Wild, wild West Eleven: Nature, red in tooth and claw, has spilled over into private gardens

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The Independent Online
Notting Hill has become a wilder and more wonderful place since nine o'clock last Monday morning when the quick brown fox jumped over the garden fence and landed at my feet.

It was an astonishing moment for both of us. Something must have scared him into escaping from the garden behind ours, which is hidden from view by a 5ft fence topped with a tangle of clematis, honeysuckle and jasmin; he hurled himself over it like Desert Orchid taking the last jump before the home straight.

As I climbed the steps to the raised terrace below the fence, his long red-brown shape was in mid-descent. Two white forepaws landed only inches away from my feet. Without a second's hesitation, and while I was staggering back in surprise, the fox made another leap over the wall into our next door neighbour's garden, tail streaming out behind him, then a third leap over the 6ft fence parallel to the garden he'd started from.

It was a virtuoso performance of agility and quick thinking. Each leap was from a standing start, as reflexive as the bounce of a rubber ball; thup, thup, thup and away - to safety behind a row of wooden railings, where he paused to look back at me for a cool five seconds before he wriggled through some undergrowth and disappeared.

Though I had heard that foxes were living in the communal gardens on the bosky western slopes of Notting Hill, I never imagined that one of them would cross a couple of streets and go hunting in a household garden in broad daylight. But then, West 11 is becoming very red in tooth and claw - literally so in our back garden.

Two weeks before the day of the fox we were sitting at lunch when my wife, who had a better view of the garden, said she could see an exotic-looking bird on the brick border of a flower bed.

Thinking it might be a jay, I moved slowly and gently round the dining room table to have a look. A flurry of feathers exploded outward from the edge of the flower bed. The bird my wife was pointing at was a hen kestrel - and it was plucking a sparrow only 20ft from where we were sitting.

Within a minute, the kestrel had stripped the feathers away and begun to tear the flesh with her beak, holding the corpse firmly on the brickwork with her talons. After every bite she swivelled her head around suspiciously, alert for any intruders. By now our own meal was pushed aside; I tiptoed away quietly and hurried upstairs to get the binoculars.

Several times the kestrel seemed to glare straight at us. The reflected sunlight on our windows prevented her seeing into the house, though we could look deep into her eyes, their amber irises and black pupils emotionless and unfathomable, filling the lenses of the binoculars with a cold blaze.

As she ate, no birds sang; not a cheep nor a twitter came from the bushes which are usually noisy with sparrows, robins and bluetits, and there was not a blackbird or a pigeon to be seen in the trees or on the rooftops. When she finished, the kestrel flew a couple of yards, perched on the branch of a small pine, took a good look all around, then launched herself into a sickle-winged sprint for the open sky above Holland Park.

It's the proximity of the park, with its fenced-off tangled wildernesses set aside as nature reserves, that creates an overspill of wildlife into the communal and private gardens of West 11, though I suspect the foxes came in along the tracks to Paddington - railway embankments provide perfect cover for itinerant animals.

Even walking to the Underground in West 11 can yield an experience of the natural world you might not see in the countryside in a whole lifetime of looking. In Lonsdale Road last autumn, near Holland Park Station, I watched a heron being forced into low-level evasive action by three rooks, mobbing him like Spitfires attacking a Dornier.

He weaved and dipped and turned to shake off his tormentors. When the rooks tired of their fun, he flapped away south. Herons usually fly in a melancholic, thoughtful sort of way; this one headed for the safety of Holland Park looking positively dejected.

For me, descending toward the uncertainties of the Central Line, his aerobatics had given a lift to the spirit which lasted the rest of the day.

(Photograph omitted)