Author Archives: Sally

Autumn well-being

Wild food treasures

As daylight hours shorten it is fascinating to pay attention to the changes in the natural world around us and how our own bodies feel as we adjust to the rhythms of a new season. Walking in nature helps us to reflect upon these changes and improves our mood, especially on a clear sunny day. Explore with your senses: feel the cooler temperatures, smell the damp air and earthy aromas, observe changing colours, listen to sounds and taste late summer fruits.

Colour – light energy – has been linked to our health and well-being so here are my favourite colour inspired activities to share with your groups to beat any autumn blues:

Wild foods I-spy spotters guide: Hedgerows are full of colourful wild food treasures! Create a photo guide of most the common fruits, nuts and berries in your area. Then invite your group to see how many they can find. Children particularly enjoy looking for bright red coloured berries – please emphasise to look but not pick; explaining that there are many poisonous lookalikes and the importance of leaving food for wildlife to collect and eat. This activity teaches visual recognition using colour and shape. Count how many different colours are found.

Colours of autumn: Using bookmark sized black card with a strip of double sided stick tape along its length, collect and stick small pieces of different coloured fallen leaves to create a collage of colours; warm earthy colours or vibrant intense colour contrasts of yellow, red and orange. For younger children, the card can be a squirrel or hedgehog shape template to introduce learning about how wildlife is preparing for the winter.

Crown camouflage: Extending the previous activity, decorate a card headband (with a strip doubled sided tape) to create a crown of leaves. Discuss with group winter camouflage; deer grow a thick dark coloured coat to blend into their changing surroundings. Challenge your group to hide (setting your boundaries) imagining they are deer, using their leaf crowns help to disguise their shape – will the wolf find them?

Autumn glow

                                 Autumn glow at sunset

Autumn landscapes: Experience the warm soft glow of autumn colours during the ‘golden hours’ just after sunrise and before sunset. The New Forest heathlands are a magical place to sit and let your senses take in your surroundings. In contrast the golden yellow colours of the beech woodlands against a clear blue sky invite you to playfully kick piles of dry leaves!

Guided autumn walks New Forest: Click New Forest walking festival for more details. Join us on our family Wild foods of the Forest walks on Sunday 14th or 21st October – and learn how to make your own autumn vitamin boost tonics.

Autumn 2018 – Family Wild Foods of the Forest

Join us on a walk to find out how to forage a feast from the Forest. These walks are part of the New Forest Walking Festival 2018.

New Forest Autumn Wild Foods event

Update- 17/09/2018- Events are now sold out! Please follow us on Facebook to hear about future events.

A family friendly foray to look for and identify hedgerow fruits, berries and woodland wild foods. Activities include making leaf gathering parcels, a forager’s charm and an ‘I-Spy’ challenge. There will be opportunities to taste wild food jams and syrups brought along on the day.

This is an educational walk and there will be no collection of fungi to eat. Activities suitable for children over 5 years old.

Dates: Sunday 14th October and Sunday 21st October 

Location:  Beachern Wood car park, Rhinefield Road, Brockenhurst. Nearest postcode: SO42 7QD (grid Ref: SU284 026)

Times: 10.30am – 12noon

Length: 1.5 miles / 1.5 hours, grass and gravel tracks on level ground

Price:  £20 for a family (two adults and up to three children), £10 an adult,

Click on the above dates to book your place via Eventbrite

It’s easy-beezy to learn about and help bees!

Early bumble bee

Bees are very special insects. They are fascinating to learn about and it is simple to do a few things to help bees in your local area. Did you know there are over 250 species of bee in the British Isles? Most of these are solitary bees, with 24 species of bumblebee and just 1 honeybee.

A buzzing bee is a familiar sound of summer but troublingly they are in fact in decline. Bees along with other insects such as butterflies, moths, hoverflies, wasps and beetles are essential for pollinating our crops such as fruit and vegetables as well as trees and wild flowers.

However, people are often unaware of how incredibly important they are. When asked ‘why do we need bees?’, a common reply from adults and children is that they think that bees just give us honey.

Here are some activity ideas focused on bumblebees to raise awareness and take action to help our buzzy friends out.

The Big8 ‘I-spy’ hunt: There are eight species of bumblebee that are common across the UK. Download your Big8 ID guide here. Use this fun guide to help encourage groups to look for and observe the differences between each species: tail colour; number of yellow bands / stripes; gingery or almost black.

