Monday 5 December 2016

Adders in the Réserve naturelle nationale de la vallée de Chaudefour, France

The Common Adder is not found in the warmer parts of France and is generally to only be found in the north and east. As such I thought this information about Adders in the Réserve naturelle nationale de la vallée de Chaudefour, France maybe of some interest. It certainly sounds like a great place to visit if nothing else.

The Vallée de Chaudefour is a glacial valley in the heart of the volcanic massif du Sancy in the Auvergne National Park with a unique range of species many of which are unique to mountain environments. It has no less than 976 species ranging from mammals such as chamois, mountain sheep and marmots to the Apollo butterfly, (Parnassius apollo), rock thrushes (Monticola saxatilis), and a population of Common Adders, (Vipera berus).

The Chaudefour Valley which is between 1137 and 1854 m above sea level has 820 ha of terraced landscape was classified as a National Nature Reserve in 1991. The syndicate of structures that manage the park together with the ONF, (Office National des Forêts), put in place a program that ran from 2011 to 2016 to record and document the adder population.

The inventory has been realised by Frederic Durand, of the Société d’histoire naturelle Alcide-d’Orbigny. The methodology consisted of field surveys with a systematic search and in all 248 Adders have been counted inside the reserve and 19 outside the reserve. They have all been identified, named with an individual tracking record. The colouring, the patterns of the head and arrangement of cephalic scales allow individual photographic recognition, rather like finger prints in humans.

The effective boundary between where the Asp Viper is to be found at lower altitudes and the Adder is directly on the boundary of the reserve where a hybrid pregnant female was found and is the third known case of such a hybridization identified in France.

In June of 2016, officers from the departmental ONCFS, (Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage), for the Puy-de-Dôme participated in a day of recognition where 1 Grass snake  and 19 Adders were measured, weighed and photographed.

The ONCFS officers were able to practice finding the vipers which can be hard to find, especially males, (females that bask on rocks to thermoregulate are usually easier). They also had the opportunity to handle the snakes and discuss the monitoring program with specialists, (sounds like a fun day out).

The implementation of this virtually unprecedented comprehensive monitoring program and the relatively large number of snakes detected where they were thought to be scarce is very interesting given that overall this species is rapidly becoming threatened in much of its range. In general the loss of habitat and fragmentation of the population elsewhere has pushed this species from the status of "least concern" to "vulnerable" category on the 2015 red list. 

Principle source ONCFS

Office National des Forêts  ONF

Réserve naturelle nationale de la vallée de Chaudefour HERE

Adders in France HERE

Cheers, Chris

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Stopping hunting on your land in France

As this is another subject that keeps cropping up here is a little reminder that you don’t have to have the chasse trundling across your land or through your garden if you don’t want them there. 

It would take far too much space to write everything about the subject, so to keep it simple, we could say that after the revolution hunting became something of a free for all until the main law which relates to the situation now was passed in 1964, the so called “Law Verdeille” named after Fernand Verdeille the senateur who proposed it. This regularised the situation somewhat and gave rights to hunters to form Associations known as d'associations communales de chasse agréées or ACCA which have a contract with the commune, (renewable every 5 years), and gave the rights to hunt on all the territory within that commune in return for an indemnity to control species that cause damage to agriculture or forestry. The only alternative to this was for landowners with 20 hectares or more to create an area of private hunting.  There is also a requirement for an ACCA to “set aside” a minimum of 10% of “their” territory as hunt free zones, a rule which is frequently operated in a cynical manner placing these zones where no one would or could hunt anyway.  The  main flaw in this law was that it didn’t give the choice or right to landowners to withdraw their land from hunting completely.

This changed with the French bill n°2000-698 of 26th July 2000 which amended the rural code allowing owners opposed to hunting to withdraw their land from the ACCA, thus giving them the opportunity to create a "wildlife sanctuary" or hunt free zone. This change in law was brought about by a case brought before the European Court by a group of landowners and on 29th April 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Law Verdeille was incompatible with the rights of a private landowner in a case that was defended and lost by the French State. This still doesn’t allow for someone who is not in principle against hunting but simply wants to prevent it taking place on their land to do so as they have to be willing to give up the right to hunt themselves anywhere in France, as a person using this law can not be in possession of a Permis de Chasse, (hunting permit).  

