Ooopsie-daisy

 

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Well, it was Mothers’ Day recently so I indulged myself and rustled up some family to visit one of my favourite beaches in Wales – Mewslade on the Gower, Wales.

At low tide, it’s beautiful stretch of rufous sand with low ridges of pitted grey limestone stretching out to the sea from the cliff like bony fingers. At high tide there is no clue to the beach beneath.

After a relaxed picnic with the folks, I wandered over to the waves, rolled up my jeans and went for a paddle.  Each time the surf broke against the rocks, millions of sun-dazzled diamonds of water were thrown up.

It was an irresistible arty picture opportunity,  so I ventured further into the sea among the rocks, in search of the right angle. It wasn’t going to be easy as the sun was directly ahead but Welsh women never say Dai.

I suppose I should have given a thought to the tide racing in. We’d noticed it earlier and moved our picnic to higher ground. Swansea has the biggest tidal range in the world or maybe it’s the second biggest.  I probably need to check that.

And while I was framing that perfect picture with the Canon SLR, the withdrawing sea mischievously sucked the sand out from under my feet, seriously destabilizing my lens and me.

One hand instinctively grasped a nearby rock, the other held the camera above the briny as I helplessly sank into the water.  No gravitas – merely saturatedass.

That was the moment when the mobile tucked into my back pocket probably dislodged.

By the time I realised – after thoroughly checking the Canon and the lens, which – horrors – - had sand on it, the whole area where I’d been standing was deep and murky with swirling sand a seaweed.

I reported the loss to a guy at Vodafone who, bless ‘im, didn’t laugh and they blocked it, just in case it was washed up and still useable but I suspect that by now it’s in Davy Jones’s locker or Dai Jones’ – whoever owns the lockers thereabouts.

It’s quite weird being without my phone.

I don’t usually spend a day without it, let alone two. It’s like another limb. My whole life is in it… memos, diary, photos, conversations with people in various parts of the world, emails, games, plane-spotting app, my running app, my cycling app, my map app, twitter…a half-read book..etc etc  Don’t even get me started on music – oh I have already… well there’s my own music library and Spotify which is a cornucopia of mood-enhancing tunes, familiar and brand new.

The few days before I got my new phone, there were little lacunae where during the busy working day, I’d usually take a look at the phone for messages, pics emails that pals may have sent.  Without the phone, nothing. Not a dicky-bird. I felt catapulted back into the age of the quill pen.

I felt isolated but also released from the habit of immediate gratification.  The emails, the messages and news had to wait until I could access the home computer much, much later and most app-based stuff wasn’t received at all.

When my new spiffy Samsung S4 came, it was a big disappointment. While it’s a rather beautiful, light piece of technology, the battery didn’t even last the day and it refused to link up with the home wifi.

So I’m managing with my trusty old HTC for home use and the not-so-spiffy Samsung for out and about.  I don’t recommend two phones instead of one – twice the fuss and half the effectiveness.

New phone #2 is scheduled to arrive tomorrow.  I’m hoping it’ll survive next weekend’s trip to the beach…

Do HTC sell little mobile waterwings, I wonder?

 

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Posted in Art, Coast, Countryside, Current Affairs, Watery things | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Exercise as punishment? It already IS!

So Michael Dimwit Gove wants schools to punish children with exercise?

Schools are already punishing children with exercise and have done for generations.

There’s nothing quite like school sports teaching for encouraging students to LOATHE sport.

I was an inherently lazy child – like 80% of my school year. Of course there were some who were naturals at sport, like there were ‘naturals’ at art and music but most of us resisted exhortations to Do Sport.

The budding sports stars who might represent the school were very obviously the favourites of those teachers who wore a tracksuit around the place as a badge of honour.

Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t do sports were vilified, bullied and treated as worthless, hopeless cases – this was particularly bad if you were one of those boys who couldn’t play soccer or rugby or often produced sick notes excusing them from taking part.

Very often those same boys were excellent at chemistry, maths or physics so at least it was possible for them to shine in another area. I pitied the sporting no-hopers who were only average at everything else. Their self-esteem didn’t stand a chance.

