Saturday, 1 March 2014

Winter Wildlife Protection

Adventures With 007
Wildlife Hotel
      I still have an inflatable boat stored in the roof of the garage. It is a four manner (or womanner or man an womanner - best to be politically correct). It's got an engine and has seen a few interesting adventures:

      My wife and I ran a youth club in our younger days and on one occasion took a group of them to Norfolk for a boating holiday on a houseboat. I wanted to take the inflatable as it was useful for exploring some of the smaller streams and I'd fixed it to a roof-rack borrowed from a mate at work. Anyway, we were heading along Chester Road towards the M6 when there was a funny sort of rending noise and we became aware that something was going on in the road behind.

      "Good God - what's that?" my wife shouted as someone behind beeped urgently on their horn and I slowed down, allowing an extremely low vehicle to pass us in a shower of sparks. There was something about it that looked familiar and it only took a moment to realise it was my boat. This must have been the first time in history that an inflatable boat sledged along the A556 at 60mph on a roof rack. By the time it stopped, the roof rack no longer justified that description but, amazingly, the boat was still intact, so I stuffed it in the back seat on top of three teenagers. The roof rack was consigned to the hedgerow and we continued to Norfolk. I think the teenagers complained, but they were very muffled.

      On another occasion we'd taken it to the Scottish Isle of Arran and I was going out fishing on Lamlash Bay. My wife and I had had a row about something, I can't remember what, and I was furious. She'd dropped me and the boat on the shore and had driven the van off in a huff. I inflated it, fixed the engine and pushed it out into the sea before jumping on with the intention of roaring impressively out into the bay.

      I was in my James Bond era. James had done something to do with boats in one of his early films. I can't remember which one it was but know it was one of the first two hundred because James was still Sean Connery. Anyway, I stood at the stern with John Barry's theme tune occupying my mind,and gave the starter cord a vicious tug. Nothing happened. I tried again and still nothing. Not the slightest splutter. I looked around and realised I was drifting fairly quickly away from my sandy launch site towards some fairly vicious looking rocks and didn't fancy the chances of the boats rubberised hull should it make contact. The theme tune had died away. I tried again with that hint of desperation which doesn't usually disturb James's calm surface. By this time a knot of small boys had assembled to watch and were standing impassively, no doubt hoping for a sinking. Resisting the temptation to tell them to sod off, I tried again. I was sweating profusely and suspect the mist over the sea emanated directly from me.

      One of the boys shouted something and I was about to let them have a mouthful when something about his attitude made me stop.

"What?", I called.

"Turn the fuel on", came sage advice of a ten year old, and that was how I came to be roaring off into the waters of the bay, trying unsuccessfuly to remember a time when that had happened to James.

      This unimpressive start set the scene for the rest of my fishing trip: I don't know whether the boat had made contact with the rocks without me realising but, whatever the cause, it was leaking. I was determined to get my money's worth of fishing and ended up holding the rod with one hand while bailing out with the other. I actually caught a couple of mackerel and whiting but there was so much water in the bottom of the boat that I had to catch them again when I got back to shore; I'd bought an expensive anchor which I couldn't really afford and it got stuck on the bottom. I suppose that's the function of an anchor, but not to the point where, when you decide to pull it in, the boat goes down rather than the anchor comes up. The problem was such that I had to eventually cut the rope and consign the anchor permanently to the deep; when I finally got the boat folded up and ready for the return to our hired cottage, there was no sign of my wife. When she finally got there to pick me up, it was in a van which was changed in appearance - she'd driven it into a ditch and had been towed out by a friendly farmer.This, you might think, put the cap on an unsuccessful day. You'd be wrong. I was so mad about the damage to the van that I loaded the boat and forgot the engine. I only realised it wasn't with us a couple of days later and, of course, when I went to look for it, it wasn't leaning on the harbour wall where I'd left it.

      Arran is (or was - we haven't been there for some time) a pretty quiet place and there was only one policeman and about five police stations. We had to go right round the island until we found the one where he was at (back at the first place we'd tried by the time we caught up), to report the loss of the engine. He then directed us to the marine supplier on the sea front.

      "It'll have been given in to George", he said, and that was the one positive aspect to this episode because, on seeing us, George said "ah, ye'll have come for the engine", disappointingly omitting a "hoots, mon".
Wildlife winter shelter
      And, echoing this disastrous trip, my garden presents a disaster in its own right. This time though, it is intentional. I'm not one of these gardeners obsessed with neatness, and I allow dead growth of the previous summer to last into the following spring before the secateurs are put to work. The thinking behind this lies in the shelter that rotting foliage offers to numerous forms of wildlife. Not only do insects find some cover but there is a knock-on effect when there is a daily forage by the flock of tits and other small birds which see my herbaceous border as their larder, gluttoning on seeds and overwintering insects when many people's gardens are barren wastelands. This, to me, is what the garden is really about - not just a place for my choice of plants and my need for control, but a way to bring a suggestion of our dwindling countryside closer to home.

      Encouraging wildlife isn't just about buying a hedgehog home from the garden centre which comes close to needing a mortgage and lacks only a television aerial, it is about recreating countryside. Very few of these man-made hostelries actually attract the intended targets, it is the pile of bricks or old logs which usually induces residents to move in.
Hydrangea enriched with frost
      The recommended pruning technique for Hydrangea macrophylla is to leave the dead flowers on over winter and remove them to the nearest healthy buds in spring. It's claimed the dead growth protects the buds from severe frosts but whether or not this is true there is certainly protection for insects like ladybirds, so it fits in well with the philosophy of the wild winter border. Having said that, the slowly dying flowers metamorphose from colourful to brown in a pleasing way which prolongs its period of attraction and further justifies being an untidy gardener.

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