Sarah Coles



The Others


Birds are free as we can never be.  They soar the sky.  They blithely cross garden fences, barbed wire, prison walls, national borders and oceans.  We need birds to remind us of a liberty which, except in the mind, we have never had.  We need the dawn chorus in spring, the jabber of jackdaws, the whole orchestra of the garden.

I write this having just returned from Egypt, where on ancient temples and inside tombs all manner of birds are painted and sculpted.  They are mostly gods.  Horus a sky god is a hawk, Thoth, writer and recorder, is an ibis, while the goddess Nekhbet who protects is a vulture.  Lapwings with curled crests raise arms in adoration.  The presence of these birds demonstrates respect for their intelligence and symbolic power; they and other creatures are reminders of a pre-Christian, pre-Muslim time when animals were seen having spiritual power in their own right rather than being lesser creatures in the service of humanity.

It’s the fidelity of robins we treasure, in fact all the birds who stay through the winter and have no need for exotic migrations.  The robin comes as I weed, jackdaws descend and quarrel.  Blackbirds, sparrows, little brown birds who may be female sparrows, blue tits and shy wrens, all are here.  In winter others not usually so visible come, great tits, long tailed tits, goldfinches and greenfinches and bullfinches, and noisy black speckled starlings.  Pigeons, collared and wood, murmur lullabies on the roof and sometimes quarrel.  Not everyone appreciates pigeons: our neighbour calls them flying vermin.  Not everyone likes the magpie, intelligent and glamorous, and long held in ambivalence being symbolic of both joy and love, and trickery and deception.  I wish I were Wagner’s Siegfried and understood the song of birds.  In August, except for the robins and pigeons, birds become invisible and silent.

A friend died.  In the garden the robin, my daemon, instead of pecking around for worms, flew with me as I walked and whenever  I paused alighted on a branch or a fork handle, then circled round me and flew away.  The robin brought a message, and suddenly and briefly I was happy.

Just as we need them, so many birds need gardens, trees for roosting and nesting, slugs and worms and snails to feed on.  Their table in my garden is a swaying wire tray suspended from a chain, where they may well feel safer than on a stable platform.  They eat a few figs and gooseberries, and in late winter even fieldfares come to strip cotoneasters of their last berries.  We see more birds in many a town garden than during walks in the countryside.  Birds come in droves once gardeners realise they cannot have it every way: Chelsea tidiness with every leaf immaculate, together with exuberant bird life.

Lucy Hall, editor of the BBC Gardener’s World Magazine, writes ‘birds need a slightly messy space. They need leaf litter, a bit of rotting wood at the back of a hedge.  If you haven’t got a caterpillar, the blue tit has nothing to feed on.’  Tube bird feeders attract many small birds, while scattering food helps ground feeders like thrushes.

When I moved house, on the entrance side was a hedge of dwarf cotoneasters beside a chain link fence.  All very proper.  I did nothing.  Maples sprung up among the cotoneasters which became swathed in ivy.  The chain link fence vanished, swallowed.   Now, it is the haunt of sparrows and wrens.  I hang bird feeders in odd spots, which the  clumsy jackdaws find awkward but the little birds relish.

With dismal regularity, newspapers tell us of the decline of various garden birds, like cuckoos, and turtle doves – owing to difficulties migrating over the increasingly wide Sahara, and shooting in islands like Malta, and in Britain owing to increasingly dense urban sprawls.  But there is the joy of immigrants unseen by previous generations, like the collared dove with its jet daubed neck, its rose grey breast.  These were first observed settling in Britain in 1945 but are now widespread, and they are often in my garden.  They are monogamous, and when nesting the male sits on the eggs by night and the female by day.  They were first noted appeared in l989, and were breeding in Dorset by 1996.  Ignore complaints that they are non-natives.  All our birds, and nearly all our plants, are immigrants since the end of the last ice age in about 10,000 BC.  Another recent arrival is the jungle green parakeet seen on southern golf courses, and the little egret, glamorous white, which I have seen by rivers and lakes.  Chiffchaffs and Dartford warblers have also taken refuge in Britain. In gardens, certain species can thrive better than in much of today’s countryside.