Did you know?  – bees have different length tongues (called a proboscis) to feed on different types of flowers.

Bee friendly flowers: Observe the colour and shape of flowers the bees are visiting. For example: long tubular flowers of foxgloves and honeysuckle attract long-tongued bees; whilst short-tongued bees such as the distinctive red-tailed bumblebee, will visit a wide range of flowers particularly yellow ones.

Get that buzz: Plant pots for pollinators – even small additions to gardens provide a much-needed nectar source (sugar) for energy, while pollen provides the protein. Visit Bumblebee Conservation Trust for information about choosing a variety of bee friendly flowers that will attract pollinators all year-round. Also check out Bee Kind to find out how bee friendly your garden is.

Did you know? Worker bees are always female and can be identified by the little baskets of pollen they carry on their back legs.

Hairy bee legs: Imagine you are a bumblebee and use a cotton bud as your ‘hairy bee leg’ and visit a variety of flowers to collect pollen. The yellow pollen sticks to the end of the cotton bud and is also fun way to investigate the different shape of flowers.

Buzzy Bee on a stick: This is a great closing activity where groups are invited to colour in a bumblebee template of their favourite bee species which can be attached to a short stick. Younger children enjoy taking their finished bee on an adventure.

Bees on a stick

Older children can be encouraged to take action by writing a pollinator pledge on the back: grow bee friendly plants; create a bee friendly space – an area of long grass, undisturbed compost heap and log piles for hibernation sites for bumblebees; give bees a drink; not to use pesticides. Check out The Bee Cause for more information and ideas.

Choose local honey: Support your local bee keepers and honeybee populations by buying local honey. New Forest heather honey is delicious!

Natures Great Producers

Horse chestnut (1)

Just a few weeks ago our woodlands and hedgerows appeared barren but now there is an explosion of new life and colour. How does this happen?

Dormant buds, which will become this year’s leaves and flowers, were grown last summer and protected through the winter within thick overlapping bud scales. Triggered by increasing day length and warmth, buds begin to swell, burst open and new leaves unfurl. Elder tree buds are the first to open followed by hawthorn. It’s an exciting time waiting for the next trees to leaf. I love the large sticky horse chestnut buds and the soft bright lime green leaves of the beech tree.

Here are some fun activity challenges to celebrate leaves and the cycle of new growth each spring:

Up close and personal: Give each student a tree leaf to look at and study. Demonstrate how to use a hand lens to look at the unique characteristics of their leaf. Point out the variety of shapes, sizes and textures. Young beech leaves feel soft and delicate with hairy edges, and hazel leaves feel fuzzy. Invite the group to share their learning by asking them to hold up their leaves if they have: smooth or toothed edges; feel fuzzy; have a long or short stem; feel waxy (oak leaves) etc.

Leaf jumble: Now invite everyone to put their leaf in a ‘leaf viewer’ and hold them up towards the sunlight to view its intricate veins and colour. What makes your leaf special?  Then gather in, jumble up and lay all the leaves out on the ground – can they find their leaf again?

Frame a leaf in a leaf viewer

                  Frame a leaf in a leaf viewer

Colour matching: There are many shades of leaf green. Using a selection of green colour paint cards (visit your local DIY store) challenge everyone to take out a card from a ‘luck dip bag’ and to match that shade of green as closely as possible to a plant or tree leaf (remember to set your boundaries). For older groups they could be encouraged to use tree guides with simple keys to identify their match, developing further their knowledge about identification features. The tree name trail (FSC) is an excellent guide.

Canopy reflections: Give each pair a small hand-held mirror, which they need to hold with both hands at nose level. Ask their partner to guide them carefully under a large tree. When they look down into the mirror they will see the tree canopy reflected above – it’s magical, giving a different perspective of the world!

Frame a leaf in a leaf viewer

                          Canopy wonders

Canvas leaf prints: Young fresh leaves are full of a green pigment called chlorophyll –  it’s how these ‘great producers’ make their own food (energy) using a process called photosynthesis. To capture the shape, colour and detail of leaves, simply put a leaf between a folded square of calico or white cotton sheet and hammer over the surface using a small wooden mallet – you’ll see the green pigment start to stain through the cloth. Then open out to reveal your print.

Eat your spring greens: Whilst still young, collect beech and hawthorn leaves. These can be eaten straight from the tree or in a salad. This is a good introduction to foraging wild foods through the seasons and developing identification skills. Make sure that you identify them correctly, seek advice if unsure.

