Sunday, 2 November 2008


This squirrel was sabotaging a squirrel-proof feeder in my garden.
He or she and his/her friends and family had previously trashed four squirrel-proof feeders. Look at the smile on its little face! They know they can win, every time.
I had not realised that squirrels smile until I saw this photograph, taken last year by my nephew, 'pohanginapete' on one of his all-too-rare visits to England.

The smile on the face of the squirrel raises some interesting thoughts.

My husband and I spent several years creating a wild-life garden. We entered a competition run by a national newspaper to find 'The Wildlife Garden of the Year'. We were glad we didn't win, because the first prize was £1,000 worth of plants, and our garden was already full of them (as were all the other competing wildlife gardens, I'm sure).
What the competition required us to do was to keep a detailed record of all the forms of wildlife visiting our small suburban garden for a twelve month period. This was the really valuable part of the exercise. We were amazed and gratified by the results.
The bird-life was richer and more varied that we had realised, the insects were wonderful. We had a grass-snake zig-zagging across the pond, hedgehogs mating with the most indiscreet noise and fuss beside the dustbins, and badgers at the bottom of the garden.
It was idyllic.

Then we had other things, as the word spread among the wild-life, and the food-chain extended upwards.
For several years we had free-range bantams trotting around; dear little characterful creatures. The buzzards found out about them, as did the foxes.
The birds flung their food around, and the rats moved in. The squirrels wrecked the feeders. Rabbits ate the new shoots in the herbaceous beds. A heron systematically emptied the pond of fish. Crows and jackdaws raided the bird-table in yelling hoards, driving smaller birds away. A sparrow hawk swept in regularly, picking its appropriately named sparrow snack from the bird-table without pausing in its flight.
There are infrequent but well-documented sightings of Big Cats in the area.

Where does a wild-life garden end? Should it ever contain squirrel-proof feeders, rat-traps, anti-heron netting, sonic devices to keep moles out of the lawn and bird-feeders that allow some to feed, but exclude others ?
When you invite wild-life in to your patch, encourage it, feed it, provide it with nesting boxes and little houses and nesting materials - can you then say, 'I'll have you, and you, but not you'?

The smile on the face of the squirrel is similar to that on the face of 'pohanginapete' as he studiously photographed the rats and the squirrels, rather than the honeysuckle, in which direction I was pointing him. We took him up on the hills. Did he photograph the panoramic views? No. He lay face down, lens trained on a particularly succulent orange and grey slug. What a lesson in total acceptance of the wholeness, the fragile interdependence of wildlife!
Beauty, appreciation and understanding is in the eye of the beholder. Squirrels continue to smile. They are safe in the garden (they have their own special feeder now, but still prefer bird-food) as are the herons and crows. The Big Cats are waiting in the wings.


mm said...

'I'll have you, and you, but not you'?

Sometimes it seems that the fragile interdependence you speak of means that even the mildest tinkering creates a Pandora's box effect. I don't think one can legislate and I sense you don't too.

For now I don't have bird feeders because of the cat (though he is so old and well fed he isn't much of a danger). My neighbour does and I delight in the bird life that he attracts. There don't seem to be many squirrels over here btw, at least not compared to the hordes we had in London.

The squirrel photo is stunning. Not surprised since PPete was the photographer. :-)

Relatively Retiring said...

Thank you, MM. The temptation is always to rap the window and scare off the heron, but the whole thing has to be about wildlife making its own balance, including the slugs. Your shortage of squirrels could be because most of the locals are hanging around here, so have I created inbalance with all that food?
Yes, PPete's photograph is wonderful, and much more meaningful to me than one of honeysuckle!

pohanginapete said...

Ah, this brought a smile to my face :^) I remember the sparrowhawk — it visited while I was there, and I ended up with a rather poor photo of what's nevertheless recognisably a sparrowhawk. I also remember the weasel (or was it a stoat? — they're weaselly confused) on our walk on the hills.
I agree wholeheartedly with your question (if one can agree with a question). I find myself much more accepting of whatever turns up around the place (with some limits — rats in the hot water cupboard still aren't welcome), but perhaps that's because I don't have — or need — a garden here. The place is wild enough.

Relatively Retiring said...

Thank you once more for the photograph, and for the comments, PPete. Walking on the hills was memorable, with that little weaselly (oh, ha ha!) creature sensing a photo-opportunity. I've never seen it again.

Peregrina said...

Yes, I'd been having occasional thoughts about inconsistencies in my attitude towards the wildlife in the garden, too. This year starlings have been nesting under my neighbour's roof, making themselves cosy in quantities of pea-straw that they've filched from my garden. She's happy to have them, and I don't mind them there. But what I do mind, on the grounds that starlings range far more widely and therefore have more feeding opportunities, is that they fly straight down and gobble up the breakfast I put out for the little birds. So I rap the window to startle them, knowing they'll fly further away and be slower to return, while the small birds just flit up into the overhanging trees and down again.

Then there are the aphids and cabbage-butterfly caterpillars - the ones the birds haven't eaten - that I hose off or squash, but haven't they been attracted by the banquets of brassicas and other edibles I've provided which otherwise wouldn't have been there? ( As M.M. says, it's an effect of tinkering, in this case replacing former lawn with vegetables.) On the other hand, I nurture the monarch butterfly caterpillars. And what about the slugs and snails? Well, I relocate them to a patch of garden where it doesn't matter if they chew things, but where I know the neighbourhood hedgehog and the thrushes hunt. (I reason that it gives them a sporting chance ... well, a chance, anyway.) In the house I swat the flies, but catch spiders living in inconvenient places and release them outside. (Perhaps my approach is wrong here, and I should be encouraging spiders in to catch the flies.) I killed rats that set up house in ours, but I don't mind mice as long as they stay outside. It seems to me I make value judgements about the worth of these creatures, based on how I'm personally affected.

And as for a squirrel and P'Pete each sporting a similar smile as neither followed the plans you'd made for them: do you think the squirrel might have copied the look on Pete's face as he photographed it?! Perhaps they were expressing a Duplication of Independence.

Relatively Retiring said...

Peregrina - thank you for your thoughtful comment. I enjoy the concept of 'Duplication of Independence' and think it sums them both up beautifully!
When we were planning the garden we held on to the idea that gardens (and wild-life filled houses!) are for people, too. We probably included too much hard surface, but I wanted to be able to walk around with fairly dry feet, my husband wanted to put garden furniture, a saw-horse and a work bench on the level and our sons wanted to kick a football around long ago.
I think people may be included in the wild-life balancing act, but your point about making value judgements on the basis of how you are personally affected is something to be very aware of....but not even PPete will allow rats in the hot water cupboard.

Cheeseman said...

Is it wise to encourage squirrels when they are meant to be pests? Lots of people in England call them furry-tailed rats.

Relatively Retiring said...

Ah, yes, Cheeseman. My point exactly!

Beth said...

Sprinkle chili powder on the bird feed - it keeps the squirrels off. But perhaps not that one!

"I know I shouldn't but I'm going to anyway! You can't stop me. Go on, I dare you, try me. Ha!"

Relatively Retiring said...

Hello Beth, and thank you.
Squirrels, furry-tailed rats, ordinary rats are all perfectly welcome. The Big Cats might have a problem with the gate, though. I'm banking on it!