If squirrels and crows grab all offerings on bird tables leaving nothing for others, display birdfood in tubular feeders.  These are designed to deter unwanted feeders, their contents being accessible only to blackbirds and the smaller songbirds.

Birds, the little gods of our gardens.

Insects,  worms and more

Against the last sunlight, winter or summer, galaxies of tiny unknown creatures dance like fireflies.  There are scores, no, hundreds of these gnat and midge species, mostly non biting, many useful fodder to birds.  Insects, bees, bumblebees, woodlice, spiders, ladybirds, earwigs live in the garden, wasps too.  There are more than 9,000 wasp species in the United Kingdom and on the planet they are one of the most successful animal families.  They include the parasitic wasp, some of which are as diminutive as pin heads.  Of the 250 larger wasps which have a stinger, the majority are solitary and cause no upset to humans.

However, when we talk about wasps, we’re usually talking about the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris).  Judging it purely on its nuisance factor would be like judging the human race on the basis of Hitler, says Professor Adam Hart, an entomologist at the University of Gloucestershire; without wasps to prey on caterpillars, flower borders and vegetable patches would be ransacked each spring.  They pollinate flowers.  They’re not aggressive but they are defensive and may sting if people wave their arms in a frightened or aggressive manner.

Common wasps live socially like bees but, unlike honey bees, they haven’t evolved a way of storing food to allow the colony to survive the winter.  In fact almost the only survivors are the young, fertilised queens who hibernate over winter.  They emerge in spring to build little walnut sized nests where they lay around 20 eggs.

The queen feeds the resulting larvae until around May, when they mature and become workers.  Then she focuses on more egg-laying and the workers get on with the feeding, enlarging the nest as they go along.  By August the nest has grown to around ten inches in diameter, often larger, and can sometimes be seen attached to buildings like a papery balloon.  It can contain up to 10,000 wasps.   Watching a nest swell over summer under the eaves is more rewarding than gassing a hive to death.

In late August and September, a dramatic change takes place.  The queen quits the egg laying (save a few that will go on to be future queens and males to fertilise them) and no longer releases their pheromones.  It is then in gardens they can seem like fighter pilots on the attack.  But if you put some honey on your finger and allow a wasp to alight, it won’t sting, and you will see a creature more beautiful and intricate than any jewelled piece by Fabergé.

In summer we don’t just see insects, we hear them too, whines, drones, buzzes.  At Kew gardens a human scale aluminium beehive has been erected which visitors can enter, explore and hear the vastly amplified sounds of bees as they communicate and go through their dance routines begging, requesting food rituals, waggling, indicating a food source, tooting as one queen challenges another, and quacking.  More music.

Many gardeners while acknowledging bees are good for pollinating, and ladybirds for controlling aphids, would rather wild animals, particularly insects which pinch and sting, ravage leaves and desiccate plants, did not exist.  They bug us.  What’s the point of wasps – or hornets or spider mites – these gardeners ask.  What’s the point of the lily beetle?  These depressingly anthropocentric questions can be countered to some extent in pragmatic terms.   Insects and other invertebrates sustain birds, bats, hedgehogs, frogs and more.  Wasps pollinate many flowers and food crops, and their diet includes flies and aphids. They feed their young on squashed flies.  Solitary bees, like the red mason bee, eat caterpillars.  Most ants are busy recycling detritus.  Flies clear up excrement and dead bodies.  Woodlice, with seven legs and seven segments of hard shell that curl into a ball, or stretch and scurry when exposed by a lifted log or pot, feed on decaying plant material.  The blind larvae of hoverflies feed on aphids, a single larva eating as many as fifty a day.  The larva pierces the aphis with its hooked mouth, sucks it dry, then bends backwards, leaving the empty aphis skin behind.  Earwigs get a bad press, but only because they are often found in the holes of fruit where the damage has been done by others; the ancient myth they get lost in human ears has no more foundation than their love of dark crevices.  As for the lily beetle, smearing lily leaves with hideous blobs of excrement, I cannot think of any ‘use’ other than its startling beauty.  But the fact is that befriending garden wildlife is more enjoyable and infinitely easier than trying to kill it, so why try to do anything else?

