I've always been ambivalent about cats in the garden because of their instinctive drive to kill wildlife, but I live with a bunch of cat lovers, so there have been cats around my garden for as long as I can remember. Late last year we were forcibly reminded that domestication doesn’t exempt cats from being a part of the food chain when two out of our three were eaten by coyotes. I accept this as a natural occurrence, as coyotes have to eat too of course (unlike a letter writer in a local newspaper, who somehow though the city was at fault for not killing all cat munching coyotes in her neighborhood). However I was a little surprised at the dramatic effect this would have on my vegetable garden.
Broccoli after rabbits and quail
Last year I established my new vegetable garden in an area that had previously been covered in poison oak and I created the beds and planted with good success. This year, without the constant patrolling of the cats, the garden is overrun with quail and rabbits and any palatable green leaf is quickly shredded by one or the other. This has clearly illustrated how the cats made a signifcant contribution toward keeping the vegetable garden productive. For as long as their was a potential cat lurking behind every plant, the birds and rabbits only entered occasionally and nervously, but once this threat was gone (the one remaining cat is a little slow) they have felt comfortable enough to take up almost permanent residence. Now whenever I walk through the garden there is a flurry of wings and rustling of leaves as quail and rabbits flee in every direction. Cats also hunt gophers of course and were helping to keep those under control too.
Of course there are plenty of good arguments against keeping cats, but there are definitely beneficial aspects from a gardeners viewpoint. The reason cats were domesticated in the first place is that they are very good at killing the wildlife that humans find to be a nuisance. Unfortunately they don’t stop there, they will kill almost anything they come across that isn’t too big, including frogs, lizards, snakes and countless birds and small mammals. A recent study estimated the cats of America (80 million pets and about an equal number of feral cats) kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals every year (this may be as many as 1 in 10 of all birds!)
There are other effective ways to keep small pests away from your garden, but none are as easy as cats. Being physically in the garden works, but of course this isn’t very practical to be there all of the time. Bird netting can be used to protect individual beds, but it is a pain to set up, and you have to move it aside for harvest, etc. Fences cost money to build, but work well for rabbits as they are probably the worst climbers in the world, but you need to fold out the bottom of the fence and bury it, otherwise they will dig underneath (they are very good diggers). You also need to use a small mesh - when I cornered a rabbit in my garden it squeezed through an opening in the fence that was little bigger than my thumb. It looked like the rabbit was made of foam rubber, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A fence is useless for birds of course, they will simply fly over it.
A rabbit went through these opening!
My daughter recently got a new kitten (my garden is paradise for cats), which will hopefully help to swing the balance a little more in my favor. Hopefully it will survive long enough.
Cat in chestnut tree