A walk on the wild side: The best accessories for birds, bugs and other garden guests
PUBLISHED: 08:08 20 August 2020
Lockdown has made pets even more of a priority for many of us, and bugs and birds have also been getting in on the act. Richard Burton looked at some of the accessories designed to keep our visitors happy.
During Lockdown it was pretty much open house at our place for a while. No distancing, strangers in and out and, worse still, it was pretty much 24/7.
How’s that for an opener that grabs the attention?
I should say that none of the above were human. They pretty much comprised three hedgehogs, a blue tit, five chicks, a few squirrels, a menacing cat we assumed had seen the dark side, and more bugs than the cast list of Starship Troopers.
Oh, and what looked like one of those dangerous Asian hornets that, thankfully, came, vibrated around for a bit and buzzed off.
We’ve never been ones for rabbits in runs, hamsters in wheels or fish in tanks. Not when Whipsnade membership gives you the whole Jungle Book and someone else cleans the cages.
In fact, the last time I’d felt so close to living, breathing nature was when I joined a group of volunteers rescuing toads in buckets for a story for the Evening Standard 300 dog years ago.
It meant carrying them across a busy road somewhere north of Stevenage. They risked their lives to hook up in the mating season. I remember because the sub-editors replaced the word horny with amorous when they mentioned toads.
Anyway, back to the future. The hogs came first. Not the three that had been around earlier but one that came close enough to eat the posh dog food we’d put out with me sitting alongside the plate. I dusted off a little wooden house, wrapped it in felt to keep the rain off and shoved it under a hedge.
I even gouged little holes under the fences either side like you’re supposed to so they can move freely. Sod’s Law. I never saw them again.
Then came the blue tits. The hunter-gathering mum would fly inches over our heads 50-60 times an hour back and forth to the limited edition bird box I got when Center Parcs opened in Woburn. I got number 17 of a batch of 60 and six years later it’s what an agent selling it would probably call “full of character”.
The insects all became resident in a bug hotel we built from pallets, logs and old pipes while we were still able to remember what a hotel looked like and I recall thinking it would have made a decent school project, before we forgot what a school looked like.
So, I spent a hot summer stuck at home editing business magazines surrounded by wildlife while sifting accounts of retailers such as Pets at Home recording a sales surge and expert views from the likes of Retail Gazette reporting the effects of pet food stockpiling.
Retail Gazette said that pet supply stores “saw an uplift of almost 50 per cent, as people prepare for lockdown with their fluffy companions. Alternatively, this new surge in pet supplies could be explained by an increase in the number of people actually buying pets, to keep themselves entertained during isolation periods.”
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One survey I read from the US even suggested private equity investors were now finding the animal care sector a tempting bet, partly thanks to this rise in pet ownership.
Pets at Home boss Peter Pritchard estimated that around 17 million of us own either a dog or a cat, while it’s clearly impossible to estimate the numbers owning smaller pets such as birds, fish, reptiles and rodents.
It was clear that animals – real pets or fleeting acquaintances as in my case – were becoming an ever-more important part of home life.
There were serious downsides, of course. Only last week the RSPCA launched an emergency fundraising appeal after rescue teams had been “stretched to their limit” having been forced to care for the pets of older people who are in hospital.
It said it had answered 442,344 calls and dealt with 106,676 incidents between March 24 and August 5 – an average of 790 per day.
But all this activity did open my eyes to the sort of building regulations some people seem to expect when it comes to housing animals. Just check out the snazzy chicken laying nest boxes from Little Peckers of Hatfield to see what I mean.
There’s one outfit called the Posh Shed Company that sells hedgehog houses made from pressure-treated timber with cedar roofing and a pull-out tunnel that forms a ramp to make access easier. Ideal if you’re an endangered species looking for all the help you can get.
Herts-based Coopers of Stortford have a similar quality – if slightly more functional – alternative made from untreated Chinese fir wood.
And Living With Birds features a feeder inside steel bars to deter squirrels.
Yorkshire’s Tom Chambers goes one better by providing “the ultimate avian banquet” which allows up to seven feeding trays or dispensers dangling around a centre pole like a heavy-duty baby mobile.
Germany’s Opossum design have a range of futuristic bird feeders made of white powder-coated stainless steel with matching removable bowls made from – what else – white porcelain
Raymond Kenny, an architect from Galway, who runs the more traditional manufacturer, Cuckoo Garden, explains that our perceptions of bird boxes have grown from mere feeding trays to scale replicas of our own houses. And that often means quality materials.
“The difficulty with most birdhouses made today is that they come from poor quality wood that rots in a very short period of time, or worse still are made from dangerous and hazardous material not safe for the birds,” he says.
“A second difficulty is many bird houses are made in countries with a dry and hot climate not suitable for damper colder climates and therefore have a very short life span. Many householders try to extend the lifetime of the birdhouse by painting it, which is often poorly done and sometimes done with unsuitable and toxic paints.”
The only unwelcome guest was the cat. A menacing tabby who would sit motionless for hours facing the patio doors, just staring in. We went to sleep listening for the sound of breaking glass. We thought he looked like something from a Stephen King novel so called him Steve.
Sinister Steve hung around for about a week until he was accidentally soaked when I got the hose out to spray the roses and he was hiding in the foliage. Just didn’t know he was there. Honestly.
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