The fruits of ignorance

Yesterday, I was really tired. I’d had a whole morning of working on my laptop and with three hours of online training still to come, I needed some ‘tree time’. So after eating lunch, I nipped over to Peartree Green, the local nature reserve I help to look after as a volunteer. I’m really lucky as it’s only 3 minutes from my house.

I thought I’d head down the track that marks the northern boundary, so I could check if there was any wild garlic coming up on the patch just past the the turnoff to the woodland path. Annoyingly there wasn’t much, partly because someone had flytipped garden waste on the patch where it grows (ironically, right below the sign that threatens fines for flytipping and dog mess).

Before I reached that spot though, I’d noticed a lot of lilac-blue poo bags that had been flung into the brambles (see main picture). These are what the chair of the Friends of Peartree Green calls ‘the fruits of ignorance’. I just felt really sad, not only for the wildlife, but also for me and others who go for a walk to appreciate nature but have it spoiled by this kind of thing. So I decided to post about it on our Facebook page and then go back this morning to clear the bags and add a sign.

To many people, I’m sure a patch of scrubby bramble looks like wasteland and seems a reasonable place to throw rubbish, whether it’s poo bags, garden waste or bottles and cans. This patch of bramble includes quite a lot of dead stems as a result of previous cutting by our wonderful volunteers to retrieve beer cans. I’d like to think that if the person doing this understands it’s a nature reserve – and that they can put the bags in a bin (we have six) – they might stop. Or they might not. The ‘Carlsberg case’ has taught me that.

Over the past three years, we’ve removed thousands of beer cans, mostly Carlsberg, and finally one sunny Saturday morning we came across the drinkers during one of our litter picks. I chatted to them to explain it was a nature reserve, and asked them to take their cans home or to a bin. Oh yes, said one, I understand as I work at a country park. Later we walked past their bench, and there were the empty cans on the ground. And we continue to find fresh ones in huge quantities to this day. So why doesn’t a polite request work?

In 2020, during my time as a Wilder Community Leader with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust , I took an inspiring training course in Human Behaviour Change for Wildlife Conservation. This taught me that, in order to try to change behaviour, you need to understand what drives it. This graphic from that course, which was written by Becky Fisher (Deputy Director of Engagement) for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, offers starting points, but without knowing who’s flinging those poo bags, we can only guess at the reason behind it. My sign attempts to cover two: one I suppose relates to values, as I hope that pointing out that the area is part of a nature reserve, the flinger might see those brambles as more important. The second relates to opportunity – there are bins, and you can put bagged poo in them. But this behaviour might be driven by time (the nearest bin is out of my way and I’m in a hurry) or habit (this is the way I walk and here is where my dog poos and I don’t want to change), or something else. I’m guessing. It’s all I can do for now.

Through the Friends of Peartree Gren’s Facebook page , though, there is opportunity for dialogue. We can exchange views and ideas about why people do this. Of course, the people using the page already know, and presumably care, that Peartree Green is a nature reserve. Still, some may not know why it’s important to bag and bin dog poo. As I was putting my bag of rubbish near a bin this morning, ready to ask the city council to collect it, a man put a bag of poo in the bin. I thanked him, and told him what I’d just been doing and why. Curiously, he asked what colour the bags were, and I told him, ‘Funnily enough, the same colour as yours’. He then wondered how long it might take for dog poo to break down, so I explained why we’d prefer it to be bagged and binned. Southampton City Council’s ecologists have told me that poo left on the ground alters the composition of the soil, in turn altering the flowers and plants that grow there. This was clearly new to this man. Hopefully, he’ll tell more people, spreading knowledge and reducing ignorance.

And one day, perhaps the only fruits we’ll see on Peartree Green will be apples and pears, haws and hips, and lots of juicy blackberries.

A sense of place

“What are you doing?” This was the question a little boy asked me on Christmas Eve morning. “Picking up rubbish so the birds can find some food”, I replied. “Okay!” he answered, and off he went. Moments later, a gull landed on the grass and started rooting around for worms, as if it had just been waiting for someone to remove the layers of plastic. The woman with the boy had said nothing, but adults usually say something like “Thank you for doing that” or “There’s no point, it’ll be just as bad tomorrow”. They don’t ask why, and nor had the boy – but it got me thinking about why I do it.

Recently I was talking to a friend who’s planning a research project on litter. One of the things we discussed was how litter picking can help you to notice aspects of nature that you might have overlooked, and how it can also inspire creativity. After our conversation, I walked along nearby Keswick Road in Woolston, one that I’ve been looking at in connection with my job as a Wilder Southampton project officer. My earlier impression was that there was litter along a whole stretch of fence leading down to the river. What I hadn’t noticed before was that there was a good-sized grass verge with three trees and several hazel shrubs on. There was a lot of litter on this verge too, and from a distance, it doesn’t look like anything special.

