If there’s one topic that’s likely to get us gardeners going, it’s the animals that share our gardens with us. And cats roaming free in our gardens is an issue that splits opinion.
We all regard the creatures that live in our gardens differently.
Some people are happy to see hedgehogs, but don’t like badgers because they can cause damage. Some of us are horrified to see sparrowhawks descending on our bird tables, while others are thrilled to see nature in action.
And sometimes our idea of a pet and wildlife can become muddled – some people feed foxes, but others are hell bent on getting rid of them, especially if they’ve got chickens – which are either pets or considered as ‘livestock’…
Predatory pets and our wildlife population
But if there’s one animal that really divides opinion, it’s cats. According to our recent survey, eight in ten people reported troublesome cats in their gardens. And half cited problems with these cats killing wild birds.
And in the June issue of Which? Gardening, garden writer and biologist Ken Thompson points to a survey that was carried out a while ago (but is still the best data around) about the antics of our feline friends. The survey suggests that over five months, British cats killed 57.4 million mammals, 27.1 million birds and 4.8 million reptiles and amphibians.
The survey leaves plenty of questions unanswered, but there’s no denying that this is slaughter on a pretty massive scale.
Ken says that we don’t know how far cats are just mopping up ‘surplus’ wildlife, ie. young, old or sick animals that might have died from other causes anyway. But what we do know is that fear of predation is a problem in itself, and can reduce wildlife populations.
Pouncing on the problem of killer cats
As a cat lover, this all makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. But not as uncomfortable as Ken’s suggestion: think twice about keeping a cat.
If you must have a cat, just have one of them. Also attaching a bell or alarm to a cat’s collar has been shown to reduce predation, and keeping it indoors means killing is kept to a minimum (nocturnal animals are protected at night, and birds during the day).
There’s one piece of good news – feeding birds in your garden doesn’t increase the number killed, since the large numbers of birds seem better at spotting cats and raising the alarm.
Dog owners out there may be feeling smug at this point, but Ken says that dogs can induce exactly the same fear as cats. And a big dog is one of the few things that can kill an adult hedgehog (cats and foxes can’t).
The animal lover’s dilemma – wildlife versus pets
So, it’s a tricky one, isn’t it? As a nation of animal lovers, we’re not about to give up our pets. Maybe it’s a case of managing them as best we can, and doing our best to help wildlife thrive at the same time (putting out bird feeders, for example, and creating wildlife-friendly gardens).
If you’re anti other people’s cats, you could try an ultrasonic device – our research has shown that while they might not deter cats altogether, it might stop them sticking around.
Ultimately, though, we probably just need to learn to live with everything that comes into our gardens. As Ken says: ‘If you provide an opportunity, whether living space or food, don’t be surprised when something takes advantage of it.’