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.