But up close there’s a lot to wonder at. That hazel shrub on the right, the one that barely reaches as high as the fence, is festooned with with male catkins, and if you look closely you’ll also spot the tiny female flowers.

Seeing this made me want to clear the litter, so I went back a few days later with gloves and bags. I didn’t want something so beautiful and precious to be surrounded by discarded bottles and cans. And it is precious – I walked home that day via Peartree Green, which is a nature reserve, but the hazel shrubs there are quite dull in comparison, with barely a flower. This reminded me again that nature is everywhere, we just have to notice it. And litter picking can help us to do that. The three trees on the verge are sycamores, leafless now because it’s winter, with no remaining ‘helicopter’ seeds. But look at the moss and lichen growing on them! The vibrant green and yellow was all the better because of the grey skies.

There was treasure to be found on the ground too, treasure that I would never have seen if I hadn’t been litter-picking. I thought this was a bit of plastic at first, then realised it was a feather, probably from a swan. I left it there for someone else to find. I walked on, past the car park on Woodley Road. Here there are verges and raised flower beds, and most are badly littered, so I decided to come back to those another day. I realised I was starting to develop a connection to this unloved and overlooked patch, in the same way I had with the corner of the car park I’d been litter picking on Christmas Eve. That car park is next to a beech hedge that provides shelter to birds and I suppose hedgehogs might snuffle along it looking for food, in another season. That’s why I’d litter picked it before, with a friend of mine. There are wild flowers there in spring and summer too. For me, it had grown from being a ‘space’ to a ‘place’, and the same was happening with the Woolston patch.

What do you think of the phrase ‘green space’ ? Some months ago, I’d heard someone say they disliked it, but I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about it much until I started reading a book by¬†Philip Marsden¬†called ‘Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place’. In it he refers to academic debates about the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place’, and says that ‘place’ is somewhere distinctive, somewhere people react to and live with. ‘Space’, in contrast, isn’t real, it’s more of an ideal, so we can end up with housing estates or high streets or parks that all look the same – you could be anywhere. Connection is the thing here, I think. Feeling a connection to somewhere can turn it into a place, and connection needs familiarity I’m familiar with that car park patch because I’ve looked at it many times, and thought about the creatures that might live there. I know Peartree Green really well because I’ve walked it hundreds of times, I’ve taken thousand of photographs, I’ve studied the flowers and the trees – and I pick up litter all the time, because I care about the place. Philip Marsden’s book is about Cornwall, and he explores areas like Bodmin Moor, huge areas of wild country. Where I am in Southampton, to some, ‘nature’ means the New Forest, a national park. They probably wouldn’t give my verge on Keswick Road a second glance, but they would be missing a treat. I was going to say it would be their loss, but the sad thing is that their loss would be nature’s loss too. If people don’t notice the treasures all around them, they won’t care because they won’t feel a connection. Noticing is about more than just seeing, of course, but that’s another blog post. For this one I’ll end with this mysterious tree, which is on the verge opposite my hazel-moss-feather treasure zone. Notice how the bark changes, and when I was picking up litter (obviously!) I noticed that it changes again at the base. How curious! There has to be a story to this tree. Any ideas?

Favourites and familiars

This post was inspired by something that happened a few months ago. I’ve sometimes found run-over hedgehogs on the road near my house, and I usually bury them. I can’t bear the thought of a hog just lying there like a piece of rubbish. So one morning when I saw a brownish shape in the road, I assumed another hog had been hit by a car, but as I walked towards it I realised it was actually a rat. I felt relieved, but then questioned my reaction. I felt guilty for being glad it wasn’t a hedgehog, but that didn’t seem fair. The rat was also once living, after all, and it didn’t deserve to be left there either, so I picked it up and buried it.

This got me thinking about why some creatures are more popular than others. Rats are despised by many people, but is there anyone who doesn’t like hedgehogs? Why is that? Perhaps it’s because people generally think hedgehogs pose no risk to humans, whereas rats are connected with the bubonic plague (probably incorrectly, according to this article). Or do hedgehogs just look cuter, as they’re rounded and seem to waddle along, whereas rats can move fast and have that long tail? What about the eyes? Big eyes usually trigger cute-alerts in humans, but if you look at the pictures above, is there any difference?

I think maybe it’s the fact that hedgehogs are just not as easy to see, being not only nocturnal but also endangered. So when you see one, you feel honoured. When my neighbour’s daughter spotted one in the alley next to my garden in August 2020, that was the first one I’d seen since I can’t remember when. Realising they were around, I got a hedgehog hole put in my fence and started putting food out. I also made little log piles for insects to shelter in, to provide the hogs with a natural source of food. Over two years after seeing that first one, I’m used to them now, and I love hearing them crunching biscuits or ‘chuffing’ when they’re mating. But to some extent the novelty of having a wild animal visiting the garden has worn off – or at least, that particular wild animal. Enter the fox!

