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Stories III

Country matters: Stand by to repel boarders

by Duff Hart-Davis

Two weeks away from home during a balmy English autumn has left British journalist, Duff Hart-Davis’ garden bereft. Diana, the very capable house sitter, had her hands more than full with the family’s considerable menagerie, so was not to blame for the windblown apples, the invasion of moles, the poplar’s new suckers or the pebbles on the lawn which would disable any mower. This is what it takes to get it all back on track.

Oct 7, 2000

What happens if we abandon the homestead for a couple of weeks’ holiday in the autumn? Inevitably, we return to find it under mass attack from weeds and wildlife. This time, as always, our admirable housesitter Diana did an excellent job looking after the property, the cats, chickens, horses, sheep and alpacas; but it was not within her remit to cut the grass, weed the vegetable garden or repel moles, rats and badgers.

The moment we got back at twilight one evening, we could see that in our absence immense amounts of rain had fallen, for everything was sodden, drooping and in a state of decay. The grass on the lawns was so long that they looked like ragged patches of silage. Round the edges of the fields, the nettles that we slaughtered time and again during the summer had staged a powerful comeback, and the neighbours’ cattle had trampled gateways into quagmires.

Morning revealed that our vegetables had all but disappeared in a jungle of thistles, groundsel, fat hen and other opportunistic invaders. Blackberries and tayberries had long gone over, mushrooms ditto. Most of our apples – a poor crop, anyway – had blown down, as had the pears, and the wretched quince tree had only one scabby fruit left on it. Our single fig tree had put on so much growth that two of the house’s windows were completely obscured by leaves. In general, I got the feeling that everything had run out of control.

I already knew the garden had been infiltrated by moles, for a telephone message had warned me; but I had not anticipated how severe the damage would be. At least one intruder had tunnelled his way down under the orchard and started throwing up hills on the lawn – and that might not have been too bad, had not Diana’s terrier Titch decided to engage the enemy by vigorous digging. The result was a battlefield of craters as well as heaps, and a scatter of small pebbles enough to disable any mower.

Further damage had been inflicted by the roots of the balsam poplar that we had felled in the winter. No matter that in January we had spent a fortune having the stump of the tree ground out, and exhausted ourselves digging up every root we could trace: we had missed enough to allow life to continue underground, and in our absence bunches of suckers, fuelled by the constant rain, had forced their way upwards, lifting humps of turf into the air.

We also had a rat problem. In autumn, when the harvest is over, rats are always draw into farm buildings, and this year they seemed to have arrived in greater numbers than ever before, excavating fresh runs not only under the muck-heap, but into the mortar of the barns’ stone walls. Before we went on holiday I should have sprung the various traps that I keep on the go, but I had accidentally left one set in a tunnel, and this – Diana told me – had caught something. ‘You’ve got a rat,’ she said, ‘but I couldn’t face dealing with it.’

I soon found that nature had dealt with it. The corpse was, or had been, that of a senior rat; but by the time I tackled it, there was nothing left except a skull, some slimy skin, a tail and a mass of maggots. To find even these choice remains was mildly surprising, for rats are keen cannibals, and normally eat any member of the tribe that happens to fall by the wayside.

Yet perhaps the greatest outrage has been the behaviour of the badgers, who have established an extensive communal latrine along one of the grass paths in the orchard. There, inside our sheep fence, they have dug a series of small pits and filled them with unattractive deposits which vary from grey to black or even purple, if the animals are still scrounging elderberries. Badgers are often praised for their clean living – and certainly their habit of bombing their droppings into scrapes, specially dug some distance from home, keeps their setts pristine. Even so, I would rather they had not chosen to use my garden as a defecation centre.

I am reminded of the time a German friend and I spent a few days in a rented cottage in Co Wexford. Every evening, when we returned to base, we found that sheep had come and plastered the concrete approach with droppings. ‘Sie kommen nur zum scheissen!’ cried Hans in exasperation, and I am sure he was right. It seemed that the sheep foregathered on the concrete apron only to relieve themselves, and now the badgers are doing the same. No doubt they are also after windfall apples – but could they not conduct their other business elsewhere? To shift them, we have sprayed the ground with Reynardine, the evil-smelling compound designed to ward off foxes.

Altogether, I have a feeling of returning to a siege. And yet some things are positive. The chickens have NOT been killed by foxes. Aries, our new young ram, has NOT managed to get through the fence into the ewes’ paddock and start serving them prematurely. The horses have NOT escaped or broken into the feed-shed. Many of the vegetables, though swamped by weeds, have survived: we have excellent carrots, parsnips, leeks, spinach, parsley and potatoes, as well as a few last lettuces and climbing beans, with Brussels sprouts and broccoli to come. The odd mulberry, by now black and penetratingly sweet, still clings to the upper branches of the tree.

In the hedges, the crop of hazel nuts is so immense that the squirrels have been defeated by its sheer abundance. For weeks they have been shelling nuts as fast as their jaws will let them, and by now their dreys must be packed with winter stores. Yet still the ground is littered with intact ripe nuts, which, when shelled, salted and lightly roasted, are as big a treat for humans as for rodents.

In garden and orchard the task of regaining control seems Herculean. Yet I know that, if only the rain holds off, we shall manage it: soon grass and weeds will stop growing, and with the first frosts our thoughts will turn to winter.

Duff Hart-Davis

About the author: Duff Hart-Davis

Peter Duff Hart-Davis (born 1936), generally known as Duff Hart-Davis, is a British biographer, naturalist and journalist, who writes for The Independent newspaper.