On the first morning of a recent visit to see family in Wales, a rather neat looking mound of freshly dug soil appeared in the lawn. The next day another had grown, the following day there were four. Staring through the window at the bold evidence of what was surely an over active mole, I noticed a squirrel was happily munching its way through the spread laid out on the bird table. And pigeons, I am told, ate the neighbours’ winter cabbages.
Molehills messing up the lawn, pigeons devouring the brassicas, squirrels on the bird feeders, not to mention the well known evils of slugs – wildlife where you don’t want it can be a nuisance. But is it possible to find redeeming features in these species that would make them easier to live with?
It’s amazing how, once you find out more about the wildlife you are sharing your garden or allotment with, you can become more patient with their sometimes destructive habits. There is in fact a lot to love about the mole, the squirrel, the pigeon and yes even the slug! Not convinced? Let me persuade you.
The tiny but impressive European mole can shift six kilos of earth in just 20 minutes and tunnel up to 20 metres in a day. The mole operates alone, so if molehills start appearing in your garden or allotment they are likely to be the work of just one, determined creature. The excavated soil has to go somewhere, hence the heaps of earth pushed above ground. Rather than seeing them as a blot on the landscape, the humble molehill could be seen as a rather handy supply of freshly sifted topsoil for planters, not to mention an attractive source of food for insect-hungry birds.
Tunnelling activity usually only lasts for a few days and then the hills stop appearing. Once constructed, the networks of subterranean tunnels and chambers can be used for generations. More molehills will only appear when the mole is carrying out routine maintenance work or digging deeper for food during the frozen winter months. These mole tunnels help drain and aerate soil, keeping it healthy.
Any damage that moles cause is completely unintentional – the mammal is not after your crops but in hot pursuit of the earthworms that make up the bulk of its diet. A mole weighing 80g needs to eat 50g of worms everyday. Moles also eat slugs and the larvae of insects like cockchafers and carrot fly, which must boost them in the esteem of any vegetable grower.
It is hard to love slugs, but there’s much about them that is fascinating, if not a little horrifying. For example, a single slug has 27,000 teeth, can stretch to 20 times its normal length and can travel unharmed across the edge of a razor blade. Slugs are gastropods, which means ‘stomach foot’, and they move by contracting their muscular stomachs, gliding on a layer of lubricating mucus. They are also hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs and can mate with themselves if necessary.
Britain is home to 30 species of slug and the average garden contains over 20,000 of them. The leopard slug is probably our most magnificent, with its exotic looking skin markings and its twisting mating dance. It also eats other slugs, which must make it the gardener’s friend. However much you hate them, slugs do have an important role to play in the ecosystem of any garden or allotment. They are crucial composters, eating dead and decaying plant and animal matter and releasing nutrients back into the soil. They also provide food for species like frogs and toads, birds and hedgehogs.
Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from north America in the late 19th century and the devastating impact they’ve had on the native red squirrel population has been well documented. Red squirrel conservation efforts are being made in areas such as Scotland, Cumbria, and Northumberland where we still have red squirrel strongholds. Greys have the advantage of being able to feed at ground level and digest acorns, tricks that have enabled them to displace their red cousins from most woodland areas. They also carry a virus that has killed many red squirrels, so it’s not a good idea to encourage their presence in areas that still shelter our native reds.
So what can we love about squirrels? They are certainly entertaining. Squirrels are bold and extremely agile, able to leap more than six metres and safe falling from a height of nine. They have great eyesight and a keen sense of smell too. Anyone who has tried to outwit a squirrel in their garden will know how quickly they learn. They use their tails to communicate, twitching them if they’re suspicious, and mark regular routes with scent. They also use their tails as blankets on cold nights, curling up in compact spherical nests or ‘dreys’.
The wood pigeon is the UK’s largest and most common pigeon and it’s rather partial to peas and cabbages. If pigeons descend on your brassica crop it could be completely destroyed. The only way to keep vulnerable plants safe is with netting, but this is very effective, meaning that the vegetable grower and the pigeon can live in harmony, as long as the vegetable grower knows what the bird likes and takes suitable precautions.
I live in London, home of the much maligned feral pigeon, more politely known as the rock dove. Could this bird, which is the bane of many a Londoner’s life, have any redeeming features? Perhaps. The pigeon helped save thousands of lives during the two world wars, carrying messages across enemy lines. And pigeon pooh was once considered to be an invaluable fertiliser not to mention a source of saltpetre, an essential ingredient in gunpowder!
This article appears in March 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine