357 pages, 36 b/w illustrations
After the best part of forty years spent either living under his parents' roof, in the tropical rainforests of three continents, a vast array of student digs or most recently a one-bedroom flat, Mike Dilger has at last bought a house – and with it, a (potentially) glorious garden.
Since an early age, Mike has had an intense desire to own and manage his own personal nature reserve. A keen birder throughout his childhood, he has a clear memory of asking his father as an eleven-year-old if he would find out who owned the lovely meadow he used to pass on his daily newspaper-round in the West Midlands, intending to purchase it with his pocket money to conserve the spotted flycatchers which nested there each summer. Needless to say – and despite his best efforts – 'flycatcher meadow' never was purchased and has since been consigned to history underneath a mini-housing estate.
Now his opportunity has come, and Mike is determined to make the most of it. Despite the fact that the vast majority of gardens often tend to be petite, they need not necessarily be lacking in either interesting species or biological diversity. The lawn and shrubs in his new garden initially look tired and unloved, but 'potential' was definitely the one word that sprung to mind the very first time Mike and his partner Christina viewed their new 'house-and-garden-to-be' in the small rural village of Chew Stoke, some eight miles south of Bristol. Of course on Christina's first viewing, the adjectives that sprung to her mind were 'dilapidated', 'over-priced' and 'abandoned'. True, the house was an ex-council property, with a pebble-dashed facade the colour of boiled shite and an interior stuck in a 1970s time-warp, but the long, uncared for lawn which ran down to a tree-covered bank revealing at its base a small, tinkling stream, offered huge promise under the right stewardship.
Illustrated throughout with beautifully evocative black-and-white line drawings by Christina Holvey, Mike Dilger's partner-in-crime, this light-hearted, amusing account of their journey to create their very own wildlife sanctuary will appeal to anyone interested in quirky nature tales with a twist, and wildlife enthusiasts generally.
"The cheerful face of Mike Dilger – known to millions as "the wildlife guy off the One show" (altogether now: ONE, do-de-do-do-do) – shines out from the cover of this book. This is the story of a move from a soulless, gardenless city flat to a countryside retreat with an unkempt, but huge garden, and the ensuing efforts to make it into a suitably nature-friendly space.
The reason that My garden and other animals didn't make it further than my desk before it was grabbed for review is because I have experienced, tragically, the opposite effect. Some time ago I swapped a beautiful and very wildlife-packed garden for a nasty city flat with not as much as a window-box. I think I was hoping to remind myself how much back-breaking work a large garden brings with it, or the perils of battling bird-food-happy rats, or some other vaguely unhappy experiences. In fact, all I have managed to do is remind myself of just how wonderful it is to share a space with nature, and boy, am I jealous.
Mike's enthusiasm for all things natural is certainly infectious, and the book is a bouncy, informal, thoroughly enjoyable ramble through a gardening year. It manages to combine triumph and disaster, a subtle love-story, copious amounts of wildlife, good advice, hilarious mishaps and moments that any one of us will identify with. Twelve chapters, each a month long, frame the book and lend not only structure, but a certain amount of dip-in-and-out-ability. The year starts in January with the purchase of a slightly ramshackle dwelling, and crucially a long-neglected large garden terminating with a promising brook. February and March are a bit of an uphill battle to beat the garden into shape, but soon spring approaches and the benefits of this radical lifestyle change begin to become clear.
Each month brings with it seasonable wildlife. In March we get a passing lesson on the ecology of bumblebees, in June the moth-trap is put to good use, in August we learn about bat-droppings and in September how to make a fish-trap out of a discarded lemonade bottle. Throughout the year we follow the longer evolution of a (slightly skew-whiff) pond, the installation and care of a coop of charming chickens, and (hooray) a battle with bird-food-happy rats. The other star of the book, Mike's partner Christina, has liberally sprinkled these accounts with beautiful black-and-white illustrations which uniquely capture the character of the flora and fauna therein.
There's plenty to interest birders. The proximity of Mike's new home to Chew Valley Lake ensure that he has some juicy garden ticks, including shoveler and little egret. The year sees his house list standing at a very respectable 61.
The book doesn't shrink from the unhappier aspects of nature: disembowelled hedgehogs, pulsating chicken bottoms, a smattering of fruity language and bouts of trichomonosis ensure that it isn't a fairy-tale read, and it's all the better for it. There is a wealth of information here, sure to spur anyone with a hint of a passing interest into trying some of it out: I've decided to set a camera trap on the local urban foxes, proving that this isn't just a book for people with large rural gardens. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone."
- Fiona Barclay, Wednesday 5th September 2012, http://www.birdguides.com
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Mike Dilger is an enthusiastic naturalist and freelance presenter. He spent four years as a research biologist in the tropics of Ecuador, Tanzania, and Vietnam and is a regular presenter on nature programmes. Having birded, botanized and entomologised in a huge range of countries, he has accumulated an encyclopaedic knowledge of British and South American wildlife and a strong familiarity with the nature of Vietnam and Tanzania. Mike is also a member of many wildlife charities and has trained as a PADI open water diver.