Category Archives: London Mammals

Well, That’ll Teach Me….

Holy Moly readers, I should remember that when I go away in spring I come back to a garden that needs a machete to hack my way to the shed, but as it’s been three years since I’ve been anywhere I hope I can be forgiven. The whitebeam has sprung into leaf, the hawthorn is laden down with flowers…

The Geranium phaeum (or Dusky Cranesbill) is in full flower…

The Geranium macrorhizum has been flowering for weeks and is now in its full glory…

The Geranium nodosum (are you sensing a theme here?) is so delicate that I currently have it in a pot, but it too is flowering (along with the white Herb Robert that has seeded itself)

And finally, I planted an ornamental dead nettle, Lamium orvala (otherwise known as balm-leaved red dead-nettle) and it promptly looked very unhappy before it disappeared. This year, it’s about eighteen inches tall, covered in flowers and abuzz with bees. Very satisfying.

And here is a new visitor to the garden – I believe that she’s from the next road to us and that her name is Sadie. She was a tiny bit too interested in the frogs, but as the whole pond is currently covered in duckweed (at least until we start removing it tomorrow) they at least have plenty of cover.

A Spring Visitor

Dear Readers, it has been a really lovely couple of days here in East Finchley, and I was delighted to see this handsome boy sitting in the garden when I finished work yesterday. He’d had a little drink in the pond and was now sitting around waiting to see what would happen next.

He was a bit interested in the wood pigeons on the bird feeder, but they’re a bit high for him to reach. He hid behind the rose bush for a while just in case he could surprise one.

Then he had a little dig for fallen bird food and worms…

And then it was time for another look round…

And then the children next door came out to play ball, so he sauntered off, after first investigating one of my pots.

After all these years (nearly twelve years in this house), I still can’t get over spotting foxes in the garden. What a treat! It’s as if a little bit of the wild comes to call every time.

An Exciting Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, there was lots to see in the cemetery on Saturday, most of it centred around the bird life. We were barely through the gates when we noticed this crow, getting stuck into a mystery fruit. At first I thought  it might be a mango, but on balance I’ve decided it was an orange. Who knew that crows had a taste for citrus? I love the way that the crow is keeping the fruit under control with his or her foot.

Normally the crows are pretty shy, but this one was clearly too involved in eating to be put off by me and my camera.

Then, I was looking at the blossom (which is rather fine at the moment) when my husband said ‘what’s that bird with the red head?’

And yes it was a green woodpecker, usually a very elusive bird. This one was digging up ants as if they were going out of fashion – the wet weather has made the soil a bit easier to hammer into. The bird was completely engrossed in its task, but was moving so quickly that it was hard to get a decent shot. Some birds seem to live on a slightly faster timescale than us, and this one definitely did that. If  you look carefully in the video below you can see the bird’s long tongue flickering out to lick up the ants. It looks in some of the photos as if the beak is malformed but the bird looked healthy and was clearly feeding, so hopefully it can still look after itself. It’s a hard life bashing yourself against hard surfaces all day, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t sometimes some collateral damage.

Then we spotted a small panther, clearly watching out for mice or other small rodents.

In the more open part of the cemetery there were several flocks of redwings, probably several hundred in total. They are starting to gather for the flight back north, but it was the first time I’d seen them in such numbers.

Round we go, and here’s another panther – this one is a bit chunkier than the earlier one.

And everywhere, the daffodils and various narcissi have taken over from the crocuses and the snowdrops.

The primroses are coming into their own as well.

And one of my favourite cherry-crabs is almost at the peak of flowering.

And finally, someone has given the lovely Scotsman on Kew Road some new flowers, and some twigs. I think this is probably the finest sculpture in the cemetery, and he never fails to move me, standing there so proud amongst the trees. When he was alive, someone clearly loved him very much.

Spring Is In the Air!

Dear Readers, you might recognise this fox from a few days ago, when I was waxing lyrical about how pretty she was. Sadly, all the local foxes also seem to think that she’s pretty, as the amount of fox-action in my street last night was really something to hear. It started before dark, and at 10 a.m.  this morning I saw three very fine foxes chasing one another up the road. I went to the shed to put out some bird food and yet another fox brushed against my legs as it bolted past. Don’t these critters ever sleep?

