Friday, 20 January 2017

The Oldest Surviving Mammal on Earth

Every day we see calmly wandering echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) as we ride around Raymond Island, here in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria.

I am amazed that we see them so often. These unusual animals are typically quite elusive. They must feel quite safe, because they don’t seem to be fussed in the streets of the little village, or even as we quietly watch them feed. They come close to the house too.

Monty and Maia chatting to the Echidna near the house.

I was fascinated yesterday as I watched one poking holes in the soil with it's snout on quite hard grassy soil on the roadside. I was thinking how effective they were at opening the soil for the next rain. Later I noticed another fossicking in the leaf litter before disappearing into the undergrowth. I realised how important these wild and 'messy' spaces are for them.

Echidna on the streets of the Raymond Island Village digging with her snout for insects. (I actually can't tell if its a girl or boy)

Fresh echidna digging holes.
The kids and I have become so enchanted by their their lovely little faces and antics. We realised we only knew a little about them so we decided to investigate. We found some really interesting facts about these curious creatures, and thought they would be interesting to share.

A great natural defence.

Two dozen interesting facts about echidnas.

  1. Echidnas are the oldest surviving mammals on the planet today (evolved 20-50 million years ago).
  2. Echidnas are egg-laying mammals (monotreme) like the platypus - soft leathery eggs about 2 centimetres in diameter.
  3. Echidnas keep their young in pouches (like kangaroos) for about three months and wean them at 12 months.
  4. Echidnas are long lived - up to 50 years in captivity, and reports of 45 years in the wild, but usually 10-15 years.
  5. Echidnas have very large brains for their body size - the largest prefrontal cortex of any mammal
  6. Echidnas have the latest eye lens of any animal giving it the longest focal length.
  7. Echidna’s ears are sensitive to low-frequency which is ideal for detecting termites and ants underground.
  8. Echidnas are around 30-45cms and weigh 2-5kgs
  9. Echidnas have the lowest body temperature of any mammal - 32 celsius.
  10. Echidnas have a slow metabolism - the lowest energy-consuming mammal.
  11. Echidnas hibernate in winter. They can slowing their heartbeat to 4-7 beats/minute and taking a breath every three minutes
  12. Echidnas are covered in fur and spines - the 5cm spines are actually modified hairs.
  13. Echidnas eat ants, termites, grubs, larvae, worms.
  14. Echidnas are electroreceptive - the echidna has 400-2000 electroreceptors on their snouts (platypus have 40,000 on their bills) .
  15. This special snout (also called a beak) senses electrical signals from insect bodies. When it detects prey, it uses its sharp claws to dig into the soil then lick them up with its tongue.
  16. Echidnas are toothless - the use their fast 18 cm sticky tongue (Tachyglossus means ‘quick tongue’) to catch ants, termites, worms and insect larvae. They break down food with hard pads on the roof of their mouth.
  17. Echidnas are found all over Australia including rainforest, dry sclerophyll forest and arid areas. 
  18. Echidnas are able to survive extreme temperatures however they have no sweat glands and cannot pant, therefore need to protect themselves from high temperatures by digging into the soil.
  19. Echidnas are found only in Australia (short nosed) and New Guinea (long-nosed). 
  20. Echidnas are usually solitary animals 
  21. Echidnas are not often seen, but are classified as ‘common’ 
  22. Echidnas are not territorial. In some areas their range can be 50 hectares or more.
  23. Echidnas are protected in Australia by Law.
  24. The echidna is featured on the Australian 5 cent piece

Echidna puggle. Image: Perth Zoo

Echidna Threats

The key threats to echidnas are dog and cars. Thankfully here, traffic is slow and limited on the island, and people seem very responsible with their dogs, particularly as this is a koala reserve too. When echidnas need to protect themselves, they curl up into a ball with just their spines facing out.

Habitat loss is also a problem for echidnas in populated areas of Australia. They need fallen logs, tree stumps, rocks, leaf litter and debris. We often clean things up too much. Keeping the under storey is also important as it provides cover for echidnas as they move around. I often watch an echidna around my parent’s house disappear back into the dense bush after it’s had a wander here.  It’s good to remember too that these logs, leaf fall and rocks provide good habitat for things echidnas like to eat.

