Wildlife, no wild life

From the bottom up, first there are the worms. I’m sure they perform the very worthy function of conditioning the soil, mostly unseen and unappreciated. But I have reservations. They make worm casts, which are fine when the weather keeps dry; they can be brushed away on the lawn grass with no one the wiser. When the weather is changeable though, they become the lawn-obsessive’s nightmare.

The mowing season is one in which the mower often has to make opportunistic cuts between showers, which don’t necessarily give time for worm casts to dry, even if the grass has. Treading on a wet worm cast is the second worst thing you can tread on, because squashing it into the grass stunts or kills local growth by depriving it of light, and disfigures the lawn for weeks. If you have lots of wet worm casts and you mow the lawn, even when the grass has dried, you get a rashy ruination of muddy spots on the otherwise unblemished emerald of the sward.

Worms are, moreover, prey to the procession of half-starved and mangy foxes that claimed the garden as their territory over the years. So desperately hungry are they, they have to mine the lawn in the hope of snapping up a worm that comes too close to the surface. The damage takes weeks to repair. I do have a bottle of something or other that when sprayed on the grass discourages worms to surface. It is effective enough, but I’m not yet sure if there is any correlation between its use and a declension in fox lawn-vandalism, implying, as it would, that the foxes dig where they can hear the worms near the surface. At least my bottle keeps the worm casts at bay.

Then there are the ants. The ants are no problem in the dark months, but in the summer they assert themselves. They start in the cracks between the stepping stones that cross the lawn, then spread into the grass itself. Like the worms, they throw up casts (nests). Last year, I failed to liquidate the fliers before they’d taken off and the lawn soon began to resemble in some aspects a miniature East African savannah: short grass, small ant hills, and small cats. It only lacked bonsai acacias and pigmy giraffes. I have another bottle, or rather can for the ants. (It’s a bit of a chemical garden, ours.) It works, sort of, short term but they always seem to come back. Tips, anyone?

The woodlice are no problem, out of sight, out of mind. No doubt they too play an indispensable role in the micro-ecology but, unobtrusive and unobjectionable, they do so without offence. When I saw one come through the slats of a garden table one evening to graze on miniscule fragments of algae, lichen or even potato crisp, I remember feeling quite strangely humbled, yes imagine, by a woodlouse. Well, life chunters on doesn’t it? We all just keep on doing what we do until we stop, and maybe someone else takes over. Trump rants, Putin poisons people and a woodlouse’s perpetual quest for food ends only when it dies.

Spiders weave their webs. In late summer there’s a clutter, almost all garden spiders of varying dimensions. It’s miraculous how they span such relatively enormous distances. I think they must let the silk out blowing on a breeze to secure a sticky fixing on a remote anchorage, though I’ve never seen it done. What I have seen is a spider truss its victim as it caught the web. In a split second it was spinning the hapless little honeybee into a silken straightjacket, turning it rapidly with its front legs as if on a spindle until several layers of silk completely enveloped the victim. At some point, when not clear, it injected its venom, and soon the honeybee was still. An hour or so later I watched it eat through its silken wrapping and begin the main course.

The snails face the brunt of chemical warfare. A massacre of the molluscs with Sluggit occurs several times a season. A couple of days after the deadly blue grains are dropped around known escargotory redoubts, there are scores of them lying about including, yes, baby ones with ickle shells too. There’re often so many, I must take a dustpan and brush to them. Yes, I am an unapologetic mollusc mass murderer when it comes to the principled defence of the glaucus hostas, for example, whose svelte greyish, blue-green leaves make such a ravishingly elegant display in summer.

We have a single frog. At least I think it’s a single frog, probably a female because it’s quite large. Perhaps I should give her a name: Ethel, maybe. I don’t know what she’s doing in our garden; we have no water features. I don’t see her very often, maybe two or three times over a year, and if she eats slugs, as I understand she does, (come to think of it, we do have few slugs) she’s more than welcome to help herself. Ethel, I hope you find the baby ones irresistibly succulent.

Our air space is often crossed, especially in bad weather, by gulls that soar with effortless economy for hours, but never seem to land in the garden. In summer, we see the swifts or martins, much higher, using the updrafts to carry them almost out of sight and earshot, as they trawl the skies for tiny insects born on the breeze. In the branches of the huge and noble sycamores, at the end of the garden a couple of doors along, a murder of crows (what a delicious collective, a gothic relic of much more superstitious and bloody times), yes, a murder of crows sporadically crescendos to a raucous fortissimo. Green ringed parakeets, long since naturalized, are the hooligans on the block. Flying low in squadron formation they often buzz the garden, shrieking gleefully as they flash by. Like the seagulls, I’ve never seen them land. That is until recently.

The bird-feeder hangs from the pergola and is visible through the conservatory windows. This is no ordinary bird-feeder but one designed by an ingenious German naturalist, possibly naturist, to conserve its feed for all but the smaller species. If a bird or animal weighing significantly more than your average blackbird, alights on one of its four feeding perches, a spring mechanism closes the apertures giving access to the feed. The rattling magpies and waddling pigeons have no chance, except to pick up seed that’s been dropped by messy eaters above, in the avian world, everybird.

