Tuesday 25 March 2014

Waxing frames for bee hives.

I’ll start with a short, simple explanation of some basics for readers that aren’t clued up on keeping bees.

If we begin with the general type of bee hive that has been used by most keepers in France and the UK for the last 100 years or so which comprises a Brood box or what we could call the “hive proper” where the colony lives and the Supers which are placed on top of the Brood box for the excess honey production that the keeper takes. A Queen excluder is placed between the Brood box and the supers. This is a grill made either from metal or plastic that allows the workers to pass through but prevents the larger Queen from "getting upstairs" and laying eggs in the honey supers, however skinny Queens do sometimes get through.

Click to enlarge images.

If you look at the picture you can see these have wooden frames placed inside them, one size for the Brood box and another size for the Supers. These frames are to support the comb and it has been common practice for the last 150 years or so to pre fit these frames with a sheet of moulded wax to give the bees something to build on. The wax sheets are pressed with a honeycomb design and the size or number of these to any given area will determine or dictate to the bees the dimensions that they will use to construct their cells.

Frame with standard wax foundation fitted.

When we take and examine a piece of bee comb from a feral colony it soon becomes clear that different bee colonies make different size cells and more to the point the size of their cells varies in a single colony which would indicate that pushing bees down a one size fits all route may not be desirable, or more precisely may be desirable for the keeper but not necessarily for the bees. Of course we can’t know “if the bees care or not” but as I’m committed to leaving them to their own devices wherever I can I only use wax foundation sheets in the honey supers where the increased rigidity is required to withstand the forces from centrifugal extraction, (spinning). For the brood box frames I simply fix a starter strip of wax in the top of the frame to point them in the right direction, this can be moulded or plain, the rest is up to them. The important thing is to take great care in getting the hive level in all directions as the bees comb will always be vertical and we want the comb they make to remain inside the frames and integrate the stainless steel wires.

Frames with starter strips.

Natural comb drawn from starter strip.

Warré frame part drawn with natural comb.

Other than saving money another potential benefit for the bees maybe a reduction in any pesticide or other toxic build up there could be in using old wax that has been recycled from other hives. It won't prevent the bees bringing "cides" in but it gives them a clean start.


Friday 21 March 2014

Our Wind Farm in Blanzay / Romagne

It’s been known for some time now, 9 or 10 years at any rate that a number of sites in the area have been selected as places for wind turbines with all the relevant wind speed and duration tests completed and found to be satisfactory and one thing we certainly have here is wind for much of the year.

Then came the preliminary approvals for the ones proposed near us with the two relevant Mairies, (Romagne and Blanzay), giving their consent.

Well folks, there are a few things that always rattle peoples cages and having a wind farm being built close to where you live is one of them and it wasn't long before some of the local residents were “getting organised” and preparing to fight this proposed outrage. As with all such projects there was an opportunity for people to make their views known and register their objections or indeed support.

At some point some people formed an association – the Association de Défense et de Protection de l’Environnement de Blanzay (ADPEB) with the aim of presenting a case based on, well, protecting the environment of course, saving birds and bats and stuff like that. This came as something of a surprise to me because up to this point there has been a remarkable lack of interest from the inhabitants in our local environment and bio-diversity as it has been systematically destroyed over recent years, but maybe this has been a "Road to Damascus moment" for some people, we’ll see how much interest they have in the future and I look forward to working with them, there’s plenty that needs changing starting with simple initiatives such as reinstating hedgerows and not continually slashing the roadsides margins.