There are no such things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ wildlife.  All it’s trying to do is make a living.  We cannot pick and choose who lives in our garden, and we should not waste our time applying moral judgements to wildlife – predation and parasitism are not lifestyle choices.  None of us knows what is actually going on our garden.  We should simply be glad that so much wildlife wants to share it with us.

Basically, it’s not just about the usefulness, or nuisance, of these creatures.  Globally, biodiversity is in decline, and in our gardens, so often the only green habitats in towns and cities, we have a role to play.   It’s about recognising the importance of the incredible number of plants, insects and birds, microscopic fungi, bacteria and animals around us.  It’s about revelling in their variety, interest and beauty.  And essentially, it’s about appreciating that they are here, as much as we are, and are integral to our lives.   While we garden, they surround us, usually unseen.  That is why it is impossible to feel solitary in a garden.  We never walk alone.  They evolved before mankind, and will doubtless be around when we are gone.

Insects, hugely underrated, are the dominant group in all gardens, and indeed on earth, out numbering other creatures by the thousand, even million.  The geneticist and biologist J.B.S. Haldane said, ‘God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.’  Insects are constructed inside out because their skeleton is on the outside, head, thorax and abdomen holding the internal body parts and balanced on six legs. To adjust for growth, they metamorphose, sloughing off the old life form when they reach the new – usually in the four stages of egg, larva, pupa and adult.  They have been around for 400 million years – cockroaches alone have been found in 300 million year old fossils.  That we, around for two million years, should be so lucky!  They are the most conspicuous group of invertebrates – animals without backbones – although many like mites are small or microscopic.

In 1972 Jennifer Owen, a Leicester zoologist with a small conventional garden, decided to record its wildlife.  After twenty six years, she had found 2.673 species in her neat productive plot of about a fifth of an acre.  These included 474 plants, 1,997 insect species, 138 other invertebrates such as spiders, woodlice and slugs, and 64 vertebrates, 54 of them birds.  It is estimated that had she the time and expertise available, the final tally would have been in excess of 8,000 species. In every garden there are hundreds, no thousands, of insects, some probably unknown to science.   She discovered six species of parasitic wasps, her speciality, previously unknown.  These wasps are parasitoids which invariably kill their hosts, sometimes by laying eggs within their bodies which are torn apart as the eggs turn into larvae.

Jennifer Owen is convinced that the invertebrate world is overlooked in favour of the cuddly animals beloved of television naturalists.  People who would be horrified to meet a tiger or vulture or bear in their garden identify with the furry and feathered animals they see on screen rearing young and searching for food.  Teddy bears and furry tigers are a child’s first toys.  Butterflies, she says, because of their beauty are regarded as honorary members of this favoured brigade.  However invertebrates are as interesting, in fact even more so because of their fascinating detail.

Gall wasps live in symbiotic relationship with their host plants, as closely entwined as in marriage, and often stimulating strange plant deformations.  We rarely see gall wasps, but we see the oak galls one species produces on the oak tree, and the ‘robin’s pin cushions’ another forms on wild roses.

Most fascinating is the fig wasp.  We never see flowers on the fig tree which  seems to produce fruit without needing blossom, anthers and pollen, styles and ovaries.  Yet within the fig grows a secret flower garden.  It is pollinated by the fig wasp, lured by the fragrance of the dark hidden flowers.  She makes an entry through a hole so narrow her wings are torn in the process.  Inside she pollinates the fig flowers, and lays her eggs.  These hatch, feed and mate, before the male makes an exit for the females and dies.  Disappointingly, most figs in northern gardens are Brown Turkey,  self-fertile and needing no wasp to enjoy its secret domain.

