Secret Life of Mammals

Image result for shrew


We found a shrew on the drive the other day.  Sadly, it was dead, though recently so.  It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks.  I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little  life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature.  I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.

The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life.  Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.

The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.

If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ .  The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link.  See BBC Nature for additional information.


photo from BBC archives



Growing Japanese


When Debbie and I were talking about what might make a good choice of guest post topic for her blog, she mentioned her current interest in Japanese cookery. It’s a part of the world I am interested in, too, although my understanding of Japanese cuisine is in its infancy. But a lot of the plants we grow in the UK originally came from the temperate regions of the Far East, and so I thought it might be fun to look at some of the plants we can grow that have ‘Japanese’ in their common names. It might not be that they all originate from Japan; the naming of plants (with their common names, at least) is a murky business full of intrigue and confusion. Welsh onions, for example, don’t come from Wales, although they will happily grow in gardens there.

In the early days of my garden I planted Japanese onions. Some of the varieties of Japanese onions have Japanese-style names; others don’t. The difference between Japanese onions and regular onions is the time at which they’re planted. I chose them because it was autumn and I wanted to plant something in my garden. Japanese onion sets are put in the ground in the autumn, overwinter and produce bulbs slightly earlier in the year than their spring-planted relatives. There’s some suggestions that they don’t store as well as maincrop onions, but I’ve never had a problem with that. It’s quite hard to grow as many onions as you need in a year, unless you have an allotment or a very large garden. Some gardeners grow Japanese onions for an early crop, but give the majority of their space over to maincrop onions. Both can be grown from seed, as well as sets, and are readily available from seed catalogues and garden centres.

A plant that isn’t as well-known as is should be is the Japanese wineberry. It grows like a raspberry, and its berries are very similar, but until they are fully ripe they are encased in a calyx (like a shell) that keeps the birds from pilfering your harvest. The plants are very pretty, with dark green leaves on their scrambling stems, white flowers and their bright red fruit. They are quite bristly though, so don’t plant them right next to the garden path. Assuming any of your harvest makes it back to the kitchen (and one day I will grow enough to make that happen!) then you can use them in the same ways as raspberries, but they have a delightful flavour all of their own.

When people talk about growing quinces, they’re normally talking about Cydonia oblonga, a small tree that grows large, yellow fruits that are as hard as rocks. They’re sought after by foodies for making quince jellies and jams, or including in pies. Most people who grow the Japanese quince (Chaenomelesspecies) grow them for their ornamental qualities – they produce stunning blossom in the spring time. They’re also smaller plants, suitable for smaller gardens. A lot of people don’t know that they also produce edible fruit. One of the tastiest is said to be the popular variety ‘Crimson and gold’, and you can probably guess what colour show it puts on for you!

You’ve probably heard of the dreaded Japanese knotweed, a plant that was introduced for its ornamental value but has rapidly become invasive in the UK. If you’ve got it in the garden you need to be careful how you remove it – improper disposal of Japanese knotweed is illegal, and one of the ways in which it is spreading to new territory. Enquire of your local council what facilities they have for safe disposal, but there are people who go foraging for it to eat like rhubarb, so you could always try eating it into submission.

One you may not be familiar with is the Japanese prickly ash, which is one of the Zanthoxylum species used to grow Szechuan pepper. It’s a small, fragrant tree – and yes, it is prickly. Just one would give you more Szechuan peppercorns than a family could use in a year, even if you’re very big fans of Chinese 5-spice (for which it is one of the main ingredients). Not only does it give you the opportunity to grow one of your own spices, you can use it to play tricks on unsuspecting guests. One quick nibble of a Szechuan peppercorn will set your mouth vibrating for quite some time. It’s not unpleasant, but it is unexpected!

Other less familiar plants include Japanese parsley, or mitsuba – an annual herb that’s easy to grow, and for which seeds are readily available. Japanese ginger, mioga, is a little harder to track down (try Poyntzfield Herbs) but is a hardy plant that grows outside in the UK. It’s the flower shoots that are used (rather than the roots of regular ginger), and you do have to be wary of slugs, who find it just as delicious as we do. Japanese horseradish is wasabi, and you can grow that here too, although most of the wasabi we buy in shops is (apparently) regular old horseradish with a bit of green food dye. And, of course, there’s Japanese burdock, or gobo, which is a plant with impossibly long, edible roots.

I’m sure there’s plenty more I’ve forgotten, so if you can think of one you can add it in the comments!


Many thanks to Debbie for hosting a stop on my virtual book tour. Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is my new ebook about unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them. You can find out more on the book’s homepage ( and read a preview at Smashwords ( The book is being published on 1stMay, costs $2.99, and will be available in a wide range of ebook formats.