Why would anyone want to voluntarily jog around the running track at school looking like an eejit? I had a go one sunny day when the sky was blue and the grass was green and no teachers were about. I donned my Dunlop Green Flashes and set off. Forty paces later, I was red-faced and falling-over tired.

Lesson learned. Never be tempted to set the bar too high – particularly in the high jump. A friend and I thought we were horses for several years of our childhood so I was used to showjumping…. well.. ok… jumping the height of my own knee.

But when we were introduced to the high jump as preparation for Sports Day, they set the bar at the height of my eyes. Obviously my human body was not meant to spring itself into the air because when I did attempt it, a crashing noise and a painful falling thing happened.

Similarly with long jump, it took an awful lot of running to make it into the sand. By the time I should have been ready for take-off, I was, quite frankly, tired. Not achieving the sandpit didn’t make me any more popular with teachers, I found.

The javelin was more promising. I felt like an Amazon standing there, body tilted back, aiming my pointy thing at the sky before running and dramatically flinging it – but it always landed flat on the grass.

The discus was better but generally seemed to travel in quite unintended directions due to me releasing my latent power at the wrong moment accompanied by cries of “Watch out!” from nearby observers.

Putting the cannon-ball was much more promising. Basically you just had to sort of dump it into the air and hope it landed quite far away. Of course it didn’t because it was really heavy and really, it would have been sensible to have a cannon to hand to fire the thing. But the fact that it landed only a few paces away made it quite convenient to fetch and try again.

The only game I remotely liked was hockey – I had a handsome stick with a beautifully varnished hook and it more than made up for my hockey boots smelling of old mackerel. I also liked the skirt, which was gored grey flannel mid-thigh length. It felt sporty just to wear it and stand about posing with my lovely hockey stick – let alone flying down the right wing. But when I got picked for the team, I couldn’t get to school on Saturdays to play. I gave up, with bitterness in my heart.

Cross-country running was a disaster. We used to trot disconsolately out of the school gates, walk up the hill and, on a good day, a bunch of us girls would disappear off the track and find a quiet place to take our aertex shirts off for a bit of sun worshipping. We’d lope back to school a good 45 minutes late and claim we got lost. They couldn’t touch you for it.

Being of a contrary disposition, I was much better at, and really enjoyed the sports they didn’t teach me at school: tennis, swimming and sunbathing with a good book.

Tennis was so perfect in the long summer holidays. You could wear really short swingy little white skirts get your legs nutbrown, rest between sets swigging real lemonade or chilled diet Coke while lying about on the grass in the sun.

Swimming was pretty good too. I’ve never minded cold water, secretly loving the bracing effect of a cold plunge and risking extreme hypothermia so I liked the lido whatever the weather. There’s something anarchic about swimming in the rain, when the cold water’s still warmer than the cold pitter-pattery drops on your hair.

Chances are, if I’d been taught either of those activities at school, I’d have hated them too.

My kids learned to swim before having school swimming lessons – and marveled later at how no-one who couldn’t swim ever actually learned to do so at school swimming lessons.

My brother was dead average at school sports and not great at soccer but a national junior cycling champion outside school.

So no, Mr Gove, don’t even think about using exercise as punishment at school. In fact don’t force exercise of any sort at all on school kids.

Instead, give them a couple of afternoons a week when they can choose their activity… and provide role-model sports ambassadors to inspire kids into giving sports a try.

Don’t just offer the easy-to-provide field sports, the soccer, the hockey, the rugby but offer road-race cycling, mountainbiking, track-racing, horse-riding, dry-slope skiing, fencing, archery, mountain-boarding, bowling, bouldering, climbing, snooker, pool, darts!!

That’s the way to get kids active. Let them find out what they like.

If you really want to punish them, there’s always the old pointless and ultra-tedious Saturday morning detention presided over by some old crusty teacher with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. I’d run a mile to avoid that, for sure!

Posted in Countryside, Current Affairs, Cycling, Literature, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Starry, starry night

Nothing much went wrong this weekend, which was a refreshing change, so together with the sunshine, warmth, bike rides, flowers, bees, butterflies, birdsong, frogs and the prospect of many hundreds of tadpoles in the pond, it was all pretty good.

It is ending well too.  Until a minute or two ago, I was sitting by the pond lit by shafts of cool bright moonlight in the stillness of the garden.