Wanderings in nature

Take a reflective walk in the rain

               Take a reflective walk in the rain 

With a new year stretching ahead of us, we naturally begin to think about and reflect upon past experiences and future hopes. A great way to do this is on the move in nature. Being ‘mindful’ in, and connecting to, the natural world is an integral part of our happiness and wellbeing. ‘Wandering’ (walking without a particular destination) reminds us of the importance of exploration and allows us to be guided by nature and our instincts. Here are some ideas to experience the joys of walking and placing your attention in the moment.

Fox walking – Imagine you are a fox and walk as silently as possible, moving slowly and mindfully. Let your feet connect with the ground in stages, heel first and then the side of your foot all the way up to the toes last. Step the same way with the other foot, feeling the ground and your connection with the earth. Pause when something catches your attention. What senses are you using? Do you feel different after walking like a fox?

Rain walking – A walk in the rain helps you to see and feel things in a different perspective. Dark skies, dramatic cloud formations and reflections in puddles help us to view our thoughts in a different light. Focus your attention on the calming smell of the earth and the freshness of the cool air. Enjoy splashing in a puddle! Just like a rain shower, everything has its moment and will pass.

Dawn walking – Get up early, roughly an hour before sunrise, to experience the beginning of a new day; that magical moment of morning twilight before the sun appears on the horizon.  Dawn is a tranquil time and is a great time for watching wildlife, when nocturnal animals might still be about. Close your eyes for a moment and bring your awareness to your sense of hearing and immerse yourself in the dawn chorus –  what is the furthest birdsong you can hear and the closest? If you can, choose a still, clear morning as birdsong carries better when its not windy.

Nature guided walking – Go on walk where nature guides you by using natural navigation techniques for getting your bearings. Follow features such as hedgerows, woodland edges and seek out and follow a course of a stream. You will need to quiet your mind and pay attention to your surroundings and retain some awareness of direction. Remember to stop every few steps – look up and around you and use your five senses. Always try to follow the same route back that you took moving away.

Seasonal walking – Get a group to plan a route that can be walked during the spring, summer, autumn and winter. The familiarity of the walk, developed over the four seasons, deepens our observations of change more fully and powerfully reminds us that we are part of nature and its rhythm. Try to experience your journey at different times of day and weather.

History walking – Find an old map and walk a route. Use the features on the map to explore and imagine how the landscape has changed. Place names can help reveal past land uses, long forgotten, and features such as hedges, boundaries and ditches, which you can use for navigating. Be patient with yourself and enjoy your explorations.

Natural play walk – Combine a walk with other physical challenges, such as jumping over a stream, balancing on logs and climbing a tree. Playing with nature and being ‘wild’ has many associated health benefits, it stimulates our imagination and we learn how to take appropriate risks in life. Above all enjoy yourself!

Finally, you should always be prepared for walking – wear suitable outdoor clothing for the weather, bring snacks and water, and let someone know where your going and when you expect to return.

After School Nature Clubs – 2017 highlights

Its been another exciting, messy, magical, creative and wild 2017!


    Nature Clubs restart this spring 2018

Stranger Things

Oak apple gall with exit hole

What are those strange lumps and bumps on the underside of some leaves and those odd-shaped growths on acorns that look like woody asteroids? These bizarre plant growths become more noticeable in the autumn amongst the piles of fallen leaves, and on now naked tree branches and twigs.  Read on for the answer and some fun detecting and activity ideas.

Answer: plant galls [Robin’s pin cushion, growing on a Dog Rose]

Answer: plant galls [Robin’s pin cushion, growing on a Dog Rose]

A gall is not a sign of disease but is a plant’s response to insects laying their eggs within its growing leaves, shoot tips or buds. It is the developing insect larva inside that triggers the plant to create the gall, causing that part of the plant to swell or grow into a particular shape. Galls are fascinating to study as they come in many shapes and sizes: round, pointed, oblong, scaly, bumpy, and can be hairy, smooth and fluffy!

Pouch gall on the upperside of a field maple leaf. Safe inside the gall, the tiny insect larvae thrive on the easily digestible plant tissue.

Pouch gall on the upperside of a maple leaf. Safe inside the gall, the tiny insect larvae thrive on the easily digestible plant tissue.