I’d stopped feeding the local tits, robins, occasional blackbirds and wrens because I’d read, probably in the Daily Scumagraph, my rag of choice, that birds were becoming not only dependant on feeders but obese because of them. The prospect of little birdies crashing to the ground with heart attacks or having to mix statins in with the feed to prevent it, was too much. The RSPB also pronounced that feeders with shared perches promote the spread of disease. I cut off supplies for several months, until a cold spell struck. As the temperature dropped my heart melted. I had just about enough seed to fill the hopper, about half a kilo.

I went inside and about my business, glancing out from time to time at the hanging feeder. Picture a dark green meshed wire cylinder about 30 cm high by about 7.5 cm across with a dark green base and pitched lid. One elevenses, I noticed the level of the seed had dropped to about a half, yet I hadn’t seen a single bird, and the feeder is completely inaccessible to the squirrel, indeed it’s called the ‘Squirrel Buster Mini. At lunchtime I discovered why. On the feeder, I spied a strange shape, which, when I focused, turned into an upside down parakeet, with its beak in the feed access port below. It munched happily on until it gave way to its mate who using the same inverted posture also ate its fill. This had never happened before and in the space of two days the parakeets had finished off the entire hopper.

This tale is as yet unfinished. Of course largesse was immediately withdrawn and I’ve not seen a parakeet around the garden for months, so I’m trying again, this time with Nyger seeds in the hope of attracting a greater variety than just the bread and buttery tits and robins as before. There is still the mystery of the inverted feeding posture. We’ll see how long the Nyger lasts.

The butterflies’ chaotic flight enlivens our summer days and I’ve never noticed much damage from their caterpillars. I’ve seen Red Admirals, Peacocks, Tortoiseshells, Cabbage whites of course, some sort of Speckled Wood or Brown, even an Orange Tip once, as I recall, and a mysterious unidentified Blue. In fact this Blue is the most regular visitor with two showings a season. In my experience popular butterfly identity websites and books show only the superior view of the insect with its wings outstretched, but our Blue unlike other species never seems to open its wings when it settles. In all the years I’ve been trying I’ve never seen its open wings except in flight at a distance too great for the detailed view necessary for identification.

When I was a boy, my Great Uncle Arthur, a keen collector, gave me his net and a number of old display cabinets, which smelt of, well, mothballs of course. He told me about using cotton wool dipped in a little chloroform in a glass jar, and how it was necessary to pin and set an insect within 45 minutes of its death before rigor mortis set in. Incredible though it is, I was, in those days around 1950, able to go into Boots or wherever it was, and buy a small bottle of chloroform over the counter, at the age of about ten, no questions asked. (The same was true for small but useable amounts sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal, the ingredients of gunpowder.)

I didn’t use the chloroform much. It was too morose a spectacle, but I thought just now I might reprise it once only to sate my curiosity. That would indeed have been a case of the price of knowledge being sorrow, so I’ll probably just go on chasing it round the garden ‘til I drop; this latter, a case of the price of innocence being ignorance. Maybe it’s just a Holly Blue. There is a small holly tree at the back behind the shed, but I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. Anyway, where am I going to get chloroform these days?

Cats which once used our patch as a public forum, not to mention midden, have been driven back to surrounding gardens by a system of ultrasonic deterrent devices. Cats evidently hate the sound they make on sensing movement, for I’ve not seen a single one out back since I put the system in last summer, even though the batteries went flat weeks ago and they are, for the time being, silent.

A family of squirrels lives in a hollow in the trunk at the top of the cherry tree. From here they sally forth to dig up any bare earth in standing pots, making a filthy mess on the paving stones. They regularly commit the mortal sin of making holes in the lawn where they bury peanuts supplied by the exasperatingly well-meaning neighbours. The ultrasound will blast ‘em OK, when I replace the batteries, I dare say, but we’ll still have to net the pots which provide them too much acoustic shadow. The battle is once more joined, and stalemate renewed. Is this the balance of nature?

We are where we are, and where we are is where we have a fox and where we have squirrels, so why wouldn’t I want the wicked former to eat the cute latter? I only saw it once, not the very grab itself, but the fox limping across the lawn with the lifeless corpse of a squirrel in its jaws. Other squirrels were completely traumatised and disappeared for about four months. No, I’ve given up on the fox as pest control. It can’t catch enough squirrels so it’s forced to resort to the worms in the lawn.

I’ve had many attempts at silver bullet solutions. Once I pulled out my numerous orphan socks to use as rags to carry a liquid called Renardine, which claimed a smell foxes could not abide. The plan was to stick the saturated socks at regular intervals around the garden perimeter. Renardine did indeed smell foul, but, problematically, even fouler to humans than to foxes; creosote was definitely a major element, but laced with something quite prodigiously disgusting: tomcats come to mind. The project was swiftly abandoned. Creosote and Renardine are now banned in law. Our noses rejoice.

The final solution, frankly not nearly final enough for me, I’m afraid, consists of the ultrasound devices already mentioned and a motion sensitive hose that suddenly pumps out a jet of water in a side-swinging arch across the lawn. I was put onto this by the Oxford University Croquet Club website. Well, these folk would be pretty highly motivated and competent, I reckoned, so I’d better give it a try. Well, it works well enough, but if you’re a bit absented minded, and you’ve forgotten to turn it off, when you wander out onto the lawn on a sunny morning, you’re going to give your trousers a watery surprise. It’s happened more than enough, but it’s worth every wet patch just to give that blighter varmint a really bad fright. Or I could just put it on a timer, I suppose.