Some further reading on Echidnas

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Nature's Weather Indicators: Watching Animals and Plants

There is so much you can tell about the weather and what's to come by watching the animals around you. I trust these natural indicators and take heed in how I manage my permaculture system. I also share these observations with my children, and we delight in seeing what we can observe each day.

We've been watching a dangling possum tail out of this hollow old tree. Can you see it in the picture? This particular tree is just beside my parents house so we see it throughout the day. We've noticed that she sticks her tail out when the temperature goes over 30 degrees celsius. On a mild day, she's all tucked in. We call it the possum tail thermometer!

I love living an indoor/outdoor connected life and noticing the changes that are taking place around me - in animal and insect behaviour, in sounds, in smells, in the look of clouds, the look of the lake, the colour of the sky.... observing the patterns in nature.

At home in Crystal Waters I know to look to the south to see what weather is coming - typically this is where storm clouds build and now after years of watching I can tell what type of storm by the type of clouds. And when the sky is green, I expect hail.

A corroboree of kookaburras cackling between 10 am and 2 pm indicates rain is on it's way

I've been living at the same place for almost 20 years now and there's quite a few things I've noticed:

  • A corroboree of kookaburras cackling between 10 am and 2 pm indicates rain is on it's way
  • The arrival of the koel's (rain birds/storm birds) on their annual migration indicates that the wet season is about to begin. 
  • Little black ants come into the house en-masse  when rain is on its way.
  • Seeing a Mary River Turtle in the garden also means big rain is on its way.
  • Low flying birds indicate the wind is about to blow strongly
  • When a storm is coming, flocks of birds fly to the hills behind us, making a huge racket. The kangaroos head up with them.
  • There's a smell of rich soil/compost before a storm. (plants excrete their waste during a low-pressure change that leads to rain).
The koel (rainbird) has a distinttve call - they tell me when the rains are about to come. 

Animals feel the changes before we do. They are more sensitive to natural changes in the weather and will seek shelter in case of violent weather.

I also observe the changes in me too. An obvious thing is that my hair goes frizzy when there's very high humidity and rain is coming.

I remember reading an interesting book when I first moved to Crystal Waters - it helped to guide me on what sort of things to look for. It was Nature's Weather Watch : A Guide to Forecasting the Weather by Observing Animal and Plant Life by John, Glenda.

I love being able to bring up my kids in close connection to nature and to share with them my love of the world of which we are an interconnected part. For them, watching nature, being in nature, feeling connected to nature is normal. I notice now that wherever we go they are always observing - even in middle of the city - and as a parent I smile a deep inner smile.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Edible & Medicinal Ornamental Herb: Lamb's Ear

I was reminded today how much I love Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina). I have it growing in my permaculture kitchen garden and food forest. Whenever I walk past it I have to stop and touch it's gorgeous leaves. 

We all love Lamb’s Ear for these big soft fluffy leaves and because it's a tough landscaping ornamental, but there is so much more to this plant - a native to Turkey, Armenia and Iran (also known as woolly woundwort). 

Lamb's ear - it's so soft. Every time I walk past it I just have to stop and feel it. Image source: Morag Gamble

Here is a brief overview of it's uses ....

  • ornamental - fabulous border plant and robust ground cover with interesting contrasting silvery grey-green leaves, summer flowering.
  • edible - young leaves in salad, steamed as a green, battered ('lambari' in Brazil), stir fried
  • medicinal - Homegrown antibacterial bandage speeds up the healing of cuts. Squash leaves and put on bee stings and insect bites. Infusions of dried leaves are good for colds, gum and throat infections, and asthma. Also, leaves simmered and cooled can be used as an eyewash for sties.
  • functional - leaves for compost and no-dig gardening, toilet paper, absorbent pads
  • ecological - pollinator plant, attract bees
  • sensory gardens - great in children’s gardens and healing gardens - people love to feel the thick felt-like leaves 
  • low-maintenance - Lamb’s Ear is an easy plant to care for and to propagate. It is hardy, drought-tolerant, frost-tolerant, grows well on sandy poor soil, likes sun and 

  • for urban gardens - hardy and grows well in containers

Do you use Lamb's Ear in other ways? It'd be great to hear from you. 

Flowering in Bairnsdale (Victoria, Australia) today. Image source: Morag Gamble

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Edible Flowers

Thyme flowers are edible and delicious. I often add them to salads and stir fries for the flavour and the visual interest.

When herbs flower, they not only look beautiful, add colour to the garden, attract bees and other beneficial insects - many are edible too.

