long pink rubbery tail illuminated by my headlights. This is not the first time it has happened, and I always experience an involuntary shudder every time it does.

It makes me wonder why I am so squeamish around rats. I don’t have the same feeling about mice – I recently caught one outside my back door that I found investigating my recycling boxes. I managed to trap it in a plastic tub, and it was so tiny and cute that there was no way I could possibly destroy it, so I released it into some nearby fields (I can hear the seasoned agricultural contingent among you groaning!).

But rats have always suffered from a ‘bad boy’ image, and are regularly depicted as the villains in children’s fiction. Famously they are the worst fear of George Orwell’s unfortunate hero from ‘1984’, Winston, who has to face them through a cage secured to his head in the dreaded Room 101.

It’s possible that this common fear stems from the belief that rats were to blame for the devastation caused by the Black Death. In the mid-fourteenth century, it killed 25 million people across Europe, and even more during later resurgences. The speed of the spread, so it was believed, was due to infected fleas that lived on rats.

But now we know they may well have been unfairly vilified, as a study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.org) showed that it is more likely that it was down to human fleas and body lice. Poor old rats having to shoulder the burden of that reputation for so long!

In my dad’s column from 3rd June 1978, he talks of the old custom of ‘rhyming rats to death’. I have to confess that I have never come across that phrase, but according to Dad, it was an Irish belief that rats in the fields and on rural farms could be rendered unconscious if you talked to them in rhyme. No particular poem is mentioned as having these soporific qualities, but Ben Jonson, the English poet and dramatist, wrote: “Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats,” and Shakespeare also referred to the belief when Rosalind, in As You Like It, says: “I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat.”

Dad also quotes this fascinating little ditty:

“The rat, the cat and Lovel our dog,
Rule all England under a hog.”

This seemingly innocuous verse was in fact a searing criticism of those in power at the time it was written in 1484, and was found pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral and other prominent places all over London. The rat was King Richard III’s confidante, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the cat was Speaker of the Commons William Catesby, and Lovel was Viscount Lovel, who had a reputation for being the king’s ‘lap dog’ or ‘yes man’. King Richard’s emblem was a white boar, hence the reference to a hog.

The poet was ultimately unmasked and found to be wealthy landowner William Collingbourne, a fierce opponent of the king, and he paid a heavy price for writing those few words as he was put to death for treason.

Despite the general dislike among the population towards rats, they are actually supposed to make very good pets. When I was at school, one of my classmates used to bring his white rat into class, and he was a most well-behaved and tame thing, who would sleep in master’s blazer pockets during lessons, so the teacher never knew he was there.

Domesticated rats are known as ‘fancy rats’, coming from the term ‘animal fancier’, and there are numerous professional breeders and a whole community of rat fanciers, with an estimate of about 100,000 pet rats in the UK. They have a reputation for being cleverer than a dog, and more hygienic than a cat. They are sociable, affectionate, trainable, and easy to keep, and if the National Fancy Rat Society (nfrs.org) is to be believed, they are the best of the rodent population to keep as a pet.

So I have one remaining question then – can you take them for a walk?

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Fear of the fatal fungi

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Chef Tommy Banks in the garden of the Black Swan, Oldstead
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The White Horse at Kilburn
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The aptly-named Death Cap mushroom

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th March 2018.

I’ll never forget the moment when local boy Tommy Banks, enthusiastic forager and head chef at the Michelin-starred Black Swan, Oldstead, produced his incredibly personal tribute to his late grandfather on the TV show Great British Menu in 2016. He had created his dish, a dessert called ‘My Great Briton’, with precision, tenderness and obviously deep love for his grandfather, who for many years was custodian of nearby landmark, the White Horse of Kilburn. Tommy flavoured a parfait with oil extracted from the Douglas fir trees that grow on the hills around the White Horse. When the dish was served to a soundtrack of his grandfather’s voice, it had us all, and Tommy too, in tears. His appearance on that show catapulted him and his family-run restaurant into the stratosphere and Oldstead became a must-go destination for the serious foodie.

The thing about foraging, though, is that you really do have to know your stuff. In his column from March 11th 1978, Dad talks about the dangers of confusing your fungi, and how calamitous it could be to get it wrong. His topic came about as a result of a colleague asking him if Death Cap mushrooms grew in North Yorkshire. Dad had never seen one, but he knew it grew in moist shady areas covered by deciduous trees such as oaks, chestnuts and beeches, and so deduced it was entirely possible.

The Death Cap is incredibly toxic and accounts for more than 90% of deaths from fungus poisonings. One of the reasons people make mistakes is because they look similar to perfectly edible varieties, and are rather tasty when cooked. In 2014, there was a surge in poisonings in California after a spell of heavy rain and mild temperatures caused the mushrooms to flourish. Fourteen cases were reported over a few weeks, with three of those afflicted needing liver transplants. In 2008, a woman from the Isle of Wight died after mistakenly picking and cooking a Death Cap, and in 2013 another from Bridgewater suffered organ failure after putting one from her own garden into her soup. That year, there were 237 reported cases of fungus poisonings in the UK.

In 2016, warnings were issued across the country after the wet and mild autumn had led to significant proliferations of the deadly mushroom, and as last autumn was similar, I’m assuming those warnings are still valid.

But the Death Cap isn’t the only toxic mushroom that grows here, and many have appropriately lethal names, such as Destroying Angel, Funeral Bell, Fool’s Funnel and Panther Cap. But if I came across one on a country ramble, I wouldn’t know my Meadow Wax Cap (edible) from my Deadly Web Cap (poisonous).

In a 2014 statement issued by Public Heath England, Dr John Thompson, director of the National Poisons Information Service (Cardiff Unit), said: “When it comes to wild mushrooms, people really need to be aware of the very real potential dangers involved…While mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species, even for people with experience in foraging.”

This was certainly the case for Nicholas Evans, bestselling author of The Horse Whisperer, whose story resembles a plot straight out of one of his own novels. The writer almost killed himself, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law in 2008 after cooking what he thought were innocent ceps. Evans, a seasoned countryman, was usually extremely careful in checking what he had picked against a trusted book of mushrooms. But this time, he didn’t, and cooked several Deadly Web Caps for dinner with butter and parsley. The next day, they started to feel ill with nausea and stomach cramps, and within hours, all four were in intensive care. Thankfully, they survived, but were sick for months afterwards, and the consequences were life long. For three of them, their kidneys were destroyed, and they ended up having to have dialysis for several hours, several days each week, and eventually, all underwent kidney transplants, with Evans receiving his from his own daughter in 2011.

Despite these fungal nightmares, one of my favourite things to eat will forever be mushrooms on toast, and I have heard that the flavour of foraged mushrooms is in another league to the mass-produced varieties on our supermarket shelves. But I’m going to take some convincing before I dare to venture into the wild to pick my own. (Source: wildfoodsuk.com)