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My Kids Learn to Share their Playground | When Animals Come Out to Play
A New Climbing Frame Also Becomes a Playground for Wildlife
Well before lockdown, when such things were possible, my wife Vick announced that she had found a bargain second-hand climbing framing for our daughters on Facebook. It was priced at £200 for a towered wooden structure with connecting walkways, swings, slides and a climbing wall. The wood alone would have cost more than that! And so, after a bit of arm twisting, we made several trips to collect it in my trailer. The piles of wood filled the driveway for a week, but soon the frame was erected back to its former glory and my two girls were delighted. Since then it has become a favourite spot and, of course, it has been a godsend during the last few months while we stay at home too.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just my children who love it, so too did all the wild birds and animals that live in my garden!
Stoats Are the First Animals to Come Out to Play
The stoats were the first species to show a liking for the climbing frame. Shortly after my girls went back indoors, the kits would venture out to play amongst the discarded toys. Watching these tiny creatures chase madly around, it was clear they enjoyed all the different levels and textures of the play frame’s surfaces. Their favourite was the trampoline and each exploration would end with a bounce on its springy surface. The stoats seemed to love the feel of the fabric and would pull themselves along it with their front and back legs outstretched, sliding on their bellies.
I soon discovered that their mother, Bandita, was taking them each dawn and dusk to play on the trampoline as a treat. Watching the excited kits at playtime running at top speed along the path to the climbing frame area, just like my two girls, was so funny. Stoat mothers move their kits to new nest sites frequently and Bandita, who seemed to like the shelter that the new decking provided, soon moved her family in underneath it.
Now the kits lived ‘on-site’ and could venture onto the play equipment more often. The play area seemed to erupt with stoats as they ricocheted off the vertical walls, tussled among footballs and rolled along and under the deck playing hide and seek. After most sessions they ended up wrestling on the trampoline, writhing around in a heap!
Next a Hedgehog Family Adopt the Playground
When the stoat kits moved out, a hedgehog mother took her place. After spotting her and her four hoglets, cute as buttons as they filed behind her in a neat line, I decided to fit cameras and lighting to the climbing frame. I hoped I’d be able to capture more animals using it. But it wasn’t until I started to review the footage, that I realised just how many animals and birds were enjoying this children’s play frame.
The films played out like a real-life version of the 2016 John Lewis Christmas advert, where a family wakes up on Christmas morning to discover badgers, foxes and more bouncing on their new gift. Admittedly my garden spans three acres and is surrounded by open countryside so barn owls, tawny owls, kestrels and badgers are regular visitors. But I seem to have more passing wildlife than I realised. There was a beautiful young vixen, edging around the frame, sniffing nervously, and then a female roe doe prancing past on long slender legs. At night, barn owls and tawny owls flitted overhead.
Then Owls Use it as a Training Ground
Later, these owls’ brought their young to the climbing frame to teach them to hunt, using the high towers as vantage points. One summer I spotted some recently-fledged kestrels landing on the different levels during those early days of flight practice. I watched as they explored all the different nooks and crannies, either on foot or in flight, practice-pouncing on all manner of objects as they went.
By night, under the glow of the lights, the barn owls made wild head bobbing motions, and seemed entranced by the moving shadows that their bodies cast across the trampoline.
The Wildlife Particularly Like the Paddling Pool
A camera overlooking the paddling pool revealed another surprise: it had become a convenient drinking and bathing point for all manner of creatures. The stoat kits seemed to like it the most. Watching them jostle in front of it was like watching my daughters dare one other to go in for a paddle.
They would balance precariously on the slippery inflatable rim and quickly dip their noses into the freezing water, shaking their heads vigorously in mock-horror. Then one would take the plunge, belly flopping spectacularly with a great splash, and then swim round and round in laps. I have heard that stoats can swim for distances up to 5km, and here was proof that they are proficient in water even at a very young age.
But at night the pool was most popular with owls and, after watching a tawny owl fluff up its feathers and then lower itself in it for a good old wash, I renamed it the ‘hoot tub’. When it wasn’t being used by stoats or owls, I noticed a bellowing of bullfinches regularly descended to drink here.
Even Badgers Come Out to Play
But my absolute favourite was seeing a badger cooling off in it. It was a freezing cold night and the boar rushed straight to the paddling pool and sat right down in the water. It later transpired he had just had a gruelling fight with another boar that lives on the other side of the valley and was trying to alleviate the pain from the bites on his bum! The temperature that night was around 1 or 2 degrees, and I noticed clouds of steam blowing from the badger’s mouth as he also quenched his thirst in the pool.
Challenging My Wildlife Visitors as they Play
I wanted to encourage more wildlife to the climbing frame and to test the ones that already visited, so I decided to leave food out to attract different species. To test the stoats’ agility, I put some food on top of the seven foot high climbing wall. But they scaled this in just a few bounds. I tried to make it harder by placing a high wire overhead. But they were too nimble and easily scampered over this.
The badger, however, didn’t fare so well. My cameras filmed it attempting the climbing wall. It balanced on one hind leg, its front paws clumsily wrapped around either side of the frame, and swaying precariously. The following night it tried again, this time trying to use the knotted rope that swung from the frame for its ascent. Standing on its back legs, the rope clasped between its paws and teeth, it tried to climb. But it could not get its hind leg past the first foothold and swung out, swaying dangerously from one side to the other, before abandoning the prospect and sloping off with a slow, defeated gait.
A Weasel Comes Out to Play
One of my favourite visitors to the climbing frame was a wild male weasel. This weasel was already quite used to me and would let me get within a few feet to film him as he darted amongst the discarded footballs and children’s toy saucepans. I noticed that he always had an escape plan – using vole and mole tunnels at one side of the decking as emergency bolt holes. I named him ‘Vin Weasel’ after the American actor, Vin Diesel.
To test him I placed a large plastic toy shoe my children had long since stopped playing with on the decking. It was in pristine condition and at first my mother-in-law grumbled that it was much too good for a weasel!
The shoe had a miniature door, which on opening set off loud tinkling sounds, and its tongue formed a sort of slide. I hid a dead mouse inside the shoe and within days ‘Vin’ was in. I filmed him opening the door, lights flashing, and emerging at the top of the tongue to slide away with the mouse gripped firmly in his mouth!
Looking Forward to More Animal Playtime
The climbing frame has been in place for six years now and in that time it has given me, my girls and a host of wild species so much pleasure, especially recently when we’ve been in lockdown.
And I see it providing fun for many more years to come too. I’ve yet to see any animal find a use for its bright yellow bumpy slide, but you never know!Author: Robert E Fuller