The garden was all mysterious dark shapes and silhouettes except for the warm glow of the lights through the half-open kitchen door. It was like looking into someone else’s house because the night view is so unfamiliar.

It looked cosy.  On the far wall, cookbooks on shelves with little music player between them, a pew with cushions and orchids arching their exotic blooms over the windowsill.

Outside in the garden I was alone, listening to the chorus of frogs singing in the pond, looking at the stars in the clear dark sky and wondering at the almost-impossible brightness of the full moon.

Coming from the east into the light of the moon I could just make out the lights and the ghostly jetstream of the Paris to Dublin Ryanair Boeing 737 flying at 38,000 feet.  Half an hour to landing.

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Jazz Hands

There are days when cycling is all about facing the elements alone with your music (sssshhh don’t tell anyone.. it’s only plugged in the nearside ear and it’s on quiet) and your thoughts.

There are days when it’s pure unalloyed pleasure because you have time to spare, the sun is shining, the floods are receding, even the mud is drying out and the world seems to be in a Good Mood.

Yesterday was such a day. Apart from some early mud – to be honest I didn’t mind too much as I still had mud clinging to the downtube from the last outing – it was mostly dry roads and lanes.

The drivers were kind – astonishingly so in some cases, as a couple of them slowed or paused and gave way to me with smiles and waves. I can only think my “jazz hands” gloves have made the difference.

Wearing my jazz hands gloves makes me incredibly visible without being covered in yellow – although, thinking about it,  St David’s Day is most suitable for being covered in yellow and if I was any kind of Welshwoman at all, I should have had a blow-up dragon riding on the backrack!

When my bro gave them to me at Christmas, I was loathe to swap my nice warm red and black winter gloves for them. Wearing day-glo yellow does make you feel a tad self-conscious.

But when sticking out the arm and flashing the Unmissable Hand of Rightfulness you do actually feel extra-confident that you’ve been seen.  So maybe that’s why drivers are being extra-nice because I’ve got jazz hands.  If that means I’m safer, I’m happy with that.

Anyway, the ride was quite lovely what with the daffodils in bloom, the crocuses in yellows, purples and mauves that people have blooming in the verges in front of their homes, the wrinkly new-born spring lambs lying so close to their mummies in the fields and the birds all singing welcome to Spring.

I wouldn’t like to ride those lanes at night though. The winter weather has taken a terrible toll on the road surfaces. In places, up to a metre of the edge of the lane was unrideable due to deep fissures or because the tarmac had just disappeared.

Water-filled ditches have appeared where there were none before. I had to laugh at a mallard standing considering a swim along the road in a newly-formed water feature!

The road repairs are going to cost millions. Mostly because… (beginning of rant.. look away now if you can’t be bothered to read further..)

…mostly because since the late 1970’s county councils have been hacking the road maintenance budgets. Before that County Surveyors used to draw up detailed, efficient plans for road maintenance which included proper repairs in a timely manner before the road surface crumbled.

Now, road maintenance is largely patching or scraping the very top layer off and replacing with a correspondingly thin layer. There is no budgetary consideration given to permanent lasting repairs – which is why we now have roads which are more or less Third World standard.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing of more and more drivers who have suffered damage to their cars because of the road surface. Cyclists can only try and avoid the potholes and deep, potentially fatal fissures.  But any cyclist who suddenly swerves into the road to avoid a hole that would buckle their front wheel is at risk of being hit by following traffic.

If cycling is to be encouraged as a safe realistic transport option, road repair budgets have to be beefed up to make riding safe.

It’s no good, as in Cheltenham, painting around the potholes, painting around them again six months later and painting around them six months further on when they have got bigger before finally patching them.

Crumblingly bad road surfaces in towns are bad enough but at least there are streetlights.  In the countryside, cycling in the middle of a lane at night to avoid holes at the sides of the road is a potentially fatal. It remains to be seen when inquests are held, but there’s a possibility road surface could have been a contributory factor in the tragic car/cycle accident deaths of two cyclists recently.

(End of Rant)

So I think Spring has sprung, even if, today, it’s gone back into its box again.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bike to clean.  And 2 bathrooms, actually, but I’m prioritizing…   Byee!