Should anyone wish to prevent hunting and hunters on their land see this link - Stopping hunting on your land in France


Monday 14 November 2016

Organic or Bio food in France

It would be negligent in the extreme to ignore the importance of Organic food production if we are to be serious about preserving our wildlife and the environment. All of the major French Bird and Wildlife Associations are now forming relationships and working closely with Organic farmers to enable them to be even more “Wildlife friendly” including installing ponds, hedgerows, bird and bat boxes. 

Although the consumption of organically produced food or Bio as it is known in France still only represents 3% of the total food consumed both the growth in demand and availability are increasing at an unprecedented rate with sales in 2015 reaching 5.75 billion euros which in itself is probably an underestimate. France itself at the end of 2015 had 28,725 certified organic farmers and 1.3 million hectares of certified land.

Of course a considerable amount of the organic food purchased in France isn’t actually produced in France but is imported from other countries. In some cases this is simply because the food in question couldn’t be grown in France, (Bananas, Coconuts, Pomegranates, Citrus fruits are good examples), or because France simply can’t or doesn’t produce sufficient quantities of some produce which can be for a number of reasons such as not having enough people or land in the given sector or because another country has a better climate and length of season providing greater productivity.

The issue of where the food is actually produced and how it is marketed is needless to say contentious and understandably so. Some people are of the opinion that all our needs should be met by buying local produce from a local producer and this is certainly something that makes good sense but there are limits to what can be purchased in this manner and at best will only supply a small part of a person’s diet. Much will depend on what local producers are present, what distance you would need to travel and when bearing in mind that people have work and other commitments. Many local producers do sell from home whether that be a farm, market garden or their house but frequently with fixed times and perhaps only for a couple of hours a week in addition to which they may be present at one local market a week.
Click photos to enlarge.
Fresh Organic produce from a local grower
Depending on where you live there may be a specialist organic or partially organic food /health shop within a relatively comfortable travelling distance and these will usually stock produce from a number of different local producers as well as stocking some produce from further away with dry and pre-packaged foods from other countries. These smaller retail outlets along with some of the growers often provide a more personal service and many will also take orders by phone or e-mail as a “box” service and may deliver to market.  Frequently these outlets will also perform other functions providing a place where people will connect socially or perhaps find information regarding alternative therapies and other less mainstream groups or events. 
Above: Monthly Organic producers market at an Organic farm.  
Above: Organic cheese producer Grégoire Masse with his marbled Goat and Cows milk cheese.

Then we have one of the major drivers of growth in the Organic sector, the Supermarkets that have really started to come into their own in France over the last couple of years and recently some such as Auchan are pushing forwards providing a great range of interesting produce. Many people have fundamental objections to Supermarkets but the reality is that they are of great importance making available to the consumer types of organic produce that they wouldn’t be able to source elsewhere which has to be good for both peoples health and the environment where production takes place.
Photo above: Organic Spelt bread mix that can be used either by hand or in a bread machine.

Above Left: Organic pure pomegranate juice.  Right: Organic rice milk

This gives us more or less three different supply lines to the consumer all of which have an equal role to play in providing people with produce that is both kinder to the environment and healthy to use or eat either of which should be a good enough reason to buy organic wherever possible.

It should be mentioned that an argument that is frequently made is that not everyone can afford to buy organic produce but this really isn’t the case and although it may not be possible to “go completely organic” it is well within most people’s budget to make a large proportion of their purchases organic. It may require some changes in lifestyle, perhaps trying different meals that use different ingredients and avoiding fast food. Reducing meat, poultry and dairy consumption will save money and provide health benefits as well as reducing the burden on land use.

With over 40% of consumers in France making some organic purchases every week and 10% on a daily basis in 2015 the signs are encouraging and hopefully this will continue to grow. With pesticides and industrial food production being the major causes of environmental destruction leading to both habitat and species loss it’s something where we can all make a real difference just by changing what we buy. 

Together we can make a difference. 


Thursday 27 October 2016

Ivy in France - too important to ignore

I was always lead to believe when younger, (as were many people), that Ivy “strangled” trees and was a thug to be removed but contrary to popular beliefs Ivy is not a parasite, does not normally damage sound buildings or walls, is rarely a threat to healthy trees and if we look around it shouldn’t take long to find plenty of examples of large old trees supporting Ivy that is of a great age.......

