Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Friend or foe?

Image result for grey squirrel gardenSo this has turned out to be a rather topical Outside the Backdoor for February’s Parish Magazine.
Do you like squirrels?  For you are they cuddly and cute sitting there nibbling on a conker or are they the menace that digs up your garden and should be treated like vermin?  There’s no doubt that, as our wildlife goes squirrels, much like foxes, are very divisive.

I think we tend to have a love / hate relationship with them but this winter it has definitely tended more towards the hate end of the scale as they have wreaked havoc outside the backdoor.

At the end of October, I was exceptionally efficient in ordering my garlic and getting it
24022687212_655ddf4780_mplanted in the veg plot.  In recent years I have found that autumn planted garlic does really well in the garden and results in large, usable bulbs unlike the spring planted which used to produce tiny bulbs that were really difficult to use in cooking.  However, no sooner had I planted them this year than the squirrels had other ideas and the plot was turned over by their scrabbling and the cloves were scattered to the four winds.  By now I should have an orderly set of green shoots of garlic about four inches high but there is no sign of anything, presumably because I am now looking in the wrong place because the squirrels have decided to replant them.  I am guessing that I am suddenly going to find garlic growing randomly in strange corners of the garden!

If squirrels weren’t menace enough, we’ve also been battling with mice.  Before you start wondering how on earth a house with three cats can possibly have a problem with mice, I should explain that they run around the wall cavities and beneath the sprung floor or our extension (why, oh why did we not have a solid concrete floor?!)  No one has been able to explain why, but it’s a problem common to many of the houses in our road.  However, the reason for mentioning this in the context of a squirrel discussion is that we found out that the local pest control people won’t come out to deal with the issue if you have things such as bird feeders in the garden that could be attracting the mice in the first place.  So very reluctantly we have removed all our bird feeders temporarily.  Imagine our annoyance then when, over Christmas, we spotted squirrels bringing fatballs intended for the birds, into our garden from goodness knows where, and caching them under our hawthorn tree!  Even worse, as they did this, they were having a good go at wrecking the Christmas decorations we had hung on the black elder and acer trees.  These bare branches had turned into a squirrel superhighway.  Meanwhile the birds are losing out on their regular supply of food and, with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch due to take place at the end of January, I can’t see us holding out on empty bird feeders for much longer.

So where are all the squirrels coming from?  And why do we seem to have experienced an explosion in the squirrel population in our garden?  The reason became clear as the leaves fell last autumn.  Amongst the bare branches, dense pockets of leaves and twigs were revealed which I suspect make up no less than four squirrel dreys in the garden.  Unlike most people’s image of a nest, a drey is a relatively untidy home with little structure, rather thrown together amidst the higher reaches of a tree.  Currently two reside in a hawthorn and two in our cherry plum.  Now we have to decide what to do with them.  Squirrels often have two sets of young, called kittens, in early Spring and early Summer.  If we don’t want four full nests in our garden, we shall need to break them up very shortly before there are young in them.

31937305725_0a1633af30_mHaving now read up on the breeding season, this does make sense in terms of what we’ve experienced with one of our cats regularly catching squirrels.  In the earlier part of last year we had no less than six squirrel incidents but nothing since, although one did have a close shave over Christmas when it was running up and down the olive tree right outside the backdoor.  Bryggen (large, furry and ginger) was on full alert with his normal cheeky expression replaced by that of a grand hunter!

Although I now regret writing that as we’ve had a narrow escape today with Bryggen sporting a rather muddy, bloodied paw as a result of his catch refusing to lie down!

I used to wonder why my next door neighbour was so angry about squirrels but his garden is full of lovely bulbs and various ornaments so now, as a I look out on every pot on the patio that has been dug up, I completely understand where he’s coming from!  It’s a stark reminder that, if you want a wildlife friendly garden, you cannot pick and choose!

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Add one squirrel and stir …

Just to reassure you, this is not a recipe!  It was a remark made by John over breakfast during the Christmas break when he glanced out into the garden and saw a flurry of urgently feeding birds and squirrels chasing around.  The whole garden seemed to be on the move and so it often seems at this time of year.

I think there are a number of reasons as to why the activity seems so frantic in the middle of winter.  The days are short which not only affects the amount of time the animals have for feeding, but also when we get to see them.  During the working week from late November until nearly the end of February, I only see the garden in the light at weekends, apart from Christmas, which is something that makes the holiday quite special.  Suddenly we are at home for ten days and are around to see this compressed feeding frenzy.  Equally the birds need to eat plenty in a short space of time to sustain them through the cold nights.

I can’t explain it, 31032516503_3fa00d032a_mbut it seems that there’s also a change from the moment we have passed the shortest day.  Around 7.15am this week as I’ve been eating breakfast, I’ve been very conscious of the bird song.  It wasn’t there before Christmas.  Can the birds really be aware of that very small change in the earth’s rotation that signals longer lighter days are just around the corner?

We are also conscious of clusters of birds sitting around the trees, specifically wood pigeons and collar doves.  Early one afternoon we had six wood pigeons and eight collar doves all perched in our birch and cherry trees. Today the top of the wood burner flue is popular!

Back in the autumn we made some changes to our bird feeding arrangements which weere short-lived – more about that in my next post!  We were getting increasingly dispirited by filling the bird feeders on a Saturday morning only for a large flock of parakeets to descent and empty them by Saturday afternoon.  Not only was this costing us a fortune but it was annoying to see the smaller birds losing out so much.  As if inspired by the parakeets, we were also seeing more large birds dominating the feeders such as crows and magpies.  Something needed to be done.  In the end we purchased two new bird feeders, the sort designed to keep squirrels at bay, with outer cages to allow small birds in but to keep larger birds (and mammals) out.  One of these feeders has mixed seed in it and the other fatballs.  After a few months’ use we are pleased to say that these are allowing the smaller birds a fairer chance.  The bluetits, great tits and chaffinches all love the new feeders and, having smaller appetites, there is food out there for them for most of the week.  The larger birds are still welcome but they have to eat out of the remaining seed feeders and, once they are empty, then that’s it until we choose to refill them.  Some of the more dextrous parakeets do try to get into the caged feeders but it’s sufficiently challenging for them that they soon give up and move on elsewhere.

Keeping the squirrels away from the seeds is an added bonus.  However, it doesn’t deter their antics and they still like to jump onto the swinging feeders in an attempt to get 31097548814_4e58bb6fa1_mwhatever scraps they can.  In squirrel terms, our large ginger cat Bryggen is probably the best squirrel deterrent.  The more squeamish amongst you would prefer not know that 2014 will go down as a three squirrel year!  It’s made Bryggen a hero with our elderly neighbour who detests squirrels.  As well as having lots of pots with bulbs, he also has lots of small military models in his garden which the squirrels regularly move around much to his annoyance.  His reaction to Bryggen’s most recent squirrel conquest, “If he were a bloke, I’d buy him a pint!”