Urban gardener, Cleve West: Deer diary

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The Independent Online

One clear day recently, when the faintest of frosts had failed miserably to get a grip, spring was at the allotment. You only had to shut your eyes and there it was. Narcissi, muscari, cherry blossom - all brought instantly to life by the late afternoon chorus of blackbird, chaffinch and the delicate hysteria of an ever-extending family of long-tailed tits.

Several golf-ball-sized beetroots had been pulled (not the last of a late sowing but the others were now unlikely to come to anything) and I could still taste the ridiculously late raspberry that seemed intent on fruiting until Christmas. The spectre of global warming continues to seduce us with unseasonal pleasures. At least the ground had seen rain - and plenty of it - though still not enough to wash away memories of the summer's drought.

Eyes still shut and more birdsong comes from the trees that line a small stream at the back of the plot. Earlier in the day pheasants were seen poking about (and comically startled both us, and themselves, when fierce thrashing by someone in the undergrowth sent them squawking skyward), but this was different. It sounded like the high-pitched peep of a kingfisher but this seemed unlikely. An initial investigation proved fruitless as the birds, on hearing boots approaching, were quick to vanish.

The stream is a small tributary of the Longford, a 13-mile artificial waterway built during the reign of Charles I in 1638 to bring water from the river Colne to supplement the water supply to Hampton Court Palace. Our stream, running parallel with it, is so overgrown and silted that no fish in its right mind would want to make the journey upstream, let alone kingfishers. Over the seven years since I took on the allotment, much debris has been removed, including asbestos (that was used to shore up the banks), old bicycles and a defunct hand-pump that obviously helped draw water from the stream before mains water to the allotments became available. Clearing much of this junk from behind our greenhouse has been on the back-burner for a while but until now has been way down on the list of things to do.

This unsightly pile proved ideal camouflage and eventually not one but two flashes of electric blue confirmed what I would have previously thought impossible ... two kingfishers were darting among the trees. Dextrously avoiding the thicket of tree branches that form an almost impenetrable barrier, this was too late in the year for a mating ritual, so it had to be a scrap. Kingfishers are extremely territorial and if they don't acquire suitable grounds for feeding before winter they are in danger of starving to death. Territories are governed by the quality of the food source and the number of birds in the area; they can extend between one and five kilometres and must obviously include a stretch of shallow water suitably stocked with fish. A hard winter can affect numbers, as can habitat degradation: they need a suitable bank to excavate a nest hole.

Just when I thought the sighting of the kingfishers had elevated us well beyond our Urban Gardener credentials, the perpetrator that had made so much noise in the undergrowth earlier in the day revealed himself. It turned out to be a handsome stag that had somehow breached the boundary of Bushy Park. It's happened before and can end sadly for the deer if it escapes to the road. Fortunately our gates are kept locked, so until the park's gamekeeper can figure a way of getting it back into the park itself we are being treated with an extraordinary array of wildlife encounters. Having spent many hours on Exmoor during my teenage years trying to get close to wild deer, it seems odd standing face-to-face with a ten-pointer calmly chewing the cud among ramshackle sheds and water butts.

Fellow allotment holders shouldn't worry that they might have another 'pest' to deal with, however. The time we spent watching him, he was more interested in grazing grass paths than carrot tops or brassicas. The only real problem with having an episode of The Natural World played out in front of you is that it prevents you from making use of the holidays and actually getting some work done.

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