Garden fiends or foes

At talks and question times over the years I have heard so many tales of woe but not caused by what you may expect. At first thought it is the insect kingdom who generally get the blame for causing the most garden damage and losses. They are surely culpable of a lot but often it is bigger creatures who are as much to blame. Maybe they are not as numerous but their size makes their depredations far worse, and with many of them it is not the loss of what they steal but the collateral damage they cause in the process.

Mice, in several sizes and shapes and the very similar voles, are doing more harm than you are aware of. You don't believe me; have you never unearthed one of their caches of nuts, shells, seeds and bits of plant? They nibble at such as sweet corn cobs and sunflower heads in the garden and rob almost anything in store. They then urinate and defecate over what they haven't eaten and spread many diseases. (The droppings are brown to black and rice grain size and shape.) Potatoes and other roots may bear the parallel grooved marks of their two small teeth around the part they are attacking. They steal seeds from the ground especially peas and beans and you may blame the germination but the seed was robbed! Voles eat the heads of many flowers which mysteriously disappear and they also build piles of such as strawberries all carefully de-seeded. Obviously a good cat or three will help keep numbers down and traps carefully placed and well baited (I find Xmas cake ideal) thin them quickly if regularly patrolled and reset, poison bait works poorly with mice though. Sticky traps work but are expensive and gruesome. Guards are needed over pea crops especially. I keep my seeds in a dead refrigerator; it's constant conditions are ideal and it's mouse proof.

Rats are far worse as they are bigger, tougher and more voracious. Mice can be kept out with sheet tin but rats can eat and scratch their way through this or almost anything given time. They are far more numerous and closer to you than you realise and have become a serious health problem in many areas. Everything bad about mice is the same but worse with rats and they can destroy a year's work in no time at all. Their urine carries several serious diseases and their droppings which they liberally spread about resemble mouse droppings but are bigger and more like small tubular black olives. They move into compost heaps as the conditions suit them and they love to live under sheds especially chicken sheds or kennels etc. Their holes and runs are noticeable and they often burrow like moles but make larger tunnels. Traps work and again the mechanical ones are better than the sticky. However poison bait works more efficiently with rats and should be used generously and according to instructions!

Rabbits may rarely get into your store but in the garden they can decimate almost everything and do not believe any claims of 'rabbit proof' as hungry rabbits seem to eat almost everything and kill off anything they find they can't consume. They nibble roots down into the ground leaving distinctively big parallel grooves which are sadly also seen where the bark once was on your trees. Their pellets are not awfully offensive or much of a health hazard so could be considered as a generous addition to the compost heap. Trapping, shooting and so on is too sporadic a control to prevent serious damage so permanent netting has to be the answer. It must be at least a couple of feet high and buried at least half as deep to stop them burrowing under. The gates are the weakest points and they can squeeze under a very low one! Arrange a plank to make a ramp so that if any can get in they can run up it and jump out otherwise they may be trapped inside doing more damage for longer. Of course you can net individual beds and use tree guards around trunks and stems but hungry rabbits standing on their back legs can reach nearly three feet or six if they're standing on top of a snow drift!

Squirrels, grey not the red of course, are as bad as rabbits and rats and rob us of our seeds and nuts and damage the bark and stems of our trees. They also steal eggs and fledgling song birds from the nests so are worse than generally perceived. Their usual depredation is stealing nuts which leaves none for us as they take them before they fall and bury them elsewhere. (These can be found buried a finger's depth or so deep in every pocket of soil radiating out from the trunks.) Netting may just stop them if well fitted and if other food sources are easier to come by nearby but like rats they can chew their way in almost anywhere. Traps work occasionally, it is permissible to shoot them and I can vouch that they make a fine meat pie.