My go-to book for information on foxes is ‘Fox-Watching’ by Martin Hemmington, and he has a very useful month-by-month guide to the behaviour of foxes. As I suspected, January is the peak month not only for mating, but also for dispersal of last year’s youngsters from the territory of their parents. All this makes for an extremely noisy and messy month. Both females and males will double-down on marking their territories – the urine of the females will attract the dog foxes, and the males will want to make sure that their boundaries are secure.

Hemmington points out that as most foxes are solo at this point, they use vocal means to communicate. And don’t they just! The ‘scream’ that was once thought to only be made by vixens is actually made by both sexes in order to attract a mate, and all the youngsters will also be trying to find someone to partner up with for the first time. There’s also that ‘contact call’ – around here, it’s usually three barks, but there’s one individual fox that makes four short ‘arf-arf-arf-arf’ calls.

If you aren’t familiar with the sounds made by red foxes (though I suspect most of you already are), you can hear a fine variety of screams and barks in the video below, along with some howling and an occasional owl. I’ve never heard a fox howling around here, but I guess they live so close together that it’s not worth the effort.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPFTEuT3d4I

You don’t get a whole lot of ‘gekkering’ at this time of year – I associate this much more with foxes playing, and January is a serious month. Here’s what it sounds like, though, courtesy of Paul Cecil. There’s also a very interesting article about fox communication in general here.

So, I suspect that I and my neighbours are in for a few more weeks of disturbed sleep, but Hemmington assures us that by later in February the vixens will be pregnant and the males will be taking it easy prior to the birth of the cubs. The gestation period for foxes is 53 days, so if you happen upon any foxes ‘in the act’ you can probably date when the cubs will be born with some accuracy.

I’ve never actually seen any tiny cubs, but I do remember some very lovely gawky youngsters…here’s a selection from St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. And roll on spring!

A Winter Visitor

Dear Readers, after seeing four foxes in the cemetery on Saturday, it should have come as no surprise to see a crepuscular visitor in the garden. This little one was hoovering up the bird food that the starlings had spilt. I have a strong suspicion that she’s a vixen, though I couldn’t have told you how I know – maybe something about her manner. She was more watchful than the dog foxes usually are. Plus, there’s something delicate about her face.

I have, I confess, been throwing out a single handful of dried dog food for the foxes. They usually pass through the garden at one point or another during the evening, and I’m sure they’d find something to eat, but in winter, when the pickings are poorer and when many of the females will be pregnant it seems kind to give them at least something. Some of my neighbours would disagree, I know. The foxes can be loud, and destructive, and can leave delightful offerings of torn up KFC packaging and black, curly droppings. However, not so long ago all of this area was woodland, and before that it was common land. If we are serious about getting on with the other inhabitants of this planet, a little tolerance is surely called for. We have taken away so much, destroyed so much habitat and made it so difficult for everything else that lives around us that giving a little back feels like the least we can do.

Plus, I rather love the foxes. I love their cheekiness, their opportunism, their intelligence and their sheer physical beauty. Life in the city is hard for foxes – most will live for less than a year. I have lost count of how many I have seen run down, or poisoned. Mange kills many. They are our neighbours, but we aren’t always very neighbourly. But for me, seeing them in the garden feels like a privilege, a little taste of the wildness that we have lost in our domesticated lives. They always make my heart beat a little faster.

A Damp Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I was in the mood for a brisk walk on Saturday – the fog had just cleared but it was a damp, dreary day that didn’t really encourage my usual drifting along. So it was not until I reached the ladies ‘convenience’ on the far side of the cemetery that something finally caught my eye. What was this in the corner of the building? Well, it appears to be a group of hibernating harlequin ladybirds (they are much too large to be any other species). I love the way that the ones in the middle have piled on top of one another for warmth. I am slightly surprised that they haven’t woken up yet, what with it being so mild, but maybe they know something that I don’t. There certainly aren’t many greenfly about yet, and as that’s mainly what they eat, maybe it makes sense to snooze on for a little longer.

There was lots of crow activity today – this magpie was throwing the leaves about in much the same way that a blackbird does. I think it gives an indication of how many invertebrates use the leaf litter as a place to spend the winter, and how important it is to leave at least some leaf piles in the garden.

