Sorrow, Joy and the combat pigeons – tales from my sparrow farm

I’ve taken some time over the years to turn my garden from a chaotic mess to a planned mess. I don’t like gardening, so I wanted a low maintenance space where wildlife could find a refuge but that I could enjoy and move through without risking attack from wild animals. When I started, I didn’t know what was living in there and risked serious injury every time I ventured beyond the patio. Little by little (as I said, I don’t like gardening), I tamed the flora and catalogued the fauna. It took 5 years to manage a large patch of brambles and unidentified bushes and I discovered a small pond beneath the undergrowth. I removed old ornamental bushes, spent a few years growing apples before the apple tree stopped working and generally managed the garden back to something I’m happy with. It took 10 years altogether.

An important part of the plan was to create a space that insects and birds could thrive in. I also wanted to grow vegetables and continue to harvest the blackberries that appear every year. It’s only in the last couple of years that the plans have started to bear fruit (yes, pun intended).

And so to this year. After Rufus passed away, I decided to encourage the fox back into the garden and if you’ve followed my social media posts you’ll have seen that it was successful. I used to see her often when Rufus and I went walking around the houses in the evenings and before he lived with me she was an occasional visitor as a young vixen. But this year it was obvious that she was suckling young and I was rewarded when she started bringing her cub with her. It was playful and inquisitive and while she ate from the bowl, it would wander about looking into the bushes and under the spud plants. She would feed it from her mouth and it would have a snuffle around the bowl before they both disappeared again on their way to their next meal.

A couple of weeks ago I was attracted to the garden by the sound of several crows squawking and making a fuss in the sycamore tree. It was clear they weren’t happy and my immediate thought was that the fox cub was somewhere at the top of the garden. I chased the birds away and in doing so, disturbed the cub who darted into the garden and under some bushes. Not wanting to scare it, I headed back to the house but the cub almost immediately darted back to it’s hiding place in the rubbish at the top of the garden, where I let it be. The crows didn’t return and I avoided any unnecessary disturbance. The cub accompanied it’s mother that evening and I was happy.

Sparrows have come to see my garden as a sanctuary. I feed them ( I have to – if I’m a few minutes late filling the feeders they start to make a racket and flit about in the bushes to express their annoyance) and they’ve taken over an old bucket under a bush as their watering hole. Earlier this year, there was the faint sound of romantic bird song and I caught the occasional glimpse of candle lights near the feeders as the boys wooed the girls and not long after I was rewarded with a flock of little sparrows, all making a noise as they tried to fly between branches. You could see they were just learning to fly as their clumsy attempts to land gracefully on branch, bucket and feeder were comical. But over the next few days, they got better at it. For some reason, their gathering place was under the green canopy of my potato plants and I would often see a writhing mass of sparrows dusting themselves in the shade. Trying to count them was nearly impossible and the best I came up with was losing count at 20. I would guess there are between 20 and 25 sparrows regularly visiting the garden.

All those sparrows aren’t good for the spuds. I’ve had to re-cover them several times as their dusting and other antics have exposed the potatoes themselves. There are rows of little indentations in the soil where individual birds have dug themselves baths. I’ve watched them follow each other around like a gang of teenagers, one or two finding a perch and all the rest coming to joint them. Branches sag and birds fall off. There are often scuffles at the water bucket as they all vie for a place on the rim. And while they all fly off into the higher branches when I go out in the garden, they don’t go far in case I’m filling up the feeders. Recently, I have heard the romantic songs and spotted the little candles again so I suspect there will be additions of the flock before long.

Inevitably, where there are feeders there is grain that had fallen from the mesh to the ground. The pigeons prefer this grain and will wait for the sparrows to dislodge it as the youngsters crash into the feeder in their attempt to emulate the older, more skillful birds. I have also noticed that when the sparrows aren’t around to dislodge the seed, the pigeons will jump on the feeder to do it themselves. The pigeons (and a couple of doves) chase each other around the garden on foot, waddling along the lawn to make sure that everyone knows who the boss is. Of course, there is a different boss every day. One pigeon, not having any interest in all the fuss, just settles down in a little dip to sunbathe. But the real pigeon combat takes place out of sight in the sycamore tree. They go up there to loudly settle disputes and I wouldn’t be surprised if a little betting goes on as well. The pigeons love drinking from the water bowl I have set up on the patio wall. They dip their beaks and necks in the water and once one comes over to drink, they all follow. I watched five gather around the bowl the other day. There wasn’t room for all of them, mainly because one had decided to stand in the water.

Also inevitably, where there is grain there are small mammals. I’ve seen brown rats climbing the bushes where the feeders used to be sited, balancing out along the branches and reaching out to grab the feeder. I once surprised two who were dining on bird food and in their desperation to get away, they were climbing over each other. Recently, with the fox a regular visitor, I haven’t seen any rats. I did see a small bank vole though – I know because I’ve recently completed a mammal ID course for the National Trust.

