Suburban Sightings

I bought my house just over three years ago. At first glance it’s nothing special, a standard 1980s semi in the suburbs of south Birmingham, but the bricks and mortar aren’t the reason I live here. Not even close. I knew from the first time I viewed the house that it oozed potential, although unlike many prospective buyers I wasn’t thinking about the opportunity for renovation and profit. I was excited by the potential for wildlife encounters, and the reality has surpassed even my most optimistic expectations.

There is a theory about the existence of life on earth that describes the ‘Goldilocks zone’. This theory posits that the conditions that allow complex life to exist are due to the earth being far enough from the sun that it is not prohibitively hot (hello Mercury!), and yet not so distant from the sun that water and other key elements can only exist as ice (hi Uranus!). On a much smaller scale, I think my house exists in a Goldilocks zone of its own. It’s the perfect distance between the concrete jungle of the city to the north and the open countryside to the south, and is located at the confluence of a number of really interesting habitats. These include an extensive allotment site abutting the back garden, a large nature reserve of woodland, grassland and open water within a hundred metres, and wooded canal and river corridors within easy walking distance. It sounds obvious, but the opportunity for adventure increases exponentially when the right conditions are present.

To borrow an iconic piece of dialogue from an iconic film, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”. I’m not referring to attack ships off the shoulder of Orion though. I’m talking about something much more exciting that that. Allow me to describe a few observations made from within the confines of my house and garden, you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s start with the most exciting encounter of all. After about six months of living here it became very obvious that we had a regular guest that delighted in digging a series of small holes in the lawn. Our first suspicion was one of the numerous grey squirrels that loiter within a large mature oak tree just beyond the hawthorn hedgerow that marks the edge of our back garden. These plump beasts certainly spent a lot of time in the back garden teasing various members of the local cat population, and they’re famed for their tendency to bury nuts and acorns. The squirrels were prime suspects until a particularly extreme instance of lawn remodelling that was clearly beyond the abilities of our grey friends from across the Atlantic. Either we had a mutant squirrel the size of a Labrador, or the culprit was someone else entirely. I decided to solve the mystery once and for all by installing a trail camera on the patio to capture the vandal in the act. Imagine my surprise and delight when our nocturnal gardener was revealed to be a large, hungry badger. Much to the chagrin of my partner I actively encouraged the badger to return, enticing it into the garden with a feast of peanuts and new potatoes. This had two main outcomes. Firstly, I was able to capture some remarkable footage of the badger (imaginatively nicknamed Badgie) feeding and running amok in the shrub beds. Secondly, I managed to whip the badger into a peanut-fuelled frenzy that resulted in most of the flowers in the garden being uprooted and ‘rearranged’. Needless to say this wasn’t well received, and I was advised to stop encouraging the badger with immediate effect. I haven’t seen any evidence of the badger for a few months now, but I’d like to think it’s still out their somewhere embarking on a spree of garden-based terror.

The badger certainly isn’t the only mammal that shares our little postage stamp of suburban space. Foxes are regular visitors to the garden and have created a number of access points from the allotments to the north. So far all of my encounters have been with adults, but I always keep my eyes open for cubs. Despite their undeserved reputation as vermin, a fox cub is one of the most sublime and beautiful things you could ever hope to see. I’ll find one soon. Aside from the foxes and squirrels a host of small mammals call the garden home. We were briefly joined by a brown rat that lived beneath the shed and foraged vegetable scraps from the compost, however this particular guest soon relocated when security around the compost heap was increased to Fort Knox proportions. House mice and field voles have also been seen sporadically, as have small numbers of bats that regularly forage back and forth along the back gardens of my house and the neighbouring dwellings. I’ve only ever recorded two bat species in the garden, common and soprano pipistrelle, however there are a few other species that could feasibly occur. The bats have recently taken to depositing droppings on my car, which I believe they’re doing on purpose. No hedgehogs yet, but I live in hope.

