Thursday, 3 April 2014

When Nature Comes to Visit

Some time ago, we redesigned our back garden. Out went the shrubbery and in came the pond, the hedgehog mound, and what we fondly hoped would be a meadow but is now more honestly referred to as the Wild Area. Basically, we just don’t cut an area of the lawn until September in the hope that bugs and butterflies will thrive. In fact, all the changes were made with the intention of making our garden more ‘wildlife friendly’. And it’s really really worked, despite our marauding cats, of which more below.

So now we have lots of animals who use our garden, some who live with us, and some who just potter by from time to time and happily don’t seem to be aware of such human concepts as borders and boundaries.

Since we have made these changes, we seem to attract many more wild birds to our garden. We keep them well-fed and they amply reward us with colour, variety and displays. I have whiled away gentle hours watching them.

For the most part, they are common, but beautiful; greenfinches, sparrows, blackbirds, the occasional thrush... The most unusual visitor we have ever had was the linnet we saw last year, but other notable moments include the recent swoop and landing of a kite in the back garden (it actually landed! That was a first!), a sparrow hawk taking out a sparrow in mid-flight, a grey heron fishing in the pond and my absolute favourite, a resident flock of starlings. It’s far from being a murmuration, sadly, but nevertheless, a small flock of about 20 birds regularly comes to knock hell out of our garden worms. We also hear owls and buzzards and for the first time last week we saw a little owl in our neighbour’s garden – let’s hope they all come and visit.

Back to the cats, who arrived by invitation and remain by somewhat stretched tolerance. Not least since one of them leapt, four paws off the ground, to snatch a goldfinch from the bird feeder last month.

Springtime, with all the baby field mammals being born is the worst: often our greedy felines bring mice inside to eat them in peace and quiet, leaving the guts as glistening deposits wherever they fall. Often, though, and despite their highly honed hunting skills, our cats prove too stupid to hang on to the small creatures long enough to kill them, and the victim makes a break for freedom and I end up chasing a mouse around the house with a fishing net (yes, my dear neighbours, that’s what you see me doing. We are not re-enacting Chitty Chitty Bang Bang here, with me taking the role of the Child Catcher!)

Our cats also specialise in decapitating baby rabbits. If I find headless corpses in the garden, frankly that’s not too bad as I find a faceless ex-bunny easier to deal with than one looking sweet and cuddly, but dead. However, on one memorable occasion my nose detected a vintage corpse which had been snuck inside some time ago and left in a little-used drawer under the bed. Too old to stew, too smelly to ignore, I donned rubber gloves and cleaned it up. Probably finding decomposing animals under one’s bed is not something that I should be sharing this widely but too late now and hopefully my friends will not desert me.

What else? Well, spawning frogs and toads have given my kids a series of biology lessons that they’ll never get at school (do you know they can even ‘do it’ when they swim? Goodness knows how the ladies stay afloat - I wouldn’t be able to. But what an impressive example of female multi-tasking!) We also have newts, dragonflies, damselflies, pond skaters and probably a whole host of creepies that we are too ignorant to recognise.

A path across our grass travelling from under one fence, across the garden and out the other side, so often used that we can even see it through snow, marks the fox’s route. I rather like foxes, except when they howl in the dead of night or make out noisily in our rhubarb patch during mating season.

But my top-of-the-list all-time favourites are the bats. We have at least five who swoop and flutter in the half light of evening as we sit in the garden, mesmerised, trying to make out a solid animal from the frenzied balls of movement as they pass. They’ve just re-appeared, so it must be Spring. Just don’t tell the cats.

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