Wood pigeons and collared doves are becoming a more common problem in many parts. The wood pigeon is bigger and bluer, the dove smaller, lighter and with a wee ring on it's neck. The dove's do some damage and steal a bit but the pigeons are real terrors. They can reduce pea, bean and brassica crops to stumps and anything else they fancy. They trample plants down as they are heavy walkers and pull up all sorts of plants with a strength that impresses. (They have even pulled my staked netting off to get at the plants underneath.) Heavy duty netting is needed close up around crops because of their strength but they do not 'break into' a fruit or vegetable cage which is a good investment. Individual plants can be protected with galvanised chicken wire guards and these are almost essential for emerging peas! Wire baskets and similar can help keep these and other birds off young succulent plants but become inadequate as the plants get bigger but at least they protect them whilst small and keep the core safe. Glitterbangs and all the other bird scarers only work temporarily as wood pigeons are brazen and often fed by neighbours -who may object to your converting them into dinner.

Magpies do steal things and if those keys, or some other small thing has gone it could be by one of these thieves, Their main damage to the gardener though is they take the eggs and young of many small insectivorous and song birds. As these small birds do us gardeners a lot of good then magpies killing them harms us and we really need to take action and not be sentimental about these increasingly more numerous piebald rats! In country areas they are numerous, as are pheasants which seem to like to eat flowers, and if they weren't so easily scared would do more damage.

Moles may as well be ignored. They are possible to poison or trap but then, soon, another set replaces them. You can put, pump or pour what you like down their runs, they come back. Making noise and vibratory disturbance are temporary measures as they still come back. Mole plants that are supposed to deter them do not work, believe me! They most often cause real problems uprooting new plantings and running along new drills- because these places are moist and attract their food. So water bigger areas not just the planting holes or drills. Secondly use old spokes from bicycle wheels to pin down new plants until they root and to push in along the drill preventing the mole running straight underneath. A greenhouse or coldframe can be made mole proof by embedding galvanised chicken netting deep down in the soil secured to the walls.

Foxes are one of the biggest urban pest problems. Of course they are well known as chicken stealers but they also dig up turf and scratch up bulbs and roots and steal things which they hide or bury for later and occasionally chew at plants and stems. Of the size of a small dog they can be stopped by very good fencing but are nimble and can soon climb over if wanting to badly enough. These are seriously difficult pests to exclude totally from the whole garden but if individual beds can be netted they will probably escape. Hens are best shut in at night, an automatic opening and closing pop hatch is not a difficult DIY task and worth the effort.

And if you think a fox is a bad guest then be glad you don't have badgers. If you do I'm sorry but you must learn to live with them. These creatures have ancestral tracks and territories and there is almost nothing will stop them if they wish to continue. They rip and tear up the turf and vegetables and may also damage trees. You may be best taking up greenhouse cultivation and keeping your precious plants inside. I do not joke these are tough rogues who can do much damage and are impossible to dissuade.

Deer on the other hand are timid if persistent offenders and come in several sizes. All of them are only effectively kept out with secure tall fencing as guarding individual trees is pointless as they can graze to quite a height. Yappy dogs can scare them away and it is said zoo droppings and similar deters them but this is really not so.

Dogs do more than just tearing up and rolling on various plants. The sudden demise of a plant may be from it's being used by a dog or several to mark territory and a consequent overdose of urine. Equally likely to be a dog problem are brown patches on a lawn or turf where a bitch urinates -diluting it with water immediately prevents damage. Your own can be trained to use a convenient corner but those of neighbours will only be stopped with secure fencing and gates.

I referred to cats and birds and their interactions with the gardener at length in another article, Cats & Birds. Cats do little damage directly, other than their droppings, but their habit of chewing leaves can occasionally give an oddly weird crimped effect to leaves unexplainable unless you saw it happening. They detest wet so an automatic sprinkler going off regularly will keep your vegetable bed pristine and productive. The wire baskets, wire netting, cotton thread on sticks etc. used to keep birds off seedbeds and seedlings also prevent cat damage.

Of course the worst creature in terms of damage potential is the primate. Now I don't want to sound like a child hater but it is traditional for children and gardeners to be at odds. I have had my apples stolen, and my strawberries trodden and my branches snapped. Comparing their predations to the like of a flock of rabid foxes is not unfair; kids, brats and bigger b******* cause untold losses all over the country on a daily basis and some serious re-education is needed.

Anyway we ought to be grateful, in Barbados I visited many gardens and the ubiquitous complaint there was about terrible havoc wreaked by tribes of wild green monkeys who eat and enjoy exactly what we do and can get in anywhere we can.......