When the cat's away the birds and gardeners will play


ANOTHER LIFEA TRIP TO THE LOO at daybreak had me peering out in the hope of spying some wild visitor to what is now, since Meg passed on, a dog-free garden. Even another hare would be nice. Instead, strolling down the path past the marigolds, there was a kitten, pristine, black and white, and oddly urban and out of place on this rough hillside.

Its lone but confident catwalk raised momentous questions, such as the whereabouts of mother cat and any further predatory weanlings. As if cued for camera, mother now entered the frame, leading at a stately pace a troop of four more tail-waving kittens, one or two, like herself, a sort of marmaladey meld, the others black and white and made for stuffing into tankards for birthday-card pictures. They cleared the frame in a measured fall of silent, furry paws.

It’s now a couple of decades since the last of our own cats, each supposedly an outdoor deterrent to rodents. They typically spent their time dozing on the window sill outside the door. An allergy to cat dander discouraged successors – this and our growing concern for the company of birds.

The startling dawn patrol suggested concealment in one of our sheds – perhaps the woodshed, deep in cosy sawdust – and emergence now to a training session in the arts of a feral lifestyle. Along with the farm cats, offered little beyond a saucer of milk, some scraps and a nest in the hay, the western countryside supports an unknowable number of “wild” cats, sleeping rough in rabbit holes or unfrequented barns.

I once met one prowling through the acre after killing a couple of our ducks. Dark and burly, nothing in those mean yellow eyes invited me to extend a hand. (It met its end in a shotgun blast in someone else’s barn.) The feral tomcat tends, indeed, to take on the look of the true European wild cat, even to the very bushy, blunt-ended tail (but one lacking the black bands of the authentic Felis silvestris). Robert Scharff, keeper of the National Museum between 1890 and 1921, long held to his hope that the wild cat, still surviving in Scotland, might be discovered in the mountains of Connemara.

The impact of cats, whether feral or domestic, on birds and other wildlife prompts constant conjecture and research. In the cat-loving UK, with an awesome feline population of about 7.7 million domestic pets and perhaps 800,000 cats living wild, the Mammal Society has estimated that, of 275 million prey items a year brought home by cats, some 55 million are birds. But the natural mortality rate of most small bird species is already extremely high, so cat killings have no important impact. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds acquits cats of significant overall harm to songbird populations but sells an ultrasonic garden cat deterrent to people anxious for their ground-roaming thrushes and chaffinches.

There are other good reasons, of course, for not wanting cats in one’s garden – or, indeed, my polytunnel. Having successfully evicted a pregnant rabbit that was digging a hole for accouchement under the Pantano Romanesco tomatoes, I have no intention of providing a base for the latest feral family of cats. (I don’t know where they have gone, but I must check the old hen’s ark, a mouldering but watertight squat in the shadows of the acre’s central spinney.)

So the ultrasonic scarer, alert to any movement, seems a possibility. There’s also a new repellent garden plant, an African mint sold as Coleus canina, that is marketed as Pee-off or Scaredy-cat and said to have the obverse of the attractions of catmint, Nepeta.

A Dublin allotmenteer, Mark Keenan, with long experience of city cats, defends his raised salad bed with 200 bamboo barbecue skewers – a “porcupine fortress”, as he describes it. While not, perhaps, matched to my needs, this is typical of the resolute enterprise on display in From the Ground Up: How Ireland Is Growing Its Own, the new and most engaging book by this paper’s gardening writer, Fionnuala Fallon (Collins Press, €19.99). A hardback, it is also made richly pleasurable by the photography of her husband, Richard Johnston.

The book exudes the satisfaction that comes with growing one’s own food. Its stories range from expert and ideal circumstance, like that of Joy Larkcom in west Cork or Klaus Laitenberger in Leitrim, to the challenges of gardening in small urban spaces – even a windswept apartment balcony of eight square metres. The book catches the spirit that nourishes the grow-it-yourself (GIY) movement of Michael Kelly in Co Waterford and the spread of school gardening. My Thallabawn jungle is in there at the end.

Eye on nature

I was weeding a garden in Phibsborough in early August when I encountered a pink/purple grasshopper sunning himself on a leaf.

Alison Cowie, Blessington, Co Wicklow

From the photograph you enclosed, it was the nymph of the meadow grasshopper.

In mid-August I found a large green cricket in a verge in the car park at Turvey Nature Reserve, in Donabate. It was about 40mm from head to tip of abdomen, with wings extending a further 15mm. It was very loud. Was it a great green bush cricket? From what I could find out they don’t breed here.

Niall Griffin, Lusk, Co Dublin

Yes, it was a great green bush cricket, from the photograph you sent. They are not native and were first recorded in Clare in 1998. One was photographed in Cork in 2007 and in Wicklow in 2010.

The fastest cat caught one of the larger dragonflies zooming around the garden. It had a brown abdomen with light spots and two bright vertical yellow/green stripes on the sides of the thorax.

Ted Sheehy, Roscommon

It was a common hawker, Aeshna juncea.

There were hundreds of insects with black-spotted vibrant-red wings all over the flowers at Malahide beach.

Noelle Heron, Malahide, Co Dublin

They were five-spot burnet moths.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address

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