There are a number of crops that these feathered despoilers seem particularly to relish: soft fruit, especially currants and strawberries, outdoor grapes and cherries. Raspberries are not immune but there always seem to be more than enough left over. The prime vegetable targets are peas and over-wintering and seedling brassicas. The worst offender here is the pigeon, a bird which I find hard to love, even as squab pie. The pigeon's communication network must be formidable - leave a row of tender young cabbages unprotected for an hour and you will be playing host to a mob.
I find bullfinches easier to forgive, probably because I live in the middle of a city and they do not trouble me much. They're pretty birds, too, but when food is scarce in winter and early spring they can cause a lot of damage by stripping buds from fruit trees and bushes as well as ornamentals such as Japanese maples.
The vulnerability of any crop is affected greatly by its location. A vegetable patch in a small garden which sees plenty of human comings and goings may escape unscathed whereas the same crops on an allotment or at the bottom of a large country garden may be comprehensively ravaged. So there is sense in growing threatened crops close to the house.
I have a very handsome scarecrow on my allotment, but it is pretty feeble at doing its job. This is a problem common to all the devices which rely on combinations of sight and sound to put the frighteners on the birds. Familiarity rapidly breeds contempt and to retain any menace at all, you need to swop and move them around frequently.
Home-made foil strips, coloured streamers and old tin cans can all be pressed into service and you can add to the general jollity of the scene by buying in a model hawk or cat. Perhaps the best bet of all is a plastic tape called hum or buzz line. Stretched tight over crops it emits an impressive thrumming in the lightest winds. I have never used chemical bird repellents but if they are as good as the ones that claim to banish cats, I'd save your pennies. When it comes to deterring smaller birds - such as sparrows - from attacking newly emerging seedlings, a single thread of black cotton stretched between small sticks just above the garden is amazingly effective.
For full protection, however, netting is the only real bird-proof option - be it a few square feet hung loosely over a couple of sticks or a full blown fruit cage. To exclude all birds, a 3/4in mesh is ideal, though a 4in mesh is sufficient to keep pigeons off winter crops and will not collect falling snow.
Virtually all garden nets are plastics, either knotted, moulded or woven. The stiffer materials are better for rigid structures such as cages, whereas the more flexible stuff is easier to work around informal supports.
It is not that difficult to make your own timber framed fruit cage though you may prefer the convenience of buying a kit, complete with frame, netting and fittings, and the added luxury of an integral door. All will give many years' service if properly erected and maintained, though plastic netting will eventually perish in sunlight.
Its important to repair holes as they appear and keep the net secure at ground level or you will end up with a big bird trap. If you've got yards of vulnerable vegetables and strawberries you may find it worthwhile to erect a low level cage. For these, I recommend the horti-ball, a drilled rubber ball into which you can push bamboo canes or aluminium poles to construct a netting framework to suit. Simpler still is to use a fine plastic netting called Enviromesh which is so lightweight that it can be laid directly over the crops and need only be secured around the edges.
After much procrastination I have finally splashed out on a proper cage for my soft fruit but I'm already beginning to wonder what one is meant to do with 26lbs of redcurrants? Feed them to the birds?
Cage stockists: Knowle Nets 01308 424342 (and Horti-Balls); Agriframes 01342 328644; Two Wests and Elliot 01246 451077. Buzzline and Enviromesh from Agralan 01285 860015
Tom Barber presents Channel 4's Garden Party on FridaysReuse content