Through the window I saw a robin on the bird table, two blackbirds underneath, a grey squirrel in the white stemmed birch, four fat pigeons and three pretty doves squabbling on the ground. If we had a pear tree perhaps there would have been a partridge in it. A record-breaking cold spell brought hungry wildlife into our back garden. That’s something to celebrate just a short walk from Edinburgh city centre. Oddly, it added to my sense of loss as we packed to leave our old urban jungle home.
That’s a backward glance. We have finally moved. It was a big decision but a good one given our age and the size of the house we bought against the odds almost half a century ago. Forty six years! How did that happen? It’s right to hand over to a young couple heart-warmingly keen to make this lovable but draughty Victorian building their new home.
But, opening the bedroom shutters every morning, I saw a thriving community – furry and feathered friends, living creatures of many kinds – who had no say in what happens to their habitat when the property changes hands. [The picture above was taken from the bedroom window]
By law, the fabric of our B listed building is protected from changes that might alter the visible ‘character’ of the place. At the front anyway, owners cannot interfere with the public facing appearance of their 19th Century homes (though, fortunately it’s now possible to add ‘B listed approved’ secondary glazing in a 21st Century move towards energy efficiency).
What about the birds and bees?
There is, however, no listed protection for the trees and shrubs which are home to increasingly threatened species of birds, bees and other beasties finding a home in our back garden. Of course, this walled space was not designed as a wildlife sanctuary when the house was built in 1861. The housemaid who looked after the kitchen and scullery would have hung household washing in the ‘backgreen’ and perhaps haggled with the men heaving sacks of black stuff through the back gate.
In those days, no-one feared for the teeming abundance of the natural world. And, it’s true, nature conservation wasn’t a driving concern during our early years here. We cut down mature ash and sycamore trees more suited to woodland and replanted with (now maturing) cherry and birch. A young family makes changing demands on the space at their back door. Admittedly, we had arrived with pre-conceived fancies. I remember the walls of the back garden felt too tight a boundary when we first arrived in December 1976.
We moved unwillingly into the centre of Edinburgh. For a year we had lived high among the calls of wild birds, opening our front door to a windswept landscape of fields and hills. On dark evenings during the first winter in our new city home I would step through the back door followed by our two cats who were missing their hillside freedoms. In place of stars there was a dull urban glow. The soil was black and crumbly like soot, I thought. I imagined I smelt the smoke of ages in the air (there were eleven fireplaces in the house before we started covering some of them up).
A nature reserve at the back door
It took a while before I saw the beauty of the old sandstone walls. Grey, blushed with pink and gold. Black crumbly soil, I discovered, is a feature of our part of Edinburgh, a legacy of the nursery gardens that stood on this site more than 160 years ago.
Spring came. The walled garden warmed with the sun and filled with prams, playpens, swings, climbing frames… Years passed. Our boys grew and left home, the garden filled with plants. Climate changed, confusing seasons, accelerating growth. Then in 2020 the pandemic arrived and the world awoke to the value of nature, to gardens and gardening. Or so it seemed for a while. A robin followed me round the garden during lockdown, singing encouragement. Or so it seemed.
Is that the same robin on the bird table? Probably not. According to the RSPB robins, like other small songbirds, usually live only a couple of years. Some do survive much longer but a cold winter can be a grim reaper. And there are other threats to garden wildlife.
We have seen a sparrow hawk swoop in for the kill outside the kitchen window, foxes stroll nonchalantly up the garden path. But in recent years there’s been a noticeably dwindling variety of birds and butterflies. Starlings and thrushes have disappeared, there are far fewer chaffinches, no greenfinches. Last summer just a handful of house martins wheeling and whirling round the rooftops.
Climate change and the quirks of human choices are a pretty destructive combination and the evidence could be seen from our top floor bedroom windows: summer flowering into winter, cars parked in place of plants at the bottom of most gardens. Global campaigns sound alarms in a new age of mass extinctions – but local gardens can be sanctuaries, instead of parking lots there could be nature reserves at many more back doors.
We closed the front door of our old home for the last time almost a week ago. We left the new owners our best wishes for great happiness in their new home – and full bird feeders by the back door. Along with a fond farewell to the blackbirds who built a nest by our bedroom window.
As house prices rose, gradually the B&Bs round us turned back into private family homes, rooms now full of young people, windows brightly lit at night. As families grew up the prices kept on rising – give or take a little recessionary blip – then something odd began to happen. While property values shot through the roof, occupancy rates dropped through the floor. The more expensive the residence, it seems, the lower the number of people actually living in it. There is no bedroom tax on private properties.knock knock, who’s there?