Wednesday 6 March 2019

Beetles in the Firewood in France

Every year in France, usually from about February, some people find their houses invaded by small red or reddish-brown beetles. This is by no means everywhere and many people will never see one, however where they are present they can sometimes be observed in relatively large numbers.

The creature concerned is a Longhorn Beetle, Pyrrhidium sanguineum, although being only 8 to 12 mm it is rarely recognised as being one. Known in English as Welsh Oak Longhorn Beetle and its common French name is La Callidie Sanguine).

Females lay eggs in crevices in dead or freshly cut wood with bark that is exposed to the sun from March – June and are polyphagous in nature using a range of deciduous trees, but with a preference for oak (Quercus spp.).  Larvae burrow into the timber making galleries up to 60cm in length where, when fully grown, they pupate.  They can’t use seasoned timber and usually have an annual life cycle, occasionally this can be two years.

When this wood is stored or kept for a while in the home or perhaps a garage as firewood the adult beetles tend to emerge earlier due to the higher ambient temperature. Where firewood is stored outside in proximity to the home they may be seen a little later in the year when it is warmer.

Fortunately for us we don’t need to worry as they are completely harmless in our homes and can be popped outside where they belong.


Sunday 3 March 2019

Glanville Fritillary France

The Glanville Fritillary, Melitaea cinxia,  is named after Lady Eleanor Glanville, a 17th century Lepidopterist who discovered this species in Lincolnshire. She first discovered this species in 1702 when it was first named as the Lincolnshire Fritillary and only later in 1748 was it was officially re-named the Glanville Fritillary.  These days it is mainly confined to the south coast of the Isle of Wight, with the occasional colony, typically short-lived, appearing on the South Hampshire coast.

Click on images to expand

It is a butterfly that can be found in most regions of France and the Channel Islands where it forms small colonies where there is suitable habitat. There has been a reduction in numbers especially in the north and west of its range with habitat loss being the most likely main cause.

They require low growing sparse grassland, natural flower meadows, scrub, woodland edges and even roadside verges but due to the increase in what is called improved pasture and in cereal production in the broad sense there is increasing isolation of populations. The widespread use of Roundup (Glyphosate) to keep the ground clear in vineyards is another threat to this butterfly along with a number of other species.  

In the southern half of the country there are usually two broods with the first on the wing in April / May and the second generation June / September. Regardless of whether there is a single brood or two broods in a season they over winter as caterpillars in webs that they form on the ground with their food plant which is principally Plantain hence the French common name of La Mélitée du Plantain. 

Lady Eleanor’s collection of butterflies still exists and is housed in the Natural history Museum.


Friday 15 February 2019

Field beans as a fodder crop for sheep in France

In the autumn of 2018 several large fields where we live were planted predominantly with Field beans with a few other plants including fodder radish, mustard and phacelia. This has never happened here before and I was quite excited at the thought that these may be left to flower in the spring which would have been great for all manner of species including my bees. However it seems this is not going to happen.

Yesterday when I was out with my dog I saw that one of the fields was electric fenced and had sheep in it and that the adjacent field was also electric fenced but had been grazed.  

From both an agricultural and environmental perspective I can see the benefits in this. The crop as a green manure provides good winter cover, prevents nutrient leaching, adds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil and the owner of the sheep has fresh early season fodder for their animals.

I should explain that sheep aren’t pastured where we live as it is more profitable to grow cereal crops and that the farmer that owns these particular sheep also grows cereals here including barley for his winter sheep feed. His sheep are kept for the summer some distance away on land that is unsuitable for cereals and are transported to his farm here for winter where they are housed in a huge barn where they are lambed before being returned in spring to their summer grazing pastures.

Regardless of your views on eating meat this would appear to be an improvement for the animals involved and the land.


Thursday 31 January 2019

Hunt or hunting days in France

There are always people asking what days are the hunting days in France and the simple answer is that there is no National law that prohibits hunting on any day of the week during the open hunting season although various Associations keep petitioning for Sundays to be hunt free.

Part of the confusion where it exists is that there isn’t simply one type of hunting or la chasse and that la chasse is often erroneously thought of as being uniquely chasse en battue that involves a minimum number of participants with some driving or flushing through an area using dogs pushing any animals, (boar, deer, fox), out into the open to where one or more hunters wait with guns. Usually this type of organised hunt takes place on two or three specific days of the week that are agreed at the commune level, (ours is Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays) and the people that participate in this like to call themselves La Chasse.  However rough shooting for smaller creatures, birds, rabbits, hares etc. can take place on any day of the week although in practice Wednesday afternoon is usually avoided due to being a half school day.

To be clear - La Chasse can be defined as using various means in order to capture and kill creatures either for eating or for destruction and no single group of hunters can claim this as belonging to them alone.

