Nature-writing award 2010: The results

We present the results of BBC Wildlife’s third annual nature-writing competition.

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Nature Writer of the Year 2010 article spread 
 
BBC Wildlife’s third annual nature-writing competition attracted record entries, perhaps reflecting a raft of articles in the media stating that this form of literary endeavour is the ‘new rock ‘n’ roll’.
 
The five judges took over two hours to create a shortlist and in the end a vote was needed to separate the winner and runner-up.
 
The overall winner was Conor Jameson’s essay Phantom, which describes his encounter with a goshawk in Berlin. Dark and moody, with overtones of film noir, the piece reveals something new about this exciting raptor.
 
Judge Kate Humble commented: “It’s astonishing that you can get so close to a wild goshawk in a city-centre park, and Conor recounts his adventure brilliantly.”
 
Conor’s prize was a place on an Earthwatch conservation expedition. He chose to take part in the Amazon Riverboat Expedition, on which participants can help Peruvian biologists to collect data about the wildlife of the Samiria River, including river dolphins, giant otters and monkeys.
 

 
Winner: 
Phantom by Conor Jameson, Bedfordshire
 
Runner-up:
Wild life by Carol Donaldson, Essex
 
Highly Commended: 
Whalesong by Susannah Buchan, London
Rhannan by Ann Jolly, Hants
Noble Rot by Paul McGranaghan, Co Tyrone
Hunting for dragons by Ceri Richards, Devon
Gingerly by Helen Whittle, Lincoln
Murmuration by Matt Brierley, Bristol (currently unavailable, though hopefully coming soon)
 
 
The Judges

Tim Dee, author and BBC radio producer
Paul Evans, nature writer and broadcaster
Ben Hoare, features editor, BBC Wildlife
Kate Humble, BBC tv presenter
Rob Stringer, writer and editor, Earthwatch

 
 
 
Winner: Phantom
By Conor Jameson, Bedfordshire
 
 
Berlin. Late February. As chill and still and drab as all the Cold War, spy thriller clichés. I am here with “Altenkamp!” That’s how Rainer answers his hands-free phone, as we drive to the fourth and last of our destinations this afternoon. In the east of the sprawling city is Rainer’s ‘precinct’. This is where he does his stake-outs, stalks his quarry, makes his notes. But we aren’t looking for dissidents. Those days are gone. We are looking for goshawks.
 
Improbably, we are in a swing park. And not a very big one. It makes a change from the first three venues on my whistle-stop tour – cemeteries. We found evidence of goshawks at all three – plucking sites, nests, tantalising goshawk calls.
 
The park is dotted with people. The quiet is punctured by the cries of children and small dogs. There is a tennis court, a roundabout and swings. Mallards loaf on a tiny duck pond, ice still intact around its muddy, scummy rim. It doesn’t look promising, all this. I’m still stuck in my image of the goshawk as a bird of remote and expansive conifer woodland, where it remains strangely invisible.
 
The trees here, however, are towering in places. In one, Rainer points out a ‘gos’ nest from last year. Further on, we spot what must be this year’s effort: another huge, dark cone against a grey background, in the highest fork of a beech. And I notice dark feathers on the ground. They catch my eye because some are still stirring in the faintest breeze. Not wet and stuck to the grass like in the graveyards. Fresh. There is a trail of them. I notice downy feathers, too, and some of these are, in fact, still airborne.
 
I absent-mindedly follow them round in the air with my finger (I realise now that this looked like the exaggerated, gormless gesture of someone in pantomime). Without realising it, I am looking up open-mouthed and pointing at the source of the feather trail: a hooded crow, prone on the branch of an oak, 10 feet above our heads, in the firm grip of a juvenile female goshawk.
 
It is a hyper-real scenario. The phantom of the forest, the grey ghost, the bird you normally see well only in books or glass cases – glass-eyed – now close, animate, fiery-eyed, moving, pulling and tearing, twitching as she dips her head. Purposeful, focused, alert and aware, yet somehow not really looking at us. Looking beyond us or through us; as though maybe we are now the ghosts, the phantoms. A little disconcerting. Haunting. And quite amazing.
 
