Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Round-leaved Fluellen

On a recent walk through a field that had the remains of a wheat crop scattered across it I took the opportunity to photograph some of the so called arable weeds (Fr. plantes messicoles). My friend Ingrid who was with me at the time asked me if I was photographing plants new to me or plants I didn't already have good photos of. As it happened I had encountered these 'weeds' before, but one in particular is extremely difficult to photograph. The flowers are very delicate and fall off if you so much as touch the plant. They are also quite small and ground hugging. Photographing them required getting down on hands and knees.

You might be able to guess by looking at the flowers that this little plant is related to toadflaxes, also 'weeds', some of which tumble over limestone walls, others which line the roadsides in autumn. And they are related to garden snapdragons, but much, much tinier.

Round-leaved Fluellen Kickxia spuria has slightly sticky woolly leaves and stretches out across the chalky soil. The exquisite little yellow flowers with purple lips and a curved spur are sparsely distributed along the prostrate stems. It is an uncommon plant of calcareous arable land. Although arable weeds are in general declining due to modern farming methods, it is believed that this has never been an abundant plant and that its population is stable. In French it is known as the Fausse velvote.

This is a little known and little noticed arable weed. The most famous of the arable weeds of course is the Field Poppy Papaver rhoeas, still a common sight here (although nothing like it would have been in the past).

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

I Bet They Are Delicious...

While my sister Kathy and her husband John were here in June we went to Lake Blizon in the Brenne to do the walk along the lake edge and check out the birds and other nature. We ran into a young French wildlife photographer, Charles Cherrier, visiting from the Lyon area, and he pointed out the Louisiana Crawfish Procambarus clarkii (Fr. écrevisse de Louisiane) that had become trapped in the étang (lake) overflow. He said their introduction to the lake has been a disaster. They are a top level predator and eat everything, including the native crayfish.

He laughed when I suggested we solve the problem by eating them. Frankly I'm amazed that he, as a Frenchman, hadn't already thought of it, but maybe the idea fell outside of what is traditional, so wouldn't take off (like goat meat).

Silhouetted against the habitat.

Louisiana Crawfish is a freshwater crayfish native to Mexico and the south-east of the United States. As its English name suggests, it is abundant in Louisiana. It is the most adaptable of all the crayfish species, and as such has become the most widely distributed species globally.

Unlike the native European species, it is able to tolerate periods of dry, for four months or more, and stagnant, brackish or dirty water. As a result it is able to colonise a great variety of habitats, including underground, damp grassland, seasonally flooded land, marshes, swamps, lakes and permanent water courses.


It is easily recognised by the red spots on its claws and body. They grow to about 12 cm long, with claws about the same length. By six months old they weigh 50 grams and can live six years in the wild. The population can disperse quite quickly from an intitial point of introduction, with individuals able to travel four kilometres overnight.

Although they are carnivores by preference, they eat a lot of decaying vegetable matter because it is easier to catch. When they hunt live prey they concentrate on species with relatively slow reactions, such as tadpoles, dragonfly and mayfly larvae, and snails, rather than fish and mosquito larvae which have lightning fast reactions. Louisiana Crawfish are also quite happy to be cannibals.

Front end.

Their habit of swarming contributes to the turbidity of the water, and within ten years of arriving at a site, 99% of the aquatic vegetation will have gone, 70% of the insect larvae and molluscs and more than 80% of the amphibians.

In the US Louisiana Crawfish is by far the most common species farmed commercially for human consumption. It became the dominant species of fresh water crayfish in the world in the 1970s and 80s, after being introduced to Spain, France and Italy to be farmed, and to Kenya to control the snails which carry bilharzia. However, whilst very popular in its native Louisiana and in Cajun cuisine, it is considered by Europeans to be less flavoursome than the European native species, particularly that of the European Crayfish Astacus astacus (Fr. écrevisse à pattes rouges).

Etang overflow, where the crayfish get swept by the force of the water then trapped against the grill.

These days in Europe the Louisiana Crawfish is considered an invasive species. Aggressive and robust it reduces the quality of fresh water. Even if it does not succeed in catching and killing other invertebrate species in the water, it often inflicts wounds such as amputating the tails of tadpoles, rendering them vulnerable to later predation. The species also carries the fungal disease Crayfish Plague which has decimated the population of native crayfish, especially White-clawed Crayfish Austropotamobius pallipes (Fr. écrevisse à pattes blanches). In Poitou-Charentes to the south-west of us for example, the population of the native species has fallen 70%. In addition they dig burrows up to two metres long, degrading banks, altering drainage, making leaks in dams and irrigation channels.

With its short lifecycle and rapid rate of reproduction the Louisiana Crawfish out competes the native White Clawed Crayfish in disturbed habitats such as those modified by man, for example, rice paddies. In mature habitats though the White Clawed Crayfish, with its longer life span and slower reproductive rate, can hold its own.

In France there could be two or three tonnes of Louisiana Crawfish per hectare, despite predation by Black Kites, Grey Herons and storks (the last of which will reportedly eat so many that their feet and skin goes bright red).

To limit their further expansion of range, it is illegal to transport them live and fishing for them is very controlled. Fishermen often propagate them because they use them for bait. To kill them twist their telson (in the middle of the tail) and pull out their gut, which can impart a bitter taste to the flesh.