Foxes fascinate me, probably because I rarely see them. I still remember how exciting it was when I realised there was one in my front garden early one winter morning, when it was still dark. Our cat Sidney obviously heard it and was scrabbling to get onto the window sill, so I opened the curtains a tiny bit to see what was there. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw movement and then, after a while, the fox. Very exciting! I wasn’t quite running around like Sidney was, but I couldn’t believe it. Another time I discovered a hole had been dug partly under a slab in my front garden, and assumed a fox had been trying to get at a rat or a mouse. I’ve since bought a trailcam so often catch them on that, but it’s unusual to get a daylight picture like this one. It’s something of a myth that they’re nocturnal, according to Adele Brand, but in built up areas with a lot of traffic, I suppose they find it safer to come out after dark. When I worked at Itchen Valley Country Park I had several daytime sightings.

Sometimes I see this, a fox and a hedgehog together. I assumed foxes didn’t attack hedgehogs because of all those spines. In early October though, I had an upsetting few days when I kept finding young hedgehogs in the alley that looked like they’d been killed by a bite to the neck. I found four in three days and wondered if an inexperienced, desperate fox had tried to eat them. I was a bit torn then about how I felt about foxes, and I wondered if it was a mistake to attract hedgehogs to my garden. I still don’t know who or what was killing the hogs, but thankfully I didn’t find any more.

When it comes to birds, I also have my favourites. I love starlings – for their murmurmations, their looks, their character and their ability to mimic. Some of my local starlings do pretty good impressions of our cat and our squeaky front gate. They’re raucous and noisy – often I hear what I think must be 6 or 7 birds, and look up to see just one, going through its repertoire of whistles and pops. They are also precious, as their numbers are in critical decline, making them a red-listed bird. So I feed them, but as the days get shorter and the sunrise gets later, they take longer to arrive from their roost, meaning I have to wait – if I don’t, the magpies get all the food. But what’s wrong with magpies? Don’t they have to eat too? Well yes they do, but they seem rowdy, even though they hang out in small ‘gangs’ compared to starlings. To me, they just look suspicious, like they’re plotting something. They’re kind of shifty – I haven’t got a photo because they’re off as soon as you look at them. And then there’s their harsh call. They do have beautiful iridescent tail feathers, but that’s about it on the good points as far as I can see. They seem to be everywhere, but then they are green-listed, so not in decline at the moment. The starlings need the food more than they do, I reckon.

Pigeons. How do we feel about them? Or, more specifically, feral pigeons as opposed to wood pigeons. Feral pigeons are the ones depicted above on a bench in Southampton city centre by Kev Munday, what the artist calls a ‘lighthearted take on Southampton’s feathered friends’. ‘Feral’ itself has negative connotations, which doesn’t help their reputation (think of people describing ‘feral kids’ to mean running wild, being uncivilised, not like the Victorian ideal of children). The RSPB calls them ‘Rock doves/feral pigeons‘ but I’m not sure how many people would think of them as rock doves. Some people call them ‘flying rats’, but let’s not get back to rats again! Another inspiration for this post was David Lindo’s recent column on feral pigeons in my RSPB magazine, in which he ran through their plus points – they’re intelligent, ‘incredible flyers’ and attractive. On that last one, notice the striking purple-green sheen around their neck, captured well by Kev Munday in his painting. Not all of them are that colour of course – locally I’ve seen some that are more brown and white. David Lindo also points out something I didn’t know – feral pigeons are nowhere near as numerous as it seems. There are thought to be only 550,000 pairs, compared with 6 million pairs of wood pigeons. They may be familiar, and thought of as a nuisance by some, but their numbers are dropping. Apparently they can recognise the faces of people who feed them, so I think I’ll return the favour and pay closer attention to them. It’ll be interesting to see how many individuals visit my garden – I’ll probably realise there are nowhere near as many as I thought.

Peartree Green: after the fire

On 12 August 2022, after weeks of dry, hot weather, the inevitable happened: there was a serious fire on Peartree Green local nature reserve. I was sitting in our garden when my partner came out around 5 pm and said, “Something’s on fire over there”. I turned to look and said, “Oh my god, that looks like the Green”. It was. It took the fire crews several hours to bring it under control, and around a quarter of the reserve was damaged. The picture below, by Sherin Sullivan and reproduced in the Southern Daily Echo story, gives a taste of how bad it was.

Much of the Southern Hill, an area of long grass that provided a home to small mammals such as mice and voles, as well as to grasshoppers and crickets, butterflies and ladybirds, was burnt. The fire spread down onto the southern plain as far as Phil’s Hill, so we lost the blackthorn stand, several apple trees and a thicket of gorse, on the right of both pictures below. The second photo below was taken on 28 October, eleven weeks later.

