Rosemary Goring

After breakfast one bright Sunday, I headed out to the garden. Alan would join me shortly, but first he had to touch up chipped paintwork in the bathroom. Thanks to a rigorous autumn tidy-up, our paint pots are neatly shelved in the garden shed. There are dozens, but I soon found the one decorated with the right colour of drips.

An hour later, while I was filling the badger’s excavated hole, Alan appeared with blue-spotted hands. He said the bathroom didn’t look quite right.

On inspection, I realised I had given him turquoise paint used in another room, not the willow green he needed. Fortunately three coats were required, even had it been the correct shade, but I lost so many miles of moral high ground I thought it would take until Christmas to reclaim them.

In fact, all it required was a fabulous apple crumble, made from the secret wild apple tree, thanks to a gift from our foraging neighbours.

Things could have been worse. There was a time when I could not have ventured as far as the back of the shed. The tins are stacked so high they almost reach the shed roof, where the godfather of garden spiders holds court.

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Hearing me that morning, he shrank into his corner. I didn’t look as I shifted tins close to his web, where he had made himself as small as something that size ever can.

The thought of him falling into my hair or down my collar would once have made it impossible for me to approach. My sister was once in a French restaurant when that happened. Unable to scream, she had to make her way to the bathroom and shake it out of her dress.

On another French holiday, the spiders in her bedroom were so large she could hear them tiptoeing past the headboard in the dark.

These days, thanks to dealing with them on a regular basis, my fears have diminished. Although recent photos of the Duchess of Cambridge with a tarantula in her palm reminded me of how far I still have to go, such a feat is no longer inconceivable.

A friend whose partner had a ginger farm in the Dominican Republic once told me that the grass along the path to their door was crawling with tarantulas. This did not faze her, she said, because they move so slowly. The same cannot be said of garden spiders, but I’d take them over their furry cousins any day.

While getting the paint, I could hear the sheep wheezing in the field. Not long after the adventurous Zwartbles devastated our friends’ garden, they were rounded up and removed. I don’t think the two events were connected, but it’s just possible they were sent to a correction unit.

They were replaced by a flock of Cheviots. Where the Zwartbles had mischief stamped on their foreheads, the sturdy, creamy Cheviots are stolid. They’re a confident bunch, but hard to deflect from their chewing. They also have a fifty-yard stare that is oddly unnerving. I always blink first.

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One day, not long after their arrival, I thought somebody was being throttled, and hurried to the fence to see what was happening. Fortunately, it was just a sheep, grazing and coughing almost simultaneously. It sounded as if it had a 40-a-day habit.

Later that morning, while the sheep were clearing their tubes, there was a distressed creature of another sort to deal with. By the wheelie bins we found a semi-comatose mouse, suspiciously close to the neighbourhood cat’s daily route. One foot feebly twitched when it heard the gravel crunching, and we kept our distance to give it peace.

An hour later, when I went back to check, it was dead. Picking it up by the tail, I put it into the field, where the cat can often be found on sentinel duty by our gate. It was a pretty little thing, pale underneath with big ears. Yet, while I don’t have what it takes to put anything out of its misery, traps would have been set immediately if I’d found it in the house.

A vegetarian friend uses humane mouse-traps, whose occupants can be released unharmed, though presumably traumatised after a night in a cardboard sarcophagus. When she suggested using them in her parents’ scullery, they were sceptical. Once set free in the garden they’d surely be back indoors before dark. Last I heard, she planned to let them loose at Carter Bar, on her way home.

There’s a children’s novel in that, possibly on the lines of The Incredible Journey.

How swiftly your perspective on mice changes. Children’s books are filled with lovable rodents, from Rattie in The Wind in the Willows, to Jill Barklem’s Bramley Hedge series, where a family of Victorian mice live in the bole of a tree, decorated with checked curtains and Welsh dresser. I blame this romantic image for the surge of interest in rural living.

Beatrix Potter was one of the most influential of children’s author-illustrators, but Maggie O’Farrell has recently said that as a child she couldn’t bear to read some of her stories because they were so savage.

I remember having nightmares after hearing The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, with its picture of the hapless Tom Kitten rolled in pastry, to be turned into dinner for predatory rats. Who wouldn’t have been terrified?

Yet youthful affection for literary animals has its limits. Shortly after leaving university, when I rented a cottage on a farm, I learned that mine lay at the front door. I’m happy to encounter mice in the garden, or out in the woods, but closer to home all sentimentality goes. With rats, I don’t even like seeing them outdoors. The sight of one running across the road in the car’s headlights always sends a shiver up my spine.

Alan noticed one bounding across the top of the garden last summer. It was so large he thought it was a squirrel until he saw its rubbery tail.

If the old statistic that you’re never more than a few feet from a rat remains true, doubtless there’s one nearby as I type, possibly even reading this page. That’s fine, but if it ever emigrates from the Great Outdoors, I’d like it to know that the council’s pest control department will be put on high alert.

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