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Posted in Birds, Countryside, Current Affairs, Cycling, Sheep, Uncategorized, Watery things | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Uncle Al

Can it be true that memories from childhood are more vivid and enduring than most of the others?

If they are, that would explain my lifelong fondness for my Uncle Al.

He was my favourite uncle.

I’ve got other uncles who I keep in touch with, including two who are absolutely smashing and I adore them but not quite in the same way.

As an adult, Uncle Alan was missing from my life for years at a time – nearly a decade at one point before we all worried that he might have died of malaria. Another uncle prompted the British Consul to check up on Alan and found he was alive and well and teaching in a rather nice private boarding school in Mombasa.

His only UK teaching experience was a short, never-to-be-repeated stint at a comprehensive school in Tamworth. He taught abroad after that, in the Cayman Islands, then Uganda until bodies began to be dragged from the local river – and then Kenya.

So he became Uncle Alan in Africa. He missed all the family events, the births, the marriages, the death of his mother, the death of my father, the death of my mother.  There were a few airmail letters and when he came back to the UK he’d telephone from the airport and say he was on his way and would call in if we were around.

He gave the impression of assuming everyone was all right and being satisfied with his life apart in the Dark Continent as explorers used to call it.  He was the furthest outpost of the Welsh Williams family.  He retired to live on his own little farm – we called it Fort Williams – in the northern uplands of Kenya.

His death was extremely sad.  He didn’t want us to know that he’d had to return to England, very seriously ill with cancer. As a white man without health insurance, he’d been turned away from hospital in Kenya without treatment. He died early in January.

For administrative reasons the funeral was delayed for six long weeks. It didn’t seem right. My Uncle Al in a freezer at Manchester Royal Infirmary. I’m not normally a person who cares about things being done in a ‘proper’ fashion but I found that I cared very deeply that he had a funeral as soon as possible.

When it happened, it was very quiet – just seven people gathered together looking at fuzzy, badly-photocopied photos of my Uncle Alan displayed at the crematorium. In the main one, he looked kind of grim.  He would have laughed that we were weeping for him and gazing at a very grumpy and misleading version of his real self.

My brother stood next to me in the chapel. We both had to be there. We have the same memories. Alan was still a teenager living at home when we were kids. When we visited nan in Abercarn, he was often there, his chemistry experiments spread out all over the kitchen table, carboys of vivid and noxious chemicals including cyanide on the kitchen cupboard. We couldn’t touch his experiments or even guess what they were. We just stood and wondered at the dripping, the colours and the bubbles.

He let us have a go at his guitar. He was good with electronics and made a record player so nan could play her Jim Reeves and Everly Brothers records in the front room.

He took us to Cardiff Museum where I remember seeing a bronze cast of the Rodin sculpture The Kiss for the first time.  It seemed miraculous and it still does.

I suppose his gift was that, although he was a teenager – and very much a loner with his own interests and hobbies – and we were such young, impressionable children, he engaged with us and encouraged us.

He took us for long walks around and over the forested hills, catching bullheads in the streams, eating wimberries, listening to the bees buzzing all round in abandoned quarries, looking down over the long lines of coal trucks being pulled along in the valley below.

He bought my first set of proper books – a set of leather-bound childrens’ classics – which included Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Entrancing, absorbing, mind-altering stuff.

Until then, apart from the obligatory Christmas annuals, I relied on the library to satiate my voracious appetite for books.  I read a lot of Enid Blyton.  Uncle Al laughed about my Enid Blyton fixation and must have thought I needed more of a challenge.

Then best of all, he arrived at our house one day with a big, heavy present for me.

I carefully undid the wrapping to reveal a huge, expensive book called Birds of the World, filled with colourful illustrations of undreamed-of exotic species including birds of paradise, hornbills, marabou storks and humming birds like little jewels.

He wrote inside,  ‘For Jan – An Unbirthday Present.’

“Unbirthday present?  What’s that?”  asked mum.

Thanks to Uncle Alan,  I already knew.

RIP  Alan Williams

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A Festival of Birds

After a week of soggy gloom, the sun had his hat on as we arrived at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge on the first day of February.

