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20 November 2019updated 04 Aug 2021 9:18am

Winter is coming, and stubborn little field mice are beginning to take up residence in my house

By John Burnside

Every year, at around this time, a few of my closest neighbours come to my house and take up residence. A few slip in through the porch door, some creep through the cracks in the masonry, others still come down the chimney when the fireplace is not in use.

If they are lucky, my sons will find them before the cats do – though in real terms, I have to admit that all luck is relative. Rescued in time, a starling or a dunnock can be re-released into what passes for the wild in these parts, but for the stubborn little field mice, who return again and again, it is a different story. After all, what choice do they have? Winter is coming, and our house is their equivalent to a pied-à-terre in Benidorm.

Having cats was never my idea. I like animals, and I cannot think of a more elegant housemate than a silver tabby. But, through no fault of their own, cats kill birds and other creatures and, up here, on my windy Fife hillside, every wild life is under threat.

To begin with, this is agricultural land – and the ways in which agriculture is conducted today are too business-oriented to involve kindness. Nobody goes out of their way to kill wild birds but nobody thinks twice about doing so if the “need” arises. When a landowner wants to “develop”, nobody is surprised if the peregrine falcons in the local quarry vanish, or if there is a sharp increase in badger mortality; like peregrines, badgers are protected under planning laws and, though anyone with enough power can cheerfully waltz around rural planning regulations, it does no harm to minimise the odds – and poison is cheap.

Most unnecessary deaths happen as collateral damage, however. Herbicides, pesticides, mechanisation, destruction of habitat through endless “improvements” – it’s an old story, all too familiar by now and, at the same time, more or less unchanging, in real terms. The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with my human neighbours, whether they are “good” or “bad” stewards of the land: the problem is systemic. We will not change things by protecting some species, and discounting others. There are plenty of field mice on my hill and, for some, far too many gulls and pigeons, but that’s not the point.

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Not long ago, a wealthy banker moved up here from the City, presumably for a “quiet life” in the countryside; his plans were shattered by a colony of rooks nesting in the trees opposite his new abode and, soon, he was penning angry letters to the local newspaper, demanding that someone come and eliminate these “pests”. To his neighbours, this story was something of a joke, but it also reveals a wider attitude to living things in general. Animals are great – until they mildly inconvenience us.

My sons and I do what we can for the field mice. My eldest has been known to turn his room into a mini-menagerie, with mice and other creatures, some injured, some traumatised, lined up in various containers to recover from their encounters with cats. I think we all know we are on a losing wicket, but we carry on – guiltily, at times. Still, caring for something, even something we ourselves have injured, is excellent discipline for the heart. Compassion expands the imaginative faculty; proximity allows for closer observation. It would be an ill wind that did not blow us some good and, with a little luck, the odd field mouse or dunnock comes through its many trials a little wiser, and more or less unharmed.

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

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This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over