Thursday, 11 April 2013

On Tufty’s tail

Something is digging up the lawn. And it’s a different something from the Something that’s making holes in the turf at the top of this garden. That Something is a rabbit, or rather, a community of rabbits, their fiendish excavations discovered by the unexpected disappearance of my foot, and with it a good part of my lower leg, while surveying the kitchen beds. A surprisingly deep hole which took a lot of filling in, for all the good it will do, as the rabbits will no doubt simply pop up elsewhere. Little sods.

No, this Something is digging smaller holes – well, ‘hollows’ would be a more accurate description – and more of them, in a random, almost frenzied manner. You could, if you were inclined towards a spot of gratuitous anthropomorphism, imagine the tiny beasts scampering about and muttering, “I’m sure I buried it somewhere around here...or, maybe over there!”, forepaws a blur of frantic activity in an effort to find the furry critter’s equivalent of the elusive door keys. My money’s on squirrels; several piles of empty, cracked hazelnut shells dotted around the garden would suggest this is a safe bet. Which is odd as for all the time I’ve spent here I have neither seen a single squirrel nor heard its chastising bark. (It often seems to come as a surprise to people that grey squirrels are not mute. In fact, they can make quite a racket, particularly when annoyed or angry, and to annoy a squirrel would appear to be a feat easily achieved. Walking under a tree in which they happen to be sitting causes insult sufficient to trigger an outburst of barking, which you could be forgiven for mistaking for the chattering of a magpie with laryngitis. If, indeed, a magpie has a larynx – I assume it has some similar apparatus. But my point is, grey squirrels can produce a noise, and the noise produced is a rather tetchy, mean sort of sound.) So today I resolved to seek out Sciurus carolinensis, and having elevated my gaze a little higher than normal, sure enough a specimen was to be seen performing acrobatics among the boughs of a neighbouring oak tree. So, it is likely that the vandals in this case are squirrels, though these rural ones seem less tame than you might expect, preferring to keep out of the way of human kind. As well they might if they’re going to cause trouble.

That squirrels can cause problems for the gardener is nothing new. The RHS website has a page documenting their many crimes: in addition to making holes in your lawn and robbing the food from bird feeders, they can strip bark from trees (they seem particularly fond of acers), dig up and eat your tulip bulbs, eat flower buds on magnolias and camellias and munch through plastic netting. And they make that nasty noise. But while in many gardens (unfortunately not this one for reasons of layout and immediate geography) rabbits can be kept at bay with fencing, the aerial prowess of the squirrel makes it an altogether more difficult visitor to exclude. Humane trapping and dispatching seem to be the most efficient method (note the dispatch step; it is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to release a grey squirrel to the wild, so transporting caught squirrels to your local woodland or country park in order to restore their freedom is not an option), but as the afore-mentioned website cheerfully observes, “more squirrels are likely to move in to occupy the vacated territory, so a garden is unlikely to be squirrel-free for long.” Rather galling, particularly as the grey squirrel is a non-native species, whose aggressive behaviour and immunity to the squirrel parapoxivirus (SPPV) which it carries has obliterated red squirrel numbers in England, although a programme of grey squirrel culling in Scotland and the northern counties is seeing numbers of the native reds returning.

All this could drive a gardener to distraction, or possibly to drink. But if the gardener in question is more inclined to seek solace in a bout of comfort eating, I think I may have discovered the perfect solution. A gourmet pie company in London, Little Jack Horner’s, who combine beer, prunes and pearl barley with an interesting free-range and highly sustainable ingredient.

Pies from Little Jack Horner’s

Grey Squirrel Hunter article from The Guardian

Squirrel and sherry pie recipe

Main picture used by kind permission of infomatique on Flickr under the Creative Commons Licence.