I have two regular magpie visitors. I dislike magpies in general and refuse to give them the courtesy of saying the rhyme (“One for sorrow, two for joy etc”) as they used to torment my blind and deaf old stray cat (now long gone). But these two are little characters and have been named for the rhyme. This morning, they were both drinking from a bowl of water I’d set up for the purpose, and then they decided to explore the mostly dry pond. All I could see was the occasional head popping up to see what was going on.

I have a pair of blackbirds that have been regulars in the garden for years. They were here earlier in the year, gathering nesting material from the pond and taking advantage of the sheep’s wool I’d put out for the purpose. But the nest was elsewhere. They’re back again and today they have been gathering more nesting material, and feeding on the dried worms I put down in their favourite quiet spot.

I have seagulls – they steal the food that I put down for the fox. And today, I had a special visitor. I was sat in the garden reading and watching the antics of the sparrows, pigeons and blackbirds when I started to notice everything going quiet. The normally vocal sparrows were disappearing deep into the bushes. The pigeon fighting in the tree stopped. The blackbirds flew off and the magpies followed them. There was no activity in the garden. I noticed a few seagulls wheeling about high up and then a red kite flew low over the garden. It was at the same height as the tree and had taken an interest in my garden for some reason. I managed to grab the camera (it’s always to hand) and went out to get some photos. I expected the kite to fly off or at least climb higher but it continued to wheel and float about 30 feet above me. The gulls weren’t happy but weren’t interfering like they normally do. I had a full five minute flying display as the kite flew off and came back again. It was such a beautiful sight and I felt privileged to see this magnificent wild bird hunting. Ironically, I’d been at the bird of prey centre at the Botanical Gardens on Friday, watching kites on display.

Also in my garden, the visitor can see butterflies (my next project is to try and attract more) bees, wasps, plenty of flies, spiders and in recent years (although not this year) a frog. In the fading autumn evening light, bats can be seen flying over the garden. In the past I’ve had a hedgehog or two. a squirrel, robins, blue tits and starlings. It’s a lovely place to spend an hour or so just sitting and watching (and listening to) the world go by.

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A week in photographs

It’s been 6 days since my last post. What have I been up to?

Well, I can’t talk about work (not because it’s secret but because they don’t like me to). But rest assured it’s been busy. And to be honest it’s taken up quite a bit of time, both in work (as you might expect) and out of work (as I’ve been thinking about the consequences of what was going on and how it impacted on some of my friends).

I’ve been doing a lot of macro photography in the garden, possibly as a result of work as I find photography is my escape from stress. The weather has been so rubbish that it’s been hard to go anywhere without getting soaked. The garden offers a close venue that I can pop out into at the first sign of a dry spell. And if the dry bit only lasts five minutes, at least I can get something done in that time.

I’ve been writing some more beginners guides to photography. I run an occasional session for beginners in work and I tend to write the session notes as a standalone guide, which I then send to the attendees. It’s been good so far, with some keen folk turning up on a regular basis. It means I have to think in a different way about photography and that’s no bad thing.

This morning, Rufus and I spotted a window in the weather, took quick advantage of it and headed out to our favourite river and waterfall location near the source of the Tawe. We spent a relaxed two hours wandering along the river and it’s fussy tributary streams, overflowing with the recent rain. We dodged curious and possibly jealous sheep. I got some nice photos and Rufus got wet. When we got back, we both fell asleep on the sofa!

I have had to deal with a couple of visitors to the garden too. On Thursday, I found a little hedgehog at the top of the garden. Unfortunately, it was dead. I felt sad because I think I’ve seen it around several times before. The first time was when I was out with the telescope and it was snuffling around, sounding like an elephant in the undergrowth in the still quiet of the night. The most recent time was a few weeks ago when Rufus found it in the garden. He didn’t know what to was or what to do with it, so he went to default hound mode and barked. I buried the hedgehog under the bushes, out of the way of the local cats.

The other visitor, is probably a resident. It’s a frog. S/he lives in a trough of water half way up the garden and I spotted it last night when I took Rufus out for a comfort break. I’m not sure who was most surprised, me Rufus or the frog. I’ve been out now and again today to try and take a photo (it was too dark last night) but so far it hasn’t shown itself again.

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I am not a gardener. I don’t know anything about gardening. Gardening to me is cutting back the green stuff until you can see through it to the other green stuff. Gardening is hard work. Particularly when I’m trying to identify the green stuff that might produce colourful flowers that I can photograph, or that might attract insects and butterflies to the end of my macro lens. I have books on green things, books on flying things and books on both, but still the back garden is full of green stuff that all looks the same.

Yesterday I did the first cut of the front lawn. Lawn is a term used merely so that you know what green stuff I’m cutting. My front garden is an adventure playground for cats. I cut the grass merely so that I can see the cats. Today was the first cut for the back garden. Notice I don’t even bother with ‘lawn’ to describe the back garden. If the front garden is an adventure playground, then the back garden is a full on Royal Marines assault course.

