Wednesday 13 December 2017

A generation lost to the rain

I WOULD not describe myself as a "guerrilla gardener" though I generally approve of their activities. These are well-meaning folk who plant flowers and shrubs and do some tidying in waste places, usually in urban landscapes.

They don't claim any rights to the plots which they tend, however flittingly, and ,in fact, may incur disapproval of some local authority offices. Their objective is to paint some brightness into dismal streetscapes and encourage nature in its struggles, helping insect life to thrive and birds to find food. (I immediately think of one road in the Waterford countryside which many years ago local residents adorned with flowering plants and which bloom year after year.)

Among the "guerrilla" ranks will also be found those who will scatter vegetable seed for whoever passes to help themselves at harvest time. This is me, sort of, though I usually eat the produce.

In a garden whose owner is abroad I planted two short drills of potatoes on St Patrick's Day, as has been a practice begun at my father's knee and continued each year (with the occasional break) wherever I might find myself marooned during my itinerant life.

For several weeks now I have been daily digging out a stalk of spuds for dinner, and they are becoming more bountiful as early peepers drift into the main crop, haphazardly sown. I cannot name them, for once, as the later ones were sprouted in a shopping bag.

Potatoes eat the earth and the sky, as John Stewart Collis, Dublin philosopher, put it, and these have thrived, aided by compost from a local recycling centre.

This garden is a wild place of flowers, tangled old rose bushes, outcrops of berries and waist-high grass species straight from textbook illustrations -- vernals, Yorkshire Fog, fescues, couches, cocksfoot and sages.

There may have been some type of conventional garden here once. Strawberries can turn up in battered corners of old walls, enjoyed by slugs in a year of paradise for them. There are raspberry bushes behind red bricks and rubble. But this year there have been no moths or butterflies and few insects for birds, which as a consequence do not appear to have raised any young.

This is all because of persistent rain. The wettest ever June has morphed into a July of downpours and coolness. This followed a cold and wet April-May, a bad beginning for migrant birds as breeding time began. The vital 90 days or so for nest-building and fledging has now been rained out.

There have been nesting failures among all species, while a glut of snails inch unmolested with no song thrushes to eat them. Many scoopers of insects such as swifts and swallows have given up. Youngsters have starved, eggs have been dumped (a recognised phenomenon), because of food shortage.

Some species such as tits, chats and pipits struggle and rebuild battered homes, occasionally for the fourth time.

Last week, one ornithological expert said: "This is the worst breeding season ever. It has been a very depressing year." But some birds will endure. Put out some seeds and nuts, loosen up some earth. A blackbird comes to search where I have prised out potatoes. There are earth worms. He's a survivor.

Sunday Independent

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