Mammals are just one facet of the broad array of life that I share my home with. Birds are one of the most visible and enjoyable species groups, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some very interesting species within and above the garden. Perhaps the most impressive bird sighting occurred last summer when I observed a peregrine falcon circling lazily above the house, easily avoiding the unwanted attention of two rather irritated black-headed gulls. The peregrine, the fastest animal in the world no less, remained overhead for five minutes or so before flying purposefully away to the south, most likely in search of a meal. This iconic species has been one of the real nature conservation success stories of the past few years, and birds are now found breeding in almost all towns and cities in the UK. Birmingham and its surrounds are blessed with several pairs, and long may their success continue. Other birds of prey recorded from the garden include the buzzard, kestrel and my favourite of all, the sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks are impressive and fascinating, and are extraordinarily efficient hunters of small songbirds. Nothing moves quite like a sparrowhawk, which is why they are most often witnessed in the garden as a brief flash of brown as they appear from behind a garden fence and plunge into the crowds of small passerines within our short section of hedge. They do everything with panache and at great speed, which is probably what makes them so exciting. A further species that I’m exceptionally lucky to share space with is the tawny owl that breeds annually within the nature reserve area to the south. During the summer months, when laying in bed with the windows open to escape the stifling heat, we are often rewarded with the distinctive calls of female and juvenile owls, which seem to move from tree to tree to the rear of the house. Male owls are heard less frequently, however this week I had a stunning encounter whilst leaving for work at around 3am. A male owl was sat on the tv aerial of an adjacent house, calling loudly and not fearing my presence at all. We were equals, equally fascinated by one another. These are the experiences I live for.

Aside from the raptors the garden has rewarded me with sightings of herons and egrets, ravens and cormorants. Within the garden itself the hedgerow is well used by house sparrows and blue tits, with the latter species having bred within a nestbox fixed to the shed for the past two years. Sights of starlings, thrushes and corvids are commonplace, and this year a pair of magpies successfully bred in the big oak. Interestingly I’ve never seen many finches in the garden at all, indicating that the assemblage of untidy shrubs offers little appeal to this family of seed eaters.

Reptiles and amphibians are often overlooked when considering garden species, but I’ve been lucky enough to find both. I must admit to cheating slightly by claiming reptiles as a garden species, however I have seen slow-worms on the unmanaged front lawn of a house about 50 metres away, and I’m certain that they occur in the adjacent allotment site. Reptiles are generally quite sparse in the Birmingham area, so I was delighted to find them. I’m determined to lure them into the garden at some point! Common frogs and common toads occasionally turn up in the shrub beds despite the absence of any ponds within 100 metres or more. They often seem to want to head toward the road, and I’m regularly picking them up, turning them around and popping them through the hedge into the allotments, but they probably just turn back and begin their quest anew, driven by the instinct to return to a pond long since destroyed by the house builders. Every year I promise to dig a small pond in the back garden, and so far it hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps this year is the year.

I’m not much of a gardener, which is useful because untidy gardens are often the most interesting ones. I have, however, planted a few shrubs and sown some wildflower seed in a bid to lure pollinating insects to the garden. After a slow start last year it’s starting to show some promise, and I’ve already been rewarded with a good selection of butterflies, day-flying moths and bees. The secret is to try to plant things that flower at different times, so that the insects have something to feed on from spring through to autumn. I’ve also installed a small ‘bug hotel’ that is attached to the side of the shed and provides refuge for solitary bees and wasps. A lot of people either ignore or actively dislike invertebrates, however I think they are endlessly diverse and intriguing. They’re also incredibly important, playing a vital role in our ecosystem by pollinating plants, decomposing organic material and oxygenating the soil. I’m no expert, and I’ve resolved to learn more about this collective of weird and wonderful species, but they certainly deserve our respect.

Overall I feel very fortunate to share such a tiny space with so much diverse and brilliant life. It’s sometimes easy to forget that humankind is just another species, albeit an astoundingly influential one that has shaped the earth according to its needs. We are part of nature, and nature is part of us. Next time you’re in the garden, look around you. You might just find something exciting. You might even meet Badgie.

My First Wild Place

My grandparents’ old house was put up for sale recently, which gave me a chance to have a look at what the owners had done to the place. The house itself had been completely reconfigured internally, to the point that it was almost unrecognisable, but that was inevitable as it had been in need of serious modernisation for many years. It looked good, and I didn’t begrudge any of the changes. What startled me, however, was the change that had been made to the garden, my childhood playground. When I was growing up the garden was huge and diverse and exciting, but it has since been stripped and paved, denuded of vegetation and the potential for adventure. It made me nostalgic about the time I spent there in my formative years.

I was always close to my grandparents, and through a combination of luck and proximity I attained an unrequested but not unwelcome ‘golden grandchild’ status. I spent many long days with them as a youngster, often helping grandad with a madcap scheme in the garage or baking an array of rustic but tasty foodstuffs with grandma. The two of them were without doubt the catalysts for my lifelong love of natural history, and our trips out into the countryside were fulfilling and frequent. The dynamic changed slightly when grandad passed away after a period of illness in 1997, and my role changed from co-adventurer to weekly visitor and occasional lawn mower. Grandma hung on for over 10 more years before a stroke took her independence away, but I still remember those latter years fondly.

