Living the Beatrix Potter Life … The Raggedy Ann Garden Gets A Visit From Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin,  Hunka Munka and MK!

I know, I know, you're trying to recall in which of Miss Potter's delightful books the character of "MK" appeared. None of them, actually, so don't worry about it; I'll explain it later. But we've come over all Beatrix Potter chez-Raggedy Ann thanks to the arrival of two delightful nocturnal visitors. Over the last couple of weeks not one, but two, hedgehogs have come into the garden under cover of darkness and munched themselves silly on the seed and suet put out on a ground feeder for the birds.

We've long been getting a wide variety of garden birds to our garden. From common little fellas like sparrows and starlings to more exotic bull and gold finches, we're very lucky that our garden seems to attract a lot of birds. We make an effort, of course. We have lots of hanging feeders and provide a good variety of food from 'wild bird food' and suet to fat balls, niger seeds and mealworms. The latter are dried, of course, although if you really can stand the idea of having the live and wriggling ones stored in a box, the birds apparently love them. But I'm just a little bit squeamish. I love birds, I really do, but if I can drink instant coffee from time to time, they can make do with dried mealworms.

I think it's because of all this food that the hedgehogs have started making nightly visits. I've always loved hedgies. In our old house, which had a long and rambling garden, we used to get a regular visitor. But now, with a much smaller, and less 'wild' garden, we'd see a hedgehog only occasionally. But this year things have changed. First we had just one hedgehog, but now he/she (just how do you tell which is which?) is joined by another. I think they may be a 'couple', since hedgehogs are apparently quite solitary and try to keep out of each other's way, except during the mating season. And female hedgehogs raise the young – properly, if improbably, called "hoglets" (I'm not making this up!) – on her own. According to the Hedgehog Preservation Society website, when they 'get it on’ hedgehogs can be quite noisy, so I imagine should they decide to use our garden as a boudoir, we'll probably know. But it seems our hedgehogs might not be as local as we'd assumed. According to the same webpage, hedgehogs can forage up to 2 miles in a night, so they might not even live in the same suburb!

Last year, it wasn't hedgehogs, but foxes that decided to do their courting in our neighbourhood. One afternoon we stood, astonished, at the upstairs window as two adult foxes got it together beneath the trampoline in our neighbour's garden. Like most areas, we get a lot of foxes and one year had a mother fox and her two cubs playing openly in the back garden one Sunday afternoon. 

But our most common visitors are rodents. A group of voles live beneath the shed and we have several colonies of field mice. The ones under the decking usually get blamed for the destruction of anything remotely edible, or even cosy, that we foolishly leave out in the shed. And I mean anything – from garden netting and fleece, to bird seed and even the rubber-like handles of my girlie pink garden tools  – have ended up either consumed by hungry mice, or worked into the fabric of their nests.   

Sadly, we've had tragic accidents. Like the unfortunate fellow who decided to gnaw his way into the seed sack from the bottom, only to get inside and have the whole lot shift and bury him. Or his fellow rodent who met an even more grisly end (don't worry I won't give you the details) that culminated in a scene reminiscent of Midsommer Mysteries. But that's the thing about nature, and having a wildlife-friendly garden – all that joy is often interspersed with tragedy. Mother Nature can be cruel. And, especially when you have the habit of giving every individual visiting creature its own name.

As a family we don't seem to be able to help ourselves and, to be honest, when describing what's happening out in the garden, it makes it a lot easier to explain which particular creature you're talking about. Rather than "the collared dove that keeps peeping into the kitchen" you have "Bo", as in Bo-Peep. Some of our chosen names are even more obscure; "Trafalgar" the wood pigeon (Trafalgar Square – where the pigeons are!), Custard (a neighbour's cat that had a face that looked like it had been drawn on, named after a cat in the "Rhubarb" cartoon). Then there was "Franklin" the lost racing pigeon that sat rather forlornly on our bird feeder for a few days before either finding his way home, or succumbing to the local sparrowhawk (I prefer to believe the former). He was named after the explorer Sir John Franklin who set out to find the Northwest Passage only to have his ships trapped in ice and his entire crew perish. I told you it was obscure … 

Of course, once you've given a wild animal a name, you've all but adopted it. And it makes it so much harder when the occasional, but inevitable, disaster happens. We've lost countless birds at the talons of the sparrowhawk, and even our own cats have taken out the odd bird. Not, I hasten to add, our current two darlings, who are indoor creatures, their over-adventurous and greedy natures having made them entirely unprepared for life out of doors. But we've always done our best to preserve wildlife. We've banged on the window to scare away the sparrowhawk, and clapped loudly at predatory felines, but sometimes, try as hard as you might, you cannot save every animal.


This, less charming, reality came crashing upon us one long summer. We'd been enjoying watching one particular mouse family from the kitchen window. Sometimes we'd even been able to sit on the stones of the rockery while they foraged or played at our feet. But we began to get another visitor. The mystery character "MK" (I know, you were wondering when I'd get to that) or "Mouse Killer" because, over the course of one summer, he decimated our resident mouse population. On the face of it, he was a rather friendly calico cat.  But eventually he began to take a rather unhealthy (at least for the mice) interest in our rodent population. He would wait for hours, hunched over the entrance to the mice's nest, grabbing and carrying off several mice each day. We went from several adults and adolescents and as many as half a dozen baby mice playing openly on the rockery every evening after tea, to not a single one, or at least not one daring to show its cute furry face. 

We began to despair of ever seeing a mouse again. But last year we had one or two, and this year we've had several more – and we're hopeful that we might return to entire playgrounds of the little things. Why have things changed? Because over the last couple of years we've had yet another regular visitor. This one's called Sam and he's a rather handsome and stately black and white cat. He lives next door but spends much of his time napping on our flowerbeds to avoid the attentions of the livelier young members of his household. You might think that having a second regular feline visitor to our garden would be even more perilous for the field mice but, in fact, it's proved quite the opposite. Because Sam, an impressive a fellow as he is, is not really what you'd call a gym bunny. Oh he can get quite a trot on when he puts his mind to it. When he hears his own back door open at meal times he nips across that lawn and up that fence with great speed and agility. But, when it comes to chasing, and consuming, mice he's really not that fussed. He'll watch, yes, but can't really be bothered to make the effort to pursue. Last week he was spotted dozing not four feet from a feeding wood pigeon. He stirred, looked up, saw the pigeon, sighed and went back to sleep again. So the wildlife's pretty safe under his stewardship. And the thing is, he's such an impressive fellow, that MK and most of the other local felines stay away. They say former poachers make the best gamekeepers, and so it would seem. 

I'm not sure, yet, how Sam feels about hedgehogs, there's  a pricky dilemma  …