The only successful control measure seems to be to introduce fish species that will predate the crayfish, such as eels, burbot, perch, pike and especially largemouth bass.

Guide d'identification des écrevisse en France-métropolitaine (Crayfish in Metropolitan France Identification Guide), which gives lots of good advice (in French) about what to do once you've spotted a crayfish. It all depends on whether it is native or introduced of course, and each of the nine possible species has a description with photo. Also a description with photos of how to kill the pest species.

Monday, 29 August 2016


Look at that!! Holes chewed in each of the seed capsules of my Broad-leaved Helleborine Epipactis helleborine subsp helleborine! I have no idea what is responsible, but presumably they were after the seeds inside. I don't know, I spend all summer mowing carefully around this plant, which has rather inconveniently established itself right in front of the compost bins. I had been hoping it would scatter seeds and form a small colony, but I might as well have just mowed it off in June because it was a nuisance...

Harumph. I just hope the culprit is some star species that will pose for photos at some appropriate moment...

Photo take mid-August.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Eastern Grey Kangaroo

A typical female Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus might weigh 30kg and be capable of 50 km per hour. It's the kangaroo species you are most likely to see if you visit Australia as it lives in the bush and grassland around the major eastern and southern cities. This one is right at the coast, with the sea in the background of the photo. Eastern Greys are abundant and not endangered, having adapted well to the European colonists activities in Australia. They are usually seen, like this one, either early in the morning or in the evening when the light is failing. They are grazers, eating a variety of grasses.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Faking It

I bet you think this is a bumble bee visiting a flower. But you'd be wrong. It is a hover fly, specifically, Volucella bombylans. This one is var. plumata, which mimics the Garden Bumble Bee Bombus hortorum or the Small Heath Bumble Bee B. jonellus with its long face, fluffy white rear end and bright yellow hair around the midriff. Another fine example of Batesian mimicry, where a harmless species has evolved to resemble a more formidible species.

This species is quite commonly found, from May to September, in open woodland and scrubby grassland. Females, like this one, will lay their eggs in a wasp Vespula spp or bumble bee Bombus spp nest. The larvae feed on debris inside the nest, or occasionally the larvae of the host, especially if they have been abandoned. They are scavengers rather than parasites.

This one was photographed near Chaumussay in mid-August on a Field Scabious Knautia arvensis.


The Burkini Ban: Yesterday at the pool I overheard an elderly white middle class French woman talking about the burkini ban. She had seen the news footage of the protest outside the French Embassy in London. Whilst she thought the burkini ban was absurd, she was even more astonished (and rather affronted) that a group of British women should feel that they needed to express their opinions so publically. According to her it is a domestic issue -- 'our problem, not theirs'. 

In my opinion, the French authorities, as usual, have handled the issue of what Muslim women wear in public extremely badly. Their approach is insensitive and bigotted, to the point that many women, Muslim or not, feel like parading around at every opportunity wearing the offending garments. According to a survey reported in the Independent, 64% of French people are in favour of the ban, 30% are indifferent and 6% are against the ban. 

Listening to French people interviewed on the news I've noticed that about half those asked support the ban, on the grounds that Muslims need to integrate and adopt French values. The others shrug and roll their eyes in exasperation at the absurdity of the ban, its vagueness and yet obvious targeting of Muslims. One young woman from Nice I heard said it was all provocation, by both sides. A man from the area said that he had never seen a burkini until after the ban.

We have someone who swims at the pool in Preuilly regularly. She always wears a headscarf and her little girl wears a wetsuit. I've always assumed she wore the scarf as an alternative to a swim cap, but maybe she's Muslim. I don't know, and I'm not going to ask her, because, frankly, who cares. I assume the child, like several others who come swimming in wetsuits or outfits that look like pyjamas, is being protected from the sun. From what I understand, Muslim women who want to dress modestly at the beach generally don't bother with the expense of a burkini. If they want to swim they wear light pyjama style garments and a headscarf. But up to now that may simply have been in the absence of swimwear they felt comfortable in. And given the number of Muslim women who have adopted modest dress and combined that with being total fashionistas, I think we can assume that the burkini is as much fashion as halal. 

Personally I think the burkini ban is the sort of thing that gives laïcité a bad name, and for that reason I'm with the exasperated eye rollers.

Anyway, about an hour after I wrote the above, the Conseil d'Etat announced that it was banning the ban. The reason given was that burkini bathers pose no threat to security and should be allowed free access to the beach. The Secretary General of the French Council of the Muslim Religion hailed the decision as one demonstrating good sense that will décrisper (defuse) the situation.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Merovingian Necropolis, Civaux

On Wednesday we visited one of the most extraordinary places we have ever seen.

As the finale to a day out with friends Niall and Antoinette doing the 'Painted Churches of the Gartempe Trail' we went to see the Merovingian Necropolis at Civaux. Simon had discovered the ancient cemetery whilst surfing the internet and we were so intrigued we were determined to go there. It's less than an hour from home so it made a great end to a day that had already included some real 'wow!' moments.

Modern and Merovingian graves.
That's the tallest nuclear plant cooling tower in France in the background...

