Spay it ain’t so … Imagine only two more decades of feline company. Photograph: Petr Bonek/Alamy
More people than ever before took part this weekend in what is surely the world’s largest piece of citizen science. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch has been going since 1979, providing ecologists with a vast set of data about British wildlife (7 million birds were counted in 2014 alone).
I have recently moved to a place with the kind of garden that the naturalist Mark Cocker describes as a coffin: towering leylandii framing a close-cropped lawn behind a concrete terrace filled with other exotic plants of little use to native bird species. Until this weekend I had been so focused on hacking away at non-native conifers to make the garden more wildlife-friendly that I’d barely noticed the creatures that already live here.
The first thing I saw during my watch was a dirty white cat pouncing on two collared doves, which it chased into a magnolia tree. This didn’t bode well, but the next hour was full of small revelations. I saw how the ebb and flow of birds was dictated by predators. There wasn’t anything as spectacular as when a sparrowhawk downed a wood pigeon and ate it alive on my lawn, but there were more twitchy chaffinches and long-tailed tits than I had previously realised.
Best of all, my birdwatch loitering enabled me to meet my neighbours for the first time, who helped explain the lifeless character of my garden: there is, apparently, a population of nearly 40 feral cats in the neighbourhood, at least seven of which regularly patrol my patch. The RSPB advises its many cat-loving members that a collar with a bell can cut small bird predation by 41%, but I would struggle to collar the feral cats.
My neighbour has gone one better and had most of them neutered, which set me fantasising about what would happen if we neutered our entire cat population. Imagine only two more decades of feline company. As cat senility set in, birdsong would gradually fill the air while tamarin monkeys and other unsuitable alternatives gambolled in our gardens. The economy would be boosted by the trade in lucrative cat longevity potions and finally, in 2042, we would wallow in the heart-wrenching final days of Mog, the last cat in Britain, who would be given a state funeral and a send-off worthy of Princess Diana.
Bring on the Arctic blast
If the garden birdwatch is one sign that spring is on its way, there are others: rooks rebuilding their nests (not yet), and marsh fritillary caterpillars emerging from hibernation (yesterday). Snowdrops and catkins are more obvious indicators, as is the lovely see-sawing call of the great tit, a sound indelibly linked to balmy days in mid-February. This season, southern England saw all these obvious signs – and even frogspawn – before Christmas, which is plain wrong. So we should be celebrating when another Arctic blast strikes this weekend: we may appreciate an early spring, but it wreaks havoc for those creatures lured into seeking mates or making nests too early for their own good.
Part-timers get to be dads
Next month, the Office for National Statistics will record a million men working part time in the UK – nearly three times the number two decades ago. Some of these will be like my dad, who carried on working part time until he turned 72 last month, mainly because he enjoyed it. But many more are like me, working part time partly to see more of their children. While I fill my days at home with freelance bits and bobs, I am around for far more breakfasts and bathtimes than my dad could manage at my age. Quite a few dad-mates of mine are lucky enough to do the same.
Psychologically, the implications of this trend could be profound. Never underestimate man’s capacity to hand on misery to man – and I’m sure the next generation will lament their irritatingly hands-on dads – but I hope it will be broadly positive for so many boys and girls to grow up with involved rather than absent fathers.