I photographed this flowering thyme at the new Raymond Island Community Garden run by a small group of volunteers at the community hall. I visited there for the first time yesterday - what a great little garden.

It's best it pick flowers in the cool of the day. Early morning is perfect, just after any dew has evaporated.  Once the flowers have finished on the herb plants, freshen them up by giving them a trim.

I made a short film about some of the edible flowers in my permaculture garden back in August. Here is the link to this film on my Youtube Channel, Our Permaculture Life:
Edible Flowers by Morag Gamble 

As well as thyme flowers, I often eat the flowers of:

  • rosemary
  • oregano
  • basil
  • rocket (arugula)
  • coriander (cilantro)
  • garlic chives
  • chives
  • pelargonium
  • lavender
  • chamomile
  • mint
  • lemon balm
  • dill
  • fennel

I also eat the flowers of other plants in my garden such as:
  • rose
  • hibiscus
  • fucshia
  • nasturtium
  • calendula
  • marigold
  • pineapple sage
  • pansy
  • radish
  • pumpkin
There are so many more too. 

What are your favourite edible flowers and how do you eat them?

Edible pansy flowers.

A few notes on safely eating flowers:

  • eat flowers you know are edible (if you are not 100% sure what plant it is while you're out foraging, leave it)
  • eat flowers you have grown yourself, or know how they've been grown (florist flowers are usually treated with chemicals)
  • Choose flowers that are at their peak. 
  • avoid roadside flowers because of vehicle pollution
  • avoid park flowers which may have been sprayed
  • I would eat the entirety of small flowers such as thyme, rosemary and oregano, but it is recommended to eat only the petals (not the stamens, pistils or sepals) of larger flowers because they interfere with the flavour and the pollen can affect people with allergies. You wouldn't bother with thyme flowers - way too tiny and fiddly.
  • If you suffer from allergies, asthma or hayfever - probably best to avoid or go easy.
  • I usually eat them fresh from the garden, but if you want to harvest and keep them, one idea I read was to place them on moist paper towel and refrigerate in an airtight container. They can last up to 10 days.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Wild Foraging at the Beach - Pigface: It's All Edible!

Pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens) is an amazingly common plant, often seen, but quite overlooked. It is so abundant around our coastal environments, so easy to grow at home and so useful. I love wild foraging for this plant along the beach, but I am also thinking of trying this plant as a ground cover in a food forest situation at home.

Did you know ….  

  1. that every part of the common beach plant, pigface, is edible - raw or cooked? - the leaves, the flowers and the fruits.  Eat it in salads and stir fries, make pickles, enjoy the slightly salty fruit.
  2. that like aloe vera, the juices of the succulent pigface leaves help to soothe itches, bites and burns?
  3. that you can you can use roasted pigface leaves can be used as a salt substitute.
  4. that pigfaces contain a lot of drinkable moisture and is a good source of water in a survival situation.
  5. that pig face can also be used as a gargle for sore throat and mild bacterial mouth infections.
  6. that it attracts bees, butterflies and other insects

Small pigface sample showing how it is a runner. Propagate simply by taking a length and planting it into some damp soil.

About Pigface

Pigface is a easily found on the east coast of Australia - right close to the beach and in the dunes. It is a hardy perennial ground cover native to Australia. I have been spotting it a lot around here in the Gippsland Lakes.  There are actually around 30 varieties of Carpobrotus, and 6 of these are native to Australia. (The main ones I see are C. glaucescens and C. rossii)

The delicious red fruits are safe to eat.

name, Carpobrotus, refers to the edible fruits - coming from the Ancient Greek karpos "fruit" and brotos “edible”. Pigface was harvested and used a lot by indigenous Australians both as food and medicine. Early European explorers used the plant as an anti-scurvy treatment. 

Because grows quickly as a low spreading creeper into large heavy mats, it helps protect dunes.

Pigface is playground Friendly

It’s a playground friendly plant because all it’s parts are edible. In Spring and summer, it also has such bright daisy-like flowers - usually bright pink or fucshia purple. Also it is not prickly - quite the opposite, it’s succulent leaves are soft, and fun to squish.  

I have fond beach memories as a child, sitting amongst the pigface playing with the juicy leaves, nibbling on the little berries and collecting the incredibly bright pink flowers. 

Pigface is low maintenance.

