Duff Hart-Davis column

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Indy Lifestyle Online
What better than to sit at the end of the garden on a hot evening, glass in hand, and contemplate the state of the season? Officially, I am on rat patrol - for two or three rodents have re-established themselves in the chicken barn, and there is a chance that one will come out into the open to feed under the hopper in the yard below. The .22 is therefore propped against the mulberry tree beside me; but Rosie, our fluffy cat, is also on patrol, and I do not think anything will appear while she is about.

For a while the only noise is that of pigeons cooing in the wood on the escarpment - a marvellously sonorous sound, floating on the warm air. Then comes a different and definitely less soothing brand of Nachtmusik - scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, from close at hand: the sound of donkeys eating a garden table.

There is no point in driving them off or telling them to stop: they have already wrecked the table, and its remains will have to be burnt. By leaning forward, I can see the tips of Hannah's ears flick forward and back as her long, yellow teeth rip fibres from the pine planks. All donkeys seem to have a relish for wood - an appetite which my wife attributes to the fact that they are essentially animals of the desert, where dry, brittle stems form the bulk of their diet.

Beyond the flicking ears lies our vegetable garden, in which caterpillars have taken fearful toll of Brussels sprouts and broccoli plants, shredding leaves to lace. Their population explosion is due, I suspect, to recent extremes of weather - intense heat followed by deluges, producing sauna- type atmospheres. Bombing the plants with Derris dust seems to make little difference, and the only way to save our greens is by constant vigilance: inspect twice daily, and pick the caterpillars off one by one - not a job for anyone who dislikes handling soft, wriggling creatures which are inclined to burst between the fingers.

Farther down the vegetable patch is evidence of an unprecedented outrage: a badger has started using a row of seedling lettuces as its personal latrine. Normally I applaud badgers' cleanly habits: they answer calls of nature well away from their setts, scooping out holes in the earth and accurately depositing their droppings in the bottom. Why one should have chosen to force its way through the sheep netting and have a go in the garden, I cannot say.

Beyond, in the orchard, the bees have had a rotten summer. One colony died out altogether, and two have got so little honey that I have already had to feed them sugar syrup. The single productive hive will yield no more than 10lb or 15lb of honey - a major disappointment.

The same goes for our plums - all shrivelled and disfigured by mould. A hundred yards away, our neighbour's trees are so loaded that he has had to prop them. Pears are even more peculiar: one tree has none, another of the same variety, next to it, about 100.

Yet the Stakhanovite among our fruit trees has been the fig. Perhaps the great heat put it on its mettle: in any case, it has produced its best-ever crop. One day we picked 17 purple-centred monsters, and we are still regularly taking off 10 a morning. The strangest feature of the tree is the way it seems to concentrate its energy on a few fruits at a time: pick the ripest, and the next wave of green ones come on at amazing speed, turning brown almost overnight.

Now the great question is: what will the mushrooms do? The heat must have promoted growth of the mycelium, the fibre-like, subterranean root structure. Next, my books tell me, we need a crash in temperature and more heavy rain. Already we have eaten slices of a king-sized puffball, deliciously fried in bacon fat. Was that faint, mushroomy flavour a taste of things to come?

Movement to my left front: a flicker of russet in the dusk, and there on the summit of the muck-heap is an athletic young fox, eagerly prospecting for any scraps my wife may have put out. He is in luck: his jaws close on the carcase of a chicken and a second later he is cantering away up the paddock with his prize held high. Any minute now the badgers will be leaving their sett at the end of our big field. I just hope that the phantom crapper - whoever it is - will steer clear of my lettuces tonight

A splintering crack brings me back to the present. There is not going to be any need to burn the remains of that table. In a couple more days, the donkeys will have scoffed the whole damned thing.

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