 Jade Pearls


A Thing About Trees

IMGP1446I was going to begin with the line ‘I’m not a tree-hugger’ as if it were some kind of criticism, but actually, I am, and it isn’t!  I am not your classic eco-warrior, protesting about trees being destroyed for roads, although sometimes I wish I had a bit more courage!  I do have a ‘thing’ about trees though, and I think always have had.  I was a tom-boy when I was younger (a lot younger) and climbing trees was one of my favourite things to do, partly because it was viewed as something slightly daring and ill-advised by my parents, but also because I liked the scuff of bark and branches, and the different perspective that height gave. 

We had a huge garden at home, but sadly there were no trees.  My mum was, and still is, intimidated by large growing things.  I’m not quite sure why, but I think it’s partly a control thing.  Like our Victorian forebears, she has a need to control nature, to make it conform to what she needs and wants from it, perhaps because there is so little else she controls in her life.

As a species we have a history of exploiting the natural world for our own gain.  Scotland’s barren landscape is testament to that.  The ancient forests may have been decimated before warfare took its toll, but the desolation is still manmade.  There have been moves in recent decades at restoration, and education, and all to the good.  I can’t help feeling that having more of a love of our natural world, in general, and trees in particular, might do more good.  ‘Project Wild Thing’ is tackling one of the fundamental issues – our lack of connection with the natural world-and is encouraging young people in particular to engage with nature: to get muddy, to climb trees, to look in ponds, to realise that there is much more to life than an illuminated display and keyboard.  Simply being outside is good for our health, and conversely, there is a good deal of research that now suggests the disconnect we have with our natural world is actually damaging our health.

I was at a workshop at the weekend, entitled ‘words for health’.  Lapidus, the organisation running the event, believes that creative writing promotes mental well-being, and as a writer and artist, I would agree.  The weekend workshop was about their new project ‘writing place’ which embraces writing where we are, and has real connections for those of us who live in the stunning scenery of the highlands.  A sense of place has always been evident in highland writing, and the landscape informs our creativity in an elemental way.  We did a lot of writing this weekend, and much of it was inspired by the stunning venue, Anam Cara, high above Inverness, set on the edge of forest.  We were lucky to have a real ‘tree lady’ taking one of the workshops!  Mandy Haggith is a writer based in Assynt, in the north-west highlands of Scotland. Her current project is ‘ A-B-Tree’and celebrates the link between trees and writing.  It was an interesting and energising day, encouraging us to engage more with ‘outside’ and the words, and health, that being there promotes.

Currently about 13 million hectares of forest are cut down each year 1.  Although there is some re-forestation, the net loss is massive, and includes some of the world’s remaining unique and pristine habitats: the five countries with the largest annual net loss of forest area in the period 2000-2005 were Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma)  and Zambia.  These forests cannot be replaced, and the systems they support are likely to be lost.

 Even in the UK, the rate of loss is greater than the rate or replanting, and the truth is even we need more trees.  We all know intrinsically that trees are good for us. Their leaves improve the air we breathe by trapping particles and releasing oxygen. Their roots help water travel deep into the soil, capturing pollutants and reducing flooding. By planting more trees we can capture more carbon and help species move in response to climate change.  The world’s forests have been described as the ‘lungs of the world’, and I think that description aptly conveys their importance to life on earth.  Without them we cannot survive long term.

 OK, you may not want to go and hug a tree – though personally I would recommend it, it’s a life-affirming experience- but you could certainly plant a tree, or support one of the organisations who are currently engaged in replanting schemes.  Wherever you live, your environment will benefit from a tree or two.  I would also encourage you to get out there into the outside. Whether you live in a town, city or the countryside, there are green spaces where you can re-engage with your natural environment.  Getting out of the office at lunchtime is a lot more beneficial to your well-being than playing Angry Birds, or updating Facebook! If you really can’t spare a few minutes, then make a point of getting out at the weekend with your family and appreciating the natural world.  Trees are amazing natural sculptures, and some of them have been around for centuries.  I guarantee you will be enriched by your experience.

 If you want to be more involved with re-forestry, or need an excuse to get outside, there are lots of organisations who would welcome you as a volunteer.  The Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, and Trees for Life all have schemes you can get involved in.

 For more information on Mandy’s project see her website:

 If you want to find out more about Lapidus, their website can be found here:  look at their ‘regional networks’ section for more information about what’s going on in your local area.

 If you want to be inspired by some tree images, take a look at my pinboard:  and

 Happy Tree hugging!



1 United Nations Environment Programme ‘Forests’


The Poverty of Wealth

Wealthy infographicSome of the blogs and books I’ve been reading recently have focused my mind on ‘wealth and happiness’.  There are certain philosophies that seem to say that if you attain riches, you attain happiness.  Certainly our consumerist society, especially in the west – and now creeping east- encourages us to earn more and buy more; we assume this is a route to satisfaction, almost without question, but actually, when you stop and think about it, is it really?

