Fauna


Lately, I’ve been spending insufficient time harvesting and preserving, a little bit of time sowing something for winter, and a great deal of time watching small beasts.

Even a little pot garden is a city in itself, and the compost bin is a tower block. If bustling life is a good indicator for rapid decomposition, it’s absolutely thriving.

Bustling equals a very audible rustling when the lid is opened and thousands of woodlice react to the intrusion. These busy little detritivores seem to do most of the work and as much as I chuck in the level drops by another few inches each week.

They really have the most peculiar charm.  I understand the reasons why us humans might have (relatively) illogical urges to care for big-eyed fluffy kittens but have not been able to pin down why woodlice can elicit similar feelings. I don’t think it’s just me: I learned recently that some people know them as ‘chuggypigs’ – a name that seems imbued with a certain amount of affection.

I could watch them for a long time and – when I have pressing tasks to do – have watched for a very very long time…

Occasionally I am distracted by juicy great worms which, though mostly content to munch away below, sometimes sashay to the surface. Or by the sight of a truly fearsome slug or a spider very keen to get more closely acquainted with the friendly little woodlice. All good signs of a thriving ecosystem.

I have pictures of these bugs too but it has recently been suggested to me that not everyone likes to look at such things and that perhaps one can overdo the slime, defecation and violent death. So I shall resist and hope there is no objection to the quirky little fellows above.

Flowers or something else pretty/ fragrant/otherwise inoffensive next; more death and poo next week.

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Just a quick interlude from a book I recently finished reading. It wasn’t a gardening book by any means, but in one tongue-in-cheek section the author describes the behaviour of a nematode, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, that is parasitic on insects but has a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria. I mention it here because the section refers to gardeners, because the worm is a bit of a gardener itself and because it made me smile.

Isn't it cute? This is a different one: Necator Americanus

H. bacteriophora has taken up farming of sorts.  As it grows, it  nurtures a particular bacteria in its gut. Once it reaches the third of its four juvenile stages, it sets out to find a ‘host’ insect. The worm enters the insect – through an orifice, or by breaking in through the insect body – and makes its wormy way to the insect’s body cavities. When it’s found a nice spot, it ‘plants’ the bacteria (ejecting them by vomiting or defecating, in case you weren’t enjoying this enough.) The released bacteria get to work on replicating – both feeding the growing nematode and killing the host. Once that’s done, our nematode friend gobbles up both its herd of bacteria and the insect corpse that the bacteria have kindly helped digest, before laying eggs so that the whole merry cycle can continue.

Since reading about this process, I’ve also learned that many of the eggs hatch inside the mother nematode, and the youngsters destroy the mother as they grow.

The author concludes: “Such natural means of pest control are preferred to chemicals by many gardeners who pride themselves on their sensitivity.

None of the animals involved in these extraordinary patterns of behaviour has a brain of course. *

*Except perhaps the gardeners”

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  • You may have used the little fellas to combat pests such as Asparagus beetle or weevils.
  • The book is about Caenorhabditis Elegans, which you might find in your compost heap. Elegans is named for its graceful undulating movement, and “lives in tranquil obscurity underground, parasitising nothing, eating only bacteria and slime mould.”
  • Other fascinating trivia on nematodes from the book: “A healthy worm defecates about every 45 seconds all its life.” 80,000 species of nematode are known but there may be 10 or 100 times more. Of the known, one lives in seals’ kidneys and can grow to 40″ long and “three  species can live in the rectum of the American cockroach.”
  • The book is called In the beginning was the worm. Finding the secrets of life in a tiny hermaphrodite, by Andrew Brown. It really isn’t a gardening book. It’s about the decades of study of C. elegans and about the scientists who did the work – work which had a huge impact of modern biology and on the sequencing of the human genome. I loved it: it’s written passionately, bringing in all sorts of different insights, with some wry humour and well-drawn character studies, and some sections of beautiful prose. I think it’s generally accessible, though coincidentally I read the first sections on genetics just after some study on the subject, so I don’t know how I’d have found it before. There are fascinating reflections on what drives scientists; the funding of scientific research; independence of thought, the commercialisation of knowledge and on what it means to be human. All of this makes it a rollicking good yarn despite a long middle section on who did what when, which seemed to lose some focus and structure, as well as some shoddy editing: perhaps there was a rush to get it out after the worm scientists received their Nobel Prize.

I’ve noticed some rather impassioned debate on garden design and criticism in the blogosphere recently.*

So I mused on the nature and purpose of it all. But I only had a spare  minute or so, and spent most of that thinking about how much I like mud and worms. That only left a few seconds to acknowledge that I very much admire beautifully designed gardens that are in tune with their landscape and their history – and those who strive to create them  (while trying not to think ‘yes it’s art, but can I eat it?’). Dear reader, I feared I would not be able to offer any resolution.

But I may have found the answer. I hope the link below offers something to unite everyone: a creation that involves a variety of flowers and edibles, a clever mix of hard and soft landscaping and a good dose of dung. Vitally, it is one which recognises that ‘visual effect is of crucial importance’ and where  ‘competition is intense’:

Actually it seems it may all come down to showing off and getting some.

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* For raging debate try here, here and here. I don’t really want any raging debate. If you’re feeling like that, why not watch the rest of the BBC programme Life, which this clip is from, as an anecdote.  There’s Grebe courtship to bring a tear to your eye, while penguins falling over made me giggle (then feel a bit guilty).

hoverfly

Parakeet (the West London variety)

Parakeet (the West London variety)

Take aim. Fire?

