Nature & AnimalsPlace & Travel

Confessions of a suburban naturalist

Photo by Jes (Flickr)
Photo by Jes (Flickr)

It’s ironic that, having grown up in the country, my love of nature has most recently been fostered by life in the city.

My suburban garden in Crystal Palace has brought me into greater proximity with wildlife than I ever thought possible. The back garden adjoins other gardens and allotments bordering a pocket of woodland, a residue of the Great North Wood that used to cover the hills south of the capital.

Part of a patchwork of semi-neglected gardens linked by a network of runs and entrance holes, it’s an area that the
local animals treat as their own, a place where they can pursue their interests relatively free of human interference. And yet they’re also there for what people can provide, seeking me out for food, protection and, it’s sometimes seemed, company.

As a result, birds follow me around, some even coming at my whistle. A couple of years ago,
a lone fox cub chose to do his growing up in the garden, joining me at lunchtimes, coming to watch me hang out the washing or cut back the ivy, giving me a rare opportunity to observe the habits and behaviour of a creature famously shy of humans.

Growing up in the country never yielded such experiences. There, the animals tend to keep their distance, presumably having learnt the lessons of millennia trying to co-exist with farming, hunting humans.

I’m a beneficiary of suburban naturalism, a modern phenomenon which is a product of the modern move to the cities. As more of the population gathers in urban settlements and the wild spaces around them shrink, the local animals have also changed their habitats and lifestyles. Foxes are perhaps the best example of this trend, establishing thriving populations in the cities from the mid-twentieth century onwards. And it’s easy to forget that garden birds, now taken as part of the fabric of everyday life, are a recent phenomenon, being essentially woodland and field birds attracted by the dense supply of resources available in back gardens.

To me, this kind of coexistence and relationship between animals and humans enabled by the city is as much a sign of our need for nature as nature’s exploitation of the resources provided by humans. As fewer people farm, more keep pets; while more of us live in the city, more than ever feed the birds.

Now, after nearly a decade in Crystal Palace, I’ve moved to the west country, a little south of where I grew up, impelled by a longing for more nature, more space. I am sure that the rolling hills and fields of the south Cotswolds will fulfill this longing for a bigger, greener landscape. But will it give me the same contact with its non-human inhabitants as my suburban idyll?

The jury’s out.