One of the things that intrigued us was the fact that we knew of Civaux, a small town the size of Preuilly, for some much more modern 'attractions'. First, it is the site of one of France's nuclear power plants, and the steam rising from the cooling towers can be seen for miles. Second, next door to the power plant is a large aquatic centre, which uses the warm water from the cooling towers in the pool, spa, and scuba diving training tank. Third, also next door is Planet of the Crocodiles, a domed zoo specialising in crocodilians, which I assume also uses the warm water from the nuclear power plant. As soon as we came over the hill across the river from Civaux and saw the towers looming, Simon announced his aim photographically was to get a shot of the Merovingian sarcophagi with the cooling towers in the background. Once we got there and parked by the cemetery, even though we had seen photos, we were simply gobsmacked by the extent of the site and the ambience, the sense of mystery and uniqueness.

 Merovingian stone coffins in their original positions.

The Merovingian Necropolis is entirely enclosed by sarcophagi lids, turned end on so they are set like menhirs, forming a unique boundary of 90m along each side. In addition, inside the cemetery several hundred sarcophagi are visible, some in their original positions, some that have been moved. Most of the sarcophagi are in the north-east corner, close to the chapel.

The majority of them date from the Merovingian period 500 - 800 AD. They are trapezoidal in shape and most are decorated with a three barred cross, characteristic of Poitevan ornamentation at the time. The oldest dates from about 400 AD (and there may be Roman coffins in the mix as well). Originally the sarcophagi were shallowly buried. Many of them are now above ground as a result of digging vaults in the 19th and 20th century. Those that are still in situ are aligned east-west, with the head at the western end so that the deceased can watch the rising sun. The stone coffins without lids can weigh up to 800 kg. They are made of limestone from a quarry just across the river Vienne.

The cypress and sarcophagi central alley.

Drawings from the 18th century show that the enclosure of sarcophagi lids was already in place by 1747, but that the necropolis was once vast, extending to the north and the east and covering more than 3 hectares. It seems likely that the enclosure was created between the 15th and 18th centuries in order to limit the size of the necropolis. There is a central alley of cyprus and sarcophagi, created in the 20th century. The current enclosure only covers a quarter of the original site. It is estimated that it once contained between 7000 and 15000 sarcophagi. Over the years they have been reclaimed as building material (paving stones, blocks of stone), troughs and to make stock watering places. After the sarcophagi had gone the land was cultivated.

Mission accomplished.
(And you can just make out the three armed cross on the lid of the coffin on the right.)

There is a legend associated with the site to explain the large number of sarcophagi. According to the local story the graves belong to the Frankish warriors of Clovis who were killed in the battle of Vouillé in 507 against the Visigoths. After the battle stone coffins rained down on Civaux. Modern historians think the place should be viewed in the light of the very early Christianisation of the area. The church and baptistry of Saint Gervais and Saint Portais was established at Civaux and was where large numbers of the faithful chose to come to be interred because of the reputation of the sanctuary with its relics of this pair of important early saints. Thus they hoped to facilitate their ascendance to heaven. Or it could be that for some reason there was a monopoly on the manufacture of sarcophagi and burials at Civaux.

Before the Merovingian necropolis part of the site was a Roman cemetery, and some of the Merovingian sarcophagi covers are reused Roman columns cut in half. Today the enclosure serves as the modern cemetery. There can't be many places that have served as a burial ground for two thousand years.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Flint Extraction

Recently I was taken to some woodland on a limestone ridge overlooking the Gartempe river. Nothing unusual there. I'm frequently to be found exploring such sites, either alone or in the company of friends who are experts in some aspect of the natural and cultural history of the Touraine. In this case the site we encountered was intriguing, but none of us had the expertise to explain it.

The stone would have been relatively easy to extract.

On the summit of the ridge there was exposed limestone and evidence of a quarry. Nothing unusual there either. These small quarries exist all over the place and can date from just about any time in the past. 

What caught my attention was the horizontal channel cut into the limestone face. Obviously a seam of flint had been extracted, whereas much of the limestone had been left in situ. Naturally when one thinks of flint extraction in the Touraine one automatically thinks of the prehistoric. But something about this site made me wonder if it could have been later, and if so who would have been using flint other than Stone Age man.

Exposed limestone with evidence of quarrying and blocks being removed.

Once I started thinking about it and doing a few internet searches a possible answer appeared -- gunflint, for flintlock firearms in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Gunflint apparently needs to be hard black flint and in the field below this quarry we had found a lot of pieces of black flint, which is a little bit unusual for this area. But was it the right quality for gunflint? I don't know, but it made me wonder -- was this a gunflint quarry?

When the flintlock firearm mechanism was invented in the early 17th century it didn't take long for it to become widely used and all the old known prehistoric sites were scrutinised for any remaining useful seams of flint. During the Napoleonic Wars the Touraine became the principle producer of gunflint for the French army and it was an important cottage industry. Flint mining and knapping was undertaken in the winter, when there was less to do in the fields.

The channel where the seam of flint would have been is clear in this photo.

So...I just wonder...

