Rat, O Rat…

We’ve been tidying up on our allotment, repairing beds, mulching and covering to warm the soil for planting, and identifying where the rats have their nests, ready for some serious clearance work next month. I suspect rats have nests on most plots, so clearing them from our allotment probably just makes space for a different group of rats to move in, and prompts a Spring Progress across the site.

The other day I came across this piece  by that wonderful poet, Christopher Logue, a rather one-sided plea to a rat to leave and ‘visit’ the neighbours’ house:

Rat, O Rat…

never in all my life have I seen
as handsome a rat as you.
Thank you for noticing my potatoes.

O Rat, I am not rich.
I left you a note concerning potatoes,
but I see that I placed it too high
and you could not read it.

O Rat, my wife and I are cursed
with the possession of a large and hungry dog;
it worries us that he might learn your name –
which is forever on our lips.

O Rat, consider my neighbour:
he has eight children (all of them older
and more intelligent than mine)
and if you lived in his house, Rat,

ten good Christians
(if we include his wife)
would sing your praises nightly,
whereas in my house there are only five.

Christopher Logue

I would add sweetcorn, courgettes & peas to the potatoes mentioned – actually everything we might grow to eat.

allotment [winter light]1

In: Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, edited by Jo Shapcott & Matthew Sweeney, 1996/2004, Faber & Faber; London. [pp 13-14]

Meeting Fox

I’d been clearing the compost bins at the back of the allotment, stopped for a while, and was sitting quietly watching the birds feed: Robins, Tits, Sparrows, landing on the Lilac, circling round the feeders, pecking at the seeds, flying off again. Not so the squirrel: straight across the shed roof onto the apple tree, and then balancing on a branch it swung the feeder, scattering seeds. Still, the ground feeders would benefit. I sat watching three Robins perched on different branches of the Lilac on the border of our allotment. They didn’t appear too concerned about each other’s presence. Curious, but I thought Robins were fiercely territorial?  Maybe cold, snow, and hunger temper territorial behaviour?

And then a fox wandered past, looked at me, seemed about to carry on, stopped, sat down, yawned, stared at me, while keeping just the necessary distance to move if need be. Teresa was further down the hill repairing a salad bed; the fleece had collapsed under the weight of snow, and I didn’t want to call out in case I frightened the fox. So we sat together, me drinking tea, the fox watching. It didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to be going anywhere, then simply turned and left, wandering away across the next allotment. I remembered a story a friend told me; how he was sat, half asleep, on a bench in the centre of Brighton one night, nibbling sweets, when he felt a rough tongue licking his fingers. It was a fox. They sat watching each other, the fox in no particular hurry to go anywhere.

It seems the fox, successfully adapting to the margins between urban and rural environments, has an ambivalent status, reflecting our own contradictory and destructive natures, so that, as Wallen has argued, in relation to colonialism, even as a wild animal the red fox reminds us of what we would like to forget-that humans entering nature tend to change it irrevocably […] (Wallen, 2006: 33)


I’m fascinated by fox’s mythic and folkloric aspects; its fluid nature allows for the possibility to dissolve those borders and boundaries that are established around the visible, material world. It’s interesting to note that Wallen sees, [m]oral condemnation of Vulpine intelligence achiev[ing] its fullest development in the Christian tradition (Wallen, 2006: 45).

For the Christian tradition, the fact that fox inhabits the margins, that fox’s knowledge lies underground, beyond human understanding, […] identical with the living power of the earth (Wallen, 2006: 57), is an indication of its inherently evil nature, whereas, for other cultures, this placement allows for a richer, more complex relationship, and Wallen argues that its fluid nature locates fox amongst most primordial chthonic forces of fertility (Wallen, 2006: 60). He suggests that fox’s power has been explored to a greater extent in Asia than anywhere else. Inhabiting the margins introduces uncertainty about the true nature of fox, complicates fox’s position, as Ji Yun observes:
Human beings and physical objects belong to two different categories; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two. The paths of light and darkness never converge; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two. Immortals and demons go different ways; fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two (Chan, 1998: 28 quoted in Wallen, 2006: 63).

Fox disrupts our desire for order and logic, challenging our simplistic division of the world into good and evil.

A dead fox, urban sheep, countryside cowboys

Sheepcote valley

Just back from a brilliant ramble around Sheepcote Valley on the eastern edges of Brighton, an area of chalk downland now undergoing conservation grazing by a flock of ‘urban’ sheep. As we moved down from the ridge into the valley, Paul the ranger almost stumbled over the corpse of a fox, a young male about one or two years old; dead for at least a couple of weeks, it had until recently been covered by snow. He mentioned having heard about a likely lamping expedition 2 or 3 weeks ago, just before the snow fell across the Downs, and only the 2nd such incident in the Valley he knew of in the last 2/3 years.  He turned over the corpse with his feet to check on possible causes of death, saw a large hole in its side, most likely from a rifle shot.

