Wild Suburbia


Wedged in between Southampton and the New Forest is the little suburban village of Totton. It’s more of a place you drive through than a destination location. Aside from it’s handful of estate agencies and pharmacies there’s not much to it.

And upon first inspection it doesn’t appear to be the wildest of locations. Totton has some fantastic nature reserves, although council estate rabbit warrens don’t seem like an obvious choice for a wilderness.

But – if you look a little closer you might be surprised.

The network of houses and gardens actually make an excellent series of highways for suburban wildlife to travel along and make a home.

My very own wilderness

I was born and bred on one of those Tottonian council estates. The back garden was my wild stomping ground until I was old enough to head out and explore Totton’s wilder corners.

Our back garden was a haven – we grew sunflowers, sweet peas, tomatoes and tall tangles of runner beans. There was even a giant marrow, that grew so big no one could eat it. It had an old, hand me down swing, that rusted in the sun on a lawn strewn with daisies. At the end of a drunken path was a tiny pond, home to goldfish, pondskaters, diving beetles and frogs – we even put in some rocky steps, just in case our frequenting hedgehogs ever got into trouble. I spent many a happy hour pond dipping, getting my hands dirty and marvelling at the cool, slimy skin of our resident leaf coloured frogs.

A purple buddleia sprouted from the grey fence at the bottom of our garden. The one that separated us from a tired line of rusty, run down garages. A splash of much needed colour. Colour that attracted more colours to our grotty council estate. A plethora of butterflies flocked to this bush and spread onto the estate like a can of spilled paint.

The Hedge

For me, the most memorable part of the garden wasn’t necessarily the most colourful, but it was most prominent. It loomed across the garden and cast shadows across the lawn. The birds were drawn to the privet hedge, a pillar of greenery that separated us from our neighbours. It housed blackbirds, sparrows, dunnocks, blue tits and even a wren. The perfect perch for starlings, and a sounding post for the restless woodpigeons to unleash their throaty calls. That hedge was alive with fluttering wings and floating song. The bird song filtered through the usual council estate soundtrack, delicately accompanying the drone of a lawnmower, passing sirens, overhead planes and rowdy neighbours.

Unexpected encounters

We’ve sat in the garden late into warm summer evenings and watched, hypnotised, as bats traced patterns over our heads under an emerging plough.

We witnessed, completely gobsmacked, a tawny owl float down from the towering oak tree beyond the garages. It sailed silently over our heads, disappearing into darkness as it climbed over the roof of our house.

I’ve picked mint fresh from the garden for Sunday roasts, its tangy aroma rising to greet me. My hands thrust deep into the plant to get at the best bits. Rough leaves on my tiny child hands.

We’ve seen sparrowhawk attacks, kept pet wood lice, watched elephant hawk moth caterpillars, found a grass snake and witnessed a squirrel that got stuck up a lamppost!

A wilderness lost

There was wild here.

I witnessed it with my eyes, and hands, and the grass stains on my jeans and dirt under my fingernails. Wildness helped raise me. Our manicured lawn with its rough edges showed me so much through all the seasons. It nurtured a love of nature, and acted as a reminder that wildness is as close as you are willing to look.

Jump forward more than a few years and I’m back again, in my childhood home, a temporary stop gap. I find myself looking from my bedroom window at a different garden.

A sensible slat fence has replaced the privet hedge. The buddleia has been trimmed back. They’ve filled in the pond, which is now a giant litter tray for the ever-expanding population of council estate cats.

A hint of wildness

It’s still a beautiful garden; the lawns still flushed with daisies and the sparrows still chatter amongst themselves – they’re just in someone else’s hedge now. But there’s a distinct lack of birdsong now and whilst the blackbirds are around, I can’t hear the blue tit shrill, or the whistle blow of the wren anymore. There are no frogs hiding in shaded edges and I certainly haven’t seen a grass snake or a squirrel here for a long time.

When I first came home, standing in the garden made me feel sad, like it had lost something. It had the feel of any other council estate garden, the next-door neighbours shouted at their barking dogs and someone excessively revved their engine and my heart sank a little bit.

But, wild has a habitat of sticking around.

Holding it’s own

All is not lost.

A sunny day spent sat in the garden soaking in some spring sunshine revealed that wild hadn’t given up yet.

In just one day I had sightings of a buzzard, shortly followed by 3 sparrowhawks putting in a particularly impressive display: diving, twisting and falling together like fireworks. The gently warmth of the sun encouraged the first flaps of butterfly wings to the garden and crawling across the lawn was the lime green of an angle shade moth caterpillar. It concertinaed its way through the short blades of grass, surprisingly strong for such a tiny creature.

Once I remembered to look for it, there was wildlife everywhere. I even heard the faint but persistent chink of a blue tit somewhere in the distance.

Nature isn’t as abundant as it once was – not here anyway but it is still there, and we need to look after it. This suburban environment is a last stronghold for species, that if we don’t pay attention to, we might loose forever.

You might think that living on a council estate means there is less wildlife. But have you really looked? Have you poked around its edges or pulled back overgrown plants? Have you heard what the birds have to say? What you find may just surprise you!

So, plant some flowers and pay attention because you suburbanites have got quite the task on your hands.

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Jeni is a keen blogger and photographer of all things wild. She is currently living in a van with her other half, and rather neurotic Jack Russell, travelling the UK in search of all things wild. Passionate about nature close to home, she is a firm believer that nature is everywhere, not just in far flung locations or well-manicured nature reserves – its about being aware of what’s around you wherever you are.

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