Sunday, September 19, 2021
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Beware of the cat

Notes from the Sticks: Beware of the cat

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IT’S BEEN very cold here for several weeks, and dry as well. Apparently this is caused by an area of high pressure stubbornly lodged over Northern Europe. (This type of weather system is accompanied by low winds, and if I am reading this article right, that means our windfarms have been practically idle, while the heating we have badly needed has come from gas. Good news for the migrating birds that escaped being poleaxed by turbine blades whirling round at 200mph or more.) 

Thanks to the dry weather the stream at the back of our house is very low, with large areas of stones exposed. A few days ago I was walking through our village and crossed the stream a few hundred yards down. 

My attention was caught by a bird call, and I was pleased to see a dipper (which I wrote about here.) Almost at once I saw a second close by, presumably its mate, and a pair of grey wagtails poking around in the shallow water. Then there was a small movement on the stones, and I focused on a tabby cat crouching with its gaze fixed on one of the dippers. It was so well camouflaged that it was hard for me to see it from the raised viewpoint on the bridge, so I guess it would have been even harder for the birds. While I was gathering my wits and thinking whether to call out to frighten off the birds, they took off anyway, so I was spared a distressing spectacle. I would put good money on that cat being responsible for the disappearance one by one of the brood of ducklings I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. When I wrote about them there were two left but by the next day there was none.

According to the RSPCA there are 8million cats in Britain so I thought I would try to find out a bit about their impact on the bird population. As usual the RSPB comes up trumps with some convoluted logic. On its website it admits that UK cats kill an estimated 27million birds a year, the main victims being house sparrows, blue tits, blackbirds and starlings. It points out correctly that this figure refers only to the fatalities brought home, not those caught elsewhere, so it is almost certainly quite an underestimate. The society then outdoes itself with this statement:

‘Despite the large numbers of birds killed by cats in gardens, there is no clear scientific evidence that such mortality is causing bird populations to decline. This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease or other forms of predation.’

That’s OK then – millions of birds die naturally so it doesn’t matter that cats kill another 27million-plus.

The same sort of argument is used by supporters of windfarms, who admit that birds are being massacred by them but point to the millions killed by cats. That’s far worse, they say, in a classic ‘two wrongs make a right’ case. (They also ignore the fact that the birds killed by turbines are almost always different species from those killed by cats, being larger and rarer.) 

I have never had a cat or wanted one. If I could be certain that my cat was not a hunter I might feel differently but I am not sure that any cat can be relied on not to kill, and I would be most upset if my pet was killing (and worse, toying with) birds, mice and frogs. (I was talking to a friend about this on Friday and she said she had seen a neighbour’s cat take her children’s guinea pig). And yes, I know it is ‘nature’s way’, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I remember in the 1950s my grandparents had cats with bells on their collars to warn birds of their approach but apparently these days this practice is frowned on. The PDSA website says collars can get caught if the cats are exploring or fighting, and choke the animal. It recommends some ways that owners can try to keep birds and other wildlife safe from predatory cats. These include siting bird feeders well away from trees or bushes so that cats cannot creep up unobserved, using a metal pole which cats cannot climb for feeders and keeping cats indoors for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, which is when birds are feeding most actively.

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We have seen the white mallard drake once or twice this week, but Alan was surprised to find him and his mate wandering through woodland a couple of miles from here. I had no idea they roamed so far, but when they all look identical it is impossible to track them. I presume these two are still prospecting for somewhere to nest. 

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I fear that the prolonged cold weather, with frost every night for weeks, may have killed our lovely gunneras. This picture was taken at this time last year (April 17, 2021).

This is yesterday: not a sign of leaves, and it looks as if the marsh marigold to the right has gone too. 

We also had a patch of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) which has not come up this year, but I found some on a roadside the other day. 

At a glance they look like dandelions but the flowers have more definite centres and the stems have sections or scales while dandelion stems are smooth.

The Latin name ‘tussilago’ is derived from tussis, meaning cough, and ago, meaning to act on, and in the past coltsfoot was recommended as a herbal tea to treat respiratory illnesses. However it has been found to contain compounds which could damage the liver, so it is probably best left alone.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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