There was a brief period from July 2000 and July 2003 when hunting was banned on Wednesdays and this was instituted throughout France at the request of the Minister of the Environment, Dominique Voynet, through Article 24 of the hunting law 2000-698 of 26 July 2000, which stipulated: "Article L.224-2 of the Rural Code is worded as follows: ... The practice of shooting hunting is prohibited from Wednesday 6 am to Thursday 6 am".  However in 2003, the repeal of this "no-hunt Wednesday" was included in the bill on hunting put forward by Roselyne Bachelot then Minister of Ecology! It was then voted into law by the majority UMP-UC

The law of 2003-698 of July 30, 2003, by Article 27, thus cancelled this provision altogether (which had in the meantime been transposed to the rural code to that of the environment): "The last paragraph of the Article L. 424-2 of the Environmental Code is deleted."

Therefore only the Prefect of each Departement can order days without hunting in application of the article R.424-1 of the code of the environment but in practice this rarely occurs.

Other limits that are set each year at the Departemental level each year limiting or restricting the time periods and numbers of specific species will apply.


Friday 11 January 2019

Beaver in Pyrénées-atlantiques, France

In the Pyrénées-Atlantiques the first photos emerge of a beaver after several centuries of absence for this species in this area of France.

In February 2018, a naturalist on vacation in the Basque region of France discovered indices of beaver presence on the banks of the Nive at Ustaritz (64) in the form of cut tree trunks and debarked branches.

Click on photos to enlarge - Credits photos  SD64  ONCFS

This led to the realization of a joint research by the ONCFS,
Thomas Ruys of Cistude Nature association, a representative of APPMA, (the angling federation), and a local naturalist.

This investigation confirmed that the indices were indeed those of a beaver but didn’t provide any actual sightings of one.
Following these observations of new cutting activity on fresh trees in November 2018, a photographic trap was installed which resulted in pictures of a beaver working on the trunk of a tree!
For the moment only one animal has been identified that is suspected of being an individual dispersed from the Spanish population of beavers present on the basin of the Ebro or perhaps as seems more likely one or more have been introduced clandestinely.

The ONCFS beaver network will continue in the coming months monitoring the sector, as well as upstream and downstream areas, to check whether it is a permanent installation and to try to better understand the dynamics of the species.

The question is has the beaver made a comeback in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques after several centuries of absence or is this a lone example with unknown origins? 


Friday 4 January 2019

Sunday 9 December 2018

Hedgerows and Dry Stone Walls in France

As soon as we start to take a look at either Hedgerows or Dry stone walls it soon becomes clear that in France as in many parts of the UK it’s difficult to talk about one without the other.

Although there have been what could loosely be called hedgerows to some extent in France since before Roman times they really started to come into their own in the 16th and 17th centuries as the available land not already owned by the nobility or the Church was eagerly snapped up by the wealthy middle classes, the bourgeoisie urbaine. They used hedgerows to define their boundaries, to protect their crops and to prevent other farmers from grazing their land. Apparently hedge laying, (plessage), was widely used throughout France but has disappeared without a trace in many regions since the 1960’s and I have yet to see an example or a remnant in our region.  From the end of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century the industrialisation of agriculture started to change the face of the countryside only interrupted by the two world wars that France was subjected to. Following the second world war with mechanisation the changes to the nature of our landscape and the removal of hedgerows gathered pace, something that was given greater impulse with the land consolidations of the 1970’s and 1980’s and the move towards larger and larger fields when much of our hedgerow network was lost. All in all it is estimated that France has lost an astounding 2 million km of hedges and this is certainly not without its consequences.
Click on images to expand 

Above - Hedgerows take up farmers land.
Below - The convenience of removing them.

Throughout the same timescale we see the rise and literally the fall in the use of stone walls for enclosures, (murets de pierres) or sometimes a combination of the two, a dry-stone wall with a hedge. These can be found today in many parts of the region although the walls are often dilapidated and only partly standing other than when maintained around gardens. To most landowners they are generally at best of no interest or even a hindrance to their activities. Again the losses have been massive.
Above - remains of dry stone wall and hedgerow

Hedgerows come about in different ways, for different purposes and will contain different species. Leaving garden hedges aside from a strictly practical perspective for most farmers and landowners that meant making use of the most robust and abundant natural species that were probably growing there in the first place. Most people will know what they are, especially if they have a bit of rural land. Bramble, blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, spindle, chestnut, oak, box, field maple, elm, beech, holly, ivy, dog rose and wild privet are all typically found and can provide a dense livestock barrier when managed correctly and do a rather good job of keeping people out as well.  Correct management, in this case, is keeping the hedge height and shape compact with a height of around 1.5 to 2.5 metres and a width of 1 to 1.5 metres. This will help prevent gaps appearing, something I see too often here where even newly planted hedgerows are simply left to grow into a row of closely planted trees with huge gaps and limited usefulness, however the occasional tree here and there that is allowed to mature as part of the hedgerow can be beneficial. 