The crows are super-curious, and are always investigating the graves to see if there’s anything edible. I sometimes see them picking up the artificial flowers and then throwing them over their shoulders as if in frustration. This one eventually flew off with what looked like a chrysanthemum flower. Maybe there are some seeds or insects inside. The magpies will also take shiny objects and fly off with them, so the old adage about magpies being ‘collectors’ still seems to hold true.

The first primroses are starting to emerge…

And there are still some rather damp-looking fungi around.

Mystery fungus! All suggestions welcome.

But what does this hogweed think it’s doing? It’s at least four months too early. It was flowering away in splendid isolation, with not a single fly to pollinate it. There were a few winter gnats around, but as far as I know they don’t act as pollinators. This is a high risk strategy, but as the winters get milder, who knows whether early-flowering plants might be the winners in the end?

And finally, we were accosted by this enormous squirrel. I am 99% sure that she is pregnant, rather than just well-cushioned – I noticed squirrel mating behaviour back in December, so although she’s a bit early, she’s not that unusual. I imagine that there’s lots to eat in the cemetery, so let’s hope that she gets enough nutrition to provide for her kits. She looks in excellent condition.

And so it’s back home, to get stuck into the chemistry module of my Open University degree. Studying the Periodic Table reminds me of why I loved chemistry at school – what an elegant and precise way of starting to understand the material world it is! No doubt I shall be waxing lyrical about it soon. For now, I’m just grateful for the way that science provides a way of asking questions about the world that is calm and rational. It feels like just the bracing intellectual exercise that I need.

Sunday Quiz – Aliens!

A Martian in Woking (Photo by Colin Smith ) This is a metal sculpture, based on H G Well’s book ‘The War of the Worlds’

Dear Readers, this week we had Claire with 11 1/2 out of 15 and Fran and Bobby Freelove with 13 1/2 out of 15, so well done to all of you! The next quiz will be tomorrow, and I am wondering why I didn’t have the idea for it ages ago…I hope you enjoy it!

‘Alien’ animals can cause a range of reactions, but the history of how they got to the UK, and what their impact has been, fascinates me. In most cases, they arrived because we wanted them, and didn’t realise quite how keen they’d be to get back to the wild. Sometimes, they were hitchhikers, a result of the international trade in plants and artefacts. Very rarely, they flew here of their own accord and found the conditions to their liking. With climate change, and with our inadequate biosecurity regulations, we are going to have to get used to all manner of plants and animals arriving and setting up home. As always, it will be interesting to see how such encounters play out.

Photo One by Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Edible dormouse (Glis glis)

This attractive little rodent was deliberately released into the wild in 1902 (it comes originally from southern and central Europe). It is considered a menace because it can wreak havoc in lofts and roof spaces, and damages trees by stripping the bark. The Romans used to have special pots for keeping edible dormice until they were fat enough to eat. I must admit I thought that they had brought them to the UK, but it seems that if so they became extinct, and were re-introduced much more recently.

Photo Two by Ryzhkov Sergey, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2. American mink (Neovison vison)

Farmed for their fur, some escaped while others were deliberately released, sometimes by well-meaning animal activists. However, these creatures are efficient predators, and their presence has been linked to the decline of the water vole and various ground-nesting birds. Their numbers might be decreasing slightly as the larger otter becomes more common.

Photo Three by Lilly M, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Sika deer

Originally introduced to populate the grounds of stately homes and estates, the sika was established in the wild by the 1930’s. It interbreeds with native red deer and can cause serious damage to crops, trees and sensitive habitats. There are lots in Dorset, and on our way back from Dorset last week our train nearly ran over two who were on the tracks.

Photo Four by Prue Simmons, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Racoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides)

This animal (which is a canid not a raccoon) was introduced to the UK from East Asia for its fur. it isn’t established in the UK yet, but it is well established in many other parts of Europe so watch this space. Where it has established a foothold, it is a predator of birds and amphibians, and competes with native carnivores such as the fox and badger.

Photo Five by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Ring-necked/rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Did Jimi Hendrix release a pair of these while he was on an acid trip, resulting in the many thousands of birds that are now common in London? It’s more likely that there were escapes and releases from multiple sites over a period of years. At any rate, the parrot is now moving north and west at an inexorable rate. It strips orchards and may compete with other hole-nesting birds, but personally I think that it brings a touch of the exotic to North London.