To cut a long story short the Prefet approved the construction although the Enquiry Commissioner actually recommended against it. The Prefet was of the view that it was merely an opinion which did not bind their decision and it was their responsibility to seek the opinion of administrative services, municipal councils concerned, as well as members of the Commission Departementale de Ia Nature, des Paysages et des Sites (CDNPS). The later would be one or more recognised organisations that would have carried out environmental impacts studies. In the Vienne organisations such as the LPO Vienne and Vienne Nature, the recognised Ornithological and Nature Associations for the Department or a structure such as Biotope are used for this. In this instance the commitment to renewable, clean energy would be considered to far outweigh any minor impact on wildlife which would indeed be negligible at this site and restricted mainly to birds. Although any additional impact is unfortunate it pales into insignificance when compared to what has happened and what is happening to the local habitat. There will undoubtedly be deaths of small birds and one or two of the larger species of birds of prey may suffer casualties as well but realistically of these only Buzzards and Honey Buzzards remain as nesting birds that are likely to collide with the blades. Hen and Montagu’s Harrier have had their nesting possibilities all but ended years ago by modern farming practices and these local fields are now virtually useless as prey hunting zones, (intensive cultivation and lack of voles). Goshawk and Sparrowhawk  are unlikely to come into contact and the nearest nesting site I know for Black kite is about 12km away. Some people have said that Cranes, some of which pass this way on migration, will be in danger and there may be an outside possibility of this but generally the flight altitude of Cranes will take them clear of the turbines.

The final throw of the dice has been the threat by the manager of La Vallee des Singes, a local animal park principally for primates, to close the business and relocate elsewhere. He had requested that the nearest turbine should be no nearer than 3km to the animal park rather than the 1.6km which is proposed because the infra sound would disturb the primates.

Much has also been made of the loss of employment and other losses to the local economy should La Vallee des Singes relocate to another site although this would in fact be a net gain for the wider economy with the construction of a new animal park creating employment while the existing park remained open until the new park was able to accommodate the primates with the existing jobs simply transferring to the new location.

Living as we do with the nearest turbine 600 metres from our property I would naturally be happy to see them being built elsewhere, especially as there is likely to be a negative effect on property prices, but to simply take the attitude of "Not in my back yard" when there is no good reason to oppose them would be hypocritical in the extreme, therefore I have remained neutral throughout the legal processes. The wider debate about wind generation, its effectiveness and how it’s financed is another matter but there is little doubt that it is now a significant and increasing part of "renewable energy production" in many countries and cannot be opposed using spurious disingenuous arguments.

The company concerned is ALSTOM

LPO Vienne 

Vienne Nature 


Maps and notices, click to enlarge images.

UPDATE  22nd March.

Well it now seems following a meeting at the Prefecture that Emmanuel Le Grelle the manager of La vallée des singes in Romagne has decided to pursue what could potentially be a long drawn out legal challenge.

Translated quotes.

"The authority to operate the wind farm was issued by a prefectural order on January 8, 2014. As of this date, I have six months to refer a case to the court. As for the building permit signed by the mayor on 28 February, it was posted last Tuesday. That leaves me two months to file a petition."

"While the courts have not settled, the work will not take place, he predicts. No bank will risk lending money. And as I have decided to go all the way, including before the Council of State, if necessary, this gives us five to seven years!"

Additionally Emmanuel Le Grelle said he had no news of the criminal complaint he filed for “illegal interest” against three current councilors of Blanzay, who he suspects have a personal interest in the wind farm development.

Full article in French 


Thursday 13 March 2014

Pine marten caught on camera.

All of a sudden whoosh, the sun is shining, the air is warm and the spring rush commences and it’s early by a good week or two, surprises everywhere with the last 7 or 8 days having been simply gorgeous with spectacular apricot and plum blossom and spring flowers everywhere.

As usual at this time of year I find myself falling behind or more correctly that I have fallen behind with all those jobs that should have been finished by now, so just a quick update on what I've managed to capture with the Trail Camera I purchased back in November last year as mentioned HERE.

Other than a constant stream of Roe deer that is to be expected, (I can see them easily in the fields outside most days, even right up close to the house), I managed to get a short clip one night of a badger at a friends property and will go back there soon now the hunting season is over. Sadly Badgers are hunted and persecuted in France on a large scale and although my friends’ woodland is removed from hunting it’s better not to draw attention to their presence. 


Not very exciting but I managed to get a half decent still frame of a Hare on our land. They aren’t very common round here at present and the hunting in our region for them was suspended this season 

A bit of a surprise was to find we have a fox in residence. Again although these are perhaps not exactly rare they are extensively hunted and rarely seen around these regions.


Then the other night I managed to get some film and stills of Pine Martens which is great and I will definitely try to get some better quality film. This one seems to only have one eye.


