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Pests - April 2014

Right now my very expensive greenhouse is an unusable play house for field voles. They ate an entire crop of overwintered beetroot in a few days, ate all the bark off three passionfruit plants, and started on the spinach, just the tasty bit at the base of the stems, pooing on the leaves and leaving them, before I cut my losses and emptied the greenhouse. Now the only food source there is some peanut butter with rather a serious sting in the tail. They became so bold that they ran over my feet in broad daylight and sat in the entrances to their holes watching me work. That soon stopped, though, when I went gardening armed.

There are some people who will tell you that there is no such thing as pests, that they are all God's creatures, part of life's rich tapestry. One very posh lady told me that the blackbirds were there before me. Apart from the fact that I doubt a blackbird has a lifespan of over 40 years, it didn't actually compensate me for the loss of my blackcurrants. The trouble I have with this viewpoint is that the wildlife doesn't share. The blackbirds will cheerfully take the entire crop of cherries and not leave even a handful as a thank you for me putting the tree there and tending it. They will also take one peck out of each apple on a tree. There's nothing like growing your own food to show you that we really are in an ecosystem in competition with other species for our very survival. Sure you can leave your veg plot to the wildlife and go to the supermarket, but that's just outsourcing the killing of pests to the farmer.

The other viewpoint on pests is, of course, the 'nuke-em' approach, the attempt to exclude every species from the garden except humans and the chosen plants, along with maybe a bluetit or two for decoration. It's a tempting approach, particularly when the pests are on a winning streak, since humans have such superior weapons, from traps to poisons to guns. However, there is a big drawback to annihilating whole groups of species. The nature of the food web is that the pests will bounce back in numbers far more quickly than the predators. Wipe out all rodents and, at the least, your garden will become uninteresting to owls. Worst case, you can poison the owls by using rodenticide. One pregnant vole is all it takes for the numbers to explode once more with even fewer natural controls. One greenfly can breed hundreds more in a day, while if all insects have been killed by spraying, the predators may not return for the rest of the season.

The best weapon us humans have is our intelligence. The simple 'modern' solutions we are sold, like chemical sprays, are just not very good solutions, except for boosting the profits of chemical companies. Simple barriers work far better. My entire plot is fenced against rabbits. In spring the burgeoning bunny population makes a major attempt to breach the defences, and occasionally succeeds. My labrador is more than happy to deal with the intruders, although he often causes more damage in doing so than the rabbits would. Unfortunately, fencing out the rabbits also fences out the hedgehogs that would eat slugs. However, given a choice between rabbits and slugs, I would choose the latter. They eat less and are easier to catch by torchlight, although admittedly they are less good in a pie.

Enviromesh over brassicas for their entire life will keep out both butterflies and pigeons, and over leeks will also keep out leek moth. Carrot root fly seem a little more enterprising in breaching nets, but can be avoided by simply growing carrots in troughs up on a wall or windowsill. It appears they are not so enterprising as to look up. There's really no need to sow poisons with your seed, as recommended in old-fashioned gardening books.

And voles? The traditional mouse trap does the trick, but only in enclosed spaces where wild birds can't get access. And here comes a weird pest tip, a man's urine (the female variety doesn't do) is useful stuff. It not only deters foxes when sprinkled on the boundary, but poured over the compost keeps rodents out and applied to the greenhouse beds deters the voles. It's also a nitrogen-rich fertiliser and effective compost accelerator, and of course it's free!