Photo Six by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788401

6. Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

This medium-sized goose has been breeding in the wild after escaping from wild fowl collections since the early 1800’s, but has increased like billy-o since the 1980’s. It is well-established in the wild in Suffolk and Norfolk, and seems to be going west at a rate of knots. It can cause crop damage and pollute water bodies, but to be honest so can most wildfowl at high concentrations. Plus, to be complaining about pollution of water bodies when there’s so much agricultural and industrial run-off seems a bit hypocritical. Interestingly, they often seem to nest in hollow trees, which is quite a feat for a large aquatic bird.

Photo Seven by By Rhondle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16504721

7. Red-eared terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans)

I was only writing about these animals earlier this week. They can’t breed in the UK (yet) because the winters are still too cold, but individuals can live for up to thirty years, and there seems to be no limit to the number of people prepared to throw their pets into the nearest water body when they get too big. They are voracious predators of amphibians and invertebrates, even taking ducklings when they are tiny.

Photo Eight by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

8. Marsh Frog  (Pelophylax ridibundus)

Deliberately introduced by the end of the 19th century, this chap is also known as the laughing frog because of his loud call. The frog is now well-established in Romney Marsh in Kent, the Somerset levels and the area around Tamworth. The species is apparently becoming more common, so keep an eye open….

Photo Nine by Dieter Florian (To contact the author, ask the uploader or take a look at tauchshop-florian.de.), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Wels catfish (Siluris glanis)

This enormous fish, which can grow to 5 metres long and weigh 300kg, was deliberately introduced as a food fish. Hah! By the 1950’s it was swimming happily in managed stillwaters used by fisheries, and in some deep lowland rivers. It eats anything and everything, from frogs to water voles to ducks, and as you can see, there’s nothing in UK rivers that can outcompete it.

Photo Ten by Liquid Art, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

10. Rainbow Trout (Oncorhyncus mykiss)

The trout that made river fish available to the general public when fish farming really took off in the 1970s in the UK, rainbow trout seem to have problems breeding in the wild in the UK, and are still usually out-competed by the local brown trout. However, climate may be a factor in keeping them in check, and this is changing as we know. Again, watch this space.

Photo Eleven by David Perez, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

11. Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)

Introduced from North America in the 1970s, this crayfish quickly found its way into the wild, and has caused the rapid decline of the native white-clawed crayfish through competition for food and other resources. It also spreads crayfish plague (who knew there was such a thing?) As if that wasn’t enough, it makes its burrows in the banks of water bodies, causing them to collapse, and eats the eggs and young of fish. There is a move afoot to persuade the UK public to eat more crayfish.

Photo Twelve by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

12. Harlequin ladybird

This much-maligned beetle comes originally from Asia, and was deliberately released in Europe as a biological control, presumably against aphids. Sadly, the harlequin ladybird is much more of a generalist predator than that, and when the aphids are gone it will turn its attentions to other insects, including the much smaller native ladybirds. It arrived in the UK in 2004 and made itself very much at home ever since. I think personally that it outcompetes other ladybirds than rather than actually eating them, but that’s anecdotal, based on a couple of years observation of one aphid-infested buddleia.

Photo Thirteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

13. Asian hornet (Vespa volutina)

Oh lord the column inches devoted to this insect! It is true that it eats honeybees, but I suspect that it has been the cause of the death of more European hornets, hoverflies, wasps and native bees than any other creature. It is seen fairly regularly in the Channel Islands now, and I believe it’s also been spotted in Cornwall. It arrived in south-western France in some pots imported from Asia. It’s most likely to be spotted in areas where honeybees are kept, but it is still very unlikely to be seen in most of the UK. It is much darker in colour than our native hornet.

Photo Fourteen by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

14. Horse chestnut leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella)

This is the tiny creature responsible for our horse chestnut leaves become dry and crinkly and dropping off early every year. Little is known about it, except that it arrived as recently as 2002 on some imported plants, and has been spreading north and west ever since. Though it makes the trees look ugly, it doesn’t yet appear to affect their long-term health.

Photo Fifteen by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

15. Oak processionary moth caterpillars (Thaumetopoea processionea)

This little darling appeared in 2006 as a contaminant of imported plants and trees – it’s native to northern France. London appears to be the epicentre of its population at the moment, maybe because of a concentration of oak and hornbeam forest, which it seems to like (our local Coldfall and Cherry Tree woods have both had infestations recently). The insect can be a major defoliator of trees, and its hairs can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation. It can also cause the eradication of populations of innocent caterpillars such as those of the ermine moth (which forms nets in bird cherry and some other trees, but causes no long term harm). Don’t just take a flamethrower to your tree, people!