Read more - Link to web page.


Thursday 20 October 2016

Goat Moth - a spectacular caterpillar

Caterpillars can be some of the most spectacular and pretty creatures that we can encounter here in France and the caterpillar of the Goat moth, (Cossus cossus), is a classic example and it's the caterpillar that gives this moth its name as it emits a strong and rather unpleasant smell reminiscent of a male goat although having handled a few I’ve never been aware of it myself. 

The moth has a wingspan of 9cm or so, have light grey wings which are covered in black speckles.  Sadly I have never seen one and it may well be that there aren’t many where I live, (my wife did see a caterpillar about 10 years ago on a nearby track but nothing since), however this isn’t so unusual as apparently they aren’t regularly observed and the moth doesn’t feed. By all accounts they aren’t a common species and as we will see the larvae are regularly destroyed which may account for their decline.

Twice a year in May and October Hope Association holds a three day fund raising event at Clussais La Pommeraie in the Deux-Sevres departement of France where I have a table selling my honey. Some years ago my attention was drawn to a caterpillar someone had found and it was unmistakably that of a Goat moth that seemed likely to have emerged from a large Oak tree that is directly in front of the building that is used for the event. The tree had some damage in the form of exit holes but not a huge amount but this year when I was there a few days ago there was sawdust all over the ground at the base of the tree and clinging to the bark. Of course it’s probably nothing different from any other year except that this year we haven’t had any significant rain to wash it away. 

“”The eggs are laid, usually in small batches, in crevices or on bark of living trees near old burrows or other damage. Young larvae enter the tree, at first remaining under the bark, later boring deep into the wood on which they feed. The slow-growing larvae do not become fully grown until the third or fourth year. The burrows of the fully grown larvae are circular in cross-section and up to 20mm in diameter. Sap often seeps from the holes the larvae make at the trunk’s surface, with frass ejected from these, often accumulating at the base of the trunk. Trees can support one, a few or perhaps many larvae. Severe infestations can kill the tree, but this may take several years. In their final autumn, from August onwards, some larvae leave the tree, hibernating in a silk-lined cell in the ground. Other larvae remain in the tree. Pupation takes place in April and May, the larvae in the tree making an exit ‘window’ in the bark by gnawing away all but the outermost surface before making a silken cocoon in which they pupate.”” 

There is no doubt that they can cause serious harm especially to fruit trees, usually older ones that have surface injuries and are considered to be an agricultural pest in orchards however in the case of large oaks the tree should be able to support their presence in the same way they do the larvae of Cerambix cerdo - Le grand Capricorne. 

A few photos of the tree concerned and one of the caterpillars from it. Click on photos to enlarge.


Monday 18 April 2016

A few French frogs and newts at Chaunay.

When the LGV from Tours to Bordeaux was being constructed there were a large number of environmental impacts that had to be considered as a matter of law these days and I will go into them at a later date. Here I only want to touch upon one site, Le bocage humide de Chaunay a wetland site site in the south west of the Vienne departement of some importance.

All in all at this site some 120 hectares were purchased by Réseau ferré de France, (RFF), which is the company that owns and maintains the French national railway network.  The land is comprised of moderately managed small copses and hedged fields that have been cut for hay. It’s something of an exception among the wetlands of the department. With no connection to any river an alluvial aquifer feeds directly into the pools and ditches creating large area of seasonal surface water. With a handful of man made ponds left in existence another 7 have or are being created on the 45 hectares that have been contracted to CREN, (Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels de Poitou-Charente), for 25 years. CREN in turn are establishing a management plan with farmers that use the land regarding types and timing of any hay cutting that will take into account the various species present.

The site is particularly rich and includes some of the rarer and endangered amphibian species that have been lost in huge numbers due to the vast destruction of ponds and habitat throughout the region over the last 50 years or so.  I bet like me you must get sick of hearing this, everywhere we look it’s the same old story and sadly not getting any better.

Anyway, on a positive note this particular site is relatively safe although there are some issues that will be difficult to resolve as we shall see.

