I have referred previously to my current habit of casually browsing The Gardner’s Kalendar.
Looking at part of the appendix to John Reid’s fascinating book, The Scot’ Gard’ner, first published in Edinburgh in 1685, I saw, under instructions for the month of February, this command: “Continue to destroy Vermine.”
Just why my mind makes some of its associations is a mystery to me: but ‘Vermine’ brought to mind these immortal words: “Hamelin town’s in Brunswick, / Brunswick is in Germany; / Long ago, so stories go, / The town was getting verminy,” a quatrain from the popular song The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a novelty Fox Trot which was recorded on 12 April 1931 by vocalist Al Bowlly with Ray Noble and his New Mayfair Orchestra on Victor Records Vic 24034, a 10-inch shellac disc. The words and music of the song were written by Reginald Moxon Armitage (15 July 1898 – 4 March 1954), who read music at Christ’s College Cambridge, graduating with an MA and a B Mus to add to his FRCM and FRCO, all set for a career in serious and ecclesiastical music. However, he turned to writing popular songs under the pseudonym Noel Gay and was described by Sheridan Morley as “the closest Britain ever came to a local Irving Berlin”. Here endeth the music lesson; and so to vermin.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘vermin’ as, firstly, “Wild animals which are believed to be harmful to crops, farm animals, or game, or which carry disease”; secondly, as “Parasitic worms or insects”; and thirdly as “People perceived as despicable and as causing problems for the rest of society”. John Reid was obviously referring to first of these definitions, expanding his instruction to ‘destroy Vermine’ in this edict for the month of March: “Catch Moles, Mice, Snails, Worms, destroy frog spawn &c.” Well, I doubt whether earthworms would be included in many lists of harmful garden inhabitants drawn up by gardeners nowadays: but this raises the question of whether there is any agreed list of vermin. I feel instinctively that there must be: but, try as I may, I cannot find it. One website offers this list for air rifle enthusiasts: magpies, (#1 enemy!), crows and rooks, jays, grey squirrels, brown rats, woodpigeons, feral pigeons, collared doves, rabbits, starlings, sparrows and mink. But the Animal Welfare Act 2006 rules that it is illegal to cause “unnecessary suffering” to an animal, including animals caught in traps, like squirrels; so it is very possible that any less-than-fatal pot-shot at any member of that list might be deemed unlawful; and the website from which that list is taken actually adds the caveat that starlings and sparrows are no longer officially regarded as pests.
The term ‘vermin’ often seems be taken as meaning wild creatures which are a pest in your garden, gentle reader. I count cats, collared doves, foxes, grey squirrels, magpies, rabbits, seagulls and woodpigeons as pests in my garden: but I must admit that I don’t really wage war on any of these species, being content to try to discourage their predations by putting out food for small birds in locations which large birds cannot or dare not access; by spreading chicken manure fertiliser on top of pots in which bulbs have been planted in the autumn – grey squirrels don’t like sticking their faces into faeces to steal my bulbs; and by denying foxes access to waste bins. As to rabbits, well, they win most of the time; I don’t own a dog and I find that garden-centre-bought deterrents like lion poo are not effective for long. And regarding my neighbour’s beloved pussykins - well, it’s “Shoo!” if I think I might be overheard and “B***** off!” if I think my words are strictly between me and the cat. I must report, however, that unfriendly words are entirely useless against that particular pest!