It takes more than a screwdriver to open the lid of our bird box; a steely resolve is also required. Today, as I lifted off the slate roof, I had a feeling I would not find an empty nest. Sadly, I was proved right.
Officially the nesting season ends on 1 August, but I need not have waited beyond the legal date to be doubly sure that the eagles had flown. There had not been much activity around the box for weeks. Although the hawthorn where it hangs bounces all day with finches and tits, a fine covering of cobwebs and leaves had gathered around the blue tits’ springtime chalet.
They say you should clean these boxes early each autumn, to prevent new occupants picking up disease. Our other nest box, overhung by the silver birch, has never seen a brood. For some reason –perhaps because it’s north-facing – it is used simply as an occasional roost rather than a dormitory. I think of it as a Premier Inn rather than a holiday cottage, a handy stopover for any bird that’s been out on the razzle and does not wish the rest of the beech hedge to know the hours it keeps. When opened, this box reveals nothing more than feathers and droppings, suggesting it’s only used for fleeting occupation.
When I looked inside the blue tits’ box, however, there was a springy mattress of moss and fluff, two inches deep. So light it felt weightless, it was now the final resting place of two small chicks that had never made it out. Not looking too closely, I disposed of them quickly, and set about scrubbing. You wonder what it feels like, as a parenting bird, to continue feeding the rest of the brood, with two dead among them. Or perhaps this pair were the last of the family to be nurtured, and for some reason failed to thrive?
Whatever the case, it might explain why this year, unlike before, the blue tits raised only a single brood rather than two. Even so, last year’s box-opening also revealed a sad little corpse. There is a seasonal rhythm to almost everything in the countryside, which some find reassuring, but emptying these nests is one annual chore I’d rather not have to do.
The sparrows and finches have also been having a difficult time. One day their beech hedge offered cover thicker than the Borneo jungle, the next it was being sliced like a loaf, exposing their roosts for everyone to see. As our landscaper arrived, revving a chainsaw, the birds sought refuge elsewhere. It wasn’t an immediate eviction, though. Since the hedge is enormous, and our man has a day job, it’ll be some time before all of it has been shrunk. Temporarily the birds can move in with friends, further down the garden, while working out where to squat next.
We were away when the first of the thinning took place. I got a call to say that he had shorn a couple of feet, but thought it could take a deeper cut. After we’d seen what he had done, we were to let him know how to proceed.
I felt uneasy on the journey home, because one of the first things I loved about the garden was its wildness. The hedge was like a barbarian’s beard, growing richer and deeper with every year. This was no suburban privet or ornamental box (much as I like both). This was a hedge fit for the Borders: too high for any horse to jump, but with plenty of gaps between its fat, gnarled roots for wildlife to use as a haven or pathway.
It would be impossible, not to mention ridiculous, to try to tame our patch completely. A French-style parterre filled with lavender and roses – my ideal of formal perfection – would look as out of place here as a bouncy castle at Balmoral. The mood of the cottage, as well as the garden, comes in large part from this hedge. Its hidden inner labyrinth of branches and boles hints at the history it has seen, while decades’ worth of priceless leaf mould has accumulated at its base, like the mother of all duvets.
“It’ll look terrible for a year or two,” a neighbour warned when we decided that the seven-foot bulges were blocking out too much light, and shrinking the garden by the day. Looking down on them from the loft, you could see that we were being lapped by ever encroaching waves of green. Yet when we saw what the chainsaw had cut away, we were not in the slightest upset. The bared branches were beautiful. With the fretwork of trunks and boughs fully exposed, it was like a living sculpture. Now, one side of the garden is still enjoying summer, while on the other winter has arrived early.
And the landscaper was right: more needed to be lopped, otherwise the summer house would again be engulfed. Now, with two trailer-loads of wood and leaves already removed, he is almost half way through the job. What remains is the section that is almost twice our height, the hardest part of his task.
Already I’m getting cold feet at how much more garden I’ll have to play with. The birds, I suspect, are feeling even chillier, now the wind can ruffle their feathers. For the first few days their consternation was evident, as they hopped and chirruped, bemused at the loss of their old perches. The guilt of this is the worst part of such drastic surgery. Partly to atone for making them homeless, we will be planting a new beech hedge at the top of the garden this autumn, where they’ll soon find a home.
Meanwhile, the row of young copper and green beeches we hoped would one day hide the oil tank are now so dense and lush a barrier, our entire premises are turning into a hymn to the queen of trees. Thanks to the rain, they have put on a foot in the past fortnight. Quietly, as if hoping that we won’t notice, the copper beech by the summer house is gaining strength, dreaming of world domination. We should probably consider renaming the cottage The Beeches, although that might sound confusing, so far from the sea.
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.