When observing or compiling records for amphibian species at any given site it’s necessary to do this at night essentially combining two different means. The first is to listen and identify any of the frog or toad species present. To do this, having approached the pond, we then turn off all lights and wait 5 minutes as little by little they settle down and get back into their calling. As with most other creatures each species has its own unique call and for some it may be the only way we can determine their presence.  

Next it’s light and time for a careful search in the shallow margins. The water will be slightly warmer here and it’s where mating takes place for most amphibians. For many species there is no need to actually capture them, simple observation is enough, indeed strictly speaking it’s illegal to capture them without being authorised and absolutely illegal to deliberately harm or move one.

Of particular interest is the Triton de Blasius a hybrid newt that results from the mating between a male Great Crested Newt, (Triturus cristatus), and a female Marbled Newt, (Triturus marmoratus), which obviously requires the prescence of both species. Biologically the males are sterile and females only partly fertile. There is no typical Blasius but the essential features are the back with the markings of a Marbled Newt and the belly of a Great Crested Newt.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Photos below of Triton de Blasius.

Photo below of Male Common tree frog 

Photo below of an Agile frog

Photo below of Female Palmate Newt

Photo below of Female Great Crested Newt

Other species are also present at the same site - Marbled Newt, Common toad and Parsley Frog. 

There remains as I mentioned one not so small issue and that is the presence of Procambarus clarkii, Red Swamp Crayfish  an introduced species from the USA. This species can reach 85-90mm total length and are aggressive in behaviour presenting a threat to the native amphibian species that are there. Due to  the protected nature of this site only authorised trapping can take place but as it is a species that will move through ditches and indeed overland in wet conditions total eradication is unlikely. 

 Photo below  Procambarus clarkii, Red Swamp Crayfish


Saturday 16 April 2016

Having honey bees without keeping them.

There appears to be more and more people that just want to have some honey bees in their garden or on their land. These same people are often met with a barrage of it isn’t possible, they will all die, you need to be trained, (like a donkey?), or you will be spreading disease and every other evil that paranoid beekeepers can dream up to protect their image of being masters of their craft and keepers of the grail. Fortunately not all bee keepers are that precious or narrow minded.


However would it surprise you to know that actually it’s perfectly possible and reasonable to have honey bees without playing with them?

LINK HERE Having honey bees without keeping them.

Hope you enjoy it, Chris

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Snakes and their names in France

This comes up in questions and conversation all the time and frankly there isn’t much point asking your neighbour, in fact mentioning snakes isn’t a good idea unless you want to run the risk of being treated to a diatribe on how they should all be killed.

There is a lot of confusion caused for English language speakers by the translations of French to English for snake “prefixes” resulting from historical errors that have never been corrected since the first dictionaries which have been copied ever since. These are the common or vernacular names in normal usage although again it’s unlikely that most French people know them.

Couleuvre is often thought to mean “Grass snake” but in fact it is used for a group of snakes in France, 6 in all, that reproduce by laying eggs, and are all but one harmless and non venomous.  

The snakes are. 

Couleuvre à collier – Grass snake
Couleuvre à échelons – Ladder snake
Couleuvre d'Esculape – Aesculapian snake
Couleuvre verte et jaune – Western whip snake
Couleuvre vipérine – Viperine snake
Couleuvre de Montpellier – Montpeiier snake, (venomous but with non retractable rear facing fangs at the rear of its mouth - generally harmless).

Coronelle, which won’t often be heard, is used for 2 species of snake in France that are harmless and non venomous, one, the Southern Smooth snake lays eggs and the other, the Smooth snake is “live bearing”, that is to say although not giving live birth in the standard sense it is when the babies hatch inside the mother and are then released to the outside world and can immediately fend for themselves.

The snakes are.

Coronelle de Bordeaux - Southern smooth snake
Coronelle lisse – Smooth snake

Vipère which are the true vipers, they are venomous, potentially harmful and have retractable forward facing fangs and are also “live bearing”.   

The snakes are.

Vipère aspic – Asp viper
Vipère péliade – Common Adder
Vipère d'Orsini - Orsini's viper
Vipère de Seoane (Vipère des Pyrénées) - Seoane's Viper


Thursday 10 March 2016

Ponds in Poitou-Charentes France

Ponds in Poitou Charentes from an article in Living Magazine.