Most galls are found on oak trees which are made by several species of gall wasps (cynipid wasps, over 30 species). Look on the underside of leaves for: smooth spangle galls (flat discs), button galls (depression in centre) and large round cherry galls.  Most well-known are ’oak apples’ – large round galls (up to 2cm in diameter) that develop on twigs, often in clusters. Eggs laid inside growing acorns produce a knobbly shaped woody ’asteroid’, where a single acorn or knopper gall wasp lava develops.  In autumn, these galls turn reddish brown and drop from the trees, where the lava overwinter safe within the shelter and protection of the gall and pupate next spring – ready to start the life cycle all over again.

Galls cause no damage to the plant, but without galls these insects would not survive the winter. Strange but true! Here are some investigations to get you started.

Gall hunt: Look for and collect a variety of different shaped galls. Who can find the largest or weirdest gall? Can you spot the tiny exit hole from where the wasp has emerged from an oak apple or knopper gall? These can be carefully cut in half to study the tunnel and chamber inside. Don’t damage galls without holes as the larvae inside is overwintering and will emerge in the spring.

Study galls up close: In early spring, collect oak apples without holes. These can be put into a jar with fine netting on top, kept in place with an elastic band. The developing larvae should emerge in a month. Children can then observe the tiny gall wasps, which are only the size of small ants, then release!

Imaginative writing: Write a poem or short story about what it would be like to be a gall insect inside its temporary but special home. Eat, rest and eat again – how do you know when it’s time to change – to stretch and move and escape from your gall? You now have wings!

Did you know? The Charter of the Forest (1217) was written in iron gall ink. The purple-black or brown-black ink was used from the 5th century to the 19th century as a permanent and water-resistant ink for writing royal and legal records. Oak apples are high in tannin and when mixed with ferrous sulphate (or a rusty nail), gum Arabic and water this makes iron gall ink. In the New Forest Centre, until January 12th, there is an exhibition about the Charter of the Forest and how it has shaped the forests and woods of the present day.

Using a feather quill to learn the skill writing of Medieval script using oak gall ink.

Using a feather quill to write Medieval script using oak gall ink.

Wild Foods of the Forest – the good forager


Good foraging reminds us we are part of nature

      Good foraging reminds us we are part of nature

Autumn is my favourite season of the year; I enjoy the changing colours of the woodlands, dewy spider webs and especially the ‘wild food’ treasures hung brightly within hedgerows. ‘Blackberrying’ is often one of our first experiences of nature. Even toddlers quickly learn how to identify blackberry fruits!

Foraging for wild foods is a wonderful activity for getting outdoors in all weathers to learn about and connect with nature. It increases our observational and sensory skills and deepens our relationship to the natural world.

It also teaches us to be mindful. Foragers need to be considerate and respectful, and to sustainably gather only common, abundant species and to take only what they need. In the New Forest, on Forestry Commission land, the over-foraging of fungi through commercial collecting has resulted in ‘no picking’ guidance. This precautionary approach is due to the highly protected landscape and ecology of the Forest. Gathering fungi to eat also requires expert ID skills, and a mistake can result in serious consequences!

Fortunately, plants and berries are easier to identify than fungi. All foragers must also be able to confidently identify and teach about potentially hazardous plants such as yew berries. Poisoning from ingestion even in small quantities can cause nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps, and in large amounts potentially dangerous. Foraging therefore helps us to hone our identification skills, to question and learn about properties of plants and local lore. Here are some activity ideas to get you started:

Friend or foe?  There are many poisonous lookalikes! To help gauge our group’s knowledge (and it’s a great icebreaker activity too) ask them to match up laminated photos of different fruits and berries with the correct tree/shrub by their leaves. Make two sets of photos for group challenges. Importantly, this activity teaches visual recognition using colour and shape; the round, bright red berries of holly, rowan and hawthorn look very similar but their leaves are very different.

I-spy spotters guide: For younger children create a photo guide of most the common fruits, nuts and seeds in your area and ask them to see how many they can find. Emphasise to look but not pick.

Foragers charm: Using thin florists wire, thread on different edible fruits and nuts along with associated leaves to help with identification. Use a small hand drill to make holes through acorns (taste best roasted), sweet chestnuts, rosehips and crab apples.

A colourful foragers charm to help with identification

A colourful charm helps with identification

Go on a guided foraging walk: Check out New Forest walking festival for our wild food events. Sunday 15th and 29th October 2017

Preserve the seasons: There are lots of wonderful recipes to learn about the setting points for making jams and jellies. Be safe – always refer to a selection of good identification book such as ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey which also has recipe ideas.

