Friday, 23 November 2012

Wildlife, Wetlands & Crossrail: A Visit to Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island

Huge, overarching sky; pools of crystal-blue water; a vast, flat landscape stretching out to the horizon - this is Wallasea Island on the Essex coast.  I've just made a visit here, on a day of brittle autumn sunshine, to see for myself the beginnings of a project that will be the "largest man-made nature reserve in Europe", because millions of tonnes of soil will be arriving on Wallasea to create a wetland landscape of mudflats, salt marsh and lagoon, last seen over 400 years ago.

Wetland with the Crossrail material handling facility just visible in the distance
The soil is initially coming from the Crossrail project; the rail tunnels currently being bored through London - and the soil is apparently being brought up from a level so deep it won't be polluted.  The RSPB, the owner of the reserve, has partnered Crossrail to create this new wildlife haven.  Crossrail will deliver 4.5 million tonnes of material in total and at its peak there will be 10,000 tonnes unloaded on the island by 4 ships a day. A new jetty and material handling facility have been built to process this; it's a large development, which seems to rise up out of the salt marsh.  Next to it is a line of soil "pyramids" and as I came up to these, the automated conveyor belt bringing the soil suddenly started up, creating an eerie, echoing sound in the vast, windswept landscape.  It's an impressive bit of mechanised kit, but - as I watched - a man came up with a long stick and started poking at a blockage in it. It still needs to be fixed in the old fashioned way, then.

The soil from Crossrail
The new wetlands will reverse the loss of tidal marshes to arable farming that has been taking place for centuries.  The risk of flooding on the Essex coast and rising sea levels has led to new thinking here; the sea walls have traditionally held the tide back but now sections of these are being breached to allow the water to return.  I could clearly see here on the island where small sections of the sea wall have been breached.
Sections of the sea wall that have been breached
The new reserve should encourage wading birds, ducks, geese, fish and seals.  It is hoped that lost populations of spoonbills and Kentish plovers will return to this site.  On my visit, I saw flocks of beautiful golden plovers; the sunlight glinting on their wings as they flew off - as well as lapwings and curlews.  I also saw a sparrowhawk, but sadly no peregrine or short-eared owl (although before I left it was getting just dark enough for them to emerge).  Apparently, 2011 was a good year for the owls and they were often seen hunting here.

We left the island as the tide was coming in, so we just made it through the water before the sea flooded the road and made it impossible to pass.  It had been a fascinating afternoon.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Winter Cheese Tea

Homemade Cheese Scones & Butter - Selection of Cheese (Here, Welsh Tintern & Scottish Cheddar) - Homemade Parsnip Crisps.

A winter cheese tea is for eating in front of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, just as it begins to get dark outside.  It's a different twist on a cream tea of scones, cream and jam; the winter tea has warm, cheese scones, a selection of cheese and - because parsnips are now in season - a snack of homemade, salty parsnip crisps.

I wanted to make a winter cheese tea with local (Essex) cheese, but, having searched for this, I've discovered that I can't actually buy any Essex cheese anymore.  Apparently, cheese is no longer produced in the county - and I'm disappointed by this, because not only do I want to buy local produce (and support local producers) where I can, but I'd also like to know as much as possible about where my food comes from and how it's produced.  If the farm is local, I can discover a bit more about it.

But - it seems that I just can't buy local cheese.  I know that, for centuries, cheese used to be produced along the Essex coast; cattle and sheep would graze in the salt marshes (I've heard that cheese from sheep was particularly prized) and the old farmhouses used to have cheese lofts where the cheeses would be stored.  However, by the late twentieth century, farming on the coast - and in the county - had become dominated by arable farming.

So, I'll have to look outside the county for cheese and for this tea I've included Scottish cheddar and Welsh Tintern cheese (cheese with shallots and chives).  That's cheese from outside the country!

I've made the cheese scones with the cheddar - and the parsnip crisps I've made by baking flakes of parsnips with olive oil in the oven.  When the crisps are baked, I've shaken them with crunchy sea salt.  I like to serve them warm.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Photographing Ash Trees and Remembering Dutch Elm Disease

At this time of year, shortly after dawn, I often walk across the fields towards the woods. The air is sometimes a little misty, the sun is low and the trees still shadowy.  As I follow a well trodden route across the woodland, I can see and feel at once that the trees are shaking off their leaves and the woodland floor has become a carpet of copper and gold.

The woodland I walk through is mainly sweet chestnut and hornbeam, with some oak.  But out in the fields there is ash; both mature trees and some self-sown, young saplings.  Now that ash dieback has begun to spread across Britain and is already in Essex, I have an ominous feeling that these wonderful ash trees could well be destroyed.

Ash Trees
 And we've been in this situation before. I can just remember the appalling loss of the elms from Dutch Elm Disease (DED); one of my earliest memories is the sound and sight of several mature elms being felled in my local churchyard and the giant bonfires to destroy every last trace of their existence.  Ash and elm are two different species, of course, and the development of ash dieback and DED won't be the same, but the impact on the landscape could be.

I've recently seen old photographs of large elm trees about to be felled with photographs of the same location after they've gone (essentially "before" and "after" pictures).  The "after" photographs show huge gaps in the landscape where the elms should be.  I've now decided to photograph mature ash trees in the same way that the elms were photographed, even though it may be years before they disappear (if they do).  I'm not going to rush out and photograph every ash tree I come across,but it does seem a good time to really appreciate these trees and record their place in local landscape history.