The western slope of Phil’s Hill was also badly burnt, but is recovering well, as the pictures below show. Both were taken with my back to the railway line which forms the western boundary of the nature reserve.

The fire swept along much of that western boundary, meaning you can now see trains clearly as they pass. And this is one of the positive outcomes of the fire, as sightlines have been improved, meaning that people feel safer. There are fewer places to hide too – in the past, there have been camps and dens built along here. These have caused damage to the nature reserve, especially to the trees and plants, through littering, camp fires, and structures being attached to branches with nails and screws. Another positive was that Phil Budd, the Chair of both Friends of Peartree Green and Southampton Natural History Society felt that in most places the fire damage was quite shallow, as the fire had swept through quickly. The burning of large areas of brambles and other scrub has opened up areas for grasses and flowers to come through, and it will be interesting to see what we get.

When I had a look around the day after the fire, I just cried. This is a place I know really well, having walked around it hundreds of times since moving to the area six years ago. I’m lucky to live only three minutes’ walk away, and the reserve has been my “nature classroom”, as I’ve learned about the wildlife it supports – 1,340 species, at the last count. We have a fantastic range of wildflowers, and I’ve enjoyed working out what they are, sometimes with a book, sometimes on a guided walk with Phil. The young Ash tree below marks the extent of the fire on the western stretch of the circular path, heading north. I’m not sure it’ll survive, which is sad for me as it’s one that helped me learn what an Ash looks like. On the bright side – literally, as well as figuratively – a patch of Common Toadflax came up around the base – and in fact this flower seems to be almost everywhere the fire was. Previously I only saw it in one particular place on the reserve.

Bird watching became more interesting after the fire. One local resident, Ian, was there most days and spotted some species not seen often, and in a couple of cases, never recorded before. On 1 September, for example, he noted “A new species for the autumn here was a juvenile Wheatear while a second juvenile Whinchat showed well. A Lesser Whitethroat fed in the open and there were still 3 Spotted Flycatchers. Also seen were 2 brightly plumaged Chiffchaffs and a male Great-Spotted Woodpecker”. I wondered if there were more birds than usual, or if it was just that they were more visible, with the scrub reduced. Ian felt it was a bit of both. Then on 2 September came the bird he’d been hoping to see, a Wryneck. The photo below is by Ian, and you can see why this bird, a type of woodpecker, is hard to spot. This one stayed around for a few days and attracted people who’d never been to Peartree Green before.

We also had an astonishing number of supportive messages and offers of help from the local community. The picture below shows two of the wonderful people who joined a litter pick on 21 August to clear items revealed by the fire. You can see what a difficult job this was! Southampton City Council also sent a team with a truck to remove the rubbish. As well as the 20 or so people who joined this effort, other local residents also organised themselves to clear litter. We are very grateful to them all, and it shows how special the reserve is for local residents. We are fortunate to have it in Peartree, and we are very lucky to have so many people who clearly treasure it. Even though our wonderful volunteers are the reason we were awarded Wilder Group of the Year from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, I hadn’t realised just how much support there was. Thank you everyone.

Outdoor Learning: Noticing Nature

Not surprisingly for a nature-lover, one of my favourite parts of working in outdoor learning at Youth Options was when young people showed an interest in the natural world around them. Sometimes this was in the forest school area, and other times it was out on a walk around Itchen Valley Country Park, where we were based. The place I visited most often, with both groups and individuals, was the woodland behind the Little Owls pre-school. One particular person also loved this place, and visibly relaxed when we got there. It is a very calming space thanks to all those trees and the fact no-one else much seemed to go there. This particular person relaxed so much that they suggested a game of hide and seek! They won, but I like to blame my bright blue uniform, which made it quite hard to hide!

Being here also gave us a chance to use our senses. We crushed western red cedar leaves to see if they really do smell of pineapple, listened out for woodpeckers, watched for deer on the woodland edges, and felt the crunch of snail shells when we accidentally walked over a song thrush anvil! On a path into the woods we found a long-tailed tit nest, and touched the soft lining of feathers. Further along the path in this photo, we found the fungus called King Alfred’s Cakes.

The first time I realised that this person was interested in wildlife was when we were in our area back in January, and they spotted a fox walking through, roughly in the centre of this picture. What a magical moment! This was the first time I’d seen a fox so close. After that we kept a an eye and ear out for other creatures, one time spotting a woodlouse shedding its skin and another time watching a jay. We also did a bit of pond dipping, finding several newts and dragonfly nymphs.