Only when I learnt of Jennifer Owen’s work did I seriously try to identify a few of the insects and other invertebrates in my garden, though I soon realised it would take a lifetime to learn even fraction of what lives beside me.  Of the 250 species of bumblebees, six are seen in gardens.  They are the most important wild pollinators in the country, doing 60 to 90% of pollinating.  Bumblebees are social bees, with a queen and worker caste.  They mate in autumn, then hibernate in holes and crevices.  The queen emerges in spring, desperate for food.  She finds early flowers like lungwort invaluable.  She constructs a nest, sometimes in a mouse nest or bird box, and makes a pot of pollen in which to lay the eggs and raise her young.  She enjoys nectar, but it’s only light confectionery and pollen is essential.  Snapdragons have a particularly good supply; red is the preferred colour, and ideally one with guide lines on the petal to lead the bumblebee inside.  The snapdragon’s hinged mouths are designed for heavyweights, not for lightweights like hoverflies which are less effective pollinators.  The benefits are mutual.    Carder bumblebees are brown, with long tongues to suck tubular flowers like honeysuckle and foxgloves as well as flatter ones.  The garden bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, with three yellow stripes, also has a long tongue for these tubular flowers as well as others.  In late September it is still out there, foraging the perennial sunflowers.  The buff tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, chews at the sides of tubular flowers to reach the nectar and pollen.  The early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum, with an orange tail,  cheats and gets in where an early buff tailed has already made an entry.  The red tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidaries, feeds on flat open flowers like zinnias.  The cuckoo bumblebee lays its eggs in the nests of its host, usually the buff tailed bumblebee; you can identify it because its legs lack hairs for collecting pollen.

Striped black and yellow hover-flies, Syrphus ribesii, mimicking wasps, tremble above the cosmos and helianthus.  Scaeva pyrastri is larger, with white half moons on its black abdomen and I wonder how the quivering wings, so fragile, keep it aloft.  Again, I wish I were a true etymologist and wonder if it is too late.    Metallic green soldier flies swarm beside the dragon arum, Dracunculis vulgaris, which exudes its foul dung smell to lure but gives nothing in return.  Frustrated, they unwittingly pollinate.  The birch shield bug, which earlier fed on catkins, turns copper in autumn; its antennae ray out curving, its body covered in minute black dots.  The larvae of stag beetles eat rotting wood in the wood shed, and the flea beetle jumps to astonishing heights when the radish leaves it feeds on are disturbed, leaving them with pin pricks.  Each root vegetable seems to have its specific flea beetle, the radish, mangold, potato and turnip.   The various lengths of aquilegia spurs are defined by the pollinators: bees, or instance prefer the short spurs of Aquilegia vulgaris, but hawk moths, with tongues up to eight inches long, head for the lengthier spurs of A. longissima.

The ladybird has always escaped the opprobrium placed on other insects, because it’s pretty, does not sting or damage crops, and like the Virgin Mary in her red cloak (as with many plants, ‘lady’ refers to  Our Lady); with its seven black spots representing her seven joys and seven sorrows.  In fact there are ladybirds with two, fourteen, fifteen even twenty four spots.  Their bodies may be red, orange or yellow, and the harlequin ladybird in my garden is queen of the night, black with red crescent spots.  Because ladybirds thrive on aphids, in the 1980s the harlequin ladybird was introduced from north east Asia to North America as a pest control.  By 2004 it was sighted in southern England, and since then it has spread.  Surveys indicate that, like the American grey squirrel pushing out the red squirrel, with its introduction numbers of native ladybirds are declining.

In Britain we have about 42 native species of ants.  We have only about 60 butterflies regularly seen, but more than 2,400 native moth species, many of which like the elephant hawk moth feeding on rosebay willowherb are spectacularly beautiful.  We have 37 species of woodlice that live outdoors, and another ten introduced species that occur in greenhouses.  We have about 47 species of centipede native to Britain, plus some introduced species found in heated glasshouses.  Centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment, whereas millipedes have two pairs.  They move and bend like trams.  No British centipede has 100 legs.  They have 15, 21 or between 35 and 101 pairs of legs – always an odd number.  I usually find them scuttling away when I lift an old log.

While the air floats with insects, below the soil is riddled with worms.  These are usually Lumbricus terrestris, the garden earthworm which is annulated, formed in a series of rings, each with its own muscle, nerves and excretory organs, and central saddle.  It’s a hermaphrodite, and every worm has a set of male and female organs.  They lie embracing on the earth with their ends overlapping.  Sperm flows from the testes down a groove on the side of each worm to a small sac in the other.  It’s a question of give and take.

