Merlin Wild Foraging Quest – A great day out in the rain!

At the end of a long, single track road lay the barn that was to be our place of meeting: a singular structure poised in the midst of a dramatically contoured landscape. The enigmatic Devil’s Beef Tub sat to our west, the mountainous craig of The Skirtle lay just ahead and the Broad valley opened to the east. As the sky marked our arrival with the first of what would become a succession of ferocious downpours, the group of participants gathered into the shelter of the barn to begin the ‘Merlin Foraging Quest.’

Due to an unfortunate accident, Quest organiser Jan Hogarth, was unable to attend. Jan knows the links with the Merlin history and hoped to connect this with the ecology and foraging. The walk was repositioned to explore foraging within the context of this environment, and for this our facilitator was ecologist and Borders Trust coordinator, Ali Murfitt. Under the sound of heavy rain pelting down on the barn roof, we made our introductions with each other as a group. We were a composite of colourful variety: botanists, students and educators; a storyteller and a woodsman- each with a different level of foraging experience, but all united in the quest to discover more about the edibility of this landscape. With a scattering of Merlin inspirations and knowledge spread across the group, we resolved to allude to the magical one wherever possible.

Through Ali’s introduction, the landscape which we were to explore was placed within the context of it’s relationship with Borders Trust. Corehead Farm was bought by the trust in 2009, with the vision for a community-engaged, sustainable project integrating restoration of native woodlands, wetlands and heathlands with a farm operating on organic principles. Ali admitted that it was at times difficult to reconcile these distinct needs of habitat restoration and sheep farming, yet- if successful- the unlikely marriage of the two could provide a way forward in re-imagining land use within the Scottish uplands.

Suddenly the rain stopped and so, seizing the window of opportunity, our group bounded out into the landscape, heading east- towards a valley which Ali assured us, was much more interesting than that of the iconic Devil’s Beef Tub. Heading through the farmland pasture, Ali drew our attention to the predominance of yellow rattle; a native wild flower now much in decline, which has the ecological advantage of being semi parasitic towards grasses, so opening the way for greater biodiversity within pasture. Although not edible (some sources indicate a medicinal use for treatments of the eye), the plant has been used as a dye- reminding us of the multitudinous facets of usage made possible by the plant kingdom. Although the pasture was still predominantly grass, perhaps over time the yellow rattle could create space that would allow for an increased presence of the pignuts, plantain and red clover which we found speckled throughout the pasture. Ali recommended the making of Red Clover Vinegar- made by simply infusing the flowers within apple cider vinegar in order for the clover to release it’s flavour- and calcium rich properties- into the vinegar which is then strained, in order to be used within salad dressing, or to add a dash to hot water to be enjoyed as a tonic.

The pignuts brought us into relation with a legal dimension of foraging: the law states that no plant should be dug out of the ground without permission from the landowner. Whilst ultimately created in order to protect property rights, the law would also go some way towards ensuring conservation. This stimulated a group discussion surrounding the dynamic between foraging and conservation. Named pignuts for good reason, perhaps the very success of the plant was dependent to some degree on the activity of the wild boar digging up the tasty tubers. In doing so, the boars perhaps prepared the ground for the seeds to fall, and a new plant to germinate. In the absence of wild boar, perhaps human foragers can fulfil a particular function through careful selection of a site in which to forage for pignuts- or ‘fairy tatties’ as they are colloquially known as in Scotland. As a group we could also testify to the suggestion that badgers too would go for these tubers- leading to the conclusion that it would only be ethical to forage for them in areas where they grew in great abundance- in addition to having the landowners permission.

Onwards and upwards, we passed through the pasture and come to a planted orchard enclosure. Planted within the realms of a protective deer fence- with wooden stiles inviting walkers into the enclosure- grows an edible hedge of blackthorn, hawthorn, crab apple, cherry and hazel, with a central cluster of young apple and plum trees. The planting was carried out by Borders Trust volunteers and junior rangers, and will grow to become a delightful edible enclave within the landscape. Ali drew our attention to the highest point of the hill, The Skirtle, and directed our gaze to the scattering of wooden boxes, each protecting a planted oak tree. It became apparent that the Borders Trust is planning the restoration of this habitat with a long term vision.

Through the gushing ford and up and over high ground pasture: grasses interspersed with heath bedstraw, tormentil and phagnum moss; the medicinal properties of each were discussed, but a meal they will not provide. Taking shelter under the tree line, we skimmed past the boundary of a small patch of woodland that includes spruce and pine trees, the new tips of which are packed with vitamin C and make a great tea (careful ID needed to avoid poisonous yew & lodgepole pine). We came to a rowan tree and took pause to reflect upon the plentiful lore surrounding this tree. With the wide spread belief that it is unlucky to fell a rowan- and the ubiquity of rowan trees being planted outside a homestead, Ali encouraged us to ponder upon the link between these superstitions and protection of particular species- what better way of a tree being protected than by a belief that it is unlucky to cut it down! We compared notes of the edibility of the berries- the making of rowan jelly to be served with game is widely known, but the berries can also be enjoyable (if a little tart!) as simple compote made by stewing the rowan berries along with other autumnal fruits such as hawthorn and rosehips (removing the hairs first).

We roamed on, entering the main area which has been replanted by Borders Trust. Suddenly the sightline changed: we were surrounded by the short but luscious growth of newly planted alder, birch and hazel. Over the past 8 years, the Trust have planted thousands of trees and the effects are already apparent. An increase in biodiversity is noticeable as our feet push through swathes of sorrel, meadowsweet, foxglove and lousewort. We paused to nibble a succulent leaf of common sorrel, the sour tang providing pleasant refreshment. Ali’s excitement was palpable as she led us down the sloping side of the valley- heading into what she has described as a fragment of the original woodland which once prevailed on this hillside.

Dipping down a steep muddy bank, hanging onto the generous limbs of an enormous ash tree for support, we were transported to a different world where the group reassembled on a level outcrop overlooking a small waterfall. The canopy layer above us was thick with leaf patterns of great diversity, the sound of fast flowing water surrounded us as the Tweedhope Burn traced its way in a curvaceous gush down the glen. Swallows darted upstream into shafts of sunlight that shone luminous through the multiple levels of greenery. Beside us was a mighty hawthorn in full bloom with a richly perfumed scent promising a full fruiting to come. Beyond it stood numerous hazel trees- the ancient Celtic tree of wisdom, offering indication of the sustenance that a feral wanderer such as Merlin must have depended upon. We stood quietly for a moment, immersed in the atmosphere of this precious fragment of ancient woodland. Then we reached for our lunch boxes to meet our own immediate needs for sustenance. For now, these hills may not be able to support the dietary needs of our group, but it is apparent that through the vision of Borders Trust, restoration of this hillside will gradually lead to increased biodiversity- with the fortuitous side effect of a greater abundance of edible and medicinal species.

Leaving the ancient woodland behind us, we retraced our path down the hill- this timing pausing at the ridged remains of the Iron Age settlement, Broad Tae. It is a humble reminder that these hills once supported not only the foragings of Merlin, but once supported a whole population who presumably effectively combined farming alongside the gathering and utilisation of wild plants and herbs. As we walked back past the planted orchard, through the meadow and back to the farm, I looked behind us to the replanted hill from which we came. With time, those contrasting sections of planted hillside and the remaining fragments of ancient woodland will merge and enmesh together to become one continuous restored habitat: a magic of which Merlin would surely support.

Thanks to Amy Clarkson for writing this Blog – Amy is a Glasgow University student of the Mlitt Environment, Culture and Communication postgraduate course which is taught at the Dumfries campus.