Three pairs of swallows nested in our outbuildings this year. They twittered and squabbled over territory and then built mud nests. Soon, fledglings lined up on the rafters, and nagged their parents for food. The slate-blue backs and bricky red throats are beautiful but it’s the large, innocent eyes that win you over.
When they’d all grown up, I spent hours scraping swallow crap from the floor, the walls, the barbecue and everything else stored in the building. And I’m not talking mere droppings, here – this was piled guano!
Swallows were only part of the breeding orgy. We had sparrows, swifts and starlings in the roof and song thrushes, blackbirds, wrens, tits, robins, collared doves, dunnocks and wood pigeons nesting in the garden. Pretty good for a half acre, in a village surrounded by industrial-strength agriculture.
When we moved here in 2003 I vowed to garden naturally. A wafty concept, I admit, but if weeds, untidy corners and overgrown no-go areas could be tolerated, wildlife would turn up without further effort on my part.
And they did. Eight years on, the garden’s like most 8 year-old boys – exuberant, not without charm but scruffy. Mini-meadows, flowery borders and woodland garden hum with life – and having all that nature around gives me a warm, virtuous glow.
BUT – and it’s a HUGE but – while I’m expected to be green, to love wild things, bless the bees and make obeisance to every hover fly, ladybird and newt - I’m wondering where’s the payback? If we encourage song thrushes, by providing the desirable bosky habitat, aren’t they supposed to eat up the snails? And shouldn’t those cosseted hedgehogs be noshing the slugs that ravage my dahlias? Fat chance!
Love birds as I do, some of them are pests. Starlings and blackbirds attack fruit, collared doves – pesky aliens but excellent sparrow hawk fodder – devour young vegetables. So I have to protect crops with fiddly netting, which is maddening but at least it’s a remedy. With wood pigeons, the problem’s insoluble. There’s absolutely nothing good to say about a wood pigeon, apart from the beauty of its pink and grey plumage. As birds go, they’re thick – crows are far brighter – and their song is a cretinous chant, repeated ad nauseam and always halted mid-phrase. as annoying as a musician who stops playing on the penultimate chord.
But the worst thing, about our local wood pigeons, is that they eat the buds of my rare wood anemones. One day, the plants are crowded with plump buds; the next, there’s a mass of little stalks with nothing on their ends. So instead of spring drifts in white, lilac or blue, I’m left with a carpet of botanical eunuchs. Bastard pigeons!
If I still had my shot gun, I’d shoot them and make pigeon casserole. No, I’m perfectly serious. These birds are a menace and should be eaten, washed down with a hefty Côte du Rhone – a Rasteau, I think. By all means label me a brute, if this offends – but only if you’re a vegetarian. Sparrows are my other big problem. Since the 1970s, the house sparrow population has crashed and although they’re not rare, the decline is continuing and no one knows why. Roughly 3 million pairs currently breed in the UK, most of them, it would seem, in our parish. The damage sparrows do in my garden is staggering. They pull out baby seedlings, peck off blossom, devour salad plants, pick at silver leaves and shred spring flowers, especially primulas. They flock in our roof and unlike swifts – which behave impeccably – they make huge, messy nests, squabble constantly and drop weed seeds all over the garden.
But what can I do? The little horrors are threatened and need protection, so I must not, will not banish them. When I invited Twitter folk to share my woes, most were incredulous. ‘What’s not to like about them?’ one tweeted and another, gushingly, ‘Sparrows + Garden = Love.’
Well, I’m not happy. My eaves will, grudgingly, continue to welcome Passer domesticus and I’ll try not to throw things at them, when they’re stripping the forsythias or making dust baths in my seed beds. And if you’ve marked me down as a bad naturalist, remember that most houses, all over Britain, are bird-proofed and bat-hostile – a shockingly callous approach to nature. Ours is open house to all wildlings, and will always remain so. But some species are more welcome than others.