Though lockdown restrictions are easing in the UK, limitations on movement have helped us to reevaluate our relationship with our most local nature: that in our back garden.
The scene: we live in a new build house. The garden was fairly basic — lawn and patio squeezed into an odd wedge-shape — and we’ve done little so far to improve it. We always assumed that it was a bit too sterile and uninviting to local wildlife; what birds we did see over-flew us and the insect life we had seemed barely enough to sustain a solitary bat.
We also assumed our dog — a black working cocker spaniel — helped to keep some of the wildlife away, as he spends a lot of time in the garden. As it was he helped us find it.
One spring evening before bed, the dog stopped, fixated at something on the ground. Though the dog is barely visible in the dusk, I watched as he rotated about this object, trying different perspectives to help him identify it. The dog’s body language said, “I’ve found something. I don’t know what it is, but it intrigues me”.
I called to my partner and hurried outside, grabbing the dog by the collar as I got near enough to confirm what it was. A plump hedgehog, displaying the most hedgehog of behaviours: curling into a little spiky ball.
This had happened once before, a year ago. Back then we assumed the dog scared the hedgehog off. It never returned.
Determined not to let that happen again, we put out some of the dog’s food — much to his consternation — and some water. The following night the hedgehog came, and we watched from the other side of our patio doors as it enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.
Later in the week someone told the village Facebook group that a hedgehog had been killed by the main road. We were sure it was “our” ’hog and were further convinced when it failed to show for that night’s meal. It returned the next night, though we’ll never know if it just had a lie-in, went elsewhere, or if we might even be hosting a completely new ’hog.
Since then the hedgehog’s visits have fallen into a comfortable routine. We’ve watched it from different windows and, this last weekend, successfully staked out the point where it enters the garden. The dog has become accustomed to sharing his food … and to taking his evening comfort breaks away from the hedgehog’s garden.
We’ve had feeders up for ages, but they’ve always been ignored. We suspected it was the lack of trees or shrubs in the garden, and resolved to get it fixed as soon as time and finances allowed.
Inspired by our spiky friend we determined to try harder with the birds. The breakthrough moment came when we found expired pine nuts in a drawer. These soon attracted tits to the garden, who ate in moderation until a flock of starlings discovered and emptied the feeder in less than a day.
The word was out though: that garden has the good stuff.
Since then we’ve tried different foods and attracted a wider variety of birds to the garden. Some are even bold enough to use the feeder whilst we are in the garden. The dog will chase away any he spots, but mostly he lays in happy ignorance. We’ve learned not to react too visibly when birds do enter. If we keep our cool the birds keep feeding and the dog keeps sleeping.
A recent discovery is the BirdNET app, which identifies birds by analysing recordings of their song. It’s helped us to work out which birds are around but not yet brave enough to enter, or when our exercise takes us out into the village identify what else is around that might be lured in.
We debated setting up a hedgehog house in the garden, but worried it might make the dog more interested having one in residence. We think we know where it’s nesting, and it’s safely away from curious canines. For now we’re settling with making the garden as ’hog friendly as possible and that the entrances and exits are kept clear. We’re researching wildlife cameras so we can determine if more than one ’hog visits.
We’re trying different bird feeders, but it’s about time we got some plants. Attracting more insects for the birds is a priority, but we also want to get more pollinators in. Those that do visit are disappointed with what’s on offer.
We’re reassured to be reminded that wildlife can be found and encouraged in barren places.
Watching our new wildlife has been great for our mental health, and it goes beyond seeing something cute or pretty. Taking the time to care for something outside of your immediate family reminds you you’re part of a greater whole. The stillness that comes with waiting and observing gives us an opportunity to step away from the madness for a while and create peace.
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