I can remember being told before we moved here that there was no wildlife left in the French countryside, ‘The hunters kill everything that moves, don’t you know? And everything that doesn’t is sprayed so there are no insects or birds.’
It’s true that the hunters do seem to blast everything (though they seem to miss most of the deer and sanglier around here), come October all the birds disappear – though they reappear again the week after the hunting season is over, and I’m frankly appalled at the amount of spraying. The Bordeaux region is too damp to make bio feasible, if the grapes weren’t sprayed for mildew the growers would lose a large part of the crop most years but even growers who have opted for a semi bio approach, spraying as little as possible, seem to be out there most weeks in the summer putting something or other on the vines. And let’s not talk about the spraying of the verges and the obsession most gardeners here seem to have with eradicating every single weed with liberal applications of weedkiller.
So is it Silent Spring around here? Not a bit of it. I was walking the dogs this afternoon and along the edge of the vines are wild muscari, violets and all sorts of other wild flowers I don’t know the names of. They have cowslips here which I last saw in England when I was about six and in a few weeks time, I’ll be hoovering up tiny wild strawberries which grow in between the rows of vines.
The first time I saw a Kingfisher was in France, we had woodpeckers in the tree outside our last house and we see hares, such a joyous sight, nearly every week in the vines around the house.
I’d never heard a Nightingale until I lived here (there were several of them and jolly noisy they were too), nor a Screech Owl. That was not a joy as it made its home in the tree outside our bedroom window. Screech Owls are well named. Last week my husband saw five Hoopoes in the garden which answered the question of whether we’d been hearing Cuckoos or not.
There are loads of butterflies too, we’ve always happened to live near woods so I suppose that helps, last summer a Purple Emperor came into the kitchen and settled on the tiles for long enough for us to admire his colouring before he fluttered back to the oak trees. But for me, the things that lifts my spirits more than anything else are the squirrels.
We had two walnut trees in the garden of our first house and it was only a few hundred metres from an experimental nut farm developing new varieties so it’s not surprising that it was squirrel paradise. I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw a red shape slinking across the grass, I’d never seen a red squirrel outside a zoo. We got quite used to seeing them, though we were always enchanted. One of the squirrels was a real Squirrel Nutkin and seemed to go out of his way to bait the cat, unwise of him as the cat had already dealt with the magpie who’d tried much the same trick before…
The inevitable happened, my husband came hurtling in with an enraged cat whom he’d pulled off the squirrel and instructed me to go out and finish the poor thing off. Me? I gingerly approached it, wondering if I was going to be able to do the deed and saw that apart from having been sucked it didn’t appear to have any other injuries. I picked it up, realising it was simply comatose from shock and gave it a little rub to get its circulation going again. It had the most wonderful fur, deep, plush and red. It was astonishing to be so close to such a shy wild creature. After a couple of minutes it moved, so I put it at the bottom of a tree and a groggy, and throughly ungrateful, squirrel disappeared upwards.
It sensibly never baited the cat again. It took the cat some time to forgive us.