Photo Credits

Photo One by Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Ryzhkov Sergey, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Lilly M, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by Prue Simmons, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six  By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788401

Photo Seven By Rhondle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16504721

Photo Eight by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by Dieter Florian (To contact the author, ask the uploader or take a look at tauchshop-florian.de.), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by Liquid Art, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eleven by David Perez, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twelve by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Thirteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fourteen by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fifteen by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fostered Felines and an Unexpected Gift (Again)

Willow

Willow

Dear Readers, I am feeling a little under the weather this afternoon (I’m 99% sure it’s not the dreaded Covid-19, so please don’t worry). So, I decided to share this post from 2015 for those of you who haven’t seen it before, and, judging by the popularity of the Bailey post there are plenty of cat lovers out there. So I hope you enjoy it, and normal service will be resumed tomorrow. 

Dear Readers, although I usually write about the wildlife outside my house, today I would like to share some tales with you about the creatures that we actually select as our companions. My husband and I began to foster cats for Cats Protection back in 2008, because for me a house without a pet is not a home, but our garden-less flat wasn’t the best environment for housing a cat permanently. Fostering involves taking cats into your home and looking after them until they are ready to be re-homed. Sometimes the cats that we looked after were sick. Sometimes they were young or vulnerable, and needed some confidence-building. On one occasion we gave sanctuary to a creature who had no idea how to behave around human beings at all (see Snowball below). During our five years of fostering we looked after nearly 80 cats, and learned a lot about non-attachment, about how every cat is different, and how tolerant it was possible to be in the face of feline bodily fluids. We also developed a clear idea of the kind of cat that we’d want to adopt when we eventually had a house with some outside space (and at this point the Universe gave a little chortle). So, here, in no particular order, are some of the cats that were in our care, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months.

Billy

Billy

Billy had suffered a horrible abscess on his head through fighting with another cat – he was a harem-scarum tomcat, a real bruiser. But after being neutered he settled down into home life and would head-butt you so hard when he wanted to be stroked that woe betide your best clothes if you happened to have a mug of tea in your hand. We developed a love for these big male ex-strays, who were so full of character and seemed to want to make the most of their new environment. We were sure that this was the kind of cat that we would eventually adopt.

Snowball

Snowball

Snowball was the most beautiful and most acrobatic cat that we ever fostered. He was pure white, deaf and lethal. If you ventured downstairs in your dressing gown he would pounce from behind cover and rip your bare legs with his needle-sharp claws. As he couldn’t hear your screams he presumably wondered why your mouth was opening and closing while you tried to prise him off. I still bear the scars from making the mistake of reaching out to pet him when he snuggled up next to me on the sofa. We worked with an animal behaviourist to try to reduce his ‘boredom aggression’, but no amount of tiring him out by playing with him would completely eliminate his bad behaviour. Eventually he was adopted, with full disclosure, by a man who didn’t mind wearing Wellington boots over his pyjamas in the morning, which just goes to show that there’s an owner out there for every cat if you wait long enough. When we waved Snowball goodbye it was with tears of relief rather than the usual sadness. I later heard that Snowball had taken to wandering, and was regularly retrieved from locations more than 2 postcodes away from where he lived. I doubt that he made old bones, but I don’t doubt that he lived his life as a semi-wild animal in just the way he chose.

Colette

Colette

Little Colette was rescued from a house fire – in fact the cat carrier in which she was saved was melted like a Salvador Dali painting. She smelled of smoke for days, and also had a brutal flea infection. She made a quick recovery, however, and was soon off to her new home, where hopefully they’d made sure the wiring wasn’t a death-trap.

Felix

Felix

Felix came to us with his little sister Irene, and he was an unmitigated show-stealer. Whenever there was something interesting going on, he was there, and poor Irene was relegated to the sidelines. If she was being stroked, he would barge his way in. If you put down 2 dishes of food, he wanted both of them. It was decided to re-home them separately, and you never saw a happier cat than Irene when her brother went off to his new home.

