An invasion of pesky critters can wreck a vegetable patch or a prized lawn. Continuing her series about gardeningi; professionals, Helen Chappell meets a pest controller
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"Don't follow me," says the man in the Aran jumper, tip-toeing through the tulips. "They've been here again, you see. Look at my roses? And the holly! Do be careful about treading on the crocuses, won't you?" I am teetering across the flower bed, brow furrowed, buttocks clenched, avoiding contact with green shoots of any kind. At my side, Bruce Sherriff, garden pest hunter, stops suddenly and narrows his eyes. "Dear," he breathes, dropping to a crouch beside a leafless and ratty-looking shrub. "Only got one set of teeth, so they tear off the bark in strips. Very messy. Rabbits cut neatly. Easy to tell these are muntjac. Hopped over the fence."

The muntjac, I am relieved to hear, is no slavering yellow-eyed moose monster, lurking in the undergrowth and waiting to charge at us. It is in fact a tiny delicate creature, with legs like Bambi and the melting eyes of Tony Blair. This is the sort of knowledge which Bruce, seasoned hunter of the feral deer, rabbit, fox, squirrel and mole in the back gardens of Hertfordshire, has at his fingertips. He has been called to this garden near Knebworth by Hugh, the distraught owner. Hugh may enjoy life in a 17th century stone mansion surrounded by gentle English pasture but he is beset by ravenous furries of all descriptions. He has moles in his lawn, deer in his shrubs and even bats in his Jacobean attic. His hopes of creating a showpiece garden are fading fast. "It's so depressing," he says. "The only things that don't get eaten are viburnums and cotoneasters. You can't fill a whole garden with those, can you?"

Bruce is not defeated. He knows exactly what to do. In a day or so he will return, armed with guns, cage traps, poison, gas pellets and/or a selection of pointed sticks. Only last week he shot 17 rabbits from up a tree in a two acre back garden (after turning off the burglar alarm and security gates so as not to frighten his neighbours). We can't waste time on past glories, however. Bruce is striding back to his jeep and I am sprinting to keep up with him. At the end of the road, the local hunt thunders past, hooves clopping, red jackets bobbing up and down.

Bowling down the road toward the next job. Bruce is telling me how misunderstood is the profession to which he belongs. He is only interested in keeping the balance of nature. "People see us out working and ask us what we're doing. When we explain that we're ferreting rabbits or shooting foxes, they say, 'You murderers! The animals have a right to live.' Or they tell us that farmers and gardeners can afford the damage." What such sentimental souls fail to realise, complains Bruce, is that if numbers are not controlled, the furry hordes would soon eat themselves - as well as us - out of house, home and shrubbery. It's all a question of ecology.

The jeep lurches to stop at the end of a country lane. A rabbit zips across our path and disappears into a hedgerow. Bruce bounces out, struggling into an official-looking fluorescent yellow jacket. "Flying golf balls," he explains, "it keeps you visible." Feeling invisible in charcoal grey, I resolve to stick close to his side. Bruce doesn't just look after gardens, it seems. He also relieves farms, forests and golf clubs of their unwanted visitors. We strike out for the gates of a semi-rural golf course which is apparently being attacked by delinquent moles. There may also be foxes, badgers and rabbits. "The little devils come out at night and dig up the greens," says Bruce. At the gate we meet the golf course manager, also in fluorescent yellow. Strolling down the fairway on a sunny spring afternoon, it's hard to spot any sign of the invasion. We stop to let a trio of old ladies trundle past us, motorised golf bags buzzing along after them. "Shhhh!" commands Bruce suddenly. We all freeze. But there is no sharp- toothed predator in sight. "She's going to take a swing," hisses the golf course boss. The old lady cracks the ball.

At the top of a hill we enter the shade of a small copse. Surely no one would mind a few foxes hanging out in here? Only the desperate golfer would end up thrashing about in this undergrowth. But Bruce is dashing on ahead - he has obviously spotted something. We lose sight of him. A moment later, there he is - kneeling in the mud with his head down a large hole. "Badger," he is muttering. "If it was fox you would smell it. They dig latrines. Look at these paw prints." Badgers, it seems, also give themselves away by leaving piles of dead leaves beside their holes to dry off for night-time bedding. "As they're protected we just have to frighten them off," says Bruce, emerging from his hole. "It's illegal even to pour something smelly down the burrow."

He also has to be diplomatic with foxes at this time of year. They often have litters of cubs with them and people don't like to think of such pretty creatures stopping a bullet. Even the police sometimes treat his work with suspicion. "We were out shooting foxes on some farmland in the pitch dark one night. We had a light .22 rifle set up on the roof of the jeep, all lined up on the target with infra red sight. Suddenly we were lit up with this blinding searchlight. A police helicopter was hovering over us, wondering what we were up to." He always tips off the local cops when guns are involved, of course.

Then there are the people on the wrong side of the law. He recalls a hair-raising chase across a field in the dead of night, his jeep being rammed by a vanload of furious gun-toting "long-doggers" - poachers who hunt with lurcher dogs. He had stumbled across them by accident. And there are badger-baiters with pit bulls and nets who come up from London and can turn very nasty if discovered. "That's why I have to be discreet," says Bruce, striding briskly back over the green in the direction of his jeep. "There's no sense in starting a war."

On the road again, the scenery changes from woods and fields to housing estates. Neat back gardens flash past us, each tiny lawn threatened by invisible moles, each rose bush a magnet for feral deer, each dustbin an open invitation to suburban foxes. There's no real need to bump them off in a built-up area, says Bruce. "They don't do much damage here because there's plenty of food about. But some gardeners still want me to kill off everything that moves and turn their back garden into a fortress - squirrels, jays, magpies, moles - the lot." He gives such people a lofty lecture on ecology and how terrible it is for harmless creatures to die from poison. That (along with a huge estimate of the final bill) usually does the trick. In his own garden, he refuses to kill anything except magpies. They steal the eggs from the other birds' nests.

To prove his point, we turn into the driveway of a tiny cottage behind a mock Tudor pub. "Home for lunch," he announces, bounding from the driving seat and into the garden. There are certainly no traps in the flower beds here, no gun emplacements on the lawn. Inside his pin neat house, though, they do seem to be rather a lot of dead animals. A freshly-shot rabbit and a pheasant hang together on the kitchen wall, ready for the pot. A kangaroo skin and a hartebeest hide decorate the living room carpet. "I go big game hunting on my holidays," he explains. "Shot that in Africa on safari and the roo in Australia. I've shot wild boar in Scotland and moose in Newfoundland." Moles on golf courses and foxes in dustbins must seem pretty tame by comparison.

Still, there's no point in dreaming of an heroic life in big game hunting when there are bills to pay. Bruce lives alone and is totally self-supporting. This afternoon he will be inspecting a timber plantation ravaged by roe deer. And another keen gardener nearby has a plague of rabbits to defeat. Ginger the cat pops in through the cat flap for his Whiskas Supermeat. Bruce clears a space among the deer skulls, hooves and antlers littering the dining table. He presents me with a freshly-toasted deer sandwich and bites into one himself. "Tell me what you think of that." he says. I manage a couple of bites before the sight of so many dead eye sockets and severed legs gets to me. Bruce and Ginger look on with calm acceptance, munching absently. !