WILDING THE URBAN GARDEN
a year in the life of a wildlife haven
Extracts from the book
Cultivating a wildlife garden is a relatively low-labour option. It takes time for a wildlife garden to fully develop but it’s easy to get some quick, early results. Most of the work is done by nature itself. Just letting grass grow, leaving some weeds in place, letting new plant species germinate, having some untidy areas, and providing food sources and habitat features such as seed feeders and log piles will start attracting new wildlife species to your patch within a season.
2020 DIARY EXTRACTS
The sparrows are out in force today, with fine weather after a day or two of rain. I never tire of watching sparrows in the garden. They’re a large and growing flock who seem to never leave the garden. All their needs seem to be met here: food, protection, nest-sites, safe roosting – and lots of opportunities to bicker at one another.
I get immense joy from this connexion with all the inhabitants of our little wildlife haven, and from the intimate insights into their lives. Most days there isn’t anything rare or exotic to look at; much of it may seem mundane or commonplace, but when you become immersed in it over a period you see all kinds of subtle stuff going on. I hope this will come across in these daily observations.
This natural richness shows that I must be doing something right in my role of custodian and maintainer of the garden. There’s a satisfying sense that we’re moving at least this little patch and its surroundings in the right direction; we’re playing some small part in the necessary effort to reverse humankind’s habit of ecological destruction.
Looking out into the garden I see a sparrow-hawk crouching on the ground with a sparrow in its talons; it’s spreading its wings out in masking posture to show it’s not about to share this meal with anyone. When it’s sure the sparrow is dead it flies off with it. Sorry, sparrows, but predators need to make a living too. These sparrow-hawks are stunning birds that occupy the top spot in the local food chain, and their presence indicates a healthy eco-system; I know that with ever growing numbers the sparrows can probably stand the loses.
One of my favourite plants is Lesser Celandine, the classic harbinger of spring, in full blossom now. It’s a member of the buttercup family, with vivid yellow glossy petals and heart shaped leaves.
Wordsworth loved Lesser Celandine so much that he wrote an ode to it. The plant is also known as Pilewort – you can guess what that’s helpful for. Perhaps Wordsworth had special reason to be grateful to the plant.
Late last night I took our dog Rosa out. In the garden she started barking at something – it was a large hedgehog; she had never seen one. We watched the animal from a distance – excitedly. A hedgehog visiting your wildlife garden is something you try to provide the right conditions for, but whether it happens is beyond your control.
I stood watching the animal, spellbound; after a while it began to move. It stayed in the same spot, sniffing round, then found something and chomped on it. It wasn’t bothered by us; hedgehogs don’t have great eyesight. I noticed something small and white falling down in front of the hog; it found and ate it. The hedgehog had positioned itself underneath the mealworm feeder, filled during the day for the birds; every now and then a leftover worm would manage to climb up the side and drop down to the ground. This hedgehog knew what it was doing.
The birds didn’t get any mealworms after that. Hedgehogs are just too special.
Late yesterday evening we heard loud huffing, puffing and snorting in the garden, and saw that our big male hedgehog was on a date with a smaller hog, presumably female. As we watched we learned that the correct answer to the age-old joke ‘How do hedgehogs make love?’ is that the female can flatten down her prickles for the duration.
But how to tell the difference between male and female hedgehogs? The male has a penile sheath in the middle of his abdomen, looking rather like a belly-button, and the penis is typically retracted into this – unless he is lonely and self-stimulating. Did you know that male hedgehogs self-stimulate? And how do they do that? Carefully, one presumes.
The breeding season continues and the wildlife is showing great vitality. The surviving baby sparrows are now fat fledgelings, fully feathered and flying well, and able to find their own food; but many are still chasing their mothers around, calling incessantly and demanding feeding. These latter specimens are now identifiable as males; the mums are ignoring these demands. In sparrow circles this is no doubt regarded as man-fledging.