Overall the quality of the photos and film isn't that great, I would have expected perhaps a little better given the glowing sales pitch, however the main purpose is served in seeing what is and equally important what isn't present.


Saturday 1 March 2014

Ortolan Bunting - a typically French approach to protection?

Due to the "peculiar nature" of the situation with the Ortolan Bunting in France I've chosen to blog this rather than use a page on the web site.

The situation in France.

In Les Landes the Ortolan bunting is a species that has historically been captured to be eaten as a “Regional delicacy”, a food reserved mainly for the rich that was served in the best restaurants of Paris and the other large French cities and has graced the tables of the wealthy and  politicians for hundreds of years. It was for this reason that France derogated this species from the European Bird Directive. This led to something of a paradox because although the Ortolan bunting wasn't listed as protected in France neither was it included on the list of species permitted to be hunted. This enabled them to be captured alive, transported, kept in captivity, bought and sold and killed – BUT NOT HUNTED. In a few regions the practice of capturing them continued to be considered as “traditionale”, being apparently an important part of French culture. After being banned in the Lot-et-Garonne and the Gers it only left Les Landes where this continued until finally under mounting pressure they were made a protected species in France on 15th March 1999. Unfortunately the illegal capture and trade continues and little is done to prevent it. With an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people involved in their capture in Les Landes and each bird with an end price “served up” on the table of €100 to €150 or even more it isn’t difficult to see the financial attractions or the probable reasons why there is what seems to be a “blind eye” from the authorities. 

The Capture.

The process commences when the birds are captured, either in mist nets or more usually these days in small cages on posts and this takes place when the birds are on their autumn migration, mainly from the North and Centre of Europe where the south west of France forms their major route. The cages are spaced out in blocks on open land that is often concealed in the middle of maize fields. They have a small dish of fine seed placed in them to attract the birds, then as the Ortolan enters, the cage snaps shut. It is estimated that some 30,000 to 50,000 of these so called “protected birds” are caught in these traps, (called matoles), each year in Les Landes, which is the equivalent of the combined total of all the nesting Ortolan in the Benelux countries, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In recent years the LPO and CABS have been present in some of the areas where the birds are trapped and have attempted to destroy as many illegal traps as possible after releasing any birds. They have also denounced this situation of tolerance established between the administration and the poachers without concrete results and in spite of the promises made by various Ministers for Ecology to put an end to this situation very few prosecutions actually take place.

The Fattening.

The captured the birds are fattened for a few weeks by being fed millet in suspended cages kept in dark barns. Kept in these artificial conditions and with an ample supply of food and water they gorge themselves rapidly putting on excess weight.

The Eating.

Now we come to what we could call the “sacred” bit or perhaps "satanical" would be more appropriate as the cooking and eating of Ortolan buntings takes on something of a ritualistic aspect. There are several ways in which the bird can be prepared and back in the 19th century Alcide Bontou the famous chef had several recipes for them in his work titled “Traité de Cuisine Bourgeoise Bordelaise”. However, in all cases the birds are plucked and cooked whole, often having been first drowned in Armagnac. The person eating the bunting usually holds it delicately by the beak and legs, then with a napkin  draped over their head and in silence with eyes closed the bird is taken whole into the mouth and slowly chewed, perhaps after having first sucked the juices.

Ortolan bunting was famously reported to be Francois Mitterrand's last meal and there is also a section in the documentary "A table avec les politiques", (France 3, 29th September 2007), showing Alain Juppe and Jack Lang enjoying a private meal of Ortolan where you can see this ritual taking place. 

About Ortolan Bunting.


Slightly larger than a sparrow the male Ortolan bunting is easily recognised by its colouring. A greyish olive green stretches of the head and neck to the top of the chest with a yellow throat and “moustache”. The lower half of the body is a rich cinnamon. Upper parts are brown and streaked. A good view will reveal a yellow eye ring, buff pink beak and feet. Females are paler, less green with small dark streaks on the breast.

Habitat, Behaviour and Diet.