Further Reading: A post about central France (Indre, Indre et Loire and Loir et Cher) as the centre of the French prehistoric flint tool and later gunflint production on the Ohio History Connection Archaeology Blog. French gunflints have been found all over the world. And it turns out that whilst British gunflint is black, French gunflint was more highly regarded, and not black. It seems that you can even still buy French gunflints, to make your reenactment events even more authentic.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An Update From the Lab Bench

After the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew team researching the Red Helleborine Cephalanthera rubra went back to London they set to work trying to grow mycorrhizal fungi from the root samples that they took. Within a couple of weeks they reported that they had some fungi and it showed signs of being a typical mycorrhiza for the orchids. Mycorrhizae are essential for the healthy propagation and growth of plants and each plant species has a symbiotic relationship with one or more species of fungi that provides both with an exchange of nutrients.

The Kew team's first sight of the patch of Red Helleborine near Chaumussay. 
(From bottom to top, Jon, Sarasan and Kaz.)

They asked me to go out and collect seeds (we had Prefectural permission to do so) and calculated the date when they should be ready. Unfortunately when I went to check the site there was not a seed capsule to be seen. They had all disappeared and there were just a few wispy orchid plants, very brown at the tips. The French orchids had matured much more quickly than expected on this very hot and dry site. 

 Green seed capsules on a Red Helleborine plant at Boussay.

Hoping to salvage the project and thinking that some seeds were better than none I checked several other sites that we had permission to use. Luckily on two of them there were plants with green capsules still attached and in good condition. Jon asked me to collect what I could find and they would adapt their propogation methods to the condition and maturity of the seeds. He advised me to wrap each capsule individually and send them in the ordinary post. They took over two weeks to get delivered from Preuilly sur Claise to Kew Gardens in London. Boo to the postal system! Luckily, although the capsules had dried out the seeds were still in reasonable condition.

 The Kew team taking soil samples and notes.

I wasn't certain of the species of some of the seed capsules that were more mature when I collected them. I was a bit worried that they would turn out to be Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera, so Jon is going to sow some for verification.

 The Palm House at Kew Gardens.

The good news is that by the time the seeds arrived at Kew it was clear that the team in the lab definately had fungi that appeared to be mycorrhizal growing from the root samples taken earlier. Jon used the fungi to germinate some old Narrow-leaved Helleborine C. longifolia seeds that they had in the fridge. He says he has never managed to germinate this seed before, so he is a very happy plant scientist. Perhaps one day the French fungi will be successful in germinating the precious British Red Helleborine seeds and saving the species there.

Taking root samples.

It's still early days though...

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Bats Spurn the Belfries

A mother and baby Pipistrelle on a towel.
Photo courtesy of Roger from Our French Adventure.

Roger got a shock recently when he swung a normally unused shutter at his place and discovered a maternity roost of Pipistrelle bats Pipistrellus sp (Fr. Pipistrelles). He quickly snapped the photo below, but only succeeded in getting the few slower reacting individuals still clinging to the wall.

A Pipistrelle maternity roost on a wall behind a shutter.
Photo courtesy of Roger from Our French Adventure.

Elizabeth was delighted to return home one day recently and find this Geoffroy's Bat Myotis emarginatus (Fr. Murin à oreilles échancrées) installed under the roof of her porch. The little guy was kindly identified by Virginie Culicchi, our local bat expert. She says this is a typical place to find Geoffroy's Bat in the summer time. Unfortunately when I visited a few days later, it had gone, after roosting there for several days in a row, so I don't have photos of my own.

Geoffroy's Bat roosting under a porch.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth from The Story of Our Life in and Around Braye-sous-Faye.

The photo below of a Greater Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus ferrumequinum (Fr. Grand Rhinolophe) was taken in the cellar of a local privately owned chateau whilst conducting the summer survey of bats in the southern Touraine in late June. Virginie has asked me to point out that the bat knew we were there and has drawn itself up, a subtle sign of a little stress caused by our presence. This is almost inevitable when surveying in the summer, because the bats are not in torpor like they would be in winter. Ideally, a resting Greater Horseshoe should look like the one in this post, hanging from fully extended legs.

Greater Horseshoe Bat.
Photo courtesy of my sister Kathy.

At the same chateau we encountered a maternity roost of Lesser Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus hipposideros (Fr. Petit Rhinolophe) in a disused bathroom. We were expecting to find them, as during the winter survey there was plenty of evidence of their previous occupation of the space.

Lesser Horseshoe Bat maternity roost in a disused chateau bathroom.
Photo courtesy of my sister Kathy.

As part of the summer bat survey in June we went up three church belfries. After all, that's where you would expect to find bats, n'est-ce pas? Sadly, not. Unfortunately all the nesting pigeons disturb them and they have abandoned the belfries for barns and quiet domestic dwellings. And let me tell you, belfries are disgusting places, full of pigeon poo, dust, dead pigeons, spider webs and all manner of unidentifiable crud. I was convinced I would end the day with psittacosis at the very least.

The bells of Saint Martin's church, Bossay sur Claise.

Climbing the belfry in the church at Charnizay. Jean-Claude's legs on the left, my sister Kathy below.

A bat at the bottom of a vault rib in a 16th century building. Do you know where?

Monday, 22 August 2016

You Know the Summer Holidays are Coming to an End When...