As well as the individual I’ve written about above, there was one group that particularly enjoyed going on nature walks, and we also had some special encounters. One afternoon on our way to the nature reserve, we startled a deer in a hedge, and it sprang out past us at speed, giving us quite an adrenalin rush! When we got to the reserve, it was warm and sunny. I was at the back of the group chatting to one individual when I spotted a grass snake – the first time I’d ever seen one – and excitedly shouted ‘snake!’ The others in the group had missed it, and I think a couple of them were quite annoyed! Needless to say, I didn’t get a photo of either, but we did spot these grazing cows on the same day, another highlight. At other times we found Scarlet Elf Cup mushrooms in the woods, and froglets sprang out of some long grass on our walk there.

This is the Devil’s Coach Horse beetle, introduced to me by my nature-loving colleague Tom. It was generally fairly easy to find under our log stumps around the fire circle, and quite a hit even with people that weren’t very interested in nature. This is because it raises its tail like a scorpion when it feels threatened – such as when a human reveals its hiding place!

I think my enthusiasm for everyday nature rubbed off on some of the young people I worked with, as one excitedly showed me when they found a jay feather (and I gritted my teeth, wishing I’d spotted it first!!) Another time, at holiday club, we sat eating our lunch watching this queen bee burrowing into the ground, and discussed why she was doing it.

Ok, this isn’t a ‘nature’ photo, but when this sign appeared on a fence – which, let’s be honest, does look like a gate! – it amused me so much I kept showing it to everyone. I’ve included it here because it still makes me smile, and reminds me how much fun I had working with Youth Options at Itchen Valley Country Park. It’s a wonderful setting, with countless opportunities for discovering nature and having fun.

I can’t share pictures of the young people I worked with, so instead I’m ending on this one with my colleagues. Our post-holiday club social was to take part in axe throwing at Go Ape! in the park, and I was invited even though I’d left my job the previous week. I wasn’t very good at it, but we had fun and all got a certificate. The best thing about that day though was that as I arrived to lock up my bike, I bumped into the young person I’ve written about at the start of this blog, out on a visit to the park with his school. That really made my day! So I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone I worked with, especially the young people. Many happy memories were made and I learned a lot, but most of all I had fun.

When is it lunchtime?

Poster for an after lunch show. I secured my VIP ticket with a strawberry from the allotment!

In my last blog post in January, 8 months ago, I was about to start a permanent post with Youth Options, after first volunteering, then working on a casual basis with them since October 2020. As a casual worker, a lot of my job was working at holiday club, so it’s fitting that my final sessions were there too. The first photo I’ve chosen was a poster drawn on my last day by one of the holiday club regulars I’ve known longest. Performances of various kinds are a common feature!

The title of this post is a familiar question when you’re working at holiday club (and even sometimes when you’re not, as I found when I was helping out at some summer events on Peartree Green that we called Play Wild!). It can mean that the young person is hungry, but it can also indicate they’re a bit bored or missing home, so it always needs a sensitive response.

Some holiday clubbers are happy to play in the mud play area, build dens or invent games. But holiday club also offers a chance to get creative in a more structured way, perhaps making things, such as by recycling materials. This kneeling mat woven from carrier bags is a good example, as it was one I introduced to Youth Options, having learned it on Forest School training with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. I added my own twist by only using bags I’d found on litter picks – and letting the young people and my colleagues know that! It became one of my signature crafts.

Another popular activity making God’s eyes, something I also learned on Forest School training. God’s eyes originated in Mexico

For anyone with some manual dexterity, it’s fairly easy to do. Young people start by finding two straight sticks of a similar length, then choose their wool colours. I usually lash the sticks together to get them started. It doesn’t matter if you go wrong – as I have many times! – you can leave it as it is, or unwind it and start again. You can change colours, or use just one, and make it as big or small as you like.

A hidden benefit of making a God’s eye is that the repetitive motion of turning the cross and wrapping the wool is calming for many people, so it’s a lovely ‘time out’ quiet activity.

For holiday clubbers who haven’t developed their fine motor skills enough to manage a God’s eye, there’s always stick people. These are simple, and amazingly popular. I got the idea from my friend Gem, who writes the inspiring blog Childsplayabc which is full of ideas for engaging children with nature. For the stick person, peel a stick to make a flat surface for a face, draw on the face and add some wool as hair. Then add feathers, leaves and other found natural items. From there, the only limit is the holiday clubber’s imagination – I’ve seen them given names and characters, and used in all kinds of games! Painting pebbles to make bees and ladybirds, and lolly stick flowers was a popular activity this summer.

The third photo above shows some natural art. A young person collected pine cones, acorns, hazelnuts, sticks, stones and leaves, and arranged them on a tree stump. Much better than any of my efforts!

Obviously, one of the great things about working at holiday club is that we grown ups get the chance to play too! Someone’s got to show the young people how to make something, right? And you need an example so they know what they’re aiming for! I think you can see by my face that I’m quite pleased with my lolly stick flower! Holiday club isn’t just about crafts and games though. We also make time to discover nature, whether that’s though natural art or painting stones, or when a dragonfly zooms around above our heads like a drone. A walk in the woods is a great way to notice nature – more on that in the next post. And to answer the question, lunchtime is usually around 12 noon !