“Don’t point at her!” hisses Rainer. Of course, I immediately feel like the gauche, rookie cop, liable to give the game away in his enthusiasm after a prolonged investigation has led finally to the clinching encounter. I pull my hand away abruptly.
 
“We should not look at her – she might not like it,” he whispers. “We should take turns to look over, while talking to each other – like this…” As he demonstrates the ruse, I sense that Rainer, even after 15 years of study, is nearly as excited as me. Not old and cynical like the veteran cop of cliché. In a way, I’m also gratified to confirm that I can still have feelings like this myself. I’m like the kid that once was me, seeing my first buzzard up close.
 
We attempt a rather awkward, stilted semi-conversation while I, at least, am struggling to disguise my excitement, stealing glances at this mythical bird come to life. The goshawk – “the bird you know is there because you do not see it”, as they say in rural Germany – plain as day, relaxed as a pet, more beautiful than books, pictures, films and, of course, taxidermy can ever hope to emulate – is right here before us: in a city-centre swing park.
 
It becomes clear that she has not batted a mad, raptor eyelid. This is confirmed when a pram-pushing couple stop immediately below the branch and, as one, look up at her and, yes, point. Perhaps they, too, have noticed the crow’s stomach on the path, discarded by the dining hawk with the bulging crop. Or maybe they just couldn’t miss her.
 
She is 24 inches long, lean, muscular, saffron-tinted and streaked with chocolate-coloured arrowheads. She has that goshawk glare – looks invincible. Perhaps she is. Perhaps the routinely persecuted goshawk has, at last, found real sanctuary, so close to us now no one could find it in their heart to hate it, far less shoot it, or trap it, or poison it, or put it in a glass case. In Berlin, at least, the goshawk is now out of the woods and back in our lives, and no longer considered a threat to the state.
 

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Runner-up: Wild life

By Carol Donaldson, Essex
 
It’s too beautiful to stay indoors. Outside the air is still warm, the walls of the plumbers shop have been honey-dipped in light and, even here, in the middle of this urban crossroads, the air smells of blooming and budding and bursting forth.
 
“It is the time of sunset meeting with moonrise – surely no one can stay in the house,” I tell myself, misquoting Mr Rochester to Jane Eyre to psych myself up for what I’m about to confront. It is enough. I open the front door.
 
It’s Saturday night and the Railway Pub is in full swing. It was never my plan to live next to the roughest pub in town but I was in a hurry to move, the rent was cheap and somehow I convinced myself it wouldn’t be too bad.
 
The door of my flat overlooks the pub car park. As I open it, a wave of bellowing men, screaming women, smashing glasses and crying babies greets me and language, language, language. Curious faces peer upwards. After two years of living here, I have learned: keep your head down, never make eye contact and see only what you choose to.
 
The screams of the women recede into the background to be replaced by those of swifts skimming so low past my balcony I could reach out a hand and grab one. They crash land awkwardly on the wall of the pub, high above the drinkers and duck their heads into impossibly tiny holes in the brickwork where their young are tucked away in the wall cavity.
 
When it’s wet the swifts disappear for days, and I imagine the young ones hidden securely in the wall listening to the sound of trains blasting warning horns as they race through the level crossing, to the thump, thump, of car stereos, the bass cranked up to crazy levels as the drivers wait for the gates to open, the reverberations passing through the wall and vibrating across the birds feathers. The sun comes through and their parents return, their beaks full of aerial spider soup to feed the young.
 
This evening larger insects are on the wing. I can see a male stag beetle perched just above the head of a girl wearing an oversized ‘18 today’ badge. She runs her hands repeatedly through her hair, her fingers inches from the insect’s legs. I watch from the corner of my eye, imagining the scene if she brushed the insect down her cleavage. As the stag beetle crawls further up the wall, I breathe a sigh of relief at its escape and descend the flight of steps that leads to the two-foot square patch of gravel, which I grandly call my garden.
 