... almost all of your swimming companions depart on the weekend for Paris or the Netherlands. After having arrived in the Touraine in mid-July to spend six blissful weeks in their maisons secondaires (holiday homes) they are now back at home, preparing to go back to work and getting the kids ready to go back to school.

While they are here Huub, Ingrid, Anneloes, Tristan, Bruno, Anne, Carole, Chantal, Jean, Marie José, Constance and me arrive at 10.30 am for a couple of hours swimming. It's all very informal. Everyone has different goals and there is quite a lot of chat. I've been regularly swimming a kilometre. Bruno has been training as a swimming instructor (Fr. maitre nageur). Tristan has been working on his technique. Huub has been testing new products and achieving a personal best. Marie José swims to relieve a back problem. We all swim for general fitness and well being. 

For six weeks swimming is top priority, then the holidays end and we go our separate ways until next year. We rarely see one another outside the swimming pool, and in fact, if we do run into one another, comment that we hardly recognised the other with their clothes on!

All photos courtesy of Ingrid de Winter (and in case you hadn't realised, the swimmer is me).

To see previous posts about Preuilly's excellent swimming pool click the following links:


Loire Valley Nature: A photo has been added to the entry for Agile Frog Rana dalmatina. This is our most common frog.
A photo has been added to the entry for Swifts, Swallows and Martins. It shows young Barn Swallows gathering on the electricity wires prior to beginning their first migration south for the winter.
An entry has been started for Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus. This lovely wader is occasionally recorded in the Touraine.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Green Cape Light

The old Green Cape Light, constructed from layers of poured concrete because it was deemed impractical to build from the soft local stone. In order to bring materials to the isolated site the building contractor first had to construct a 7 kilometre horse drawn tram line. When construction at last commenced it was discovered that the site was on a band of clay, which necessitated digging very deep foundations.

Green Cape forms the northern side of Disaster Bay. Because the shipping route hugged the coast and boats frequently foundered on the Cape, a lighthouse was installed by 1883. Boats had to keep close to the shore to avoid the strong southerly flowing current down the eastern coast of Australia. Nowadays the light is solar powered and on a modern steel tower. The old building is listed as an Engineering Heritage National Landmark. Visitors to the lighthouse can take a guided tour of the building.

Our posts on Sundays have an Australian theme. To read more click here.


Loire Valley Nature: A photograph of a Large Skipper Ochlodes venatus has been added to the species account for this zippy little butterfly.


A la cuisine hier: Aubergine, ricotta and coppa lasagne, adapted from this recipe on My Little Spoon (which despite its name, is a French language food blog). I used locally made faisselle delivered by the dairy instead of brousse. For those in Anglo countries I think ricotta would probably substitute the best for these soft fresh cheeses. I used basil rather than tarragon. The dish turned out fairly sloppy, but it was tasty. Coppa for those of you who don't know it is a type of cured pork from Corsica. It is often the cheapest sliced cured meat in the supermarket here.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Happy Birthday to Us

Today is the tenth anniversary of the first blog post we wrote.

In it Susan wrote about the fact that we had paid a deposit on our new house, and gave a quick run down on how we had got to that point. In later posts we went back and talked about the buying process in some detail, something we have been revisiting occasionally over the past 6 months. You can read all about the process (in quite some detail) here.

On 5 August 2006 we paid the deposit on our house

The original idea behind the blog was to keep our families in touch with what we were doing - living half way around the world from both sets of family created a situation where we could forget we hadn't told them something yet. Since then readership has spread somewhat, and the blog acts as an aide-memoire for us: not only as to when we did something, but often how we did it as well.

There were two photos posted that day, both of which look rather small by today's standards. When we first wrote the blog most people were viewing on screens of 1024x768 pixels (which were enormous, and needing virtually a whole desk to themselves) but many people, including both sets of parents, were viewing on screens 800x600. Internet connections were also not as fast as they are now, and we knew that no-one wanted to wait 20 minutes to see a picture of our overgrown back garden. I am interested to see that the first photo of the front of the house was a construct - two photos stitched together in Photoshop. (The only two photos we took of the house the day we first saw it. We were poor at taking important photos even then!)

There have been many changes in the past ten years -
and the one we never foresaw was the arrival of les Grandes Dames

Thus, the original blog width was set at 800x600, photos were generally kept down to 640x480 pixels and 100kB or less of data. We wrote a blog post in 2012 about how the look of the blog had changed, although that particular "new look" (with rounded corners) had a very brief stay.

At first we posted whenever we had something we needed to say and had time to write about it, which meant we wrote on 2 January 2007 about the fact we had bought this house - an event which happened on 21 November 2006. On 8 February 2008 we started posting daily at 9.00am, which is a bit of pressure, especially on Susan since I stopped writing regularly in 2012.

A picture of a snake - because you apparently all love snakes.

Since our first post we have met many people through the blog, all of whom have been lovely (of course!). We have written 3,258 posts, had somewhere between 750,000 and well over 2 million readers (different stat packages, different stats), and the most popular posts have been:
Snakes in France from 11 Mar 2008, with 61 comments and 55192 views,
Big Black Beautiful Beetles from 11 Sep 2008, 13 comments and 26224 views,
The Michelin Factory from 30 Nov 2012, 6 comments and 7776 views,
and Paleron – Feather Steak 17 Jan 2009, 9 comments and 3510 views.