Here in Poitou-Charentes they arrive from tropical Africa in mid April and depart towards the end of September and the Vienne Departement hosts the largest breeding population in Central / West of France, although there are significant, if small, populations in the other three Departments. Habitat, as is often the case, is paramount for Ortolan. They require an open aspect with sparse ground cover and a soil that is “hot and dry”. Typically this is the type of small family size vineyards that have the odd small fruit trees included and aren’t kept over “weed” free. Other open sparsely covered ground such as wasteland and set aside, which is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, will also be suitable. Nests are constructed on or very close to the ground in a clump of plants from mid May and the female produces 4/5 eggs, usually in June; usually there is only one brood. Breeding males will be seen singing in a small tree, on a stone wall or vine in close proximity to the nest with a call that resembles that of a Yellowhammer. Food, which is taken on the ground, is mainly insects and caterpillars supplemented with small seeds as the season progresses. 


With the exception of Poland, Bulgaria and the Baltic States they are in decline throughout their European breeding range, although with a large global population they aren’t currently considered to be globally at risk they are considered to be threatened in France. Other than the obvious annual slaughter the situation is linked to changes in agricultural practices, particularly the intensive use of pesticides and the abandonment of traditional practices. 

In the Vienne we have the only remaining viable ortolan population in the region with all the adjoining Departements either in steep decline or it having disappeared completely as a nesting bird. For this reason in 2013 the LPO Vienne commenced a program "connaitre et protéger" for the Otrolan in the parts of the Vienne where it best represented, principally Le Pays du Haut-Poitou et Clain. Working on two fronts with farmers to provide the correct good habitat and with schools to educate the young - always important.


Wednesday 19 February 2014

Bats and mushroom growing underground in France.

One thing I've learnt is that when you get out and about you never know what that day will bring and that was certainly the case again the other week when I went to do a bit of underground Bat recording organised by Samuel Ducept and Miguel Gailledrat of Vienne Nature. We met at the bureau at 9am which is early enough for me in winter and as soon as everyone was present set of in two vehicles, 5 people in each to go our separate ways for the day.

I must mention that for some unknown reason it seems that it’s mainly females in France that are “into” bats and Saturday was no exception. Other than Sam and Miguel I was the only male the other 7 being “girls”, (any female under about 35 or possibly 40 is a girl to me these days).

We were going to try and research some underground cavities that either hadn't been looked at before or hadn't been researched for several years. These are all old workings, principally underground quarries in the first instance to provide the limestone that was used to build the châteaus and houses and most were then used for other functions, storing food such as cheese if part of a large property or used as champignonnières – commercial mushroom production. This was the principle means of commercial mushroom production in France during the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century thanks to the ideal conditions they provided, a more or less constant temperature, easy to regulate air flow and a good level of humidity. The process is quite complex and rather than make gross errors I have linked to a good site below in French with some interesting old photos but all methods required the use of containers filled with compost made with a mix of manure and straw plus lime.

Click on photos to enlarge.

These old underground caves or cavities are always on private land, often some distance from a road and sadly many have become blocked or overgrown. Of course overgrown or even partially blocked isn't necessarily a problem for over wintering bats providing they still have reasonable access but it obviously reduces the ability to record numbers effectively. Inevitably for us it meant drawing several blanks which is always disappointing however we did manage to find and gain access to several caves of varying sizes over the course of the day even when it meant overcoming a few obstacles.

It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that these caves are used by all manner of other species besides bats and in two caves there was the unmistakable and all pervasive smell of fox and even a brief glimpse of one as it ran away from our lights. Large numbers of Peacock butterflies and literally hundreds if not thousands of Herald moths Scoliopteryx libatrix hibernating all over surfaces of one cave and even a small cluster of Eristalis tenax hoverflies in a shallow hole in the rock face. There are always small clouds of lethargic mosquitoes and other midges waiting for spring and even quite large numbers of chocolate coloured slugs in one cave.

Not all bats favour caves to over winter with many species using houses, buildings or cavities in forest trees. The common pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus, one of the commoner bats prefers buildings and when found in a cave it will usually be near the entrance as will be Barbastelle Barbastalla barbastellus. The Large and Small Horseshoe bats are to be more likely found far from the entrance in the warmer air where they can sometimes remain moderately active even flying around sometimes and as they are often not actually asleep greater care needs to be taken not to disturb them.