I take no pleasure from gardening (as you may have gathered). Gardening hurts. As I type this, a thorn has punctured my left forefinger and it is bleeding. Yesterday, I managed to drive a larger thorn into the index finger of my right hand, which I had to dig out by rooting around with a suitably sterilised pin. It is still painful, especially when I type. (That is the level of dedication I bring to this blog). My back hurts from strimming. My side hurts from various activities to do with strimming. I have scratches and scrapes. My glasses are covered in bits of grass and other green stuff thrown up by the strimmer. I dare not look at my hair as it is probably the refuge for living things disturbed by the strimmer.

I have an apple tree. It actually produces apples which I share with my friends. I used to have a lot of blackberry bushes but I went to war on all things thorny last year and after an intense and by no means one sided campaign, I have reduced them to a mere blemish against the backdrop of green stuff. There’s a tree at the top of the garden that my dad rescued from a ruined farmhouse as a sapling. The farmhouse once belonged to relatives of my mum. The tree, now more than 30 years old, is magnificent and reminds me of my dad. And it’s not green, so that’s okay.

At the top of the garden is a thick growth of bamboo. I like it (it’s only green at the top)  but I have no idea where it comes from. Next door used to keep birds so it could be from the seed (although the birds were kept in an aviary). I have a suspicion that some Japanese soldiers are hiding in there, not realising that the war is over.

I have the occasional special visitor in my garden. A pair of blackbirds return each year to see what I have left them to nest in. I make a point of stopping all major restructuring work when they arrive. I have had foxes several times, including one that decided to sleep under a bush at the top of the garden and another that had a look in at me through the garden window. That was wonderful to see. I had a hedgehog turn up one evening as I was looking through the telescope. It stopped long enough to let me take its portrait and to feed it some dog food (I checked in the internet and that’s what was recommended). So the garden isn’t all bad.

I have followed a friend’s advice and covered a particularly difficult patch of the garden with old carpet and sheets of wood in an attempt to smother the weeds and brambles that grow there. It’s been on for a couple of months now and the brambles have finally stopped struggling. The odd one still manages to poke it’s head between gaps, but they are swiftly taken care of. It’s unsightly, but I’m thinking for the long term. Besides, it makes a change from the endless green

So that, then, is my garden. A challenging, ever changing, green place.



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I have no real interest in gardening. I like the results – flowers, trees and vegetables – but I’m not one to be engrossed in the production of these. But I am cursed with a large garden that requires a large amount of attention. I cut the grass because if I didn’t, I would soon find it impossible to see the house or to see out of the windows. But that’s about it as far as gardening is concerned.

Recently, as part of a general improvement programme for the interior and exterior of my estate, I have been clearing the overgrown undergrowth (Wombling Free seems appropriate here) from the grounds. It started when my neighbour asked me if I could chop some of the forestry in the front down to enable them to see the sea. I was happy to oblige – it provided the motivation to do the work – and he helped me with the initial cutting as I didn’t have the time.  I managed to take everything down to ground level. Then I started on the back garden. I managed to cut back a large strip of bushes, ferns and brambles over a weekend and I actually found it therapeutic as well as good exercise.

Now, apart from great piles of rotting vegetation awaiting disposal, I have a large cooking apple tree, some leftover potatoes from last year (I thought I’d dug them all up but there must have been a few remaining) and a rose bush. The apple tree is very productive and I regularly share the apples with anyone who wants them (applications on a post card etc). My potatoes last year were slightly larger than peas but there were enough of them to make a small Shepherd’s Pie. The rose, however, is beautiful. It’s a gorgeous, deep red colour and only produces one or two flowers a year. But I love looking at them.  Last year it survived gales, rain and frost and although I do nothing to help it out, it thrives.

At the top of the garden is a tree my dad planted more than 30 years ago. It’s huge now, just like it should be. On the other side of the garden there are a large number of bamboo canes, easily 15ft high. I’m not sure where they came from but the neighbour behind my house has a large pigeon shed and it could be that they have grown from scattered seeds. Whatever the source, I have a small but authentic jungle corner there, complete with tigers and parrots.

Okay, not tigers and no parrots.

But occasionally I am graced by the presence of a fox in the back garden, usually in the mornings. I think she’s the same one as she has the same splendid bushy tail and white markings on her chest. The first time I saw her, she was curled up under a bush fast asleep. She passed through the garden several times and once she and I were no more than a few feet apart with the kitchen window between us.

Other visitors include a hedgehog that snuffled up to me while I was out with my telescope at night. I checked the internet to find out what food I could give it and it ended up dining on some dog food I had to hand. There are a myriad of cats that use my garden to pass through. Flocks of magpies used to congregate until I discouraged them with old CDs strung up on string that moved and flashed in the sun.

Earlier this year I watched a young starling being taught how to feed by its mother.

My garden may be unkempt but it makes for great viewing.

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