Wild Foraging TODAY: My friend Virginie Culicchi is leading an Après-midi du Patrimoine (Heritage Afternoon)  on wild foraging for edible plants (Plantes comestibles: les récoltes moyenâgeuses). Meet at Place de l'église, Betz le Chateau at 2.30 pm. It will be a guided walk, with tasting. €5.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Field Walking for Roman Potsherds

Recently we were invited to go archaeological field walking. It wasn't a formal thing. The field in question is not the subject of an archaeological dig, but it is known to certain local amateur archaeologists as somewhere that small artefacts regularly appear.

The field has been deep ploughed for many decades, so there is no archaeological context, and it isn't even clear if the potsherds and metal objects that are found actually originate here. It is possible they have been brought in with muck from somewhere else and scattered over the site.

Has he found a potsherd?

The location was lovely, a long narrow ploughed wheat field, on a gentle slope stretching between the Gartempe river and a wooded limestone ridge. The lower part of the field, along the river, was very sandy. My theory is that it is the eroded sand from a sandstone cap on the limestone ridge that has washed down. Simon's theory is that it is alluvial and the river has changed path. The upper part of the field is typical clay and chalk. It felt rather remote, on the end of a farm track that didn't go any further, but just the other side of the river people were out on their jetties and enjoying their riverside terrains de loisirs.

The friend who invited us would like to think there was a Gallo-Roman villa on the site. Unfortunately the artefacts that come off the site are always very damaged by the plough and never very big or concentrated. The plough cuts pieces of pottery into sherds only a few centimetres across.

Our finds: the sherds on the left and top have a black glaze inside; centre left is a fine rim; bottom is a white glazed coarse rim; the top two are from pot bases; at right a handle where it joins the body of the pot; centre right the side of a fine pot.
Nevertheless we found some pieces that were clearly parts of rims, bases and handles. One or two pieces had simple black or white glaze. You could see the concentric rings from throwing or coiling. Our little collection will be treasured and put on display along with our prehistoric slag from the iron working in the Forest of Preuilly, some flint tool making offcuts, fossils and handmade nails -- all testament to the rich history of this area.

Simon found a terrific website for identifying or categorising pottery sherds, but to be honest, neither of us has the dedication to trawl through it and put a name to the pieces we found. A cursory look reveals that the sherd with the black glaze on the inside could be Central Gaulish Black-slipped Ware.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Flax Cultivation in the Touraine

Winter flax (Fr. lin d'hiver) crops are more numerous here every year. They provide a way of diversifying on arable farms required to meet the EU 'three crop rule' (simply alternating the same two crops is not allowed).

 A flax crop near Chaumussay in early April.

Cultivated flax is an annual which can grow to a metre tall and has a root system that can go down a metre. Each of the plants' blue flowers will produce a capsule with ten seeds.

Adapted to no-till cultivation so long as there is deep well structured soil, the crop reduces the risk of erosion by covering the soil from autumn onwards and limits the impact of drought in late spring. Not much eats flax in the field and it allows a break from crops such as canola or cereals. This means that weeds such as geranium and wild mustards can be kept in check as part of the crop rotation while reducing herbicide usage. It is not sown in sandy soil or other soils which dry out too quickly, and does best if following a cereal crop such as wheat or barley.

 A close up of the young flax plants.

Although at the moment France is not a big producer of flax seed (aka linseed) it is in high demand at present, both for human and animal feed, due to its nutritiousness and being high in omega 3s. It yields slightly more than wheat and has slightly lower costs of production, resulting in a significantly better margin for flax. 

 A flax crop coming into flower in late April.

The ground is prepared for sowing by spraying with a herbicide initially and here, probably harrowed to break up the surface of the soil. It's important that the crop doesn't have to compete too much too early. The seeds are sown in September in the Touraine. The crop grows steadily from November to April, during which time it may be sprayed in late spring with an insecticide for thrips and a fungicide if necessary. Other herbicides, fungicides and growth inhibitors may be applied depending on the inclination of the farmer and the seasonal conditions, but compared to other common crops flax needs few pesticides and little fertilizer. The Flax crop will flower in May - June and be harvested in July - August.

A closer look at the flax flowers.

Farmers fertilize the field either by spreading muck or dressing with a synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer. Flax doesn't need supplementary phosphate or potassium, but it can suffer from zinc deficiency when growing in wet calcareous soil. Control of thrips is important because they can prevent the plants from flowering. Apparently the test to check if the crop has an infestation is to brush a sweaty palm over the tops of the flax plants in several places. If you get more than three or four thrips stuck to your hand each time, that is sufficient to indicate you need to spray. To prevent fungal diseases it is recommended that there is a six year gap between flax crops in a field.

 A mature flax crop in the Claise valley between Chaumussay and Preuilly in July.

The harvest must be done in hot dry conditions. After the seeds are harvested the straw is sometimes ploughed in to improve the soil, but usually it is also taken off as it takes a long time to break down. It has value as biofuel, insulation, animal bedding or mulch, unless too contaminated by weeds.