As a youngster the garden was my kingdom, and I the explorer in chief. The rear of the house directly overlooked a small linear lawn area, and the job of cutting the grass was frequently my price for the reward of lunch. I didn’t mind though, because once mown the lawn became my archery arena. My equipment was basic, a rudimentary bow made from a sturdy stick of willow and garden twine, my arrows crudely butchered bamboo canes, but it didn’t matter. I was Robin Hood and William Tell rolled into one.

Between the lawn and the house was a small plum tree and rose bed, which is where I first became fascinated with creepy-crawlies, particularly the aphids that clustered around the rosebuds. On the opposite side of the lawn was an area of garden shrubs that held little intrinsic interest for me, although it did attract a good selection of bees and butterflies. I was always more interested in the fruits and vegetables than the flowers, although the rudbeckia blooms hold a special place in my memory.

Beneath the kitchen window a concrete slabbed pathway ran adjacent to the outdoor toilet (unbelievably cold!) and coal place on the left hand side, before sloping up slightly to the level of the rest of the garden. Several points of interest were accessible from the top of this slope, including a quince tree to the left, a home-made cold-frame (built from old windows) and rhubarb patch to the right, and a small spindle tree directly ahead. There is an old photograph somewhere of me standing in this area at the age of four, wearing grandad’s hat, coat and gardening gloves. I haven’t seen it for years.

Progress along the central pathway, beyond the small patch of lemon balm on the left, led to a small apple orchard. This area was grandad’s pet project and contained a broad selection of rare apple types, including several specimens where he had grafted multiple different apple varieties onto the same tree. From the right hand side of the orchard it was possible to access a narrow avenue of fruit bushes, with gooseberries to the left and blackcurrants to the right. I used to gorge on gooseberries until my stomach hurt. I can’t stand them now!

Next to the fruit bushes was a small plot where grandad and I used to plant runner beans in early summer. This was a particularly fun job, involving the construction of a line of bamboo wigwams held together by offcuts of wire foraged from the garage. I can remember the structure and form of the runner bean plants vividly.

A short walk back to the central path gave access to a further large planting area to the left, but this was the domain of more flowers and shrubs that never gripped me. There was, however, a small patch of chives that we frequently used to plunder to enliven our breakfast scrambled eggs. Beyond the tedious shrub bed was a further area of apple orchard, including a tree where grandad and I installed a small wooden bench (a bit of old door if I remember correctly). On at least one occasion bumblebees nested within the mossy grass at the foot on this tree, which was yet another milestone in my ecological awakening.

The garden backed onto my old infant school, and the boundary between the two was a hawthorn hedgerow containing a large mirabelle plum tree that annually showered the garden with beautiful white blossom. After the blossom came a sea of tiny but delicious orange plums, which grandma used to collect and turn into unfathomably sweet jam. I often helped with the jam making process, trying frantically to lick the spoon whilst avoiding scalding myself on the sugary lava.

The far corner of the garden was the most exciting and mysterious part. Concealed behind a cherry laurel bush and in the shadow of a eucalyptus tree, this is where the fun things happened. The first fun thing was the twin compost heap, built by grandad out of wood offcuts and chainlink wire. These composts were used on rotation, so as one became full it was left to decompose whilst the other was filled. My main role in those days was to climb inside and stamp the leaves down, but this also gave me the opportunity to interact with the numerous worms, slugs, snails and bugs that made their home in the compost.

Next to the compost was an even more exciting attraction, the incinerator. From memory this was made from an old cast iron water tank, and grandad and I frequently used to build bonfires to dispose of waste paper and piles of woody garden rubbish. Occasionally the fire would require a splash of paraffin to bring it to life, and the sound and smell is impossible to forget. The bonfires generally occurred in the evening, and i’d spend an age watching the flames dance before arriving home smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, but blissfully happy. I don’t feel sad, but I do miss those times.

This particular corner of the garden was the scene of the most exciting wildlife encounter of my young life, when I happened upon a sparrowhawk in the eucalyptus tree in the process of tearing open an unfortunate woodpigeon. The sparrowhawk was startled and flew away, and I was startled and flew away too. I ran to the house, crying out with excitement until grandad came to investigate. We found the abandoned pigeon, torn and visceral, and we were both fascinated. It seems gruesome in hindsight, but I made grandad put the pigeon in a large jar for me so that I could take it home. It lived at the bottom of my parents garden for several weeks in gradually more advanced states of decomposition before dad eventually disposed of it. It’s hard to imagine that any wildlife encounter in my life will ever affect me like that again, the adrenaline coursing through my veins was extraordinary.

When I started writing this piece I have no idea just how vividly I remembered the sights and smells of the place, and how much my time spent there shaped my subsequent life. A lot has changed since then, and those places of my childhood don’t exist anymore, but I won’t forget them. It was my first wild place.