DED and its control
As a wide-scale destruction of ash trees is talked about, I recently had a look at the devastation caused by DED in the 1970s (both nationally and locally) to see what happened then.

Here are my discoveries:


- The British elm population is quite diverse but all groupings of elms are susceptible to DED.  Only small pockets of mature elms still exist in Britain today.

- Modern DED was first discovered in northern Europe (Picardy) in 1918.  It was found in Britain (and Essex) in 1927.  An early theory about its origin was that it had been caused by toxic gas in the First World War, but later it was generally believed that it had been imported from Asia.  In fact, there is evidence to suggest that DED has been in Britain for centuries (from tree rings and also from references in documents to the sudden death of elms in an area).

- The strain found in 1927 was eventually considered non-serious, as by 1929 there were signs of recovery in the elm population.  T R Peace, who assessed DED, wrote in a Forestry Commission publication in 1960 that this disease could well continue as a minor nuisance, but unless its nature changed, it would never amount to any great importance.

- In less than a decade after Peace wrote the above, DED in Britain had changed.  In the late 1960s, elm imported from North America was found to contain a more virulent strain of the disease and elms across Britain were quickly infected. It wasn't long before elms were inspected, assessed and destroyed.

- Since the 1960s, the existence of DED has prevented the growth of mature, healthy elm trees.  Elm continues to grow in hedgerows, but if these hedgerows aren't managed properly i.e. they are left to grow into trees, then they will succumb to the disease.

Elm Hedge

The Nature of the Disease

- DED is caused by a fungi in the genus Ophistoma and is transmitted from dead or dying elms to healthy trees by a species of elm bark beetle.  The female beetle lays eggs under the bark; when the eggs hatch the emerging beetles rub against the sticky spores of the fungus and then, when they come to breed, they fly to the crowns of healthy trees.

- the symptoms of the disease are yellowing or browning on the foliage of trees, dying twigs (that bend over and resemble a shepherd's crook), brown streaks on the bark and an absence of healthy buds.

Control of DED

- A programme of sanitation felling was implemented and sanitation measures "on the table" in 1970s were as follows:

1. Root severance - severing the roots between a tree and its neighbour.  This could be done by mechanical measures (digging out a trench and digging out the roots) or by using a chemical to kill the roots.
2. Fungicidal Injection - this was a new treatment in the 1970s and involved injecting a fungicide into the tree.
3. Spraying Insecticide - this was to be done by "mist spraying" and helicopters could be used for this.

The idea of insecticides and chemicals makes me shudder, but in the 1970s the damage to the environment by these measures was seemingly not fully considered or appreciated.  In the end, spraying with insecticide was to be abandoned because of ineffectiveness and environmental damage while injecting with fungicide was to be abandoned because it was considered too costly.

Some of the most recent attempts at combatting DED are being made in the breeding of disease resistant trees.  A nursery promoting disease resistant trees is to be found in Essex.

The Legacy of DED

The British countryside has been changed completely by the loss of the elms.  In Essex, records made by the local council detail where the elms were felled.  In the coastal areas of Tendring, Dengie and Thurrock elms dominated the local hedgerows and so their destruction here hugely damaged the local landscape and its wildlife. 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Essex Huffer Recipe

I recently wanted to create a lunch with an Essex huffer, which is a wedge-shaped bap eaten with a filling of choice.  Although the huffer has become a local bread in this part of Essex, I can't find any recipes for it in any old or new Essex cook books and there is little information online.  However, there is a traditional bread from Kent called a huffkin, and although huffkins are smaller rolls, it seems to me that there is a very close similarity between the two breads.  So I've looked to the huffkin for ideas for my recipe.  My huffers are slightly smaller than the huge baps on the pub lunch menu, but they'll be larger than a traditional huffkin.

Essex Huffer with Scottish Cheddar and Old English Chutney with Cider

Recipe for an Essex Huffer (This makes 8 Huffers)

1lb 10oz (750g) of strong bread flour.  I like to use Marriage's (the Chelmsford Millers) Very Strong White Canadian Flour for all my bread making.
7 fl oz (200 ml) scalded milk (milk boiled and then cooled until it is tepid)
10 fl oz (275 ml) tepid water
2 1/2 oz (75g) butter
1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar.

A little extra flour for a floury surface to knead the dough.
A little extra butter for greasing.

You will need:

Two baking trays.
A bowl to mix the dough in and a bowl to mix the fresh yeast.


1. Mix flour, salt and sugar in a bowl.

2. Rub in the butter.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the fresh yeast with a little of the tepid water to create a loose paste, then add the rest of the water.

4. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and pour in the tepid milk.

5. Then pour in the yeast and tepid water mixture.

6. Leave the mixture for 10-15 minutes under a piece of muslin (or tea towel).

7. Mix into a dough, adding a little more flour if the mixture feels too wet, or water if the mixture feels too dry.

8.  Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and knead for 10 minutes.

9. Wash out the floury bowl and grease with butter.

10. Put the dough into the bowl, cover with the muslin (or tea towel) and leave for an hour in a warm room.

11. Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and cut in half.

12.  Roll out each half into a circle and then cut into four pieces each 2cm thick.

13. Put four pieces on one, greased baking tray and four on the other.

14. Leave under tea towels for 30 minutes.

15. Pre-heat the oven to 220c, 200 fan or gas 7.

16. Place the baking sheets with dough in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.

* I always use fresh yeast in my breadmaking. This can be available in supermarkets and bakeries that bake bread on site.  If you would prefer to use dry yeast instead for this recipe, then I believe 15 g fresh yeast converts to 4 g of dry, quick yeast.