Tufts of valerian push through every crack in the old stone wall which separates the garden from the car park and tonight the plants hum with fat-bodied silver Y moths, hovering and sipping from each flower; no other moth gets a look in. Garden snails wander over everything, enjoying the utopian world of damp under foliage, moss, plant pots and a jolly red haired god who sprinkles water on them nightly, hop scotches through them in the rain and has a Buddhist-like avoidance of all pest control. The snails repay me by beaming up with poker-pole eyes and not seeming to devour anything I plant – not the lavender or the buddleia or the thyme, not even the strawberry plants (at least for now).
 
I sit on the bottom step and plug in the earphones of my MP3 player and for a while there is only music and moths, friendly snails and swifts in close confidentiality.
 
The sky is darkening and a pipistrelle bat appears and circles the light above the car park, catching moths and clipping the wings from each insect, the debris fluttering down onto carefully waxed hair and vanishing unseen into half-finished pints.
 
As the Railway disco pumps up into a crescendo, no amount of MP3 volume tweaking can compete and I retreat back indoors.
 
Tomorrow will be Sunday, the only quiet time of the week. I will sit on my back step with a bacon sandwich and a coffee and watch the long-tailed tits make their way through the clump of ivy that trails across the trees at the end of car park, and the wren disappearing between the leaves into the darkness where its nest is hidden.
 

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Highly Commended: Whalesong
By Susannah Buchan, London
 
As a child it was the whale’s utter defiance of all things terrestrial that was groundbreaking. I would shut my eyes and dream of the deep, the denser medium, the streaking sunlight, the most unfathomable blackness; an endless search. At university I studied the global conveyor belt of ocean currents and the elegant succession of phytoplankton blooms. I saw how moon-driven tidal cycles had been imprinted into the skeletons of bottom-dwelling algae. I learned how particulate and dissolved carbon loop and pool. I dove into the dark of night illuminated only by a luminescence product of my own movement. But the mysteries are boundless; the ocean will always evade us, now that we are land mammals.
 
I ended up flying to a long thin country flanked by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. There, nutritious bottom waters flow up from Antarctica and into the Corcovado Gulf where they mix with icy fjord waters. Whirlpool-like gyres develop and tiny phytoplankton – sun-soaked and well fed – bloom everywhere. Odd-looking critters follow, pulsating, dancing, floating, sinking, congregating to feed off the blooms, and off each other. On a calm day, the fronts where two water masses meet stain pink and boil with krill. There follow fish, seabirds, sealions, dolphins and men with their nets. And after winters in warmer climes and softer seas, blue whales come to feed and nurse their young.
 
Blue whales are the loudest animals on Earth but their sounds are so low that they are barely audible. Blue whale songs travel across oceans, through deep waters, along submarine canyons and over submarine mountains, keeping each other up to date and in touch, in a dark sea of sound. The patterned songs show regional differences. So, much like people, blue whales speak in dialects; secret codes that lock away the mysteries of their movements throughout the ‘world’ ocean.
 
We set out one morning into the mist. Scanning the horizon as we go, and there it is in the distance, the tall white blow of a blue whale. It is huge. It lingers in the air and then fades, slower than expected. Half a minute later there it is again. We get closer and cut the motor. I drop the hydrophone off the side of the boat – it sinks. I plug in my headset, and listen: the usual background rumble of the ocean.
 
As deep sounds move inhibited through deep water, only the deepest murmurs survive. Like in a giant carafe, all earthly sounds are decanted at the bottom of the sea. I also hear the more immediate clapping of waves and whistling of wind, the boat creaking, the landing of an albatross, the taking off of a cormorant, and other sounds that I will never identify.
 
I had so far been unsuccessful in my attempts to record blue whales and had no idea what to expect. I look at my computer screen for some enlightenment. Nothing. Just waves slapping, boat rocking, tummy gurgling. I don’t even realise it when it comes, I see it on-screen before my untrained ear hears it. A huge solid line appears around 100Hz. It sounds like a decelerated sledgehammer or a steam engine leaving the station. A sequence of slow, rhythmic pulses lasting 10 seconds or so, and then silence.
 
