The morning is cold and dark but the orchard is thronged with birds. Moorhens dash from one side to the other; woodpeckers drill the damp ground for worms; fieldfares bounce from hawthorn hedge to apple tree and back again; magpies terrorise all of them. They freeze when the buzzard comes over until, crows and blackbirds having risen up to harass it, its great wings float it away. The red kites are a different matter. They slice through the air like thrown knives, before the other birds have had time to look up. One of the 50 doves that were wheeling above my workshop now lies panting feebly as a kite tires on its bloodied silver breast. All is as it should be.
When I come to let the geese out, I disturb a score of pheasants that taxi away with the intention of taking off, but they are too drunk from eating rotten apples to gain any height. Instead of steering through the trees at the edge of the wood, they tumble down pell mell. The geese, who can’t get off the ground at all, flap their useless wings and jeer loudly at the pheasants. Then they come running to where I will throw down their corn.
I feed the geese well away from their pen, to fool the rats. Yes, I have rats. If you keep birds, you will have rats. A man called Dick will come to put baits out for the rats if I ask him, but I’ve seen wrens flying in and out of the bait boxes, and wood mice and harvest mice newly dead on the garden paths, so Dick’s services have been suspended until and unless the rats make nuisances of themselves. Rats don’t like to live cheek by jowl with mice. Fostering the one should mean holding the other at bay. I do foster my mice in the winter, to the point of creating feeding zones for them in the kitchen cupboards. Not that I mind rats, rural rats, that is. They’re handsome beasts, glossy and carefully groomed, with tiny pearl-pink paws.
Rats are commensal with humans; what this means is they eat at our table. We and rats evolved together, along with a vast community of other commensal creatures. The number of bacteria colonising the human body is greater than the number of human cells that make up that body. What is more we couldn’t do without them. Our frenzied and unremitting struggles to eliminate what we call germs are more likely to make us sick than keep us well. To think that human beings, convinced as they are that they are individuals, are actually elaborate combinations of interacting life forms is strangely gratifying. Dead or alive, we are not alone. Peace on earth; goodwill, not just to all ‘men’ but to all earthlings.
Some such sentiment has inspired my English garden. A bewildered surveyor who ventured forth from Cambridge at the behest of a possible buyer for the Mills recorded a verdict that my garden was ‘neglected’. If it had been, he wouldn’t have been able to penetrate it. Brambles would have snagged him; nettles would have burnt him; overgrown hedges would have stabbed and scratched him. The garden at the Mills is carefully managed to provide year-round habitat for all kinds of earthlings from mycorrhizal fungi to deer, as well as for me. All around my land is green desert; what lies within the boundary hedges — gardens, orchard and wood — is green zoo.
The surveyor thought that my wildlife ponds were ‘water features’ and should be safety-fenced. It would be an intrepid child that could make its way from the village across half a mile or so of plough and through the double-height woven stock fence that surrounds the wood (with three ponds) and the orchard (with two). Newts, toads and frogs freely come and go, and somehow fish manage to breed in every pond. A heron is a regular visitor to all the ponds, and empties them of fish every year, yet every spring there are baby fish swimming in all of them. I reckon they hatch from roe that the heron picks up on its feet. It sometimes stands in the orchard for as much as an hour, watching the molehills for signs of activity. The heron would be our top predator, if it weren’t for the tawny owls that nest in the wood, where no squirrel dares build a drey.
Now, at the winter solstice, in the house every corner of the ceilings houses a dark clot of sleeping ladybirds. Butterflies, small tortoiseshells and peacocks prefer to shelter amid the pleats of the window curtains; they sometimes wake up in the unnaturally warm air, and flutter against the glass, until I gather them up and put them somewhere colder and darker. Few of them will avoid desiccation and emerge as imagoes in the spring, but they will be enough to lay the first eggs and provide the first flush of newborns.
It has been a great privilege to live with these creatures. The ploughland around us is under threat of development; with a thousand houses around it the Mills will no longer be viable as a refuge for wild creatures. The long reprieve will have been worth it in itself, but I can’t resist the thought that, in the way of the many-headed slime mould that is composed of millions of individuals with no brain and yet can travel as a single mass, find food and reach it within minutes, the Mills has its own agenda and will defend itself no matter what. I am happy to think that for 30 years I have been its stooge.