Outside the Backdoor

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


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Cat defences

Last week it was a tail of murder and destruction outside our backdoor as a robin’s nest was plundered by the aggressive neighbourhood black cat.  We spent a very tense Wednesday evening trying to defend the nest with the aid of a water pistol but, despite seeing both adults fly from the direction of the nest early on Thursday morning, sadly it was not to be.  By Thursday evening the behaviour and feeding pattern of the robins had reverted to what I can only describe as normal day-to-day routine rather than the incessant to’ings and fro’ings of a feeding pair.  It seems ironic that it was only last month that I was commenting on the conflict we’ve felt at times between owning cats and feeding the birds (Nesting Now) but, as promised then, I will explain more.

Prior to owning our own cats, our garden was the territory of every cat and fox in the neighbourhood.  There was the ginger and white who strolled down the garden so regularly every evening that we actually laid our garden path along the line he had trodden!  There was Timmy one side of us and Toby and his various predecessors the other, plus a whole range of other occasional visitors who regarded our garden as excellent toilet facilities.  The foxes used our garden as the main thoroughfare between the railway line and the road lined with the rubbish bins and recycling containers that provide such rich pickings.  Whilst it was entertaining to see the young cubs being brought into the garden to play, it was less entertaining to clear up their mess every time we wanted to garden or even just to sit outside.

Fox exploring the garden

Fox on patrol – (c) John Malone (2005)

When we began exploring Norwegian Forest cats as a breed we quickly became aware that they are not very streetwise – the clue is in the name – ‘Forest’ not ‘Street’ cat!  Our breeder advised us to either keep them indoors or to create a cat garden.  When the kittens were growing up, we were in the midst of a major building project and so we delayed the creation of the cat garden until after that. During that time, however, we became convinced that this was the right thing to do. They loved being outdoors so much that it seemed almost cruel not to give them access to the garden.

Tortie cat climbing tree

Early explorations (c) John Malone

Whilst we don’t own acres of land, our garden is definitely larger than your average town garden so the first thing we had to decide was whether we could really afford, either in monetary or practical terms, to “cat-proof” the entire garden.  In the end we decided that there was a natural turning point and we incorporated a gate into the proposal that would allow us, but not the cats, access to the ‘far end’ or the ‘woodland’ garden if I’m being posh!  Curiously enough, the gate is at the exact same location at which the previous owners of the house effectively threw in the towel and decided they couldn’t maintain any more garden beyond that point!

Dividing the garden between the main area and woodland area

Natural divide – where to put the fence (c) John Malone (2006)

Having worked out where it was going, we had to decide what the cat fence would be made from and in the end we invested in a product called Purrfect Fence (yes, groan!).  A combination of very tough, plastic coated wire fencing with suspension arms that, theoretically, stop your cat from climbing over it, the product has been used all over the world and, in fairness, has already given over nine years good service in our garden.

Cat fence

Cat fence (c) Elizabeth Malone

The ‘pros’ of having a cat fence are that your cats can wander freely around your garden whilst the neighbourhood moggies cannot.  The foxes are also excluded, well mostly that is, apart from one or two over adventurous incursions that we’ve had to deal with over the years.  Any mess in the garden is your own cat’s mess and not everyone else’s and, of course, your cats are not annoying the neighbours by messing in their gardens!  Given that we also manage when our cats have access to the garden, and it’s certainly never at night or early morning when birds are at their most vulnerable, it also means that our garden is mostly a safe place for birds.

Three cats asleep under garden bench

Lazing around (c) John Malone

On the ‘cons’ side, it is an additional hassle when climbing plants get entangled in the fence.  The cat fence runs along the top of the larch-lap panels in the photo below but you’d never know it due to the over-enthusiastic clematis tangutica ‘Bill Mackenzie’ which swamps it every summer!

Cat inspecting the garden

Hidden fencing and foiled cat! (C) John Malone

If another cat does get in the garden, for example by walking along the various house extension roofs, then it can’t get out by itself (this has only happened twice so far).  The biggest ‘con’, however, is that it is almost impossible to erect the fence effectively around trees and our garden has quite a few of them.  Add to that a cat who considers the fence to be an assault course and who regards it as his duty to find and test every possible escape route, and you find you have created quite a challenge!  Of course once he’s out, he can’t get back in and you have to be alert to his usual routine and anticipate when he’s going to appear on the doorstep (or the roof!) ready to be let back in.

Ginger cat climbing the pergola

One of many famous escape attempts! (C) John Malone

That said, I think it has been a price worth paying for mostly knowing where they are! Of course whilst he’s out and about, I can’t hand on heart claim that he isn’t devastating the local wildlife or causing havoc with the neighbours (like the time he stole steak from next door!)

But returning to our robin’s nest, our cats were definitely not the guilty party. So what went wrong?  They nested in a dense viburnum that grows in our neighbour’s garden and is just the wrong side of our cat fence.  Our neighbours went away meaning that their spaniel was no longer on patrol.  The black cat, which seems to think it owns our entire road, kept climbing the viburnum onto the top of our fence.  Every time we saw it appear, John was out there with the water pistol but it was impossible to be on ‘nest duty’ around the clock and at some point the inevitable must have occurred. However, since then we have seen the adults flitting around the garden and on a couple of occasions we’ve seen them feeding each other, so hopefully they will go on to have another brood this spring and may be they’ll have more luck second time around.

 

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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!