Living in this part of France with water on demand at the turn of a tap, it’s easy to forget that as little as 20 to 25 years ago there were many people in small hamlets that only had the well to supply their needs. Pumped domestic water for many is a relatively recent phenomenon in rural France. The further we go back, the more people depended on other means to provide and store water for themselves and their livestock which included different types of ponds, troughs and containers depending on the purposes they would be required for. In turn, these often provided an important habitat for a range of species, amphibians, reptiles, insects and plants. Sadly, many have been lost for one reason or another or have been altered to satisfy our desire for ornamentation.

Friday 4 March 2016

Winter bee colony mortality rates.

A couple of interesting maps from the studies carried out for the European Commission certainly throw up more questions than answers.

Why should the UK suffer nearly 30% winter losses in the winter of 2012/2013 when in the same winter France only recorded losses of 14.2%, Germany 13.3% but Belgium an astounding 32.4%?  

From my own perspective anything around 15% could be considered normal with colonies that are not heavily manipulated.

Anyway, here are the maps and also a link to the document and other downloads.

Click on maps to enlarge.





Sunday 28 February 2016

Soya bean cultivation in France

As if things weren’t bad enough already Soya seems set to be the latest money generator for the people that exploit the cereal lands of France 

Click on photos to enlarge

It was some 30 years ago that Soya bean trials were first made in my region of Poitou-Charentes but at that time it wasn’t economically worthwhile and it was cheaper to import from abroad. As the dominate producers, (Brazil, Argentina and the United States), moved to growing Genetically Modified Soya and imports swelled as a result of an ever increasing demand from the industrial production of both meat and poultry some thought there was an opportunity to try growing Soya again. With this in mind Eric Simon of the animal food manufacturer Alicoop, Pamproux along with some others approached Ségolène Royal, (then President of the Region), to provide assistance via additional Regional subsidies alongside those available from the CAP, (Common Agricultural Policy), for this crop. With the market price and subsidies combined it’s more profitable than sunflowers and in a couple of years regional production has exceeded 2000 hectares and is set to grow exponentially.

On the plus side it is a crop that like sunflowers can manage without irrigation. It also has no requirements for fungicides or insecticides, fixes nitrogen from the air in its root nodules and provides an alternative to the Genetically Modified alternatives that are imported, all of which in different circumstances would deserve our support.

So what’s the problem?

The simple answer is the vexed issue of the continuing decline of pollinators as a result of every last piece of half viable land being turned to the plough which was already bad enough in itself but it did at least have the small virtue of sunflowers that have usually been grown as the 4th crop that has to make up no less than 5% of the land surface of any given crop producer. If Soya replaces Sunflowers, of which there is every likelihood, it will leave much of the French countryside almost devoid of food in the summer for bees whether they are Honey bees, Bumble bees or Solitary species. The one thing Soya doesn’t have is flowers that open, they are small, remain closed and internally self pollinate. Add this to the other crops that are already grown over the largest land areas, that are wind pollinated and have no nectar, wheat, barley and maize and it’s clear that it’s an expanding “green desert”, pleasing on eye to those that don’t understand but a catastrophe for our pollinating insects.


Tuesday 23 February 2016

The so called Flow Hive.

As this is a subject that isn’t going away and keeps being brought to light, (usually but not always by people that have little or no experience of keeping bees), I thought I should attempt a response of my own that I can use as and when required that makes my position and views clear.


Firstly for people that have no practical experience of beekeeping it should be noted that the structure that matters in this instance it isn’t actually a hive but what we beekeepers call a “super” in English or la hausse in French. This is a supplementary box that goes on top of a hive to enable the beekeeper to collect honey that is in excess to the colonies requirements. The fact that they can also supply a hive to go with it is neither here nor there as it’s the supplementary box and its constituent parts that are different. This supplementary box for honey production is usually separated from the hive proper with a grill that keeps the Queen in the hive itself.

My first objection may not seem very important to some people and that is that the device relies on artificial pre-formed honey comb structures made entirely from plastic when the natural situation would be bees making comb with their own wax.