It could have been anything, maybe a ship in the distance? But it comes again, up on the screen; I listen closer, it is resonating and glorious. Gigantic vocal chords flexing back and forth in that cathedral-like chamber, projecting sound waves out into the deep. The murmur of the world, calling me to listen. The sound came again and again, guttural, primordial and persistent. A live subsonic symphony. And then, after all was said and done, the animal turned and moved off, taking its song with it.
 
Almost three years on, and many more songs recorded, I sit in a university office and spend my days in front of a screen selecting out little squares of sound, filling tables with all the numbers that I have squeezed out of the whale song. And I understand a little more than I did before. But, in essence, the whale song remains a complete mystery, to me, a land mammal.
 
I could never write in any scientific journal, in any funding proposal, in any field report, all that I have learned from this song of deepness and love, beyond numbers and measures and big words. Back on land, when washing dishes, when standing in a queue, when running for the bus, when the noises can be quite deafening, there is stillness in that timeless call, and I know that the whales are out there singing.
 

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Highly Commended: Rhannan
By Ann Jolly, Hants
 
We squeeze into a small room with bars on the window, the only space in the prison that hasn’t been pre-booked for Sentence Planning, Social and Life Skills or Alcoholics Anonymous. Here, we attempt poetry inspired by nature – six prisoners and me.
 
Beyond the perimeter wall topped with razor wire is Dartmoor, a place, wild and free, where people have lived, farmed, worked stone and minerals, practised their religions and buried their dead for over 10,000 years. On this side of the wall are cell blocks hacked from the local granite, tarmac yards, breezeblock corridors and portacabins. There’s a prize-winning garden in the centre of the prison but only a few selected men will ever work there.
 
I lay out the materials the prison authorities have allowed me to bring in for this workshop. It’s March, so there’s a bunch of wild violets, some wilting celandine, a crumble of moss, greeny-grey lichen on a disintegrating stick and slender beech twigs with cigar shaped buds. An armed robber picks up the clump of moss and strokes it gently, tears dribble down his face. The others look away or gaze at the wall until a drug dealer gently places his hand on the wrist of his mate.
 
“More than three years since I felt something green and living,” says the armed robber. The others nod, and I am given a glimpse into a life that excludes the natural world. It gets me thinking that losing touch with the stuff of the earth, plants and trees, animals and birds, even insects, has a truly impoverishing effect.
 
There is a tendency to believe that all convicted prisoners are somehow sub-normal, the next rung down on the evolutionary ladder but these guys are little different from anybody else. Whatever they have done, they too value contact with the earth, and with living and growing things. They might not be able to articulate it, but at some deep down inside level, they know.
 
I rummage in my bag of props and add to the objects on the table; a pheasant feather, some seashells, postcards of animals and some of last autumn’s acorns. We are slightly delayed by a minor squabble over the photo of a fox but that doesn’t last long. Then we’re off.
 
Initially there is a lot of “I see stars/gazing through cast iron bars” rhymes, but as we look at a range of work by Wordsworth, through Heaney, Hughes and others, to Alice Oswald’s Dart, the approach begins to alter. I don’t doubt that the shift comes about through contact with the limited range of natural material I bring in and with the poetry.
 
At break, we drink tea from plastic mugs against a background of keys clanking and look out through the huge landing window, over the wall, towards the moor where ponies graze. I point out a buzzard circling, the tips of its wings like ailerons. There are blackbirds, starlings, sparrows, gulls and pigeons flitting around the yard and the following week I hear from the librarian that there’s been a run on books about bird recognition.
 
A butterfly flapping against the inside of the window is identified as a peacock, newly emerged from hibernation somewhere inside the prison. Gently caught in large nicotine-stained hands with a history of violence, it is released through the narrow sliver of an open cell window.
 