Well, we know that money per se certainly doesn’t make people happy.  You only have to look at the lives of those wealth magnets in the public eye to see that: multiple failed relationships, substance misuse, depression, and a whole host of other sorry outcomes from such ‘rich’ lifestyles.  Money may not be evil, in fact used in the right way it can achieve lots of good, useful and practical results; it’s more the accumulation of ‘things’, of ‘stuff’ that we don’t need but have an innate desire to amass, which is the root of the problem.

We work longer hours than we ever did and yet we constantly feel like we’re chasing our tails and need to earn more without ever questioning why.  There are families who struggle, who don’t earn enough to pay their basic bills, and there’s no doubt that an extra cash injection would make a big difference.  The vast majority of us, whilst we might find the current economic climate taxing, actually have enough to live on.  We have a roof over our heads, we can heat our homes and put food on the table – all things that a lot of our grandparents, and perhaps even some of our parents, couldn’t take for granted. 

In this country poverty is relative to income levels.  You can still have Sky TV, a car and an annual holiday and technically live below the poverty line, and that is probably a separate argument.  What I’m thinking of here is how much we have, compared to people in other countries, yes, but also compared with what I had in my own childhood, what my parents had.  In real terms, it’s not actually all that long ago, and yet there’s been a sea-change in attitude over the last 40 years or so.

My parents saved for a deposit for their first house, and were helped out by their parents.  My dad took some extra work, but interestingly, my mum stayed at home, certainly whilst we were young.  Most families now have both parents working so that they can pay the bills, including huge bills for childcare.  I’m not arguing for or against stay-at-home parents, that again is a whole other issue, but I am trying to demonstrate the changes we’ve seen in a relatively short space of time.

These days we want a nice home in a nice area, decked out in all the latest designer gear.  We want a 4×4, foreign holidays, nice clothes, and our kids to have all the ‘benefits’ that we may have done without – toys of course, but often designer clothes and shoes, electric cars or trikes, birthday parties that break the bank, and all the latest technology – and that’s when they’re five! 

There’s a lot of recent research that suggests that the ‘I want’ generation is actually no happier, and possibly even a lot unhappier, than generations of children who had less.  A cardboard box can be anything your imagination can think of; a trek around the local park with an adult to point out the miracle of trees, flowers and insects can be a major adventure and instil a sense of wonder for life.

There’s such a big disconnect now between us and the planet which supports us that we actually have a name for it: ‘nature deficit disorder’.  It’s generally applied to children, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that an adult who gets up, goes to work in a car, comes home, goes to the gym, and goes to bed, can suffer from exactly the same ‘syndrome’ resulting in similar problems.  We spend too much time indoors, too much time in front of the TV, and conversely, too little time outdoors engaging with the big wide world of nature, and with our families and our peers. 

We may be wealthy compared to the average African, even compared to our parents or grandparents, but we have a paucity of experience.  We own plenty of ‘stuff’, which takes our time, and space in our homes as well as our heads, but we don’t have richness of encounter and involvement with the natural world.  Where are the adventurers of this generation?  The David Attenborough’s and the Benedict Allen’s?  If we don’t instil a love of the natural world in our kids, they will remain impoverished, for all the wealth of material things we may provide for them.  We will spend decades working to earn more money to buy more ‘stuff’ when finding the time to be with those we love, even if it means actually earning less, could make us a whole lot richer, and more satisfied.

This is a big subject.  We’ve been seduced by big commerce and their adverts in subtle and deceptive ways; we’ve been conned by the world of finance, and even by our governments, who all need us to earn more so that we can spend more.  The financial bubble has already burst and many people are questioning attitudes to finance and spending out of necessity.  Perhaps it’s a good time to re-evaluate our wealth in real terms.  We are often time poor and cash rich, whilst wishing the reverse were true.  Is there a way you can change that?  Do you have to have that bigger house and bigger car, or could you down-size and manage to work less hours?  The acquisition of the ‘stuff’ which the adverts say we need for a better lifestyle, is not what makes us feel better or happier, or satisfied.  Deep down, or may be not so deep down, we know this, but often feel powerless to address the situation.  Take a small step to go against the flow of consumerism – once you see the dividends it will encourage you to take further steps, strengthen your resolve to spend less and live more.

There are lots of people out there who are making steps on this revolutionary journey, and I’ve listed some websites below where you can get some great advice on how to make small changes to get you started.  Some people may be able to take big life changing decisions to give everything up and do VSO for a year, or buy a B&B in France, but for most of us the changes will be less dramatic.   Take heart – even small changes can have a dramatic impact on our lives, the lives and health of our families, and the life and health of the planet.  I would urge you to do a wealth assessment for yourself.  You may be wealthy, but you could also be very poor!  Take a rain check on your satisfaction levels and make some changes now.  You will never wish you had more money or more ‘stuff’ on your deathbed!