From one ELF to another

Just over a year ago, I was a ‘serious’ academic*, teaching and carrying out research at the University of Southampton. My specific area was English as a Lingua Franca, or ELF. By Christmas 2021, I was dressed as the kind of elf more familiar to most people, playing in the woods with three year-olds, working for the charity Youth Options. So what happened? How did I go from Dr Doubleday to Little Jill?

*I was never really that serious.

That’s Little Jill on the right, made by one of the young people attending holiday club in July 2021. I think she’s captured my spirit rather well! After eleven years working at the university (while studying for a PhD for more than eight of those years), I’d decided the time was right for a change. I’d developed a love for ‘local’ nature, and thanks to my involvement with the Friends of Peartree Green, assisted at some bug hunting sessions there run for local school children by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. This led to me volunteering with the Trust on a Forest School programme for 5-7 year-olds at Testwood Lakes nature reserve in autumn 2019. I absolutely loved it, and could see the difference it made to the young people who attended. I wanted to do more, so began training as a Forest School Assistant in spring 2020, again with the Trust. When lockdown happened and the Trust couldn’t run the programme I was due to assist on, I had to find another one in order to complete my training. Step forward Youth Options!

Tom and Henry at Youth Options were running a series of sessions at a school very close to my area of Southampton. After completing the necessary DBS checks and training, I joined them as a volunteer. The setting was the amazing beech wood you see on the left, and autumn was a fantastic time to be there. This time I was working with slightly older young people (10 -11 year-olds). Tom and Henry were fantastic colleagues to learn from, giving me the time I needed to learn how to plan, deliver and reflect on sessions, so that I could complete my training. This time volunteering gave me the opportunity to practice some of the skills from my forest school training, such as making a godseye, as well as learn several new activities. Given the time of year, and the interests of the group, we discovered more about hibernation and about different types of trees, for example. By the time the programme ended, just before Christmas 2020, I’d left my job at the university and was also volunteering in the Nature Zone at another school (see previous blog post), ready to make this my new career.

During the school holidays of Easter 2021, Youth Options gave me more opportunities. I volunteered at a holiday club for Thornhill primary, then had a few days of paid work at the main holiday club at Itchen Valley Country Park. I was now officially a member of staff. Yippee! My contract was casual, so I worked as I was needed. Both holiday clubs, then a forest school programme with a junior school, plus some cover for colleagues on other programmes, all gave me valuable experience. Not long before summer, in June, I was asked if I could work at the pre-school Youth Options runs, Little Owls. Given my limited experience with that age group, I wasn’t sure what to expect but was willing to give it a go. After one day I was hooked! Luckily for me I was needed regularly, and my colleagues Suzie, Lisa, Becki, Rachael and Zara shared their skills and knowledge with me. During summer I worked almost full-time on holiday club with young people ranging from 5 to 11 years old, then in September I was back at Little Owls for two days a week. That increased to three or four as the year drew to a close, with a week’s gap for October half-term holiday club. By now I was developing my repertoire of crafts to go alongside cooking on the fire, bug hunting, natural art and all the other fun activities that make up a typical day in the woods. The forest folk and their rope ladders on the right were made for a ‘Rebuild the Village’ activity (their village has been destroyed by a clumsy troll, hence their expressions).

Alongside building my repertoire and skills in the woods, I kept busy learning through formal training sessions (Makaton; Outdoor and Paediatric First Aid), webinars organised by the Forest School Association and the Institute for Outdoor Learning, Skill Shares with the FSA Hampshire group, and reading, reading and more reading. Early on, I realised that working in outdoor learning or forest school is not just about engaging young people with nature and inspiring them to look after it (my original motivation for doing this). It’s also about that young person, helping them to develop their self-esteem and find their direction. But that’s a whole topic in itself – watch out for another post on that!

In September I began training to be a Forest School Leader. This is a long process requiring a substantial portfolio of written work as well as demonstrating the ability to teach practical skills such as choosing and using the correct knots to secure hammocks or shelters, and using tools to saw, whittle or carve. I’ll also run my own programme, probably at Youth Options’ new site, the Outdoor Learning Centre. And I’ll be doing this as a permanent member of staff, a role that officially begins on 4 January 2022. This will give me new challenges and opportunities, including delivering 1:1 sessions. I can’t wait to get started!

Litter pick challenge

You’ll often find me rummaging in a hedge.

What you see above is probably a typical image that strangers in my area have of me. Rummaging in a hedge, pulling out litter! I find it hard to ignore rubbish, and even more so when it’s somewhere green, somewhere that wildlife should be finding food or a home.