A persistent shoplifter watches shadows of clouds race across the prison yard, wants to know the names of the formations that cause the changing patterns.
 
A young lad with a raw scar on his arm tells me he went to the local hospital to have his wound dressed, setting off with a prison officer in a taxi. On the way, the driver stopped, despite obvious anxiety from the escorting officer, and waited until he could show my budding poet a peregrine falcon swooping and diving across the great empty sky. This lad, city born and bred, is captivated by what he’s seen.
 
“When I get out,” he tells me, “I’m going to come back up here and do a bit of bird watching”. I listen for sniggering from the others, but there is none. I observe a few understanding nods.
 
Of course it’s unrealistic, on the basis of a couple of nature-linked poetry workshops, to suggest that, give a hardened criminal a bit of contact with nature, and he’ll be a different man. But it is true that entering the realm of the elements and wildlife can make connections that push us out of our everyday lives and could make us change how we feel, think or behave.
 
When the men go back to their cells I gather up the material, the moss has gone, presumably with the armed robber. Old habits die hard.
 

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Highly Commended: Noble Rot
By Paul McGranaghan, Co Tyrone
 
Trickling, the bloodstone necklace of a centipede; amber fingers strumming the sides of its meandering body as it weaves, gliding after its prey into the bowels of the compost heap. Its golden antennae savour air as pungent as oyster pulp. Picture its jaws: spring-loaded sickles aching for release.
 
The compost heap hulks in a mighty chest at the bottom of my garden. Its wood has bleached grey from sun and rain. Algae stain it. Into it fall the off-cuts and peel of vegetables, grass, fruit cores, eggshells, coffee grounds, leaves and uprooted weeds. I open the lid of the chest and there they are: silver slug trails; lace woven from spun sugar. They trace a filigree as delicate as damask over the umber cud of the compost. On warm days the chest fructifies like a rumen digesting the ripe curds of rotting plants. Deep in its core the compost ferments and reduces to a soot as creamy as graphite and as black as mole velvet.
 
A host of sprites, millions seen and unseen, visible and invisible, make this their home. I watch their cryptic rituals, their hunting sorties, their errands and evasions. The compost heap is dusted with a motile peppering of minute flies whose ciphers are broadcast in a rarefied language of semaphore and brinkmanship, of pheromones and mime. Their vital quests for mates and immortality, played out among the charnel of last season’s crop, are no less urgent or as serious as the high dramas of greater creatures. Through them plough the lead scutes of woodlice, their gills breathing the damp atmosphere released from corrupted stems and withered roots. They graze like trilobites on a primal seabed, drinking in the foetid sap from wet and blackened leaves; from brown, cloying thatch.
 
Clinging to the lid and walls of the chest, coiled within the whorl of their shells; snails, still as eddies. Stone-grey shells, each a dreaming ziggurat. By them, apricot yellow and glistening like raw plum-flesh, the slick muscle of creeping slugs. They drive their dim horns into the savoury meat of the compost, their tongues rasping, the gross blowholes on their backs brimming with stale breath.
 
High above my home, on the swell of the valley, the dairy farm winters out on a diet of sour silage. In the milk mid-winter mornings the byre is swept out with a chain dragged across the icy concrete floor. The muck and straw is gathered and added to the manure heap. Piled up to the white sky, it steams like rank ox-flanks in the silver sunrise. At its heart, febrile bacteria drive the temperature as high as 70oC. Snowflakes melt as soon as they touch it and an ochre broth stains the barnyard from the manure heap to the gutter. The manure marinades until the days begin to lengthen, stretching in the warm sunlight like basking hares. Then it is churned into the earth, where it cradles new growth in a heady, aromatic womb.
 
On the farm and in my garden, through the ale and liquor of the bilge and busted mire lives are lived out, unrecorded and unremarked upon. And here they will end. Here they will conclude a journey that began with the first germs of life in the first seas. Chance brought them here, just as chance brought me here to see them.
 
