It happened before WhatsApp was invented, so the first contact was a loudly ringing text message on my old Nokia. COME TO THE DOOR AND OPEN IT QUIETLY.
Even though it was after 11pm, I obeyed (it was also before Netflix, what else was going on?).
When I opened the front door I saw a fox standing in the garden about ten feet away. My wife was coming home from work and had stopped at the garden gate; she texted me.
The fox looked at both of us in turn with an expression that could only be interpreted as “So?”
After a minute or two, he walked away through the hedge, having clearly established that he would go when he was good and ready and not rush into anything. That was a few years ago and I haven’t seen him since, although I’m keeping an eye out.
My reason for opening with a story of urban wildlife is not to expose how small my garden is, but to view Cork as a haven for wildlife. Or not. I am open to persuasion.
I realize immediately that this is a more difficult area than it seems.
Wildlife in the big city is an idea that inspired the very definition of the term, urban legend, a term often centered on a particular thread that emerged, sniffling intensely, from 1970s New York City.
It was the story that had a strong grip on the public imagination: New Yorkers vacationed in Florida and sometimes bought tiny baby crocodiles back home as souvenirs. However, the baby crocodiles were getting bigger and the unfortunate owners sometimes flushed them down the toilet in their apartments.
Some of the crocodiles survived the trip around the S-bend and appeared in the sewers, where they grew bigger and bigger, and wandered the dark tunnels in search of something more appetizing than the remains and waste that was offered…
You can immediately see the appeal of the story: vaguely plausible with a polished narrative, but also totally unprovable. One of its most powerful attractions is the sheer incongruity of juxtaposition. The pipes and tunnels of modern infrastructure, stone and steel, and the dinosaur-like monster, sniffing in the dark.
I hasten to add that such creatures do not exist in the underworld of Cork’s bogs and underground tunnels – they did not exist in New York either – but the presence of animals in the city is a interesting topic even if it doesn’t include big man eaters.
In cities around the world, the persistence of the urban fox is almost a cliché at this point, but it should come as no surprise at the presence of savagery in the city. Not after a long recent spell in which the city’s once-busy streets have been deserted for weeks.
This led to stunning images. The sheep that took over a Welsh town. You remember ? Or the rowdy monkeys in Thailand, starving without the largesse of tourists?
Those are the catchy titles we’ve all laughed at, but what about the less dramatic effects on the city’s wildlife?
Only now, with enough distance and time to study the facts, can we see the proof of what our eyes and ears have suggested. For example, there were more birds blooming in urban spaces than ever before when we were all confined to barracks.
When bird numbers were studied, it was estimated to be 14 times more likely to increase than decrease across all markers, strongly indicating that human activity – absent at this time – has a enormous influence on the number of birds.
The obvious question is what has happened since, with some observers fearing that an “ecological trap” may have been set by the quiet environment of closed cities – would birds find much more dangerous habitats when they would return the following year to an urban space restored to noisy normality, a much less bird-friendly normality?
To be fair, Cork is doing pretty well compared to this worst-case scenario.
Before Christmas, Eoin English of this parish reported a study with encouraging news.
“Researchers from University College Cork (UCC) have found that while nearly two-thirds of the city’s cityscape supports biodiversity, nearly four out of 10 bird species in the city are listed as a conservation concern” , wrote Eoin in this article last November.
“Dr Paul Holloway, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and the Institute of Environmental Research at UCC, said: ‘Confirmation that the interconnection between green and blue spaces in the city positively influences the biodiversity of birds will help shape conservation efforts.
“”There is a pressing need to identify optimal habitats in urban environments, and this research has highlighted that urban gardens and brownfields are important contributors to the sustainable management of biodiversity in cities”, did he declare.”
It is particularly interesting. Researchers have used innovative satellite mapping to create a map of Cork which shows that “nearly two-thirds of Cork City can be considered green or blue, with these spaces having a positive impact on the diversity and abundance of birds.
Eoin continued: Dr Holloway said: ‘What was particularly noteworthy were the ‘invisible’ green spaces, such as gardens, hedges and ponds, and that when considered at the scale of the city, it suggests that Cork has a well-connected green and blue network, with this connectivity at the heart of supporting biodiversity.
What is encouraging is that there is a role for gardens and hedges. In other words, you don’t have to be an academic or own a private forest to foster biodiversity.
The focus on what the individual can achieve is also consistent with efforts in other areas. Last week I spoke to Marica Cassarino about pedestrian life in Cork, and she pointed out that while a place like the marina is nice to visit for a leisurely stroll, it’s better for the city and for everything the world if walking is integrated into our daily lives.
The lesson here is similar.
Rather than viewing the natural environment as something to behold on the occasional day trip outside the city limits, if people see the value in these ‘invisible’ green spaces all over Cork, then the The effort to maintain this biodiversity becomes part of community life. Everybody wins.
Including my late-night visitor all those years ago: quiet and relaxed in the front garden; sleek and poised as he made his way through the hedges.