Galaxy

Galaxy

Galaxy came to us with a terrible throat lesions, an allergic reaction to his vaccinations and a general air of depression. Mother cats who are not vaccinated can pass calicivirus onto their kittens, which leaves them with a lifelong tendency to throat and mouth inflammation. Galaxy’s throat was so painful that there was some talk of putting him to sleep if the situation didn’t improve, and so we spoilt him horribly. He slept on the bed, in spite of his snoring. He got all the best food. We put up with his outrageous flatulence. And, lo and behold, he gradually improved, and was finally (after a year) re-homed with a wonderful lady who gave him venison and wild boar at Christmas, and didn’t mind him sleeping in her potted plants on the patio. He lived for another five years, and was so cherished that he frequently featured on his owner’s Christmas cards.

Honey

Honey

Honey was a most unfortunate-looking cat. She was as round as a beach ball and had a most disapproving expression (not helped by her moustache). However, she was an affectionate cat, and would sit beside you, purring like an idling engine. If you didn’t stroke her, she would reach out with one paw and place it on your arm until you produced the desired caresses. If they stopped, she would pause for a moment and then apologetically reach out again. Eventually she found a home with someone who could see past her unfortunate looks to the characterful creature beneath.

Mocha

Mocha (aka Fat Boy)

Latte

Latte

Mocha and Latte were described to us by the people at the cat shelter as ‘the Cappuccino Kits’ but they arrived as two lively adolescent lunks, with all the social graces of a troop of teddy boys. One afternoon, Latte decided to run up our full-length sitting room curtains, and, before I could stop him, Mocha tried to do the same. Unfortunately, Mocha was twice the weight of Latte and so the entire curtain rail, complete with an enormous chunk of plaster, came out of the wall, leaving a cloud of dust. Suffice to say that they were both in hiding for at least five minutes before they ventured out to inspect the damage.

Lee

Lee

Mork

Mork

And talking of adolescent lunks, Mork and Lee were our two first teenagers, and were a whole heap of trouble. Lee was forever jumping out of open windows, hiding on the top of bookcases and, on one occasion, getting into the washing machine.

Aaargh! Don't try this at home...Lee in the washing machine.

Aaargh! Don’t try this at home…Lee in the washing machine.

Mork was the most affectionate cat we ever had, and the first that would sit on your shoulder while you went about your housework (though he never did learn how to wash up or do anything useful). Mork and Lee were the first cats that we truly fell in love with, and we were heartbroken when they eventually found a wonderful new home. It’s safe to say that we were careful about not becoming too attached in future.

Tabby Kit

Tabby Kit

And this is Tabby, a lynx in miniature. Look at the size of those paws! He grew to be enormous, and was the gentlest kitten we ever looked after, happy to lie in your arms like a baby.

Rosa

Rosa

Rosa and the family

Rosa and the family

Mostly White

Mostly White

Stripey Tail

Stripey Tail

Rosa was the only cat who gave birth to her kittens in our house. And what an event it was! We had prepared several places for the big event, but of course she had her babies squeezed between the bookshelf and the radiator, on the 4th November. On the 5th November there was a Guy Fawkes party in the street, with deafening explosions and shouting and general carry-on, but she stayed firm despite it all. When the kittens first came out from their hiding place after a few weeks, she spent a lot of time trying to corrall them by tapping them with her front feet, like a footballer trying to dribble the ball, but eventually she gave up and let them start to explore. We felt like proud parents, and were most indignant when the shelter folk described them as ‘long-bodied and short-legged’. Harrumph!

Stripey Tail emerging for the first time

Stripey Tail emerging for the first time

Seymour

Seymour

Seymour was another big tom-cat, but he had a condition called Horner’s Syndrome, a condition which makes one eye droop, and is often related to lesions of the nervous system. Hence, he wasn’t expected to have a long life. He spent his first day with us hiding in his covered litter-tray, and it was only after I reached in to stroke him and he started to purr that I realised that he was just frightened and confused. He was always very careful with the many flights of stairs in the flat, and I’m sure that he couldn’t focus properly. As is often the case with the most damaged of cats he was very easy to love, and I was very happy when he was re-homed by someone who knew that his prognosis wasn’t good, but wanted to make his life as happy as it could be.

Which brings me on to Rosie.