I open the lid of the chest and there they are: onion bulbs, melting; their bruises wrapped in fungal gauze. Such familiar forms. Over time they disfigure. They warp and collapse into slime. And the millions whose universe this is face just the same fate.
 
As do we all, I reflect, before opening the casement hatch at the base of the chest and digging out a spadeful of fresh soil the colour of anthracite. I plough this into my vegetable patch. Everything that had reached up to the sun has collapsed into ruin. Yet now, at its conclusion, it coaxes the seeds I’ve set in the furrows, and bears life out of death.
 

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Highly Commended: Hunting for dragons
By Ceri Richards, Devon
 
It is still light as I lug my clutch of bottle-traps over a stile. The traps are invaluable when surveying for great crested newts, but they are the bane of my life, leaving dank puddles and a fug in my car, which follows me around for the duration of the survey season. As I duck under some bramble, the traps catch in the undergrowth and spill to the ground. Grumbling to myself, I retrace my steps to retrieve them.
 
I reach the pond, dump my equipment and take a look around. I’ve surveyed many places in search of great crested newts, including numerous murky ditches choked with traffic cones and brown rats, but, today, there is not a shopping trolley in sight. This pond is surrounded by a ring of bulging crack willow trees that trail their bony fingertips in the water.
 
I start my survey with a search amongst the floating sweet-grass and water forget-me-not for newt eggs, wrapped by the female into neat packages in the fold of a leaf. But, there are none to be found, so, next, I set out my bottle-traps. These are made, Blue Peter-style, from plastic drinks bottles with the tops inverted, skewered on bamboo canes. I sink a cane into the mud and push the trap under the water, ensuring that the entrance is fully submerged and that there is an air bubble at the top. They work like lobster pots, though nobody really knows why newts swim into them in the first place. Perhaps they are looking for somewhere safe to hide. Perhaps they are just curious.
 
The traps set; I settle down on the bank to pick at the thick crescents of grime under my fingernails and wait for it to get dark. I moan, maybe a little too frequently, about my anti-social working hours, but, actually, I quite enjoy being out and about when everybody else is getting ready for bed. It is after sunset that I encounter the most extraordinary wildlife – exotic, unnameable moths, luminous glow-worms and hedgehog-skinning badgers. One evening, I witnessed a mass emergence of caddisflies, which rose from the surface of a lake like steam, discarding their old skins to take their first clumsy flights and fill the air, like ash from a bonfire.
 
The first bat appears and dips over the water, gobbling up some of the midges that have already homed in on me. Insects whine in my ears. A cockchafer lands at my feet with a fizz-pttt. Only when the final flush of daylight has been sucked from the sky do I turn on my million candle-power torch.
 
Its beam opens port-holes to the underwater world and in my spotlight, whirligig beetles carve crazed circles like competitive ice-skaters, while mosquito larvae scribble across the surface. I circuit the pond, scanning for the rotund shadow of a motionless newt, a tell-tale tail flick, or the unmistakable flash of an orange belly. But, there are no newts dancing tonight, so I pick my way back through the woodland, which has become brooding and unfamiliar in the darkness, and try not to put my foot down a rabbit hole.
 
The next morning, I check the traps. In the first one, there are no newts, but there is a prehistoric-looking hoglouse. In the next one, there are a couple of tadpoles and a frog with a perturbed expression. In the others there are tiny flat snails, water boatmen and the transparent larvae of who-knows-what creatures. In the final trap, something large and dark lurks. With growing excitement, I pull the trap free. The newt fills the bottom of the bottle, its warty skin almost black, and I know immediately that it is a great crested.
 
I lift it high to admire its amber underside, patched with charcoal blotches. This newt, a male, has a jagged crest along its back and a tail like a torn leaf, highlighted with silver, which he uses to waft pheromones towards a female during courtship. He presses his slender toes against the clear plastic and turns a beady eye to me. I record his presence on a clipboard, take the top from the trap and lower it into the water. Water rushes into the mouth of the bottle and the newt floats for a moment like a plastic toy in a bath tub. Then, it jerks into life, tucks its legs to its sides and snakes away, to disappear beneath the duckweed.
 