We’re fortunate to have several green spaces around the Peartree ward where I live, but all need regular litter picks. These are carried out by community groups such as the Woolston Wombles, Freemantle Common Friends and Friends of Peartree Green. Much of what we find – cans and bottles – should have been recycled, and if we had a return scheme, like Germany and other places, our community groups could put money generated from litter to good use.

Look closely at this bramble patch on Peartree Green local nature reserve. How many lager cans can you see?

This is what inspired me to set myself a Litter Pick Challenge for the Big Give this year, to raise money for Youth Options, a charity that works with young people to improve their lives. I started volunteering with them a year ago, and am now an Outdoor Learning Leader, helping young people to develop their confidence and skills through engaging with the natural world.

Log circle around the fire area, where outdoor learning sessions usually begin and end.

The Big Give takes place from 30 November to 7 December, when you can make donations online here. Donations made during this time will be doubled, meaning that Youth Options can support more young people to improve their mental well-being, engage with learning and stay safe.

I’ve set myself the challenge of recycling 200 cans and bottles over four days of the Big Give period. The areas I’ll pick will include our local blue space, the shore of the River Itchen, next to the Itchen Bridge and Itchen Ferry Memorial Garden.

Another spot will be Freemantle Common, an amazing place for trees and birds. Here I am at a monthly pick with the Freemantle Common Friends .

Veracity Recreation Ground will also be on my schedule. Here you can see the wildflower bunds created a couple of years ago, which are teeming with bees and other pollinators in summer. There’s also a lovely beech hedge which provides a safe corridor for mammals such as hedgehogs – when it’s not full of plastic waste!

Peartree Green, a local nature reserve, is a reliable source of cans, especially when winter dieback of greenery reveals the Carlsberg drinker’s empties. On the left above is some of the haul from last winter, when I worked alone or with another picker to pull out more than a 1,500 cans over a few weeks. If we have a repeat of that, I might exceed my target of 200 – which I won’t mind at all if it generates more donations to Youth Options through the Big Give!

My year in the Nature Zone

Welcome to the Nature Zone sign with wildflower meadow in foreground

As soon as I spent my first afternoon in the Nature Zone at Wordsworth Primary School on 24 September 2020, I was hooked. What an amazing place! It was set up by the children in 2014 under the guidance of Steve, the outdoor learning tutor. (He’s also a film-maker and has shared a series of videos here ). The school is in an area of Southampton called Shirley where many of the pupils live in flats. The Nature Zone gives these children regular time in nature through various activities, including the forest school sessions that I’ve been part of.

This selfie from May captures how I felt being in the NZ. Every week I felt a sense of ‘aaah, that’s better’ as soon as I arrived (yes, even when it was raining heavily and I’d cycled across the city in a very strange waterproof outfit!). For a few hours I was transported to another world. There’s a pond, a woodland and a wildflower meadow; bird boxes, bee and bug hotels, and a wormery. But what makes it special is the added ingredient of the excitement and laughter of children climbing the tree, bug hunting, pond dipping and generally feeling free in the outdoors, their sense of confidence and achievement when they make it onto the lower branch of the tree, or fish out a newt, then another one, and another – the pond is brimming with them! But more on that pond dipping later…

Steve has a great name for young voices. It’s that long vowel. As we were setting up and the children were nearby in the playground at lunchtime, I’d often hear cries of “Steeeeve”. My name doesn’t have the same sound, but they soon learned it and came up with suggestions for my Nature Zone name. The idea is to choose an animal or plant that begins with the same sound as your name. Giraffe was the first name I was given. As I settled in I thought it would be good to choose something local that the children might see in the area, like jackdaw. But then I realised it wasn’t about me, it was about what the kids might connect with, because it was exciting, or maybe had a link to their heritage, so we had dragon, anaconda, snow leopard, tiger and jaguar and of course we also had newt.

The pond was a source of great excitement. For me it was a chance to learn more about the wildlife as until then I was much better at identifying land creatures – but I soon found out about dragonfly nymphs, pond skaters and newts. Naturally the kids wanted to hold the newts, something I felt uneasy about at first. This was one of my early chats with Steve during our post-session reflection. We discussed what Patrick Barkham had said in his 2020 book Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature about children’s need to touch, stroke and hold things to feel a real connection with them. Given how much I enjoyed holding newts and toads myself, I could see the appeal. So I learned to relax about it … more or less!

I’m still working on how to shift some kids’ focus from the number of newts caught (“I’ve got 10!” “I caught 12!”) to the newts themselves. Engaging with nature is part of what forest school is about, so in winter I came up with a ‘natural treasure hunt’. Even when there isn’t much to catch in the pond or from the leaf litter, there are still interesting things to be found. Things that are often overlooked but worth, I think, spending a bit of time with. Feathers (why do I find more pigeon feathers than any other type?), snail shells (what happened to the snail?), sticks (are they all the same?) and leaves (how many different shapes are there?). Instead of the usual photo ID sheet, I used the real objects, laid on a card with labels, and the children went off with bug pots to see what they could collect. The Year 1 group really got into this!