Lamping is a method of night hunting using off-road vehicles with high-powered spotlights, that uses the eyeshine of animals to identify and target them. Spotlights are used because of the tendency for many animals, such as foxes and rabbits, to stare into the light rather than run away, as they would from humans. They are immobilised by the light and are then shot. Importantly, In Britain, while lamping foxes using dogs is now illegal, lamping then shooting is legal. However, no-one can kill a badger in Britain without a licence.

dead fox

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) publish a code of practice for lamping specifically as pest control, carried out with a landowner’s consent:
The night shooting of foxes and ground game is necessary to ensure that damage to game, wildlife, livestock and growing crops is kept at acceptable levels. It is a safe and effective method of control.[…] There are no specific legal restrictions on the night shooting of foxes. Authorised persons may legally carry out this form of fox control. Ensure you comply with previous guidance in this code.

But we also have The Hunting Life, that describes an essentially illegal activity: Lamping with lurchers at night can provide fast action and really get the heart racing […] Lamping with air guns and high-powered rifles at night can be lethal for pest and predator control at longer ranges, and provides great sport for the hunter.

in 2004, a boy of 13 was shot dead in a lamping incident near Totnes, Devon. Subsequently, an investigation by The Independent indicated its widespread illegal use and persecution of wildlife, from blasting at rabbits and hares, more organised deer poaching, to persecution of badgers. The RSPCA described illegal lampers as ‘thugs of the countryside’ and a redneck culture across Britain of people going out into the countryside ‘blasting at anything that moves’. At the 2004 Liberal Democrat conference, a member of a Montgomeryshire hunt explained how lamping was leading to a new type of ‘countryside cowboy’.

Scientific evidence suggests that the fox is not a mass killer, as popularly described, but has an important role to play in countryside ecology, and that fox populations self-regulate without the need for human intervention.

Sheepcote valley lies below the racecourse, on the eastern edge of Brighton, now included in the South Downs National Park, but very much on the urban fringe. It is public land, not private, and anyone taking part in a lamping expedition would have been doing so illegally, Sussex ‘cowboys’ with rifles.

To a Rat

An Epistolary Project

The builders are busily reconstructing the house next door, repairing the devastation the last owner wreaked on his grandmother’s home. Last time we lived near a house in transition, we ended up with rats under the floorboards as they fled the disruption. I note the experience with caution, but judge the lack of food next door would reduce the likelihood of rat infestation. However, we are still intimately acquainted with Rattus Norvegicus on our allotment; we think they nest under our shed; they definitely dig tunnels into our compost bin in winter. They cause a nuisance, but, by digging out the compost & spreading it around the bins, they act as feral compost turners. We then collect & return the scattered peelings & onion skins to the bins, along with soil & leaves.

Humanity’s perpetual battle of attrition with rats came to mind when I read a poem from the…

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Our Winter Garden

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
Theodore Roethke, The Waking. (1951)

With the snow lying there’s nothing else to do but be on the allotment. Yes, we’d gone to fill the bird feeders, see what damage the snow had done to the tunnels, to pull some leeks, unearth the parsnips. But really, just to be there, enjoying the solitude.
Walking up the path, we watched a squirrel removing the top to the Niger seed holder. Where we’d scraped away snow from the soil at the gate, a blackbird followed, rooting around in the leaf litter. Watching the Sparrows, Blue Tits, a Robin feeding, we wondered if the Wrens were surviving the cold.

allotment in the snow [2]

allotment in the snow [3]

Raven courtship

On a rare visit to friends in Malvern this weekend, we went walking across Midsummer Hill Iron Age Hill Fort near British Camp in the Malvern Hills. Coming down from the fort we caught sight of a large bird soaring above. Initially we thought it was a Buzzard, but it was a Raven, soaring, diving & looping in courtship display, the female flying below. I had no idea Ravens were so large, wingspan greater than a Buzzard.

Standing on Midsummer Hill looking towards the Bristol Channel-22.1.11

A fox in the headlights

Friday evening and the snow is still lying thickly. I’m walking past our local park on the way home. A passing car halts a little way ahead of me, headlights illuminating a fox sitting in the middle of the road grooming itself. The fox doesn’t move, just continues to clean its fur. Time passes and eventually the driver sounds the car horn twice. With the second blast of the horn the fox moves. It wanders across the road, disappearing into a garden.