Thursday, 20 October 2016

Goat Moth - a spectacular caterpillar

Caterpillars can be some of the most spectacular and pretty creatures that we can encounter here in France and the caterpillar of the Goat moth, (Cossus cossus), is a classic example and it's the caterpillar that gives this moth its name as it emits a strong and rather unpleasant smell reminiscent of a male goat although having handled a few I’ve never been aware of it myself. 

The moth has a wingspan of 9cm or so, have light grey wings which are covered in black speckles.  Sadly I have never seen one and it may well be that there aren’t many where I live, (my wife did see a caterpillar about 10 years ago on a nearby track but nothing since), however this isn’t so unusual as apparently they aren’t regularly observed and the moth doesn’t feed. By all accounts they aren’t a common species and as we will see the larvae are regularly destroyed which may account for their decline.

Twice a year in May and October Hope Association holds a three day fund raising event at Clussais La Pommeraie in the Deux-Sevres departement of France where I have a table selling my honey. Some years ago my attention was drawn to a caterpillar someone had found and it was unmistakably that of a Goat moth that seemed likely to have emerged from a large Oak tree that is directly in front of the building that is used for the event. The tree had some damage in the form of exit holes but not a huge amount but this year when I was there a few days ago there was sawdust all over the ground at the base of the tree and clinging to the bark. Of course it’s probably nothing different from any other year except that this year we haven’t had any significant rain to wash it away. 

“”The eggs are laid, usually in small batches, in crevices or on bark of living trees near old burrows or other damage. Young larvae enter the tree, at first remaining under the bark, later boring deep into the wood on which they feed. The slow-growing larvae do not become fully grown until the third or fourth year. The burrows of the fully grown larvae are circular in cross-section and up to 20mm in diameter. Sap often seeps from the holes the larvae make at the trunk’s surface, with frass ejected from these, often accumulating at the base of the trunk. Trees can support one, a few or perhaps many larvae. Severe infestations can kill the tree, but this may take several years. In their final autumn, from August onwards, some larvae leave the tree, hibernating in a silk-lined cell in the ground. Other larvae remain in the tree. Pupation takes place in April and May, the larvae in the tree making an exit ‘window’ in the bark by gnawing away all but the outermost surface before making a silken cocoon in which they pupate.”” 

There is no doubt that they can cause serious harm especially to fruit trees, usually older ones that have surface injuries and are considered to be an agricultural pest in orchards however in the case of large oaks the tree should be able to support their presence in the same way they do the larvae of Cerambix cerdo - Le grand Capricorne. 

A few photos of the tree concerned and one of the caterpillars from it. Click on photos to enlarge.


Monday, 18 April 2016

A few French frogs and newts at Chaunay.

When the LGV from Tours to Bordeaux was being constructed there were a large number of environmental impacts that had to be considered as a matter of law these days and I will go into them at a later date. Here I only want to touch upon one site, Le bocage humide de Chaunay a wetland site site in the south west of the Vienne departement of some importance.

All in all at this site some 120 hectares were purchased by Réseau ferré de France, (RFF), which is the company that owns and maintains the French national railway network.  The land is comprised of moderately managed small copses and hedged fields that have been cut for hay. It’s something of an exception among the wetlands of the department. With no connection to any river an alluvial aquifer feeds directly into the pools and ditches creating large area of seasonal surface water. With a handful of man made ponds left in existence another 7 have or are being created on the 45 hectares that have been contracted to CREN, (Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels de Poitou-Charente), for 25 years. CREN in turn are establishing a management plan with farmers that use the land regarding types and timing of any hay cutting that will take into account the various species present.

The site is particularly rich and includes some of the rarer and endangered amphibian species that have been lost in huge numbers due to the vast destruction of ponds and habitat throughout the region over the last 50 years or so.  I bet like me you must get sick of hearing this, everywhere we look it’s the same old story and sadly not getting any better.

Anyway, on a positive note this particular site is relatively safe although there are some issues that will be difficult to resolve as we shall see.

When observing or compiling records for amphibian species at any given site it’s necessary to do this at night essentially combining two different means. The first is to listen and identify any of the frog or toad species present. To do this, having approached the pond, we then turn off all lights and wait 5 minutes as little by little they settle down and get back into their calling. As with most other creatures each species has its own unique call and for some it may be the only way we can determine their presence.  

Next it’s light and time for a careful search in the shallow margins. The water will be slightly warmer here and it’s where mating takes place for most amphibians. For many species there is no need to actually capture them, simple observation is enough, indeed strictly speaking it’s illegal to capture them without being authorised and absolutely illegal to deliberately harm or move one.