Nature Zone sessions help children to build confidence and resilience as they try new things, such as making dens or climbing trees. Some kids are fearless and agile, so I’d ask them to coach the others on the best way up the tree. Then that nervous child would get up there, and beam and say “I’ve never climbed a tree before”. These activities also help them develop physical dexterity and strength, as do woodworking sessions, from making name badges at the start to reindeer for Christmas. With supervision, children use bow saws, loppers, and hand drills, tools they’ve probably never used before.

The Nature Zone also has an outdoor classroom, something I was very grateful for on the day we made the reindeer. You can see from the puddle that it was more of a rain-deer kind of day (sorry!). Most of the time, the children didn’t worry about the weather, but if was cold then the fire we had for the final session was very popular. In truth though, even if it’s summer the fire draws gasps as they arrive. Eating pizza cooked over a real fire, then toasting your own marshmallow, is hard to beat. Steve and I got our teamwork down to a fine art for these sessions, him on the fire, me on the catering table, helped as ever by one of the teaching assistants.

Grandmother oak with the fire circle in the background

I feel incredibly luck to have spent my Thursday afternoons here with Steve. His enthusiasm, resourcefulness and commitment are really inspiring. The grandmother oak above is for me a symbol of this, of why the Nature Zone works so well. That and Steve’s stories, which are legendary! But even Steve can’t make it work on his own. Without the wonderful Wordsworth pupils, it also wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Things can’t stay the same forever though, so Steve and I have worked our last session together, and the Year 3 group created this amazing book of thanks.

Helping Hedgehogs

One Sunday afternoon in August 2020, the day after we’d had this hole cut in the fence, we heard a commotion in the alley on the other side. The little girl who lives over the road had spotted a hedgehog. They shouldn’t be out in daylight, so we brought it into our garden, tucked it under a shrub and gave it food and water, relaxed in the knowledge that there were shady places to rest, but also an escape route.

Of course we looked online to decide what to do, and found that females may go out in the day time if they have little ones, called hoglets, to feed. The photo shows that this one was a good size – that saucer is 12 cm in diameter – and she (?) started eating pretty quickly. I’d also asked my sister, whose friend runs a hedgehog rescue, what she thought. If a similar thing happened now, I’d check with our local rescue and rehabilitation organisation Hamble Hedgehogs for further advice, but back then I had little experience. That soon changed – once I started putting food and water out every night, the hogs just kept coming. Mostly we got four or five, usually one adult and the rest youngsters, but one night I counted six at the feeding area!

I rarely took photos, so as not to disturb our visitors, but once or twice I couldn’t resist. Here you can see three hoglets with an adult, and I love this photo because the little one on the left is right in there, actually on the silver saucer, which was quite a common thing to see. I also love the back leg – if you haven’t seen a hedgehog move, you might be surprised at how long their legs are, and how fast they can go! They can also climb, but I haven’t seen this yet. I put two saucers of food out next to my gate, where I could peek through the window at them. Just to their left is a bowl of water, near the hedgehog hole. I also keep the alleys behind my house clear of litter, and you can see in the photo below that I put a bowl of water under some ivy out there. The third photo shows a local shrubby patch. It looks lovely, but delve in and you find accumulated litter. This means hogs foraging for food come up against lots of plastic, so I’m clearing these areas as part of my ‘hedgehog highway expansion programme’!

Another way to provide food in your garden is to make stick or log piles where insects can shelter – and hogs can forage. I also have quite a few pots, which I sometimes move slightly just before dusk to expose worms and slugs underneath. Occasionally a visitor arrives early, and is ready and waiting (see photo). You can get lots of good advice on Hedgehog Street , where you can also find the Big Hedgehog map. Here you discover how many hedgehogs are in your area, and log your sightings as well as any hedgehog holes you create. I’m fortunate to have alleys behind my house, and I can see that many of my neighbours have ‘accidental’ holes in their fences, or gaps under the gate – good news, as hogs travel about a mile every night looking for food and a mate.

This year the hogs started coming out of hibernation in early March. Two days ago, I noticed that one had white patches on both sides, something I’d never seen before, and got a photo as he was eating (you can just see the edge of the silver saucer). I contacted Hamble Hedgehogs and Amanda, one of their foster carers, came over last night once I’d put Harley, as we’d named him/her, into a temporary box. Amanda confirmed the white patches were paint, transferred Harley into a proper carrying box and will get him/her cleaned up. When she’s happy Harley is ok, she’ll bring him/her back. Watch this space for an update!