Government advisory body Natural England has just re-classified the ring-necked parakeet, so it can now be killed with a general licence.

Parakeets are relatively recent residents of London, which began significantly increasing in numbers about 40 years ago. Theyoriginally escaped from aviaries or the film set of the African Queen, or were released by sailors, depending what you’d like to believe. They’ve been here longer than me anyway.

They’ve always divided opinion. There is debate about whether they harm other wildlife, such as woodpeckers (stealing their holes), and farmers have been complaining they damage fruit harvests. I think the most vociferous criticism comes from those who don’t appreciate a green screeching alarm call.

Our locals are certainly chatty but they also spend quiet moments in the tree behind us whispering sweet nothings to each other, or mooching about the tree, using their beaks alongside their claws to trace slow somersaults up and down the branches.   I also love seeing a flash of emerald brightening a grey sky, so I’ll only be shooting them with my camera and will be sad if someone else gets their gun out.

Natural England’s decision has been opposed by other groups such as the London Wildlife Trust, who say there is no evidence that the parakeets harm other species. Instead they see it as reflecting misguided attitudes towards ‘non-native’ species.

I feel ambivalent about the rights and wrongs of these controls in general.

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows"

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows"

Crows and magpies can also be shot under a general licence. Magpies are part of the list in an effort to protect declining songbird populations (in contrast, magpie numbers have been increasing). In the same way that parakeets are loathed by some, whether because of screeching or their ‘immigrant’ status, crows and magpies are also extraordinarily unpopular, with a starring role as the villains through centuries of folklore and superstition. But for me, the folklore just adds to the fascination of this family – alongside their startling intelligence, and quirky traits. (For those who still loathe them, I strongly recommend reading ‘Mind of the Raven’ by Bernd Heinrich, a man who has spent many years studying and living alongside ravens. Heinrich has some wonderful insights into their social behaviour – and the close relationships between birds and man that he documents makes it hard not to ascribe human characteristics to these amazing creatures. Also ‘In the company of Crows and Ravens’, by Marzluff and Angell).

I also have questions about the inclusion of these birds on the list – or at least about how they came to be there. Yes, magpies prey on smaller songbirds – that’s what they do and what they always have done. And yes, there is research that shows their presence in an area has an impact on songbird populations.

But what’s the line between the balance nature finds for itself and our interventions?  Population control may be necessary sometimes, but let’s not lose sight of how we got to where we are. Making it easier to shoot magpies or parakeets is a drop in the ocean against the large-scale devastation of songbird habitats caused by man’s spread, and modern farming methods. (Interestingly, I read somewhere that the increase in magpie populations could be explained not so much by the decrease in game-keepers as by the increase in the car – more road-kill equals more magpie food. Either way, it’s us that shifted the balance).

Anyway, I started this post intending to just stick up a picture of a parakeet and say ‘Oh look, parakeets are in the news’. But now that I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, I’d love to know what other gardeners think. After all, most of us garden because of some love of the natural world and get satisfaction out of living in harmony with it. But we go beyond  participation to intervention – deciding what to grow, what to weed, what pests to tolerate. And we take delight in introducing non-native species and encouraging them to thrive. Where do you draw the line?

Disclaimer:  Guess I’m not counting those for whom gardening is just an immaculately manicured lawn and a demonstration of their dominance over the mess of the natural world…

ladybirdfortea

ladyspuider

garden_spider

I began this post near the start of spider-season, then WordPress got arachnophobic and deleted it all. But two weeks later our eight-legged friends are still out in force – and are starting new families too.

gardenspider2

spider and fly

The garden spider’s one of the most visible bugs in British gardens at this time of year – certainly every harvest in my garden involves the inadvertant collection of a fine head-dress of webs.

But while they’re common – and it’s apparently a bumper year – they’re definitely worth a look.

Arinaeus diadematus create the standard fairytale webs – the same that collect drops of dew early in the morning and make hedgerows look like the window displays in Hatton Garden.

Their bodies range from muted greys to glowing ambers, but all have a line of white spots stamped down the middle.

Two weeks ago I watched them sit motionless in the centre of their traps – until something caught and writhed – then they’d dart into action.

The spider on the right hoisted its little package up on a thread and turned it round and round until totally wrapped in silver.

Prey is anything up to the size of bees and butterflies. Once wrapped they’re injected with digestive enzymes and sucked dry until only husks remain.

The table's laid, and dinner is ready

The table's laid, and dinner is ready

Sudden movements can make the spiders retreat out of their webs. I'd read that when alrmed they'll sometimes stridulate - rub their legs together to alarm you - like crickets do - but I couldn't persuade my spiders to perform

Sudden movements can make the spiders retreat out of their webs. I'd read that when alarmed they'll sometimes stridulate - rub their legs together like crickets do - to alarm predators, but I couldn't persuade my spiders to perform

The smaller males lurk at the edge of the dance-floor, then literally risk life and limb to try their luck – strumming the web as they advance towards the centre and shouting “Seriously, would I make all this noise if I were food?”

All the swollen mothers now sat astride their traps are evidence that some made it.

Spider on fennel
Spider on fennel

Full to bursting

Full to bursting

The females are now starting to build eggs sacs which they’ll guard, unfed, until their deaths. All will be quiet until next spring when the miniature spiderlings (and I rejoice so much that this is the actual word) will emerge and build themselves tiny silken parachutes that will carry them far and wide.

inhiding

fangs


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