Totals for the day.

Greater Horseshoe bat    73
Lesser Horseshoe bat      12
Brown Long eared bat     5
Daubentons bats             8
Whiskered bat                42
Geoffroy's bat                23
Natterer's bat                  6
Bechstein's bat                5
Greater mouse-eared bat  33

Although there was a reasonable number of Greater Horseshoe bats they weren't in substantial groups.


Monday 17 February 2014

Spring is in the air - well almost.

Not quite out of the woods yet with a sharp cold spell always possible ‘til mid March but today after all the rain the sun is finally shining, 11°C+ in the shade and life is emerging again even if perhaps only briefly taking a break from hibernation for some creatures.

I have to confess that this is always a somewhat nervous time of year for me waiting to see how many of my occupied bee hives are active. Even though activity in itself is no sure sign that the colony is OK and has a good Queen it’s quite a good indication if they are taking in pollen but even now if a Queen fails before the end of March there is no chance of a naturally mated successor. Most of the hives looked good, all were active and I even managed to get my first sting of the year right on the face, not too happy about that I have to say, never a pleasant experience however much it goes with the job.

Butterflies today were much as to be expected, all the common over wintering species, Brimstone, Comma, Peacock and Red Admiral but good to see them however common they are, after all it wasn't so long ago that the Small Tortoiseshell was a common species in our region, now it's getting quite rare. Also saw a Humming bird hawk moth a species that didn't over winter in our region at one time but increasingly some do now. Carpenter bees are always early risers on a warm sunny day and there were a few of them around “inspecting holes” although it’s hard to believe they could really be laying eggs at this time of year. Found this very pretty and immaculate Ground beetle with very orange legs.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Hazel catkins have been open a while now and many have been washed out with all the rain, none the less there are plenty that are fresh with pollen, goat willow is starting to show and will be open in a matter of days as is the wild plumb blossom.

Found some quite nice clumps of Agile frog spawn, perhaps a little early due to the mild wet winter so far……

…… and at 4.30 a few groups of Cranes totalling some 400 flew over chattering their way north east, (recorded on line with the LPO). All in all a pleasant day with the promise of the big spring rush just around the corner.


Monday 10 February 2014

Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin die in their thousands.

Much has been made of the human situation recently with flooding and all that goes with it but additionally the recent rain and persistent Atlantic storms have had severe consequences for wildlife in many places, not least the Atlantic coast of France where thousands of birds have been washed up on the coastline in recent days.

Principally Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin the main cause of death is from exhaustion and lack of food according to analyses carried out at Nantes, although there have been some with traces of oil that may be from the ships that leaked fuel after running aground.

Hegalaldia, (Centre de sauvegarde faune sauvage du Pays Basque) have taken in 85 birds to date with the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO) and other sources indicating that as many as 500 in Loire-Atlantique, 500 in Vendée, 1000 in Charente-Maritime and more than a thousand on the rest of the coast have been affected.

With the sea “like a giant washng machine” there is too much swell and reduced visibility for these birds to fish and following three weeks of these conditions the recent surge has driven these birds on to the coast where they have been beached after fighting for days and days to survive.

Although Atlantic storms are “the norm” for the west coast of France the difference in this situation which is being experienced by everyone affected is the duration and strength of these storms.


As of the 18th February it is estimated that over 11 000 birds were stranded along the Atlantic coast, the main species being affected are Puffin (over 8,000 individuals) , followed by Guillemot.  Among all these beached birds some were ringed and they come mainly from the United Kingdom.

The statistical report is still provisional.

It should be noted that the exceptional nature of this mass stranding has never been observed before  in France other than by marine pollution.

Every winter illegal discharges from ships are recorded off the French coast, and now following successive storms the Atlantic coast is witnessing the arrival of tar balls. Increasingly oiled birds are reported.

It is probable that more birds will be found on the Atlantic coast throughout the month of February.

As of the 25th February 34,121 birds dead and 2,784 sent to rescue center. Many birds floating off the coast have been reported by fishermen. The still provisional toll is likely to rise in the coming days.

Photos from LPO France.  Click on photos to enlarge.