Sunday, 27 July 2008

Snakes and Hay

What's the most relaxing way to spend the hottest day of the year? Sunbathing by the pool, cool beer and barbeque, stroll in the country? Certainly not raking hay in the village millennium garden.

The call came by email a couple of weeks ago,

‘Volunteers wanted, Sunday morning, 9.30a.m. sharp, bring your own rake and gloves.’

The millennium garden, an old orchard saved from developers when a local mansion was converted into flats, is a small patch of paradise and my shortest route to the shops.

In spring I skip along under clouds of apple blossom, summer and there’s a shady path to follow. Autumn? Apples to scrump of course and smoky bonfires of leaves. In winter there’s a mud free path with fine views over the surrounding fields.

So, duty bound, I joined my mainly grey haired co-workers, to do my bit for the village. As we stood in line, raking and piling up the hay into mounds, the talk was of how the garden, once a scruffy patch of waste land, was improving local biodiversity.

‘So much more wildlife‘, they all agreed, giggling nervously when a very small slow worm was found.

I pondered, should I mention the large snake my neighbour had spotted basking on the path as she walked her kids to school one morning?

‘Best not,’ I decided, no need to frighten off any of the workers, Many hands make light work on such a hot day. From the reported size of the snake, it was probably only a grass snake, though I’d worn my boots just in case.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Mistaken Identity

When the leaves started disappearing from my indoor pepper plants I looked for caterpillars. After the whole top section was chewed off my dragon palm, I guessed huge nocturnal caterpillars were to blame. Who was I kidding?

Then there were other clues, caterpillars don't invade a spice cabinet and chew up all the stock cubes or leave large black droppings on a window sill. They don't nibble holes in apples left in a fruit dish. We had mice.

The Garden Tiger often brings mice home but, being dead, they aren't difficult to catch. This super mouse was very much alive. I hadn't seen it but it was definitely around in the house somewhere. When my man, nodding in front of the 10 o'clock news, was shaken awake as it thundered over his shoulder and down his leg, serious action was called for and off he went on an urgent trip to the hardware store.

He returned with a whole bagful of humane mouse traps. Once baited with peanut butter and apple, an allegedly winning combination, we went to bed and waited. In the morning the traps were wrecked, bait gone, hinges chewed, mouse nowhere to be seen. I trembled.

'This is no super mouse. We've got a young rat in the house,' I sobbed.

Another trip to the hardware store, this time he returned with several inches of cruel steel trap in a plain brown wrapper. We meant business. More peanut butter, more apple, more guile...but this time we would be the winners.

The next morning I catch my man leafing through the pages of, ‘The Complete British Wildlife’ a field guide to the mammals of Britain, a slight pallor on his rugged cheek. No common brown rat was in the trap, we’d flattened a yellow-necked mouse. (Apodemus flavicollis) At nearly 12cm one of the largest of our British mice. A competent tree climber and frequenter of woodlands, formerly common and widespread now, comparatively scarce, but not yet endangered, unless of course it happens to end up in my kitchen.