Nature 2010 February

Patrolling in a dignified procession of one

It’s the second weekend of January when I’m penning this. The snow is still lying deep in many places. Over the lawn where the powdery snow has drifted and accumulated in places it provides some clues as to what has been out and about.

If one can suspend total disbelief that animal behaviour is not radically altered by weather conditions, animal tracks provide one insight into their nocturnal or otherwise unseen habits. There are tracks, some straight and purposeful; from A to B, meanwhile others meander, crisscrossing or even backtracking. Closer examination provides more insights. For example, a fox whose signature track with paw imprints aligned front-to-back had taken the same route to traverse the garden on more than one occasion, but this just one small segment of their very large territory. In one or two places en route, the powdery snow had been scattered when the fox pounced and scraped away to reveal part of a sod beneath. Perhaps the fox had sensed there was food beneath to scavenge.

Very small mammals, too small to hibernate, find it warm enough beneath the snow blanket to forage for food. In contrast, a muntjac disclosed, a hesitant personality, if such is an apposite description, with tracks that describe several shallow arcs, stopping, inspecting and starting frequently. The single track suggests that sadly the there not much to sustain deer here at the moment. The most interesting track is one that does not start on one edge and end on another side of the lawn. A largish bird had emerged from under a hedge which clearly can cope well with powder-snow, not a woodpigeon but a solitary cock pheasant whose presence is betrayed by the frequent but obviously nervous warning croaks largely ineffective but loud enough to draw one to the window to see the bird somewhat pathetically foot-scraping. Later inspection reveals both bold beak-marks and distinctive solid footprints in the snow.

Assuming no repeat of the winters of 1947 or 1963 or even the slightly less severe weather conditions of 1979 or 1982, by the time you read this, lawns will have re-emerged from their arctic blankets. A naturalist’s focus in the garden naturally tends to be drawn to the tree and plants and away from the largely monoculture patch of grass. For a change, focusing on the lawn provides some new insights into garden wildlife. I am reminded of that film of the 1980s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” where a scientist’s invention shrinks his children to the size of small insects who then find themselves having to traverse the length of their garden lawn which has become a hazard-strewn environment comprising fierce beasts and triffid-sized plants. In other words as the lyrics go: ‘It’s a jungle out there’, every bit as dangerous, for those that inhabit it, as the full-size version.

In its natural habitats grass is the ultimate survivor, despite being heavily grazed, cut to the ground, trodden on, frozen solid or burnt to a crisp it has evolved the supreme ability to overcome devastating injury because of its capacity to regenerate from the base of the plant or its roots, to grow faster than and therefore drive out less vigorous plants. Created as lawns swards of grass are surviving on the edge and under stress for increasing periods of the year as our climate becomes more ‘Mediterranean’ in nature.

An interesting consequence of this artificial habitat is the occurrence of ‘fairy rings’. Here the spread of the mushroom mycelia (the equivalent of roots in the fungal world) first results in a diminishment of nutrients by strangling the grass roots. Whilst this first stimulates the grass to grow faster and luxuriantly, ultimately it starves the growth of the grass, turning it brown and killing it off. This is followed by the fungi ‘fruiting’ throwing up a ring of mushrooms. Having used up all the scarce nutrients in situ, the mycelia seeks further nutrient by spreading outwards, equally on all sides and repeating the process with the fairy ring slightly enlarged. Some such rings can easily be as much as 50 or 100 years old.

Cock pheasants visiting gardens in their territories do so more frequently and more confidently in March. Later in spring the male pheasant may be seen escorting one or more female birds but even on their own this escorting behaviour seems embedded in their behaviour. I read somewhere that the way a pheasant promenades across one’s lawn was as PG Wodehouse once described a butler’s habit of ‘patrolling in a dignified procession of one’. Sums the pheasant up very neatly.

One of the more indiscreet visitors to our lawns in February and March is the Green Woodpecker. A distant relative of the Kookaburra it shares with its cousin the desire to announce its presence with a somewhat raucous cackle. A short reconnoitre on a tree is followed by a confident landing on the lawn. Standing uncomfortably upright but with head bowed at an acute angle it starts its search, probing as it goes. Later in March it might tackle one of those small ant nests that appear in the grass, but earlier its prey are any invertebrate which is disturbed by its prodding. Woodpeckers have extremely long and sticky tongues which can articulate and are capable of precise movement which is excellent for dislodging and extracting insects.

Four more birds which flourish on lawns which have been subject to less manicuring are blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and dunnocks all of which will be attracted to the invertebrates a grass sward which also contains a variety of low growing wild flora such as Dog violet, red clover bugle and dare I say plantain, buttercup and dandelion. Unlike suburban gardens we hardly need to introduce these, just manage them so they don’t overwhelm your lawn.