 Above - Hawthorn berries 
   Below - Rosehips on Dogrose  

As mentioned there is little practical need for hedgerows by landowners anymore, indeed in my conversations with local agriculteurs they are often proud of the wide open landscapes with no nasty hedgerows to obscure the view and make life difficult. Where required the introduction and easy availability of metal wire, stock fencing and electric fencing has done away with the requirement for hedgerows. Whilst not wishing to blame them it needs to be understood that hedgerows and dry stone walls have a usefulness and long-term economic value both to farmers and wildlife that only too often hasn’t perhaps been considered or taken into account.

Hedgerows and Dry stone walls provide unique habitat structures that are completely different to anything else including woodland. Importantly they heat up and retain heat in a completely different way that provides protection and breeding habitat for birds, reptiles and mammals as well as a vast number of insects throughout the year. Another feature which will have been noticed by anyone that walks in the winter is that they provide fantastic windbreaks giving shelter from wind and driving rain on the lee side. This same wind break action helps to prevent the soil erosion that results from modern cereal production methods; in fact soil erosion now affects most of the main cereal growing areas in France and other major agricultural production regions and can amount to several tonnes per hectare every year. Given it takes around 500 years for just 2.5cm of topsoil to be created amid unimpeded ecological changes this is a resource we must conserve.
Good dense hedgerows will also build up a mass of living debris at the base, something that takes many years to establish and is of great value to both wildlife and maintaining the soil structure, somewhere for vast numbers of ground beetles and other insects to survive that will, in turn, provide food for hedgehogs and small insect-eating birds. As well as the bushes and trees that make up the hedgerow there will be numerous native flowers that find a place at the base, far too many to name here with native climbers such as Honeysuckle and both Black and White Bryony and White Bryony  provides food for the Bryony Ladybird, Henosepilachna argus, that eats the leaves. 
 Above - Bryony Ladybird
Below - Bryony Ladybird Larva eating Bryony leaves

Everywhere we look we find that all of the plants and the shrubs that are part of this structure will all have an importance to other species with many having unique or specific requirements.  Leaves provide food for specialist caterpillars, flowers provide nectar and pollen for different species of bees and other pollinators, broken hollow bramble stems are where the Small carpenter bee, Ceratina cyanea, a very small solitary bee species you may hardly notice lay their eggs. No article about hedgerows could leave out the importance of all those berries many of which rely on being eaten to be distributed far and wide having passed through a bird or a mammal. Blackberries are perhaps the most widely eaten of all our native berries, Birds, Pine and Stone Marten, Wasps, Hornets, and various other insect and fly species all have their share, not to forget humans. Hawthorn berries and Rosehips are sought after by the Thrush family, (Fieldfare, Redwing, Song and Mistle thrush), in winter when the weather is extreme and the ground is frozen. Hedgerows are also of huge importance to certain species of bat particularly Natterer’s bats and the two Horseshoe bat species, Greater and Lesser. Last but not least we will all have seen dead Barn owls by the side of the road and may even have been unfortunate enough to have collided with one in flight, I have and it isn’t a pleasant feeling. These collisions invariably occur where hedgerows have been removed for the simple reason that Barn Owls hunt by sweeping low across the land and a simple thing like a hedgerow pushes them up and over any traffic.
Above - Injured Barn Owl - one of the lucky ones

We have reached a point where although there is still a net loss of hedgerow each year the pace of removal is slowing; arguably it will be anyway because so much has already disappeared. Also there are land owners and sometimes communes that are planting new hedgerows and in the Vienne the LPO helps raise finance to plant hedgerows every year for a dozen or so small farmers that want to improve bio-diversity on their land.

In Poitou-Charentes the Association Prom’Haies provides a wealth of information and services to assist people in planting hedgerows located at :
Maison de la Forêt et du Bois - 79190 MONTALEMBERT - Tél :

Whilst welcoming all new hedge planting we do need to remember that a newly planted hedge will take many, many years to be anything like as useful as a hedge that has existed for 50 years or more so saving existing hedges should be a priority with continuity maintained wherever possible to preserve their role as wildlife corridors. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that in December at Saint-Ciers-de-Canesse and Pugnac in the Bordeaux vineyards two 190 metre hedgerows have been planted to protect the school and its playground from spray drift following the 2014 poisoning of children in the Villeneuve School that resulted from spraying the adjacent vineyard. This type of planting is set to continue in other places where children are at risk.

As for the tragic loss of dry stone walls it unlikely that much can be done to redress this and it seems certain that most of those that exist in the open countryside will continue to disappear as they have no economic value.