Any other foraging activity ideas are always welcome! Happy foraging!

Nature Club 2017 – ‘Little grubs’ song

Little big grubs!

Little Grub

Nature, Nature Club

Looking all around for little grubs

Nature, Nature Club

Looking all around for grubs


Butterflies, spiders and honey bees

Keeping away from the birds in the tree


Nature, Nature Club

Looking all around for little grubs

Nature, Nature Club

Looking all around for grubs


By Herbie, aged 5

Fledgling birds

An unwary blackbird chick will need to be fed by its parents for several days after leaving the nest

An unwary blackbird chick will need to be fed by its parents for several days after leaving the nest

Whilst many baby birds are only now eagerly poking their heads out of nests, some parent birds are already encouraging reluctant youngsters to leave the safety of the nest. Most of our common woodland and garden birds such as robins, blackbirds, starlings and blue tits are feeding their hungry fledglings and May is a good time to observe fat fluffy chicks taking their first ‘hop and flap’ into the wider world. Here are some activities to learn about the marvels of nest building, eggs and baby birds.

There are three stages to a baby bird’s growth: hatchling (blind and naked), nestlings (fluffy and partially feathered) and fledglings (fully feathered and almost ready to fly). However, first the parent bird needs to build a nest.

Bird nest challenge: What is a nest? Where do birds build their nests? These are questions that can be explored by first looking at a variety of old bird nests. Can the children recognise some of the materials used? – dead leaves, hair, wool, moss. How have they been woven together? – some birds use mud to help stick materials together; the Dartford warbler uses spider webs! Some birds build their nest in trees, others on the ground. Woodpeckers and owls will use a hole in a tree.

For younger children, a nest cup can be easily moulded out of clay and different natural materials collected to line and make the nest cosy. Older children can be shown how to bend willow stems into a hoop and tied onto the rim of a small paper bowl. Natural materials are then collected to line the nest. Discuss insulation and camouflage, how a nest needs to blend into its surroundings.

Design and construct your own birds nest

Design and construct your own birds nest

All about eggs: The size of an egg depends on the size of the bird laying them and they come in a wonderful variety of colours and patterns. Birds that build their nests in trees generally have blue or green eggs while ground nesting birds will lay brown or speckled eggs to help with camouflage. Now you’re ready to make some eggs. Modelling clay (air dry clay) is perfect to mould an ‘egg shape’. Decide on the size and number of eggs. Use small stick to push patterns into the clay or roll the clay egg over dry earth and scrunched up leaves to camouflage them.

Woolly caterpillars: Your eggs have hatched and now you have hungry nestlings. Blue tits lay between 8-10 eggs – that’s a lot of beaks to feed! A fun activity is for the children to imagine they are parent birds and they need to collect one caterpillar at a time (as you only have a small beak) to feed their nestlings. Set up the activity beforehand by hiding different coloured pieces of wool (approx.5 cm long) around a wild space. Collected caterpillars are then stuck onto a strip of card with double sided sticky tape (the baby birds tongue). Discuss camouflage – which coloured caterpillars were the easiest to find / the hardest?

Another variation is ‘hungry cuckoo’ where the children are sparrows feeding a very large hatchling. Good discussion about parasitism.

Baby birds lunch spotter list:  As your nestlings grow bigger so does their appetite. Design a shopping list of items, for younger children use pictures too, that the group can find and tick off their list. Unlike a scavenger hunt, delicate small caterpillars and young berries are observed and not collected. The group could also research and design their own list for their favourite baby bird.

Top tip: Keep a look out for broken egg shells. Birds like to have a tidy nest and will remove broken egg shells, discarding them away from the nest so not to provide clues for predators.

Fledgling watch: Bird nests are very well hidden but with a little detective work you might be able to locate one. View from a distance so not to disturb. A good technique is to watch parent birds visiting a bird table to refuel. Stop feeding peanuts as these can choke young birds. Parents will be feeding their young mainly insects. With patience, you’ll see which direction they are returning the nest to check or feed their young and maybe you’ll hear them cheeping nosily. Remember in the UK wild birds are protected by law and it is illegal to disturb any nesting bird.

New Forest Goshawk nest cam: See all the action live – eggs hatching, chicks being fed and fledglings leaving the nest.  Check out RSPB ‘Date with Nature’ .