Mammals in the Garden

EVERY GARDEN is in its small way a microcosm of the animal kingdom, and to be able to recognize the various creatures it harbours adds greatly to the pleasure of gardening. Some of the animals are, of course, implacable enemies of the gardener, to be exterminated if possible; others remain in peaceful coexistence, feeding upon pests, pollenizing, scavenging or even, as in the case of the earthworm, aerating and improving the soil.

Whether they are friends, neutrals or foes, the discovery of them will depend partly on how much they reveal themselves, though it will depend chiefly on the evidence they leave behind them of having been in the garden.

In the countryside the distribution of wild plants and animals is not so random as may at first appear, for there is generally a close relationship between the type of soil and the plants which thrive on it.

The types of plants and trees which grow in any locality tend to determine the species of insects to be found, and the insect life may have a bearing on the bird and animal life. This close relationship between the various forms of plant and animal life exists naturally in virgin soil, but is inevitably disturbed when the ground is cultivated.

Some species of animals, birds and insects are extraordinarily adaptable and can live happily in a wide variety of habitats. House sparrows, for instance, will thrive in any place where there are adequate scraps or seeds to support them and holes for them to nest in; and even if there are no suitable nesting holes they will manage quite happily by building ragged grass nests in trees.

Other species may be much more specialized, requiring certain conditions for survival; the lime hawk moth lays its eggs on lime trees and very occasionally on elms, so its distribution is limited by the distribution of its food plants. Swallows and house martins cannot breed in areas where there is no mud available for nest building.

Mature gardens with hedges and trees, shrub gardens and wild and (intended corners will be infinitely richer in animal life than well-cared-for plots surrounded by bare fences or by chain mesh. The addition of even a small pond may almost double the variety of creatures to be found, for many different forms of life will colonize it in the course of a few years

MAMMALS

Although mammoths, wolves, bears and woolly rhinoceroses once roamed Britain, today few wild mammals remain and only a handful of them are regular inhabitants of gardens.

With the exception of the squirrel and the hedgehog, which readily become tame, mammals in general have not developed the easy relationship with man which so many birds seem to show. Their presence is much more furtive, often because the gardener cannot meet them on friendly terms. The mole which ruins a favourite lawn or the rabbit which devastates the vegetables must be got rid of, and once an animal has been driven from an area recolonization is a much more precarious and lengthy business than it is with birds or insects.

The position of the garden is therefore a factor which determines the number of mammals that visit it. Those gardens which back on to woods, commons or any other type of open country will be visited by more animals than the small suburban garden, but few gardens are entirely without a mammal of some kind, even if it is only the house mouse.

Because of their retiring ways and nocturnal habits it is easy to be unaware of mammals in the garden. Only the bats, sharing as they do the mobility of birds and insects, seem indifferent to the nature of the garden and on summer evenings may be seen flying over the centre of quite large cities.

MOLES

It is possible to spend a lifetime in the country without seeing a live mole, but there is little chance of one living undetected in the garden, for its handiwork —the mole hill—is unmistakable. The mole is about 6 in. long, with beautiful soft velvety black fur, a long pointed snout, and broad immensely strong fore-paws. Its eyes are small and set deep in the fur, but as most of its life is spent underground, sight is of little importance to it. It has, however, an acute sense of smell, much used in hunting. It feeds chiefly on earthworms, which it obtains by endless burrowing operations. The ordinary mole hill is the spoil from the burrows. The nest chamber lies beneath a much bigger hill and is an elaborate structure with several exits. The young are normally born in May or June.

HEDGEHOGS

These small animals are welcome in the garden, as they live mainly on snails, slugs and insects. They feed chiefly by night, lying up during the day, and this routine enables them to live even in the suburbs. They readily become tame enough to feed on bread and milk if it is put out each evening.

The spines of the adult hedgehog are darkish brown with lighter tips, and their underparts are covered in brown fur. Unfortunately their long spines (really modified hairs) frequently harbour many fleas, and a flea powder should be used before they are handled.

The spines of newly-born hedgehogs are pale and soft and take about three weeks to harden.

Litters number from four to seven and are born in summer, some sows producing two litters a year.

In winter the hedgehog hibernates in a bed of leaves and moss in a hole in a bank or among rocks, under the roots of a tree or even in a little-used building, but occasionally it stirs abroad on particularly mild nights.

SHREWS

Occasionally shrews may visit the garden or be brought in by the cat. Although superficially similar to rodents they are in fact insect-eaters, related to the mole and hedgehog, and are therefore helpful to gardeners. They are very small animals with long tails, flexible pointed snouts and small ears. The body of the pygmy shrew may be only 2-½ in. long, and that of the common shrew only 3 to 3-1/4 in. long. They are fierce little bundles of energy, and live at such a pace that they have to feed throughout the whole twenty-four hours of the day.

In colour, they are dark brown above and whitish below.

BATS

These are mammals which have become adapted to true flight by a great extension of their finger bones and the growth of a leathery membrane connecting the fingers to each other and to the body. They hunt chiefly at twilight and feed on insects which they catch on the wing. They have exceptionally acute hearing and use a system of echo-sounding to navigate with phenomenal accuracy in the dark.

In winter they hibernate in caves, hollow trees and old buildings but may come out in mild weather.

There are twelve species of bat in the British Isles but some of them are very local or rare.

The pipistrelle (wing span 8 in.), the long-eared (10 in.)and the noctule (15 in.), are the most widely distributed. Identification is, however, difficult as their colour varies with the species and even within the species. They are normally seen as silhouettes in the dusk.

RABBITS

These have become much less common since myxomatosis spread through the country, and although disease-resistant populations are developing, there are still large areas where the animal is rare or even unknown.

But rabbits are very fertile and will certainly survive myxomatosis as a species. The disease is spread by fleas, which, in the crowded conditions of the warrens, pass easily from one animal to another. There is evidence, however, that some animals are now spending their entire lives above the ground and so, for a time at least, are thriving.

In the garden, rabbits are a great menace. If they are abundant in the neighbourhood only an elaborate wire-netting fence sunk well into the ground is likely to keep them out effectively.

STOATS AND WEASELS

Both these animals are closely related to ferrets, mink and sable. The stoat, at 12-1/2 to 14 in. long, is appreciably bigger than the weasel (8 to 10 in.) with a proportionately longer, black-tipped tail. Its upper parts are a darker brown than those of the weasel, and its underparts are not so white. Both have long sinuous bodies and are extremely fierce: a weasel can bite right through thick leather gauntlets. In addition they defend them-selves by emitting an unpleasant smell.

Both species live in burrows, not necessarily of their own making, and pursue their prey underground.

The weasel takes many small rodents and rabbits for food and so should be welcome in the garden.

Stoats are persecuted by game keepers because of the readiness with which they attack game birds; on occasion they will also enter hen houses.

The stoat bears the fur known as ermine, but it is generally only in the north of Great Britain that it moults into this white winter coat which is of poor quality.

The best ermine comes from abroad.

16. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles, Garden Management, Gardening Calendar | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mammals in the Garden

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