Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Wild foraging: Bitter-cress sandwich

I’ve been curious for some time about how realistic it is to integrate ‘wild’ foods into my diet and whether they can make a significant contribution. Firstly I should identify what I mean by a wild food. These are essentially plants or fungi that are not cultivated with the intention of consumption, but grow freely in the countryside or disperse into gardens.
So my plan is to pick one species at a time testing it out on myself first, possibly family & friends, and then report on ease of identification, how easy to find and palatability. I should stress that I will abide by the laws & codes of conduct of the countryside, ensure that I do not compromise the future local viability of the species, and avoid plants that may be contaminated by pollutants (agricultural & roadside). I am lucky that our current rented garden should keep me going for some time as it is fairly representative of the local countryside with woodland, hedgerow, open spaces and an area of cultivation.

So to my first plant subject - the easily overlooked Hairy Bitter-cress (Cardamine Hirsuta). This was an easy first choice as it grows fairly rampantly in the garden, particularly on the vegetable patch and on a steep bank. It is also available now in mid-winter, a real bonus with the scarcity of fresh salad plants. I have in the past weeded it out from the vegetable plots wastefully, not realising its dietary potential. On this occasion I pulled up a good sized plant (about 5 inches in diameter) already with tiny white flowers and a characteristic basal rosette of about 20 leaves. I can identify this species fairly easily having spent some time focussing on it last year. However it closely resembles Wavy Bitter-cress (C.flexuosa), the key difference being that it unusually for a crucifer (member of cabbage family) only has 4 stamens in the flower. I assume that the Wavy Bitter-cress is less palatable, as I could not find it recorded in wild food sources. The Hairy Bitter-cress had a distinctive peppery taste, stronger in flavour that normal cress and not too dissimilar to rocket. I ate it first with bread and cheese and the next day with beans on toast (also enjoyed by my wife). We found it perfectly acceptable and indeed a pleasant alternative/addition to the meals. I would certainly recommend it, saving on buying expensive bags of rocket or pots of cress.

Happy foraging.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Chaffinch killer conundrum

There are many threats to birds in winter. Most weeks recently I have seen at least one bullet-like Sparrowhawk chase zooming through the bird feeding area, occasionally getting lucky. The cold weather itself must take its toll, particularly on smaller birds. So I was curious when I found a dead chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) lying by the French windows, as to the cause of its demise. Initially I thought it had flown into the window, but the curtains were still drawn making that unlikely, as well as there being no tell-tale feathers or marks on the glass. Our cat had been out for an early morning stretch, but normally she carries back her prey to the front door and at least has a go at eating some of it. I picked it up to dispose of the bird, and noticed how badly affected the legs and feet were; grotesquely disfigured with extensive wart like growths. On one foot there was only one visible claw remaining, which made me wonder how it could perch and move about without significant inconvenience. Otherwise the bird seemed perfectly normal.

I have seen this before in Chaffinches, often seeing several affected individuals in the same area. The condition is commonly referred to descriptively as ‘fur foot’ or ‘bumblefoot’. According to the website similar deformities are often caused by the Fringilla papillomavirus (FPV), which as you can see by comparing the Latin name of the Chaffinch is associated with this bird and to a lesser extent the closely related Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) with which they often mix. It is this flocking behaviour of these birds in winter that probably aids its dispersal to give high local infection rates. The condition is not too dissimilar to human warts, with excessive growth of skin. From some quick website research people frequently report seeing chaffinches behaving relatively normal despite varying degrees of such malformation. Indeed the link states that the condition can actually spontaneously disappear. However, it must put affected birds at some disadvantage and it is probably a wise precaution to reduce spread at concentrated feeding areas such as bird tables, by occasionally cleaning with mild disinfectant and moving their location (note to diary).

Returning to our crime scene by the French windows, we might surmise now that the Chaffinch was probably more likely the victim of our cat, rather than from a sudden death syndrome. Was ‘Purdey’ put off by the warty legs, or just too lazy to bring it to the door? Whether it was a cat attack or not, it is a useful reminder to refit Purdey’s collar with its warning bell!