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Highly Commended: Gingerly
By Helen Whittle, Lincoln
 
It is evidently confused. Watching the small ginger-furred body zip through the air above my newly sliced turf, I feel more than a twinge of guilt. What goes on in an insect brain? Am I alone in projecting human feelings onto a bee? Is it distressed? Or furious?
 
In late spring, after a long winter unfussed, the garden is being subjected to a spot of tidying. I am re-burying worms (though I suspect the robin is keeping tabs) and trying to work around the miniature volcanoes of fine earth dotted between the daily stretching and emerging plants. Perhaps I can afford to be more of an aesthete than the early brimstone or Bombus, but my personal celebration of bursting buds and shooting shoots is heart and soul-felt – and magnified a million times by sharing it with things wriggling, crawling, scuttling and swooping.
 
The creature bobbing over my hand tells me that right now, somewhere in my earthworks, a bee’s brood has been wiped from a mental map. Stones and leaf rosettes, rearranged as I reveal seedlings below grassy overgrowth, were the markers to this bee’s underground nest. So I scrape away trying to re-reveal a small entrance hole, but can never quite know if enough of the tiny local landscape has been restored. I want the bee to succeed here.
 
I work hard to make my garden wildlife-friendly. There is a long nectar season, a variety of structure, native hedging, plenty of fruits and berries, long grass, two ponds, several trees and most importantly, a generally light touch. No chemicals, no tidying between November and March, and, year round as little weeding and disturbance as I can get away with. Only enough to ensure we do not have only couch grass!
 
Self-appointing dead nettles, speedwells, celandines and cow parsley are all allowed their spaces amongst the chosen exotics. And we have been rewarded with zillions of creepy crawlies, plenty of nesting and visiting birds, a smattering of amphibians and reptiles and the likely suspect mammals.
 
Of course, it is about a bigger picture – about variety and abundance of species rather than the individuals we so enjoy – but I am kind of bothered that in a small space I am making choices and playing God. I water pistol the cats to save the blackbirds and poke holes in the old house martin nests to keep the sparrows out in early spring; the many cabbage white caterpillars that are plumped when I find them are carefully moved to the sacrificial nasturtiums – but I still mash the tiddlers. I keep the silent, spiralled snails, or I would not have the pleasure of watching the song thrush bash them to bits.
 
A rose bush outside our kitchen is strong enough to support agile adolescent rats climbing high and making heroic leaps towards the bird table – all flying feet and flailing tails. Falling short they run back to try again – so tempting is the prize. When one makes it, well it seems churlish to tap on the window and scare it away before it gets at least a little scoff.
 
But more rats are too many and I know if I do not control them, neighbours will soon be putting down poison. Despatching such resourceful and clever creatures – especially when trapped and defenceless causes more than a little disquiet. We use a live trap and air gun as the most humane option, firmly believing there will be healthy rats enough for the barn owl that occasionally quarters over, bringing more meaningful death.
 
The small red beetle that has seven red spots is welcomed. The small red beetle which squeaks quite appealingly but which has a destructive attachment to my fritillaries gets squished. Who’d be a lily beetle over a ladybird in my world? Am I really the benign dictator I imagine? If I attract more birds to the garden is it unfair on the caterpillars? Or an invitation to the sparrowhawk? I am spurred on by the conviction that we should all do more to welcome a range of wildlife to our gardens, but am torn by constant compromise.
 
And so it is that on the day I see the first house martin of 2010, I resolve to discover if there is a least bad time to weed or edge my beds. The man on the bug phone tells me that my ginger visitors are tawny mining bees and they are single brooders who should have finished their nest-building by mid-June. If I want to tidy and cut the turf edges, that could be my moment. But by mid-June the plants that provide the nectar for later foragers will have been swamped… so I proceed, plucking guiltily, only vaguely comforted that weeding without edging will mean a few fewer bewildered bees.
 

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