Animal crackers

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How rare it is that this column coincides with Christmas Eve, the day when gardeners have a chance to hear the other side of the argument. Today is the day when the animal kingdom is briefly granted the gift of speech, and I have been particularly keen to hear what they are saying. For months now, I have been waging war on them, like many of you who have found that there has been animal war in your gardens, intensifying since Autumn when we all planted next year’s bulbs. Animals used to talk only at midnight but, like every mainstream medium, the Animal Channel has just gone round the clock. Warned in advance, I have bugged the place where animals usually meet, the lowly cattle shed on one side of my garden, which has needed a clear-out for at least 10 years.

I can already report on this morning’s opening address. This year it has fallen to an articulate badger, not one of the old school with ancient Roman connections but one with French relations, a true Monsieur Blaireau. The animal audience knows him as Blair-o and, when he got on his hind legs for the Christmas address, he was played in with a rendering of “Beasts of Europe”, their modernised version of the outdated chant in their favourite book, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

“Fur and feather,” Blair-o began, “You remember the defined Principles of Beast Practice. At every turn, members of the animal kingdom should work to impose the view that they are really just like humans. The struggle is not a struggle between species and classes or history. The spin campaign has had a record year. We are well on the way to victory over humans who do not know what country life is about . . .

“Consider Middle America. Females in childbirth are now being advised to ‘pant like a dog and sniff like a rabbit’”. At this point one of the hares, the respected Blankett, started to make advances to an inviting dormouse.

Blair-o continued: “How hard, too, we in England worked on raising the profile of foxes and ensuring that sentimentalists would stop them being chased by dogs . . . ” At this point, there was a snarl from an old mink in the audience called Skinner who observed that foxes had never been the first choice for fur coats. As far as he knew, he added, they were now being hunted on all sides, both by teenagers armed with snares and rifles and by toffs who had won over a few eagle owls with the promise of free mice and were using the usual foxhounds under a thin pretence of hawking. “Fox hunting will take time,” he went on, “but remember when you thought that ‘animal rights’ were a non-starter and you never believed that we would live to see passports for horses . . . ”

The audience was becoming restive. “TB, TB,“ the stoats started to chant mischievously, “Cull him and get on with it. And then we can go out for the morning kill.” Apparently unruffled, Blair-o reached for his spectacles and disdainfully announced the year’s Animal Awards.

“Fur and feather, this year’s prizes go to those symbols of humanity, books. Winner of the Mopsy Award is Sharon Amos for her eloquent title, Create a Wildlife Friendly Garden. For 40 pages, she rabbits on the general theme of ‘making wildlife feel at home’. Country Living magazine is backing the title. And yet all she discusses are birds and bat boxes and there is not a hint of the mayhem that you rabbits, deer and stray pheasants can cause under cover of dark.

“The height of achievement is a Flopsy. This year’s Flopsy goes to Charles Ryrie and the unthinking mammal’s best friend, the Daily Telegraph. Together, they have issued Wildlife Gardening, a book so deceived by Beast Practice that it is inviting its readers to ‘welcome a multitude of creatures into your borders and beds . . . You need a big garden,’ they tell us innocently, ‘to house a badger’s sett or a fox’s den . . . ’

“They are wonderfully woolly minded,” Blair-o went on. “They describe badgers as ‘gardeners’ friends’ because they eat slugs. They believe you can keep unwanted wildlife out ‘without resorting to poison. For example, you can fence rabbits out . . . ’” Titters of amusement ran through the rabbit contingent, one of whom called for solidarity among animal-diggers.

“The clinching sentences for this year’s Flopsy,” the judge continued, “are that ‘the mammals you attract will depend largely on the size of your garden.’ Plainly, the authors have been brainwashed by stories of Hollywood’s film stars and their love of country life. The crowning advice is that ‘the joy of seeing new visitors take up residence in your garden, will, I promise, be worth it . . . ’

“You and I well know,” Blair-o concluded, “how worthless human promises are. So go out this Christmas and put this winner’s advice into practice.”

At this point, the badger’s eyes narrowed and he gave one final snarl. “Beasts, we must still be vigilant. There is one foe to fur and feather who is still given space in the two-legged press. Throughout the autumn we deceived him, persuading him that it was squirrels who destroyed his seasonal plantings of flower bulbs. Animals, reinforce me in our last remaining struggle with the gardening pages of the Financial Times. Now, finally, I can reveal the campaign’s best-kept secret: that the destroyer of all Lane Fox’s tulips, crocuses and lovingly-distributed spring bulbs was actually myself.” The audience squealed with pleasure. Even old Skinner had to admit that Blair-o had style.

It is all very well for them but this is my dilemma. I have trapped squirrels and made mice fall peacefully asleep but every time I have replanted my hundreds of spring bulbs, the garden has been churned up by the following morning and the culprit now turns out to be a legally protected species. My black-and-white striped visitor has uprooted my biodiversity of alpine plants. He has even roughed up the pansies in the sheltered accommodation of a flowerpot. What do Flopsy and Mopsy suggest I should do? Move to a smaller garden so as not to attract such lovely mammals from the A-list? This evening, I will put out lumps of the two traditionally lethal Christmas dishes, which certainly work well enough on me: reconstituted Norfolk Turkey and lumps of my Oxford college’s historic Christmas pudding. Maybe badgers can digest fruit but does anybody know if they will choke on concealed silver threepenny bits?

Read more gardening articles at www.ft.com/lanefox

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