More worms enter the composter.  These long glistening coils, expanding and contracting like concertinas as they move, show a yellow line between each red segment.  They are brandlings, ingesting and turning banana skins and orange peel and chicken bones and other things the books should not be placed there into dark soil.  Their Latin name is Eisenia fetida, which presumably means they stink, but if so  their smell is indistinguishable from the waste they revel in.

In April, a slowworm basks in brief sun in the angle between wall and the soil of my garden. It’s clad in translucent pink grey, elegant and subtle as Parisian silk.  Harmless, yet when Geordie aged eleven saw one he screamed  –  we rushed along expecting blood and injury. Is there an innate human fear of snakes?  In southern India they are earth gods, inscribed on votive stones and, in fact, earthworms although looking and moving like snakes are legless lizards.

Just as many gardeners hate pigeons and magpies, so they usually dislike the grey squirrel, a comparative newcomer to our gardens.  They yearn for red squirrel Nutkin, now rare, and some naturalists have plans afoot to exterminate the entire population of greys.  But this intelligent creature is the greatest acrobat, and in my garden to watch him hold a branch with his tail while stretching his forepaws for a mouthful of seed from the bird feeder is a delight.

In ponds there may be fish.  Can they feel?  Monks kept fish in stew ponds, and restaurateurs often keep doleful creatures turning in tiny tanks while waiting for the pot.  For centuries the possibility of fish feeling pain was dismissed or not even considered – fish were slithery and scaly and functioned purely on a set of automatic reflexes, like the rest of ocean creatures, but now research shows they do indeed feel pain and, what is more, recognise individual faces.

We imagine we love wildlife.  In fact we don’t, not in its wider context, and wildlife is wise to avoid us where it can.  The shelves of garden centres are packed with slug, snail and ant killers, Difenacoum for exterminating mice and rats, Bendiocarb for woodlice, Tetramethrin for flies, Permethrin for wasps, and Thiacloprid as a general bug killer.  These poisons are rarely advertised and never shown on garden television programmes, yet are purchased by the gallon.  Chemicals are sold to deter pigeons, foxes, moles, deer and squirrels.

Gardens are rich habitats, richer per square metre than the countryside beyond, or even a tropical rainforest, because of their diversity.  Wildlife enjoys all plants, and gains pollen and nectar from exotics as well natives; only sterile double flowers which lack styles and anthers are useless to it.  Wildlife inhabits plants at all heights, trees, climbers and large shrubs; in different stages of its life cycles it inhabits shady, damp, wet, sunny and dry places.    Wildlife ignores fences, and the smallest garden contributes to its welfare.  If you take an aerial view of a town, you see gardens as a series of long green patches, with wildlife moving freely from one to the other.  We may bask in apparent privacy, but our garden is no isolated haven.  It is just part, an invaluable part, of a green network stretching through the country.

The neighbour’s patch may be covered in weeds, but wildlife does not care.  It relishes all that comes its way,  It does not necessarily prefer native plants to imported plants.  By planting both we help enrich the world in a symbiotic relationship with nature.

In the pond the water boatmen skate, and in shallow water frogs make grunting mating songs and lay down frogspawn.  Tadpoles evolve from globules to fish to land animals before our eyes.

Sometimes I feel the cruelty, as creatures stab, kill and eat not just other species but their own – as we do likewise in the name of science, interest, or survival.  At times it seems there is no love or pity, and a garden is far from being a lovesome spot.  Then I become aware of the irrelevance of terms such as cruel, or even lovesome.  We are born to see things from a single point of view, our own.  Looking at the moon over dark water brings a shining path to our feet, and no other’s.    But nevertheless we can at times reach beyond this narrow vision, and through empathy widen its focus like the sun at midday to see the glittering ocean.  We are still here in this world and its glory, and beyond our troubles can feel the ultimate benediction of existence.  We and other creatures are bound in coming and going and becoming, we metamorphose, we feed on each other, give ourselves to be food for others, like the uroborus feeding on its tail, symbol both of the necessary pain of being in this world, and of its unity, and of the necessary sacrifice of the individual, to bring about the richness and basic joy of the whole, and its changing continuity.  Or, in detail, like a page of the Lindisfarne Gospels where elongated beasts devour either themselves or the limbs of others in a pattern of immense and intricate beauty.


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