Pigface is a low maintenance plant that can be grown in arid landscape situations - like containers, courtyards, rockeries.  It is drought resistant, salt tolerant, as well as being fire resistant.

Please share how you eat or use pigface.

More Reading:

Note: A friend of mine pointed out that "rules about foraging on government-owned land vary between states in Australia and fines for foraging illegally can amount to thousands of dollars...". That's something worth exploring more!

Friday, 13 January 2017

10 Non-toxic and Economical Cleaning Tips in the Kitchen

I much prefer to use natural non-toxic cleaners at home, especially with young ones about. There's really no need to use the chemical cleaners when we have access to things like vinegar. Simple vinegar is such a useful and economical helper in the kitchen, as well as around the home. It replaces so many 'products'.

It's amazing really, vinegar was discovered by accident more than 10,000 years ago and today it is still used today in so many ways. Similar to how we use it today, the Ancient Sumerians are known to have used it as a condiment, a preservative, a medicine, and antibiotic and a detergent.

Here are just ten of the ways to use vinegar as an affordable and natural cleaner in the kitchen:

1. Clean the fridge
Wipe down the inside of the fridge using equal parts of water and vinegar.

2. Clean the oven
Wipe out the oven with a cleaning cloth dampened with white vinegar.

3. Brighten stainless steel

Remove spots and streaks on stainless steel kitchen equipment by rubbing with white vinegar.

4. Rinse hand-washed soapy dishes and glasses
To get rid of the soap residue and get squeaky clean dishes, add a splash of vinegar to the rinse water. It helps to prevent water spotting on glasses too.

6. Rinsing in the dishwasher
To get streak-free, sparkly dishes just add 3 tablespoons of vinegar to your dishwasher's rinse cycle.

7. Clean stained mugs
I like the inside of my cups to be nice and clean. To get rid of stubborn coffee and tea stains coffee, wipe them with a mix of salt and white vinegar.

8. Clean chopping boards
To clean chopping boards, cut grease, absorb odours and reduce bacteria, wipe them down with full strength vinegar

9. Clean work surfaces
To clean all kitchen work surfaces and reduce bacteria, wipe them with full strength vinegar.

10. Revive kitchen clothes
Freshen up kitchen sponges by soaking them overnight in a litre of water with 3 tablespoons of vinegar added to it.

Source: Vinegar 1001 Practical Uses by Margaret Briggs

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Can You Compost Koala Poo?

An interesting question I was posed with today - can you compost koala poo?

As I write now in the late evening, I am listening to a great 'symphony' of koala calls outside - the 'growling' males and the squeaky young ones. The noises koalas make are really quite surprising - possibly some of the noisiest of the Australian natives - especially in mating season. You'd think there were great big monsters outside. Visiting friends and children can be quite alarmed!

Such soft and sweet-looking animals make such incredibly raucous noises all through the night.

Each day here on Raymond Island, in the middle of the Gippsland Lakes, we've been riding our bikes on koala-spotting expeditions. There are so many here - it's an amazing Koala refuge. There are lots of new babies too which is great. It's also wonderful seeing so many people from around the world here wandering around the sandy streets with their heads turned to the treetops experiencing koalas in the wild.

An easy way to find koalas is to look for their fresh scats below the gum trees. We've been encouraging this method after Hugh rode into a few garbage bins on the side of the road today !?! (he's OK).

Koala scats are oval shaped and olive green when fresh, and as little Monty informs us, they smell of gum leaves which is not surprising since this is their entire diet.

Looking for native animal scats is actually quite fascinating. Other scats we've found belong to the Eastern Grey Kangaroo and the wallabies, but we haven't spotted any echidna or wombat scats yet. We know there are wombats here, and we've seen lots of gorgeous echidnas with their amazing quills and feet - such lovely little faces - snuffling around in the leaf litter searching for insects.

So, can you compost native animal manure?

Herbivore poo is good poo for compost. A while ago I was going past a Llama farm and picked up a car boot full of llama poo which made great compost. Native herbivore poo also makes good compost although I hear it is generally slower to decompose. Also, being quite small, it would take a while to collect (unlike the llamas that poo all in one spot). Having said that, Koalas scat is often concentrated under trees so easier to collect than the poo of the wandering grazing kangaroos and wallabies.

We'll go out with a bucket tomorrow and see how much we can collect for Grandad's orchard.

Here's a link to some scats for Australian animal scats: