March 2021

Confessions of a Wildlife Ignoramus, Part 3

For the Birds

House sparrow.jpg

I’d had a couple of hanging bird feeders for quite a while and kept them well-filled – well, some of the time – when one day, I read a piece in the newspaper saying that consistency was vital: a robin might fly several kilometres to visit a familiar feeding station, using up precious energy resources, only to discover it empty. Conscience stricken, I’ve anxiously monitored seed levels ever since, and it’s paid off during this year of Covid lockdowns, when the view of the garden has become a major source of entertainment.

This has made me curious about the star turns. There are around a dozen house sparrows, maybe six pairs, who treat the area at the side of the house as their stage, chattering and dashing from hedge to feeder to tiny crevices in the wall and back to the feeder again. Having heard that the population of sparrows in the UK has dropped dramatically since the 1970s – estimates of the decline in number vary from 53% to as much as 77% – I feel honoured by the presence of my little colony. Hence my surprise at discovering online that in some parts of the world sparrows are seen as raucous, scruffy pests. On one day in March 1958 Mao Zedong ordered the entire Chinese nation to bang pots and pans in order to force sparrows to fly until they dropped dead. Apparently around a billion obliged. One Elise Tillinghast of Northern Woodlands Magazine accuses house sparrows of being  ‘an invasive species, scavengers that have hitched their wagons to humans,’ which seems a bit rich coming from a human i.e. a member of the most invasive species on the planet. She recommends boarding up nesting boxes to drive them away. Apparently there’s some idea that they deter other, better, birds from making an appearance.


I haven’t seen any sign of sparrow exclusivity myself. Blue tits and robins seem happy to share a perch. But one habit I’ve observed since trying out a new mix of whole seeds in their shells has illuminated in the most ‘concrete’ way what puts the house in the ‘house sparrow’.  The birds started swooping down to a particular area of the house wall, right outside my home office window and pecking at the mortar. What could this mean? It turned out that, lacking teeth, they ingest grit to help grind up the seeds in the stomach. Elise Tillinghast would have been out the door with a blunderbuss, but surely you’ve got to admire this brilliant adaptation. If it means the bricks need repointing sooner rather than later, so be it.


February 2021

Confessions of a Wildlife Ignoramus, Part 2

February: Going Native

Curry and Spaghetti Bolognese are two dishes that regularly feature at the top of the list of British favourites.  Food shopping would be a sadly diminished thing without the fabulous array of products drawn from every part of the world. But in the garden exoticism has its downside. When stocking mine I went slightly overboard with pittosporum, the popular shrub with the not so lovely name. I like them so much I’ve got three in different colour variations. But when I Google their wildlife credentials, I’m astonished: ‘no known benefits to UK wildlife’ says Gardeners World. In other words, I’m standing there thinking, ‘Year round foliage, tick, easy to shape and trim, tick, pretty much bombproof, double tick’. The birds, bees and butterflies are flying past thinking, ‘You’ve got to be joking. What am I supposed to do with this?’.  Rea birds on the South island of New Zealand are keen; robins and hoverflies in this hemisphere, not so much. As far as the latter are concerned I might as well have paved over this patch of land. I’ve unwittingly created a Green Desert.

Not every import is as damaging as the Japanese knotweed. You could call pyracantha and berberis with their nectar-filled flowers and juicy berries the plant-life equivalents of Chicken Korma and Spag Bol. However, with ‘encouraging wildlife’ now the priority, native plants will top my shopping list when I next go to the garden centre clutching a Christmas gift voucher. As for the pittosporum bushes, while I now wish I’d opted for holly, they’re so thriving that I’m reluctant to root them out. I’ll clip them with extra vigour, train the nearby honeysuckle over them, and allow neighbouring shrubs with wildlife appeal to take more space. 

January 2021

Diary of a Wildlife Ignoramus, Part I

January – Ivy

Ivy door 2.jpg

I’ve been a town-dweller all my life, and have only a passing acquaintance with nature. A lackadaisical gardener at best, I’ve gathered from news reports a vague idea that encouraging wildlife is a good thing to do, and that the sharp decline in the number of insects, birds and other garden visitors is worrying. It’s mid-March 2020: the start of lockdown. Time at last to get to grips with the garden, having barely entered it for the whole of 2019. Where to begin?

During the first wave to the pandemic I came across this piece of therapeutic wisdom on Twitter: ‘Find something to control and control the hell out of it.’ Ivy seemed the perfect something.

I merrily hacked away at heavy growth on a wooden side fence. No doubt about it, ivy was the enemy. It was growing under and through the planks, throttling the trellis at the top, threatening to swallow up climbing roses and honeysuckle, casting a baleful shadow across the entire bed. No wonder nothing seemed to be flourishing. But I left alone the thick snaking stems surrounding the old brick wall at the back of the garden. It was a massy superstructure rising high above the wall and projecting into the garden like a veritable Notre Dame Cathedral with flying buttresses, too imposing for an amateur to tackle. I wonder in any case if there might be inhabitants who ought to be left alone till the winter.

This doesn’t stop me from attempting to strip the ivy from the wall of the house, confident that this is the responsible thing for any home-owner to do. The ivy is getting dangerously close to the gutter and no doubt doing unspeakable things to the mortar.  Some strands die and cling on brown and reproachful; others remain defiantly green. I can’t help but notice that a colony of small birds (sparrows?), some of whom have nested in crevices in the wall, seem to like the ivy, perching on it while waiting their turn to enter the nest. Perhaps they’re finding some insect life there too, to supplement the sunflower seeds I provide. There is a flicker of doubt. Maybe I shouldn’t be in such a hurry?

Come December, I Google ‘When to cut back ivy’, expecting to be given the green light to start clearing the brick wall at the back. To my surprise the verdict is early Spring. I look for further enlightenment in a copy of Chris Baines’s How to Make a Wildlife Garden, bought in a quixotic moment from a car boot sale and subsequently left to gather dust on the shelf. To my astonishment this is what he has to say: ivy is the best, THE BEST, of all possible climbers for supporting and encouraging wildlife.  I begin to think in a very different way about the supposed bully-boy of the garden. The ancient Britons considered it to be magical. Wrens, blackbirds and brimstone butterflies adore it.

As an evergreen it offers cover year-round, the flowers outlast other British plants right into December offering vital nectar, and the clusters of berry-like fruit give sustenance in late winter once all the hips, haws and seed heads have been used up.  In short, it’s a wonder-plant, a marvel of natural design, at once 24-7 supermarket and grand hotel for birds and smaller beasties.  Forget the rest of my attempts at so-called ‘gardening’; from the point of view of wilder Hyde, the ivy reigns supreme. Chris Baines has taught me that ivy should be an essential ally in preventing the garden from turning into that dreaded phenomenon: the GREEN DESERT (more on this in later entries).  With some relief, I find that the growth hacked off the fence in the springtime frenzy is re-establishing itself.  You can’t beat ivy. And that’s a good thing.

Top tip for January: negotiate a truce with ivy.

Thoughts and advice on this point from Hyde wildlife experts very welcome.