 Flax seeds just about ready to harvest.

Flax has also become popular as a green manure or cover crop in vegetable gardens here. In that case you are advised to prepare the soil by hoeing and weeding carefully, then sowing the seed in March-April. It is being suggested as a companion plant for potatoes, as there is a widespread belief in France that it repels Colorado Beetle (Fr. doryphores). Unfortunately, like most companion planting, this idea has been scientifically tested and in a number of cases more Colorado Beetles were recorded on the potatoes interplanted with flax than on the control crop of potatoes.

 A box of flax seeds for use in the vegetable garden and some for human consumption. 
The garden seeds were grown in France, but the eating seeds come from outside the EU (most likely Canada, since they are the largest producer of linseed worldwide).

Flax that is grown for the fibre is sown in the spring and the plants must be pulled at harvest, not cut, and left to lay in the field for two months to rett. I've seen this being done in the north of France, but not here in central France. Linen cloth has been produced in France since the 9th century and France is still by far the biggest producer worldwide of linen fibre.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Kew Comes to the Vallee de la Claise Tourangelle

The Kew team's vehicle, parked at Les Limornières, where they stayed.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Crawford, Les Limornières.

For the past year I have been involved in a project to study the Red Helleborine Cephalanthera rubra. This orchid is critically endangered in Britain and the project's primary goal is to save the species in the British Isles. It is a joint effort by the National Trust, who own and manage the remaining Red Helleborine sites, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who are attempting to propagate the species, and Natural England, who are providing the funding.

The target species, Red Helleborine Cephalanthera rubra.

The reason I am involved is because project members wanted to check out Red Helleborines in France, where there are several areas where the species thrives here. Because I have written about the orchids here one of the National Trust wardens got in touch and arranged a study trip last year with two colleagues. After their very successful visit Jon Kendon from Kew got in touch to ask if I could help with a proposed visit of his team in 2016.

Downy Oak Quercus pubescens woodland and prime Red Helleborine habitat.

The Kew research team is led by Dr Viswambharan Sarasan. Jonathan Kendon, who co-ordinated the trip with me, is the lab technician, and the third member of the team is Dr Kaz Yokoyo, who is research assistant. The aim of their work is to isolate the fungi present in the roots of the French Red Helleborines and establish if they can be used to aid the germination and growth of English Red Helleborine seed. This is the sort of work they focus on in their lab at Kew, working with plants from all over the world. For a good overview of a typical project that they've contributed to, see Kaz's blog post about the conservation of orchids in Madagascar.

The Kew visit was a lot more complicated to organise than the National Trust visit because it involved taking samples of a protected species. We had to approach the appropriate authorities and Jon had to submit an official written submission asking for permission to take plant material. My job was to find out who exactly we needed to contact at the Préfecture and liaise with property owners and local French botanists. This turned out to be more time consuming that we had anticipated, and the Kew team had to reschedule their visit because of funding issues as well.

The Kew team begin their investigation by just looking.

One of the first things I did was contact my friend Marc Fleury, a local orchid expert. He had helped with the previous visit of National Trust wardens, suggesting sites and getting landowner permission. He and I scoped out the sites prior to the English visits in both cases. This time round Marc also helped where I had to approach landowners formally, by correcting my French and designing a consent form that we sent to the landowners. I did the legwork of getting names and addresses for the landowners by visiting the relevant town halls and asking to check the cadastral records. I also got in touch with everyone I could think of who might have an interest in the project to let them know what was planned (that included the botany section of the university at Tours, the Conservatoire d'espaces naturel Centre Val de Loire, the local representative of the Société Française d'Orchidophilie, a local journalist and my local botany club).

Jonathan Kendon (left) records the details as Dr Viswambharan Sarasan (right) takes a sample.

The Prefectural permission to take plant material took weeks to be granted but eventually it was and we set the date for fieldwork as 7 June. Marc, Jean Bouton and I went out the week before to check the sites. That was a day or two before the floods peaked. We got absolutely saturated and had to go 10 kilometres out of our way to find bridges we could cross to access the site we thought would be best for the fieldwork to be undertaken. We were disappointed by what we saw too. There weren't many Red Helleborines in flower and we were worried the Kew team wouldn't find enough material. To top it off, we ran into the mayor of Chaumussay out inspecting the flood and she had a bit of a rant. Fortunately not directed at us, but at the Prefecture, who had not bothered to ask her opinion before granting Kew permission to take samples from a protected plant growing on her patch. Luckily I had kept her informed about progress and had forwarded the Prefectural documentation to her, so I was in her good books. Marc was in her good books because he was organising an orchid walk for a group from Amboise and raising the profile of Chaumussay and its reputation as an orchid hotspot.

Jon measures root depth while Dr Kaz Yokoya takes a photographic record with his phone.

This group from Amboise turned out to indirectly cause us a slight problem. Four days before the Kew team arrived I realised there had been some confusion regarding permission from the landowner of the site we wanted to use. I was working so I asked Marc to call on the landowner and clarify who was visiting the site, when and what it was that they were doing. He went round to her home but there was no one around. He couldn't follow it up because he was going on holiday. Finally, the day before the Kew team arrived I managed to catch her at home, sort out the problem and reassure her that there would be no damage to the site, and we would do our best not to disturb the game.

