Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Turning over an old leaf

Over the last few centuries the woods, fields and parklands of this great country of ours have faced wave after wave of animal invaders.
Close in the wake of the Romans came the glis glis, a plump edible dormouse barely distinguishable from the domestic guinea pig, which still roams the Chiltern Hills in Hertfordshire, terrorising all who stand in its path.
The Romans also introduced edible snails, and to this day you can find their ancestors (the snails', not the Romans', silly) sunning themselves on limestone walls. They're a protected species, despite (or perhaps because of) being edible, and as they soak up the sun they give the air of knowing, in some slimy invertebrate sense, that they have the backing of the full panoply of the law.
Just touch us, they seem to be saying as they wiggle their beady little eyes, and we'll have English Nature on your case faster than you can say "garlic butter".
Move on quietly, gentle reader. Who wants to eat snails anyway?
Then there's the grey squirrel, a cheeky sort of chap whose penchant for schnarfing up nuts in our parks and forests has gradually edged his redder, but less bumptious, cousin into smaller and smaller environmental niches.
There's the feral mink, an escapologist by trade whose fine glossy coat belies its appetite for native fish and riverside mammals. If this were the Wind In The Willows, the mink would be best mates with the stoats and the weasels.
(By the way: how do you tell a stoat from a weasel? Well, a weasel is weaselly recognised because a stoat is stoatally different. Sorry.)
That's not the end of it. Muntjac deer, red-necked wallabies, zanders and asian topmouth gudgeon have made their homes in our hedgerows, moors and streams. And if you suggest to them for one minute that they've got silly made-up names, they'll have your guts for garters.
And if you believe some people, England's green and pleasant land also plays host to bigger beasts: pumas, leopards, lynxes and lions have all allegedly been sighted in recent years. Usually from afar, it must be said, and just after closing time. So it's hard to tell how many of these sightings are genuine. But at least you can identify a lynx by the pong of aftershave that wafts after it.
But now a new invasive force has reached our towns, parks and gardens. Not this time of sentient beings, but of inanimate machines, in the shape of the common or garden leaf blower.
But are leaf blowers really machines? Consider the evidence. The leaf blower is clearly a close relation of the greater alpine snow blower, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the lesser spotted bouncy castle pumper-upper.
It has a distinctive mating call which has been likened by zoologists to the sound you might get if you sat Hattie Jacques on a moped and pointed her up Widcombe Hill.
It has a questing snout for tracking its prey, and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with humanity.
Animal or machine? You decide.
And does anyone know what leaf blowers are actually meant to do?
Because for starters, they don't seem to work very well.
Take a walk in the park over the next week or two and you'll be sure to see one in its natural state, puffing away as it garners its hoard of winter supplies and orders its golden treasure into tidy piles.
But it's pretty inefficient: it only ever seems to blow two or three leaves at a time, and as soon as it gets a big enough pile together, the wind blows them all away. Plus it converts two-stroke fuel to greenhouse gases at a speed which suggests it cares little for the fate of the Arctic ice sheet.
No, it's an invader, and not a friendly one. So if we want to clean up leaves (not that we really do – at least not this weekend, might do it next weekend, have to see...) then we have perfectly good native tools in the shape of the broom and rake. Sturdy, reliable and definitely inanimate, these traditional denizens of the English garden deserve our protection.
Before it gets too late.
This post was first published in The Bath Chronicle on Thursday November 13 2008.

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