The male blackbird started singing at 4.10 this morning: it’s beautiful and uplifting. I know this bird is probably only saying, “this is my territory so you’d better all piss off” but it’s doing it so beautifully; I never fail to feel joy listening to it, especially at dawn and again at dusk. Who knows, perhaps the bird feels joy too: the joy of telling others to f**k off? As indeed I do, sometimes.
Anthropomorphique, moi? Certainement.
Today’s wildlife bulletin is superceded by an angry personal outburst, but it’s flimsily linked to eco-matters. This morning I heard someone say on the radio, “It was a nightmare! I was stuck in traffic for an hour!” I find this incredibly annoying. People uses this phrase all the time: “My phone battery was flat, it was a nightmare.” “We couldn’t find any pizza anywhere, it was a nightmare.” “I couldn’t get on my Facebook page!” “My boyfriend saw me without make-up etc etc etc” Nightmare, nightmare, nightmare.
These are not nightmares. A nightmare is when you discover that the whole of your family have turned into vampire zombies. A nightmare is when someone is coming after you with a chainsaw and they’ve already killed the rest of the city. A nightmare is when the planet has been invaded by alien earwigs the size of elephants and have barbecued the rest of humanity and you’re next on the menu. These are nightmares. The other items are inconveniences. Why can’t people get these things right? Oh and by the way, traffic person: you are the traffic that you’re annoyed about.
I love the commonplace species, but this wild urban garden throws up something a bit special once in a while. Today it was an Emperor Dragonfly, Anex Imperatur, Britain’s bulkiest and most stunningly beautiful dragonfly, which spent time coasting round the garden in the morning sunlight, catching flying insects in the air around the flowering ivy. This magnificent creature is coloured apple green and sky blue with black markings, and 70 millimetres in length. The sighting is particularly unexpected as we’re far from any of its usual larger scale watery habitats. Maybe it’s drawn here by the richness of flying prey, which it not only catches but also eats on the wing. A truly wonderful creature.
The garden birds are fully feathered and less shy now after their late summer moult, when they stayed in cover a lot of the time. On this sunny day they are all out in the garden feeding at once, but in different ways.
The whole sparrow tribe are at the seed feeder. The wood pigeon is underneath them, hoovering up everything they knock down to the ground. The female blackbird is turning over leaf mould to find worms, while her mate is pecking at the fermenting windfall apples for its daily tipple of fruit alcohol. The squirrels are foraging all round the garden and carrying stuff off to their cache for winter. The wrens forage for invertebrates in the bark of elder tree, while a pair of bluetits are finding insects on other shrubs.
Have been observing the ant colony in the garden. Ants have an array of extraordinary and highly effective ways of preventing and dealing with outbreaks of viral infections in their extremely close-knit social communities. They employ antibacterial tree resins in construction of their nests. They do social distancing as a matter of course, and limit contact between different ant work-groups such as workers/ foragers/ nurses. When an ant is ill with an infectious condition it will stay away from the nest. If an individual shows sign of illness at home they will spray it with formic acid; if it cannot be saved it will be killed and disinfected. Perhaps we humans might learn something from this approach.
It looks like we may be getting a somewhat more eco-sympathetic president across the water; one could scarcely describe the outcumbent as wildlife friendly.
Winter solstice. It’s pouring with rain. I put the bird seed feeder in the porch so that the birds can source dry seed there. But now I see a woodmouse scurrying scurrying back and forth between the feeder and the woodpile where it lives, building up its winter larder. I built the woodpile for hedgehogs but they haven’t occupied it; so now its being used in a different way, and meanwhile the hedgehogs have been attracted by other resources. It just goes to show that you can create wildlife opportunities, but you can’t tell how ro by whom they will be taken up.
So a big lesson for me this year, inspired by the examples I’ve seen all year among the wildlife in the garden, is the importance of adapting to changing circumstances. It’s all about living in the present and adapting – like wildlife critters do. Things could always be worse. In the life and death struggles of the wild garden, as indeed in my own struggles, being alive is a big advantage.