There was lots going on because it’s the Festival of Birds weekend which means expert guides, talks, demonstrations, artists and stands selling specialist telescopes and camera equipment. As usual the real stars of the show were outside, preening, splashing, paddling and diving in the ponds, flying overhead or feeding on the marshy wetlands by the Severn.  It’s the best time of year to visit Slimbridge as there are not just hundreds but thousands of birds there.

I’m lucky to live less than 30 mins drive away from Slimbridge. It has the world’s largest collection of exotic, rare and endangered ducks, geese and swans in a reserve which is internationally important.

I hadn’t been up in the Sloan Tower before so the view from the top was a surprise – a panorama of the Severn estuary and wetland bathed in sunshine.

The many lakes, pools, rivulets and watery ditches on the Trust land were shining blue and beyond, the flat flooded marshes stretched to the wide Severn, where one of the highest tides of the year had swept up river about an hour before.

Vast flocks of ducks, flocks of lapwings, settled on the marshes but every now and then a disturbance would cause scores of them to rise fluttering into the air, swirling, circling, and swooping like the hands of a conductor directing a symphony.

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Trust experts – who can count birds far better than I – reckoned there were 3,000 golden plovers, 6,000 lapwings, 1200 widgeon, 323 shoveler ducks in addition to the ‘usual’ suspects to be seen in the ponds closest to the centre.

Birds seems to get special pleasure from playing on blustery winds – the rocking and rolling of flocks of jackdaws studded by playful rooks and crows.

At Slimbridge, it’s not only the waterfowl that grab your attention – a very portly,  handsome pigeon photobombed  one of my shots of the Bewicks. Just along the way, a big old rook – his irridescent feathers gleaming spendidly in the sun, was dying to get in on the act and grab some of the birdfood scattered by visitors.

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There were plenty of beautiful Bewick swans wintering in the grounds.  Slimbridge has always been famous for its Bewicks, which arrive from arctic Russia and are carefully recorded using the individual patterns on their bills.  It’s always a source of regret if a Bewick arrives without his mate because swans tend to pair for life and sadly these birds have been in serious decline year on year since the 1990′s.

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The tufted duck were looking very perky, their tufts blowing in the wind and my favourites… the eider ducks, were starting to get into mating mood.

The males were looking in peak condition with salmon-tinged breasts and moss green shaded feathers that look as though they’ve brushed up against a lichen-covered fence.

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Today’s new experience was finding out how they catch and ring birds to record the distribution and spread of different species.  Turns out that the great Sir Peter Scott, founder of the WWT and all-round hero, chose to live at Slimbridge because of the decoy ponds there, built in the 19th century to trap ducks as a source of food for the Berkeley estate.  He saw the value of using them ring and record wildlife to lean more about migration patterns and their movements throughout Europe and the East.

The pond is a mermaid’s purse shape with a centre lagoon and arms going off covered in netting which becomes lower and lower until the ducks are within arms reach.

I’d always known that a dog was used for this work but I assumed the dog somehow herded the ducks.  Wrong.  Zen, the Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever was trained to trot along the side of the water.  The ducks’ natural instinct is to keep a potential predator in sight so they follow the dog – with its reddish coat and bushy tail it looks, from a distance, like a fox – into the tunnel of netting.

The birds are then caught, weighed, measured and ringed. Their details are recorded and they are free to fly back into the wild.

They use ‘mist netting’ with extremely fine nylon netting to catch small birds and ring them.  While it was fascinating to see the decoy man competently and kindly handling a wild duck, it was even more incredible to see the skill with which experienced ‘ringers’ deal with tiny birds such as a blue tit.

After several hours outside, warming up time in the café was essential – and it’s where you chat to people and discover what else can be seen – a pair of cranes, introduced during the Great Crane Project, had been seen by two women we met – and another couple talked about the bank voles which were dashing about near one hide and proving very difficult to photograph!

It was clear I only saw a fraction of what was actually happening. This probably means I should go back very soon…

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Zen, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

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IMG_0218How to release a duck back to the wild?   Throw it into the air, of course!

Posted in Birds, Countryside, Dogs, Science, Watery things | 8 Comments

The Mouse Guest

Benjamin Franklin said “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Well, we’ve had a guest in the dining room for twelve days and that was eleven days too many.

