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A chase with consequences

Outdoor Living

LYING IN WAIT  Garden birds that visit bird tables can be easy prey for ferel cats. Pic: Wikimedia Commons/Paul Lucas

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

It was three in the morning when a long, drawn-out and rather hideous wailing came through the partially open window to wake me. I lay in the darkness, listening for any indication as to its origin, but all else was quiet, apart from the steady drip-dripping of moisture from fog-drenched trees and the distant barking of a dog. I must have drifted back to sleep, for it was an hour later that I was startled awake once more as the noise was repeated, this time with an increase in intensity and volume.
At 4.30am I was treated to another, similar solo, and from then on until dawn the sounds came and went with varying frequency.
There was no point just lying there. Bleary eyed, I took my coffee into the chill morning and wandered about the garden making a mental list of chores: prune apple trees; feed currant bushes; mend fence; feed cat...
Feed the cat? But I don’t have a cat, or at least I didn’t. A small black and white one ran across my path and disappeared into the undergrowth. Seconds later an enormous ginger Tom appeared. It stopped to stare at me, then opened its mouth to let out a terrible wail that went on for an impossibly long time.
‘So, it’s you that’s been keeping me awake, is it? Go on, shoo!’ I waved my arms and got a stony glare from Ginger in return before he took off, taking the same route the little female had. As soon as he went another took his place, this one black and white and even larger. When it caught sight of me it hissed like a serpent, flattened itself nearly to the ground and set off to confront Ginger and the female.
This confrontation occurred mere moments later when the female burst from her hiding place into the open and suddenly found herself at my feet. Both Toms ran toward her from slightly different directions, with eyes only for her slender form. Neither appeared to notice the other until they collided and became one in a furious, caterwauling tangle that rolled and bounced among the blackcurrant bushes, scrabbling and biting and shedding tufts of fur galore, all to a fearful and hideous tune.
One must surely kill the other, I thought, and, indeed, the pair of them seemed intent on murder. As the struggle continued the object of their desires slipped away, and I saw, to my amusement, that a fourth cat, this one half grown and obviously no match for the two feral demons, was now at her side.
The truth is, our countryside is overfull of cats. Where they all come from, nobody knows. Some are brought here by people who once found the idea of pet ownership appealing but didn’t readily understand the difficulties domesticated animals inevitably introduce into our lives.
A short drive into a pleasant rural area gives the easy option of abandonment, perhaps with the hope that nice people who love animals will find their pet and take it home with them. This happens with dogs as well as cats, rabbits, various rodents, fish and even birds, many of which fail to adapt to an independent life. Cats, however, are resourceful creatures and efficient predators that learn to get by on a diet of wild animals and birds.
So we had four cats appear as if from nowhere, and if one or more of the Toms have anything to do with it, which by now they undoubtedly have, four will quickly become eight or ten, all of which will require one or more wood mice, shrews and small birds per day in order to keep themselves alive.
Feral cats soon form an infestation. I had been wondering why so many of the thrushes, tits and finches that have been carefully maintained through the long months of winter had abandoned the bird table.
Four cats have thinned the population considerably. True, we have had no problems with mice this year. But were those pretty wood mice really ever a problem? Those we encountered in the woods were always entertaining and the few that found their way into the house were easily trapped.
Estimates as to the number of stray cats in Ireland vary from 200,000 to several times that number. No wonder we are short on songbirds. Various charities work for the betterment of these cats, catching, neutering and releasing them.
Perhaps we could learn something from other countries where destructive invasive species are treated as such.