Thursday 18 January 2018

Learning the ways of the woods in Killruddery

Reporter David Medcalf went down to the woods in Killruddery, not for a teddy bear's picnic, but for an introduction to tasty forest plants and firelighting as offered by Heath Dawson of Firefox Bushcraft

Heath Dawson describing a near death experience.
Heath Dawson describing a near death experience.

Where do you go if you need instruction in how to paint your face green, using only natural materials?

Where do you go if you need to tell the difference between a bay leaf which goes nicely in a stew and a laurel leaf which will give you a horrid stomach ache?

Where do you go to learn of the prints left by foxes and badgers or how to erect a simple shelter?

The answers to all of the above reside in the head of an enthusiastic Englishman called Heath Dawson who lives in Roundwood. And he is more than willing to share his knowledge with the world with classes such as the ones he conducts in Bray.

Wedding guests in their best clothes swan around the orangery of the big house at Killruddery with champagne flutes in hand.

Casual Saturday strollers enjoy the impeccably manicured lawns and gardens or call to carry out their shopping at the weekly market.

But Heath and his pupils may be found trampling the wild garlic and dodging the brambles in among the wilds of the woodland.

The subject today is bushcraft, a practical investigation of how to survive if deprived of all the normal trappings of 21st century society.

'That's your last chance of a civilised toilet visit,' warns our genial professor mischievously, waving his arm towards the loo block.

For the next three hours or so we will be out of the reach of modern plumbing, computers and shops, in among the trees.

We are a real mixed ability and mixed age class - or tribe as our leader prefers to calls us - ranging from nimble primary school goers to creaky middle-aged folk.

Fortunately, the weather is fine, so there is no need to worry that any of us will perish from hypothermia or pneumonia.

We could however, in theory at least, suffer violent food poisoning as Heath offers us a choice between 'edibles' and 'deadables'.

Participants are shown a selection of leafy goodies and baddies picked out from the surrounding forest.

Resplendent in his lumberjack checked shirt and trousers of many pockets, Heath asks us to choose: is this hunk of foliage toxic or something fit to put on the menu for a good lunch.

The wild garlic, the burdock and the elder are all fine, while the young beech leaves are so scrumptious, it is hard to know why they are not routinely included in our everyday salads.

The buttercup and the ivy are strictly off limits for those of us who wish to reach old age, while the common horse chestnut is on no account to be confused for the delicious Spanish chestnut.

As he leads us on to 'base camp' the man in charge has an impressive ability to react to what is going on around us.

He acknowledges, for instance, the presence of a red-breasted robin which appears to be taking an interest in our presence on his patch.

Yes, the cute bird really is following us but only in the hope that we have disturbed some insect eggs for him to devour.

Robins, Heath informs us, see the world in ultra-violet light, which must make every day for them a disco day.

Deer on the other hand have a green filter on their eyes, which is why many hunters are happy to wear bright orange, a colour which does not alarm their quarry but which makes it less likely that one hunter will accidentally shoot another human.

Bushcraft, it seems, drips with facts that just might someday come in useful.

Our next topic is learning a series of knots handy in transforming a sheet of camouflage-patterned material into a rudimentary shelter.

The timber hitch is used to anchor the sheet to one tree and the tension hitch is then deployed as we stretch the fabric across to a second tree.

Then the rolling hitch is a devilishly cunning way of attaching the sheet to a series of tent pegs.

The creation of a draughty but effective home from home is completed by the addition of a hammock, concluding with a lesson on how to climb on board safely for a snooze.

The class moves on from shelter building to deal with some of the finer points of tracking, picking up the trail of the animals with which we share this island.

Our instructor offers a handy hint for picking up human activity as he points out that our species is blessed with wide feet.

As a result of this width and of our great weight, we tend to break the twigs on which we tread in two places rather than causing a single clean break. Think about it.

Keeping tabs on other less clumsy denizens of the wild requires detailed knowledge of their paws and claws when examining the prints they leave in mud or sand.

An otter, for instance, has five toes but then so too does a badger, so it is necessary to watch out for signs of the webbing between the toes which distinguishes the otter as a creature which spends so much of its life in water.

We move from tracking to a practical session dealing with something bound to capture the interest especially of the boys - fire and how to create it from basic ingredients.

'Dragon's breath' Heath calls it as he builds up the drama of triggering a spark without recourse to matches, which have been on the market only since 1826 her tells us. We fall back to dark ages from the time before this welcome invention and our guide produces a set of fire-steels, like a conjurer pulling doves from his hat.

He distributes hay and cotton wool to catch light as we scrape metal upon metal to make our sparks, applauding one another each time a hank of hay goes up in flame.

Thus it is that the course comes to an end in a theatrical haze of smoke.

'I am confident that you are going to survive in some zombie wilderness,' declares Heath Dawson as he brings down the curtain. 'I consider you all survivors.

Young and old, we readily accept the compliment, though the three hours in the gentle woods of Killruddery in fact serves more to underline how vulnerable is someone who looks at a nettle and thinks 'ow!' when they could be saying 'yum!' and making nettle soup.

Afterwards, the Devon born 47-year-old reveals that he is a resident of Roundwood, close to the mountains of Wicklow. He lives there with his partner Aoife and the couple's daughter Aisling - in a proper house as he is quick to emphasis.

A man who runs his own Firefox Bushcraft website with his own series of survival videos on YouTube, he is well familiar with the trappings of modern life.

'I have always worked out of doors and I have kept the interest in nature ever since,' he muses, recalling that his love of the open sky overhead began as a ten year old when he was an enthusiastic bird watcher.

It was a dozen years back that he joined the trend set by high profile survival personalities like Ray Mears and Bear Grylls by going to the 'Bushcraft College' he attended in the UK.

His love of the outdoors was well catered for when he worked at Snowdonia in Wales until the decision was made to move to Roundwood a couple of years ago. Now he runs bushcraft courses for the grandly named Bear Grylls Survival Academy, encouraging team building among groups of company employees.

He came to Killruddery fresh from supervising one such team as they built an improvised coracle to escape from an island on Lough Erne in Fermanagh.

He is convinced, however, that it is the teenagers and younger children who most need the sort of introduction to life away from their telephone and computer screens which he can offer.

'If they are going away from here with a positive experience of nature, then they are more likely to go again. Maybe nature education has been a little bit dry when, to appreciate nature, you have to be involved in it. Bushcraft gets you head, hand and heart involved.'

He hopes that he is maybe planting a seed which may blossom into a sustained and substantial love all things out of doors in at least some of those who come to be entertained by him.

If they do want to 'go again', as he put it, then his adopted home place of County Wicklow makes a great natural playground.

'I am finding out how fantastically diverse Wicklow is from a natural history point of view.'

He speaks as someone who has spent his recent spare time tracking deer and looking for cast off antlers up in the hills; or tracking otters along the banks of the Avonmore; or hot on the heels of the ever elusive pine martin across North Wicklow.

As he readily admits, his business is no nine to five matter but a reflection of a deep interest and a passion which he loves to share.

Wicklow People

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