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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

George's Gardening Day

There has long been debate among British naturalists about the reasons for a decline in indigenous rare and endangered species.

Loss of habitat appears to provide some explanation, as does the introduction of foreign species that have out-competed native flora and fauna. It is clear, however, that known factors can only account for about thirty percent of the effect that is driving many plants and animals towards extinction.

The only clue is that the rate of decline accelerates in early summer:

It was a pleasant day in early June when George Gardener surveyed the overgrown tangle of plants that he had allowed to take over his garden. He would have liked well tended beds, but, somehow, other commitments always occupied his time. Also, with the British climate being such as it was, days in the autumn, winter and spring had often been rather too cold to work outside, and days later in the summer tended to be too hot.

Today there was warm sunshine with a few patches of puffy, white cloud to filter the sun’s rays. The addition of a gentle breeze made conditions perfect for George’s annual gardening day.

Throughout the land, many like George would also focus their aspirations for the perfect British garden into the next few hours, before their best intentions were once more undermined by a recollection of the physical effort involved and other of life's demands.

George was well prepared, having purchased some new shears and a spade. Experience from the previous year had taught him the importance of correct tools. No implement from the cutlery drawer had proven quite up to the job.

He began to cut a path across the garden, and noted that some of the weeds were rather attractive. Having no knowledge of botany, he was unable to identify those he dug-up as lady’s slipper orchids and Young's helleborine orchids. He continued by shearing away the three-lobed crowfoot and the early gentian.

In his enthusiasm, George failed to notice the black-backed meadow ants and the narrow-headed ants that he crushed underfoot, or the irreparable damage to their nests caused by digging-out the Newman's lady ferns.

George began to sweat from the exertion. He flamboyantly pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow, accidentally swatting a southern damselfly. His roles in the demise of a golden hoverfly and a shrill carder bee were deliberate due to the annoyance caused as they buzzed around his head.

Some plant roots were particularly thick, so George forcefully thrust his spade repeatedly into the ground to sever them. It was just bad luck that one such blow cut a grass snake in half and, another, a slow-worm.

There was no way for George to know that this patch foliage had also contained the only specimens in southern England of the plants on which fed chequered skippers and marsh fritillary butterflies, nor that their clearance was to lead directly to the extinction of both species.

He finally reached the shed at the end of his garden. He opened it and looked inside. It was empty. The infestation of greater mouse-eared bats that he poisoned last year had, thankfully, not returned.

As George paused to rest, he noted next door’s cat in the branches of a tree. He had never liked the animal. The rock he threw missed Tibbles, though unfortunately fatally wounded a song thrush that had alighted on a neighbouring branch.

The second rock also missed the cat, sadly despatching a squirrel. George reflected that the creature was redder in colour than the grey squirrels he normally saw in the local woods.

George inspected the result of all his efforts with satisfaction. No plants remained standing. He would leave those he had cut down or uprooted where they lay as they would compost and provide nutrients for the soil. George was particularly pleased with this ecologically-minded thought as he was tired and not in the mood for further gardening.

‘Mustn’t overdo it,’ he concluded. ‘That’s enough for this year.’

All the plants and animals in italics are either endangered in Britain or thought to be extinct.