Kaz checking a fragment of root to identify what species it belongs to.

On the morning of 7 June I got up early and was down at the baker's in the Grande Rue by 7.30 am, collecting ham and cheese baguettes for lunch and croissants for breakfast. Having picked up the day's provisions I headed over to Les Limornières where the Kew team were staying. After breakfast together we drove over to Chaumussay, where we were to meet Jean Bouton, who had volunteered to represent French botanists. Jean Pelle, another orchid associate was with him and he admitted that Marc had called him and asked him to be there in case there was further negotiating to do with the landowner. Marc clearly was nervous that my French wouldn't cut it with the landowner.

Sarasan cutting a sample of a suitable Red Helleborine root.

Off we went to the site, via a farm track that had been badly scoured out by the rain. The best patch of Red Helleborine is very conveniently situated by a very distinctive tree. The Jeans told us it was probably about 400 years old and a hybrid of Downy Oak Quercus pubescens and Pyrenean Oak Q. pyrenaica.

Sarasan gently sorting out roots in the soil. The abundant ivy roots were a problem.

The Kew team spent ages just looking at the patch of orchids and discussing what their approach should be. They didn't want to dive right in to the middle of the patch, but to choose small plants that were isolated or on the edge of the main group. There was two reasons for this. First, it would minimise the disturbance to the main patch. Second, taking some samples which were further away from the main patch would mean they were more likely to be seedlings, not clones, which might make a difference to the range of fungi living in symbiosis with the orchids.

Sarasan and Jon measure the root depth of a specimen.

Taking a sample from the path.

The team worked slowly and carefully in a number of places across the site near Chaumussay and took about ten samples. They were aiming to get protocormes of the orchids and roots which they could slice up in the lab to see what mycorrhizae would grow. The mycorrhizae are embedded in the cells of the orchid roots in bundles known as pelotons and the plant depends on them to transfer minerals and nitrogen from the soil (in return for which the fungi receives carbohydrates). They also took soil samples and a seedling Downy Oak and a tiny Juniper Juniperus communis, to examine if all the plants are using the same mycorrhizae. From what they said, it seems likely that Red Helleborine likes to position itself underground on the horizon between the humus rich layer and the underlying limestone. There was a considerable difference between the length of samples taken about a third of the way up the slope, growing in deep leaf litter and those taken at the top of the ridge, in the thin sandstone layer or the flinty soil. A plant from lower down the slope had roots 15 cm under the surface, a plant from up at the top only had its roots 5 cm down.

Taking a sample from the top of the limestone ridge, which has a remnant sandy cap.

At one point in the morning the husband of the site owner turned up, almost certainly to check exactly what we were up to. Jean Pelle stepped forward to greet him and introduce him and I realised there was a very specific reason why Marc had arranged for him to be there. Turns out that Jean was our visitor's college teacher (thirty or forty years ago) and has known him all his life. 

I must say that I would never have been able to negotiate the sometimes delicate relationships with the various French parties involved without the help of Marc and the Jeans. I'm very grateful to them and I know the Kew team are too. The project would never have got this far without Marc and Jean Pelle's local knowledge, and Jean Bouton's willingness to represent French botanists on the day of the field work.

Sarasan tells me that this research has implications for other terrestrial plants that are facing extinction. They hope to be able to isolate fungal material and use it to improve seed germination and growth. They should be able to tell if they've got something after 48 hours in the lab, but it could take months to identify the specific mycorrhizae and a year write up their results. The hope is that the results will enable the Red Helleborine conservation project to move to the next stage and start propagating a new generation of the orchid with English material. The team were very happy with what they collected and delighted with the site. Marc and I needn't have worried that there wouldn't be enough for them to make the trip worthwhile.

I had a most interesting day out in the field with them and loved watching the careful way they worked and how well they worked as a team. From them the Jeans and I learnt that orchid roots have a particular smell, a bit starchy and lightly sulphurous, somewhat like a potato. Kaz could identify tiny pieces of orchid root by touch, sight and smell -- that was impressive. Jon pointed out that the target species always seems to have a red stem, whereas other similar orchids nearby did not, something I had never noticed. This year most of the plants were not in flower but were little seedlings or clones with just a few leaves. Marc thinks this lack of flowering was due to the dry spring last year. (Remember that last year in the first week of June when the National Trust team were here we had temperatures in the 30s!) Given how much rain we've had this spring I am expecting a bumper crop of flowers next year!! The Kew team had hoped to do some hand pollination while here, as a sort of payback for taking a few plants away, but the flowers proved too fragile and Jon couldn't do it. A shame, but the population seems robust enough here anyway.

Once again, the lesson for me was a reminder not to take the abundance of orchids in the Claise Valley for granted. Jon had never seen a Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea in the wild before, and here we had a couple of splendid ones still looking good. The landowner was bemused that we were so interested in what to her is a fairly ordinary plot of land. She loves it and is proud to be the guardian of the orchids and other wildlife, but I think she doesn't really realise how special her former sheep fold and limestone ridge overlooking the Muanne is.

Further reading: A Perfect Day in Panzoult.

Saving the Red Helleborine.

Red Helleborine Research Report.