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Skills to survive in the great outdoors

By John Davidson

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Neil Foote and Yasmin start building a shelter. Pictures John Davidson, BL6.co.uk
Neil Foote and Yasmin start building a shelter. Pictures John Davidson, BL6.co.uk

SPENDING the day in the beautiful bluebell-strewn woods in Glen Affric recently, I got a whole new perspective on the world around me.

I’m so often admiring the distant views or enjoying the wildlife when I’m out in the wilds that I don’t always notice the plants and trees closer to hand — and what you can do with them.

So a day spent learning "bushcraft skills" gave me a fresh insight into the great outdoors.

I had some reservations about such an experience at first… was this going to involve eating grubs and bugs or, worse, spiders to prove we could survive off the land? I really can’t stand spiders!

Thankfully, the only bug eaten in the day was eaten by our guide Neil Foote, who didn’t try to force the tasty tucker on us mere mortals.

Neil and I were joined by MSP Dave Thompson and his granddaughter Yasmin on the outing, which was part of the OuttaAffric walking festival.

As soon as our walk began we were searching and foraging for useful things for our "camp". We would be getting an introduction to four aspects of surviving in the wild: fire building, plantlore, shelter building and wild food.

Straight away we were looking for firewood, stashing pockets and rucksack straps with broken branches taken from under the protective canopy of the trees, making sure we got the dry stuff. We were told to collect small, tight bundles of different sized wood, from the smallest twigs to branches a couple of finger-widths across. We also needed something to start the fire. My days in the Scouts had prepared me for peeling bark from silver birch trees but Neil also suggested that cotton grass and the fluffy part of dandelion seeds (before they go into that silvery globe) are excellent firelighters.

To keep us going, we were also checking out the plants along the way. Wood sorrel leaves were a tasty treat with a slightly bitter twist, while the leaves of silver birch were interesting to chew over.

A bit further on, Neil tore off a fresh nettle, folded it up and put it in his mouth… without getting stung. Dave then did the same, Yasmin (wisely) decided to pass on this one, and I tried but managed to get stung twice on the hand and once in the mouth in the process! There is a technique to it, and the flavour is actually quite nice and fresh if you can master it.

The other use of the nettle out here in the wild is something completely unexpected. It took a while to produce, but by taking up the plants, shedding the leaves (using gloves this time), crushing and peeling the stem, you can make excellent cordage.

We’re told that well-made nettle cordage can hold weight of up to 16kg, making it an ideal twine for fishing. Out here, everything has its use.

We got our fires going, which helped fend off the midges (a little) as well as dry out the nettle stems as part of the process of making the cordage.

Starting fires in the woods is obviously not the sort of thing you should go out and do generally, but Neil is an expert in his field and took us through the process of building the fire then returning the land as near to its former state as possible. After we’d finished, you would hardly be able to tell we’d been there.

First we cut a square patch of earth up, keeping the "plug" to one side and folding the grass back at the sides to avoid scorching it. Then we used some large damp branches to contain the fire.

In the base we laid some dry grass we had collected on the way, adding one or two bits of cotton grass then the silver birch bark on top of that. We used a Swedish firestick to create a good spark and, admittedly after a lot of attempts, I finally got mine to light, adding the bundles of wood we had collected on top of the flames one-by-one.

While the fire was lit, it was time for refreshment, so Yasmin helped to dig a waterhole to collect water which we would then filter and boil up. My own brew consisted mainly of silver birch leaves with just a hint of larch — not quite Earl Gray but a perfectly refreshing and slightly fruity tasting cuppa nevertheless!

Now it was time to do some proper work, so we began by building a shelter… of sorts. In the short half-hour we had, we concocted a half decent (not to mention half finished) shelter thanks to Yasmin spotting some fallen trees that we could use to save us building from scratch.

We added fallen and dead branches which had broken off trees to make a roof and interwove this with softer wood which was then overlaid with bracken. Well, with a bit more work it would have been watertight and perfectly good to spend the night in (and I can say that because we didn’t have to!)

Having made our whistle and plate (see panel), it was time to return the site to how it was before heading out. The idea which all of us who enjoy the outdoors should adhere to is minimum impact, and the biggest task here was to ensure our fires were fully extinguished and replace the plug.

Neil made sure we all not only checked the embers, but actually stuck our fingers into the earth below them to make sure that had cooled down too. Having doused mine a little with water (just to make sure) we then scattered the charcoal around a wider area and put the plug of earth back in place, stamping it down. I couldn’t even tell where my own fireplace had been when I turned back round, so that’s pretty good for minimum impact.

This had been a fantastic day out and I’d learned so much about my environment, as well as how our ancient ancestors might have lived. It’s a great experience for children to get to know more about the outdoors as well as learn valuable skills that can’t be taught in a classroom.

Though I have to admit, it was good to get home to see a kettle again and put a real teabag in my mug. Cheers!

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