These plastic frames are designed to shift vertically along the center (or midrib) of the honeycomb structure. This is operated by turning a key that shifts the midrib breaking open the back of the cells containing honey which then theoretically drains backward, drips down the back of the plastic frame and is captured in a trough that leads to a tube that drains to the outside and into your jars or other containers of choice.  Once the comb is drained, you turn the key again which shifts the comb back into its original position when the bees supposedly chew open the wax seals on the front of the comb and refill them assuming somehow the bees know that the cells have been emptied from the back?  All of this is achieved without removing the lid or removing and exposing the comb and bees to the air.

All sounds wonderful but then the sales spin always does.

The first thing is that honey cells need to be filled and sealed with wax by the bees before the honey is ready to be extracted and stored. Taking honey before this has happened will usually mean that the water content is too high thus leading to fermentation, (more than 19%).

Now they make much of how kind this system is to the bees because there is no requirement to remove the lid and remove the frames. They claim that it’s possible to see if the cells are sealed simply by looking through the glazed side but anyone with experience will know this simply isn’t true. As you can see from the photo the faces of the frames simply aren’t visible even from the top with the lid removed which means the frames have to be lifted out to see the entire faces.

Another concern for me is honey robbing.  Pictures on the Flow™ Hive site also show honey dripping from the hive into open jars with no bees in evidence when in reality any source of exposed honey would immediately attract thousands of bees and potentially trigger a robbing frenzy as other hives in the area rapidly discover free open air honey. Either way, you wouldn’t be sitting there with open honey without there being bees all over and in it. Anyone that doubts this should stand by a hive with a teaspoon of honey and watch the speed with which bees arrive.

Then there is the not so small matter of the nature of the honey and whether it would actually just run out or not. Again anyone with actual experience of keeping bees in most European countries will know that there are some types of honey, perhaps the majority, which simply won’t. Indeed there are some that can’t even be extracted by spinning out of the frame if they start to set in the frame, Oilseed rape being one of them which requires very precise timing for extraction and Heather honey is thixotropic and cannot even be spun out from the combs in an extractor and is usually pressed. These will clog and jam the mechanism requiring the Flowhive frames to be removed and cleaned with hot water.

Price?   Well if you want to spend over 500 US$ for a 7 frame flow hive when you can buy a regular Super with 9 waxed frames for €30 you must have money to burn.

So what if any are the benefits?

Zero as far as I can see, it won’t be less intrusive or kinder to the bees that much is clear and the super with the Flow frames will still need to be frequently removed, emptied of bees and cleaned. If your reason for buying this is because you are afraid of bees or you think it will make it easier you are mistaken.

If you really are determined to try one I reckon that if you wait there will be a glut of them on the market at knockdown prices when people realise they aren’t all they are cracked up to be, or on the other hand I may be wrong. 


Monday 15 February 2016

Trapping Asian Hornets

You would be forgiven for thinking that people that keep bees would be concerned about the environment and the general well being of all creatures. Sadly this is often not the case; indeed many bee keepers make a living as so called pest destroyers.

Anyway as they say “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” and in this case bee keepers, bee keeping groups and other wildlife groups have been extolling the virtues of trapping Asian Hornets, especially in the early spring when the new queens are coming out of hibernation without thinking or considering the repercussions.

The traps that are usually based on the principle of a plastic bottle with a small entrance, often the inverted neck of the bottle, are suspended with a quantity of attractant added. There are various mixtures used but Brown beer, Cider and Cherry syrup mixes seem to be favoured, the argument being that this won’t attract honey bees. It will however attract European Hornets and our native social wasps which are suffering enough already and generally in decline even if you may not think so if you are at place where people are congregating to eat and consume sugary drinks in summer. Of course other insects and flies will also be drawn to the traps and suffer an unnecessary slow death. All of this shows a remarkable ignorance of the current situation of insects decline that is having a devastating effect on our wildlife. 

Of course there are selective ways to kill Asian Hornet Queens in the early spring but they require a little effort, but in my opinion that effort is well worth while if it means protecting our native species.

In early spring Bee keepers or individuals can try to kill as many Asian Hornet Queens as possible by hand. They will be easily lured to the slightest scent of honey and I find swatting them with a plastic tennis racket is the easiest method and we can then avoid killing European Hornets and other wasps.