Rosie

Rosie

We looked after Rosie when her owners went away on holiday. She was a cat with quite severe disabilities – she couldn’t stand up, and had to be helped to her litter tray a couple of times a day. She would always call and let you know when she wanted to go, which was generally at the human-friendly times of 8.00 am and 6.00 pm. She was a very perky cat, interested in everything that was going on, and loved to sit on the sofa next to you, or to be picked up for a cuddle. She also loved other cats, but they generally knew that there was something wrong with her, and so would avoid her. Until, that is, her owner adopted another little cat who had been through the most horrific abuse I’d ever heard of. He loved Rosie on sight, and would cuddle up with her in her basket – maybe she reminded him of his mother, or maybe he just recognised another cat that wasn’t able to deal with the world around her on her own. At any rate, the two of them were a comfort to one another throughout their lives.

So, dear readers, having read this far, what do you think happened when we finally decided to adopt? Was it a big tough tomcat, full of personality and affection?

Umm, no.

Our last two foster cats were a brother and sister: a big tough tom, and an extremely shy little female cat. The big tough tom was adopted out to Gerrard’s Cross (the richest area in the UK by the way), to a man who owned a stable full of show jumpers, a wood, a stream, and who didn’t mind if his cat wanted to sleep on the bed. This just left the female, who, up to then, had spent her whole time hiding behind the sofa.

John and I wondered who, on earth, would ever adopt a cat who never showed herself. The months went on. Nobody wanted a very ordinary little black and white scaredy cat. And yet, we’d started to notice that she wasn’t such a scaredy cat any more. She liked to be brushed, for just a minute or so at first. Eventually, she would demand to be brushed, and complain when you stopped.

Then, she started to jump on the bed when we were reading at night.The remarkable thing was that she would jump off as soon as we put the lights out, and would never come into the bedroom until she heard us talking.

And finally, she had no interest at all in going out into the garden. In the living room, she would hunt scraps of tissue paper, foil wrappers and invisible microbes, but she was quite content to watch the birds from a window-sill.

We stopped thinking about her in terms of ‘who else will adopt this cat if we don’t?’ and started to realise that, for us, she was ideal. She wouldn’t hunt and kill the creatures in my garden. She respected our sleep time. She didn’t have any strange problems with food. She did rip the sofa to shreds, but then it was old anyway.

So, Gentle Reader, we adopted her, and put away all notions of the cats that we thought we wanted, in favour of the one that we actually did. She is seven years old this year, and gets more outgoing and friendly every day.

Every animal has a personality. If we can understand this with our pets, I wonder why we find it so hard to acknowledge that wild animals might be the same?

Willow. The perfect cat.

Willow. The perfect cat.

 

R.I.P Bailey, King of the Cats

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat in 2017

Dear Readers, a few nights ago Bailey, the King of the Cats, went to sleep for the last time at the fine old age of nineteen years. He has been so much part of our life, and of the lives of many people who lived in the County Roads, that I wanted to pay tribute to him here.

I first met Bailey before we even moved to East Finchley. We were standing on the patio of what was to become our new home when we heard a loud and persistent miaowing issuing from the bushes. Up strode Bailey. He bobbed up for a head scritch, rolled on his back and then marched up to the back door, demanding to be let in. As it  wasn’t yet our house, we decided that this probably wasn’t the best idea, but once we were living there he became a regular visitor.

On one occasion I heard the voice of Bailey’s owner, followed by an all-too familiar wailing.

“Bailey! Come down from there. Don’t make a show of yourself”.

And there was Bailey standing on top of the ten-foot fence at the end of the side return. He had gotten up there, but seemed not to have worked out how he was going to get down. We humans stood and considered what to do. I tried standing on a chair but it wasn’t quite high enough. Fortunately at that point my six foot three inch tall husband arrived home from work, fetched a stepladder and rescued him. Carrying Bailey up the road to his actual house became part of our weekly routine. I think he regarded us as some kind of taxi service for when he was too tired to walk the last hundred yards home.

We soon made friends with Bailey’s actual family (or ‘subjects’ as I’m sure he thought of them). We were in regular contact, as Bailey developed a habit of wandering off. We never fed him, but other people did, and locating him became quite a problem. I am convinced that Bailey never thought of himself as a cat, but as a small furry human being. He would make himself at home on the armchair and watch benignly as I worked. He also loved sitting in the sink, normally (but not always) when there was nothing in it. We learned that what he loved was to drink from a running tap.