It was my fault in the first place.  I was sitting there, tapping away on the laptop when there was a sudden skittering in the hallway and Leo, one of my tabbies, dashed in looking rather invigorated with something dangling from his mouth.

Before I knew it, the dog-owning instinct kicked in and I shouted “DROP!”

So, being part dog, he did.  The mouse scarpered behind the sideboard.  The sideboard is extremely heavy, being full of crockery, and I had somewhere to go that evening so I shut the door and left the mouse.

“But the mouse needs food and water. We don’t want him dying while we’re out,” said Capt Sensible.

We put down a little bowl of water and some croutons just in case he had hunger pangs before he was caught and returned to Outside.

With hindsight that was probably unnecessary. Mouse was a resourceful creature. Next day we found he’d had a go at a banana in the fruitbowl.  He wasn’t so much a desert rat as a dessert mouse.

I removed all fruit and got a humane trap from B&Q for under a fiver.  It featured a small tray with a circle of brown stuff that was supposed to be delicious to mice.

Well, overnight Mouse dragged the little tray out on to the carpet and did a little poo on it, which seemed to sum up what he thought of the menu so far.

I wasn’t too worried.  I mean, it’d be pretty easy to catch.  We caught one without meaning to once in a big bag of birdfood in the garage. A shiny-eyed, cute-eared little woodmouse was there, imprisoned in his seventh heaven because he couldn’t leap high enough to escape from the bag.

I knew Mouse liked croutons so re-baited the trap with some Ocado rosemary and garlic croutons. Turns out he did like them. They disappeared every time.

On the Sunday, there was nothing for it but to empty the sideboard and pull it from the wall – but not before I built, using framed paintings and large books, a rather spiffy Mouse expressway to the Outdoors. When the sideboard was shifted, hey presto, zilch – not even crouton crumbs.  Mouse had relocated. He was either in the organ or the piano.

Leo was brought in.  It was his mouse, after all. He walked over to the organ, settled into sphinx position near the pedals and prepared for the Long Wait.  But hey, a boy needs catfood, water and a comfy sofa so it was clear he didn’t have the stamina required.

I shut the door to the dining room again, scoured the internet for human mouse-catching ideas and set up a variety of challenging and delicious puzzles for Mouse – all cunningly designed to conclude with him thinking “Doh” and being unable to get out of the bottom of a bucket.

The one I was most confident in was a bottle with a slim narrow neck, coated with olive oil and with peanut butter (they love that, apparently) all around the cap, which was poised over a deep bucket.  ‘Mouse crawls along bottle towards cap, slides off bottle, drops into bucket and stays there’ was the plan.

There was also a trap based on the ‘mouse in the birdfood bag’ thing.. in which I put sunflower seeds in the bottom of a deep bucket.  Mouse climbs into bucket, eats seeds and can’t leave, was the plan.

Mouse proved to be an agile little blighter. The sunflower seeds were disappearing.. there were a few mouse poos in the bucket he should have dropped into… and the chocolate…YES  Chocolate!  (desperate measures etc..) was vanishing like magic from the B&Q trap.

I spent some time playing the piano – which usually repels anyone – and then tried a bit of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on full volume but Mouse remained unmoved.

I had to step up my game.  I ordered a clear trap-door humane trap from nhbs .  Bless em I only paid standard delivery and it turned up in 2 days – and for a few pence over a fiver.

The first night Mouse somehow resisted the distinctive allure of peanut-butter coated cheese, even though I’d removed the failed peanut butter trap and the bucket of seed.

Last night, he succumbed.

There, in the trap this morning, was Mouse – a very small, very scared and probably quite full-up wood mouse crouched at the back where the food had been.  He looked very sorry for himself.

I took him out into the garden and liberated him under the plum tree. In a second he was gone beneath the undergrowth.

Leo mooched about the organ in a regretful sort of way but lost interest when I cleaned and thoroughly disinfected the room.

Benjamin Franklin was dead right about visitors, except they don’t all smell of fish…this one was 100% Mouse!

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(well ok, one just like him)

Posted in Art, Cats, Countryside, Current Affairs, Food | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments