At this time of year, the natural world provides many delicious treats. Here’s a taster of the free wild food you could find.
Sweet chestnutsYou can’t beat a roast chestnut as the nights grow cold and dark – and they can make your fireworks night go with a bang!
Don’t let the green, prickly cases put you off. Inside them, you’ll find up to four shiny, brown, triangular nuts (if you find a conker, you’ve got a horse chestnut – don’t eat it!). Slit the brown skins on all of the nuts except one, and place them in the hot ash of an open fire, close to red coals or in a roasting pan. Stand back – the untouched nut will soon explode, signalling that the chestnuts are ready. Peel, eat and enjoy!
Sweet chestnuts fall from the trees in late October. RSPB Stour Estuary reserve in Essex is a great place to find them.
BlackberriesOctober will see the end to this year’s blackberries, so pick them while you can. Many people know they make delicious jams, jellies and puddings, but don't realise that in Britain there are over 400 microspecies. Some of these have more dietary fibre than brown bread, weight for weight! During World War One, children in England were encouraged to pick blackberries to make healthful juice to send to soldiers on the front line.
ElderberriesYou should cook these purple-black berries because they can make you sick if you eat them raw. They work well in apple pies or blackberry jelly, and make good wine or cordial - yum!
FungiFungi are abundant in autumn and there are many different species to choose from – but you should only pick and eat them if you know what you’re doing. Fungi can be hard to identify and any mistakes could be lethal.
If you want to head out in search of wild food, a great little pocket guide to take with you is Food for Free.
So, now that I've tickled your tastebuds - what is your favourite wild food? Do you know any good recipes using wild, seasonal ingredients?
No, seriously, it's not a joke! The answer can be found in this neat parcel, which was picked up under a tree at The Lodge a couple of weeks ago.
You might say 'Yuck! a piece of owl poo! Why are you showing us this disgusting item?'
But you'd be wrong - this is not a poo. Owl droppings are nearly all liquid and are shot out of the bird's bottom with some force. This is an owl pellet (actual size about an inch-and-a-half long), and it includes all the indigestible bits of what a tawny owl has been eating. And it comes out of its mouth.
In the photo above, you can just about see that there's a lot of fur and bits and pieces including bones and black shiny things. But if you dismantle the pellet, things become much clearer.
After I soaked the pellet in a bit of water, and teased it apart with a couple of cocktail sticks, I was left with these:
Despite what you might think, owl pellets aren't smelly or sticky. The bird's stomach acid digests the juicy bits, leaving the tough, indigestible stuff like bones and fur. Here's a close-up - some vole and mouse leg bones.
You can even tell what kind of mice and voles the owl ate! Here are some jawbones and teeth I picked out from amongst the fur.
This is part of the lower jaw of a wood mouse - a typical food item for a woodland-dwelling tawny owl. How do I know? Because of the number of sockets left by the mouse's teeth! (I found that out from the Field Studies Council owl pellet guide):
Owls are well-known carnivores, but did you know they also ate beetles? Here's the evidence, in the form of... beetle legs. It must have made quite a crunchy meal snack for the owl - the legs are very tough (no wonder the owl couldn't digest them). And you can still see the little hooks that helped the beetle grip onto bark, twigs and leaves.
If small birds spot where a tawny owl is roosting during the day, they kick up an enormous fuss and 'mob' it - they try to persuade it and annoy it so that it flies away. But, come night-time, the owl can get its revenge. Here's a tiny beak (mostly the bone from inside, but there's a bit of the keratin outer covering), maybe from something like a blue tit? (It was less than half an inch long)
To find your own owl pellet, look at the bottom of big trees, or maybe underneath fenceposts (be careful, because fox poo can look quite similar...). Then get dissecting, and see what you can find! You'll get a weird and wonderful insight into what goes on at night in the woods...