Bailey trying to get us to turn the tap on by telepathy.

Finally!

You would not believe that in these photos Bailey was already fifteen years old. He retained his elegant good looks for most of his life, and he was such a popular character on the street that everyone seemed to know his name. Well, you couldn’t really miss an extremely vocal pure-white cat who simply demanded to know who you were and what you could do for him. I had the sense that Bailey always knew what he wanted, and a bit more besides. We found we had a lot in common with Bailey’s owners, and we would probably never have found out how much if Bailey hadn’t ‘introduced’ us. He always seemed preternaturally wise to me.

As the years wore on, Bailey got a bit slower and a bit stiffer, like most of us, but he was still a regular visitor to the garden. The birds never bothered about him, and I never saw him try to catch anything. Other cats scattered at a glance. He would sometimes pay a visit to the garden ‘waterhole’ for all the world like a domestic lion.

Bailey drinking from the pond

He’d always march straight up to the back door and yowl to be let in. If he caught your eye from an upstairs window he would re-double his efforts.

Let me in!

In April this year he paid a visit to the garden. He was clearly a very elderly gentleman, and yet he still announced himself in the usual way,

He was very wobbly on his legs and so we called his ‘Dad’ who came to carry him home. It is so sad to see an animal towards the end of his days, and yet Bailey was a cat who defied pity; he was still the same regal cat that he’d been when we first met him eleven years ago. He loved people, was never happier than when he was plonked down in a patch of sunshine, and seemed to be of the opinion that everything had worked out for the best. He was, as Samuel Johnson said of his beloved cat Hodge, a very fine cat indeed.

R.I.P Bailey. The street is quieter, and much sadder, without you.

 

A Foxy Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Fox and Cubs (Pilosella aurantica)

Dear Readers, our walk in the cemetery today had a distinctly foxy overtone. Firstly, we bumped into my friend A, who told us that she’d seen the fox with the terrible eye injury that we’d both spotted a few months ago – all the fox has now is a pronounced sickle-shaped scar. What a testament to the resilience of wild animals! I honestly thought that the animal was probably doomed, but then the people in the cemetery, both staff and visitors, are very kind folk.  Apparently the fox was very interested in A and tried to steal her carrier bag, but wasn’t at all impressed by the handful of dog biscuits that she threw down – clearly this is a fox with more refined tastes! Anyway, we were both delighted to hear that he’d survived. Here’s a photo that I took when I saw him.

So it seemed very appropriate that the flowers known as fox and cubs (Pilosella auratiacia) were in full flower in many places in the cemetery today too. Otherwise known as orange hawkbit, these are stunning members of the daisy family, and quite made my day. The colour is always stunning, but today it seemed even brighter than usual.

So, what else is happening? Well, the bindweed is opening, and if it wasn’t such a thug I’m sure we’d all love it. A lot of pollinators, such as this hoverfly, are very fond of it too.

This cabbage palm had a spectacular show of flowers, and you could smell its honeyed sweetness from the other side of the path.

The hedge woundwort is in flower. I always think of this as being a most underrated ‘weed’. especially the way that it stands up in such a martial fashion, as if on parade.

There is a tangle of yellow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)…

a blooming of self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)….

an outburst of nipplewort (Lapsana communalis)

and on some of the graves, where the conditions are just right, there’s a carpet of white stonecrop (Sedum album) with its tiny white flowers.

But it’s funny the things that catch the eye. No one would consider sowthistle as the most delicate of flowers, but I was very taken with the tracery on the leaves of this one. Leaf-mining insects get between the layers of the leaf and leave these lacy pathways, without any obvious detriment to the plant. I thought that they were rather beautiful.

But the real excitement came when I dragged my husband along a mowed path beside the stream, while I looked for hoverflies. I had a strong feeling of being watched.

And so I edged my way along in slow motion….

And this curious cub just sat and watched my peculiar slow progress…

..almost as if s/he couldn’t believe all the shenanigans…

..until s/he decided enough was enough, and disappeared into the undergrowth. What a treat, though! And how adorable s/he looks, as if s/he hasn’t quite grown into her ears yet. I always feel such gratitude when I’ve had a close encounter like this with a wild animal. I will be cheered up for the whole week.