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Finding my inner-Attenborough

A few months ago, a series of probably unconnected events changed the way we see our garden.

A sparrow hawk attacks a starling in the author's garden
Beware your local sparrow hawk!

Someone tried to break into the shed. Someone stole a string of solar-powered outdoor lights that hung on the fence. And one day we found someone on the drive looking into the car.

We invested in CCTV cameras. Quite a few of them. Watching the car, the shed, the gate, the garden. Small devices, connected to the Cloud, motion-sensitive, with night vision, spotlights, and sirens. When something moves, the cameras record and upload to the Cloud. We can watch from our phones, save, edit, shout at intruders, all very exciting.

It took us a while to learn to control the motion sensitivity. The first few days every camera was going off six times a minute whenever there was the slightest breeze. But once we’d learned how to select the area of the view we wanted to watch and ignore trees or bushes and breeze-sensitive items, and once we’d adjusted the positions, everything settled down and we only got a handful of notifications a day that coincided with the kids leaving for school, the postman coming, the kids returning, and our departure and return on the evening stroll. All good.

But the next morning we saw there’d been a notification in the night from one of the cameras pointed at the car. The car itself seemed fine, so we checked the footage. We had to play it twice, but on the second time we saw it, something small, dark, indistinct, and very quick, scuttling across the ground by the backdoor step. It was almost the height of the step, and the speed was impressive. We assumed it was a rat and experienced many emotions.

However, once we’d thought it through, we secured more cameras and positioned them at floor level. If there were rats, then we would be needing traps, but we needed to be sure it was rats first.

Oh, my.

The three additional cameras picked up no rats at all. What we had thought was a rat turned out to be a very speedy hedgehog. But those cameras also picked up birds (which we knew about, but hadn’t photographed before), insects, and a mouse (we’d had one of those before, but only in the house, or so we thought). We turned to the wisdom of the interweb.

We put food out for the hedgehog. Cats ate it. The food for the hedgehog, that is, not the hedgehog itself. We don’t actually have any cats, we just have neighbours who like their cats to crap on our lawn rather than their own.

We constructed a hedgehog feeding station. Cats knocked it over and ate the food again.

We bought a hedgehog feeding station of finer construction. That had the desired effect.

We also put out water, and, whenever we subjected each other to amateur lockdown haircuts, we put out the hair clippings for the birds. The wrens, blue tits, dunnocks, and sparrows particularly appreciated that.

We have recorded starlings and blackbirds in glorious song, sparrows in dramatic flight, bees seemingly obsessed with the camera.

A squirrel pops through the garden each morning between about 04.30 and 05.00, bouncing along, some days west to east, some days east to west, but only in one direction a day.

A family of starlings nested in the ivy. We heard their brood tweeting on a regular basis. Then, one sunny afternoon, we heard an almighty screeching. Rushing out, we saw a blur of feathers and a large bird disappearing into the pear tree. It was not a partridge. The cameras had caught it. A starling had been taken by a sparrowhawk, but our arrival on the scene disturbed it and it let go. We don’t know if the starling survived, or if the sparrowhawk went hungry that day.

But our favourite visitors are the hedgehogs. We think there are three. A female who visits almost every night at between 22.00 and 00.00; a male who visits between 01.30 and 03.00; and an older one (we assume – lower to the ground and slower) of sex undetermined who sometimes trundles in around 04.30. A couple of months ago the male started turning up at the same time as the female, and it all got quite noisy.

We’ve not seen anything we didn’t know was there, and we’ve seen all of these animals before, albeit briefly – the wren only once, the mouse only by way of droppings. But the cameras have caught moments we wouldn’t have seen had we been present, and we’ve saved all the footage, thousands of clips, that, catalogued, show the patterns of behaviour, the cycles and circles, the working together, the predators and prey. We are voyeurs on the ecosystem, and have changed things as we’ve learned. A third of the garden is now left over to weeds and wildflowers to encourage insects and bees. The birds and the hedgehogs eat the insects. The mouse, the hedgehogs, and the slugs, it turns out, eat the dogfood we put down for the hedgehogs. The birds take our hair, freely offered. Though we’ve never found out who took the string of lights, which were not.

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