Of particular interest is the Triton de Blasius a hybrid newt that results from the mating between a male Great Crested Newt, (Triturus cristatus), and a female Marbled Newt, (Triturus marmoratus), which obviously requires the prescence of both species. Biologically the males are sterile and females only partly fertile. There is no typical Blasius but the essential features are the back with the markings of a Marbled Newt and the belly of a Great Crested Newt.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Photos below of Triton de Blasius.

Photo below of Male Common tree frog 

Photo below of an Agile frog

Photo below of Female Palmate Newt

Photo below of Female Great Crested Newt

Other species are also present at the same site - Marbled Newt, Common toad and Parsley Frog. 

There remains as I mentioned one not so small issue and that is the presence of Procambarus clarkii, Red Swamp Crayfish  an introduced species from the USA. This species can reach 85-90mm total length and are aggressive in behaviour presenting a threat to the native amphibian species that are there. Due to  the protected nature of this site only authorised trapping can take place but as it is a species that will move through ditches and indeed overland in wet conditions total eradication is unlikely. 

 Photo below  Procambarus clarkii, Red Swamp Crayfish


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Having honey bees without keeping them.

There appears to be more and more people that just want to have some honey bees in their garden or on their land. These same people are often met with a barrage of it isn’t possible, they will all die, you need to be trained, (like a donkey?), or you will be spreading disease and every other evil that paranoid beekeepers can dream up to protect their image of being masters of their craft and keepers of the grail. Fortunately not all bee keepers are that precious or narrow minded.


However would it surprise you to know that actually it’s perfectly possible and reasonable to have honey bees without playing with them?

LINK HERE Having honey bees without keeping them.

Hope you enjoy it, Chris

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Snakes and their names in France

This comes up in questions and conversation all the time and frankly there isn’t much point asking your neighbour, in fact mentioning snakes isn’t a good idea unless you want to run the risk of being treated to a diatribe on how they should all be killed.

There is a lot of confusion caused for English language speakers by the translations of French to English for snake “prefixes” resulting from historical errors that have never been corrected since the first dictionaries which have been copied ever since. These are the common or vernacular names in normal usage although again it’s unlikely that most French people know them.

Couleuvre is often thought to mean “Grass snake” but in fact it is used for a group of snakes in France, 6 in all, that reproduce by laying eggs, and are all but one harmless and non venomous.  

The snakes are. 

Couleuvre à collier – Grass snake
Couleuvre à échelons – Ladder snake
Couleuvre d'Esculape – Aesculapian snake
Couleuvre verte et jaune – Western whip snake
Couleuvre vipérine – Viperine snake
Couleuvre de Montpellier – Montpeiier snake, (venomous but with non retractable rear facing fangs at the rear of its mouth - generally harmless).

Coronelle, which won’t often be heard, is used for 2 species of snake in France that are harmless and non venomous  and that are “live bearing”, that is to say although not giving live birth in the standard sense it is when the babies hatch inside the mother and are then released to the outside world and can immediately fend for themselves.

The snakes are.

Coronelle de Bordeaux - Southern smooth snake
Coronelle lisse – Smooth snake

Vipère which are the true vipers, they are venomous, potentially harmful and have retractable forward facing fangs and are also “live bearing”.   

The snakes are.

Vipère aspic – Asp viper
Vipère péliade – Common Adder
Vipère d'Orsini - Orsini's viper
Vipère de Seoane (Vipère des Pyrénées) - Seoane's Viper


Thursday, 10 March 2016

Ponds in Poitou-Charentes France

Ponds in Poitou Charentes from an article in Living Magazine.

Living in this part of France with water on demand at the turn of a tap, it’s easy to forget that as little as 20 to 25 years ago there were many people in small hamlets that only had the well to supply their needs. Pumped domestic water for many is a relatively recent phenomenon in rural France. The further we go back, the more people depended on other means to provide and store water for themselves and their livestock which included different types of ponds, troughs and containers depending on the purposes they would be required for. In turn, these often provided an important habitat for a range of species, amphibians, reptiles, insects and plants. Sadly, many have been lost for one reason or another or have been altered to satisfy our desire for ornamentation.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Winter bee colony mortality rates.

A couple of interesting maps from the studies carried out for the European Commission certainly throw up more questions than answers.

Why should the UK suffer nearly 30% winter losses in the winter of 2012/2013 when in the same winter France only recorded losses of 14.2%, Germany 13.3% but Belgium an astounding 32.4%?  

From my own perspective anything around 15% could be considered normal with colonies that are not heavily manipulated.

Anyway, here are the maps and also a link to the document and other downloads.

Click on maps to enlarge.





Sunday, 28 February 2016

Soya bean cultivation in France

As if things weren’t bad enough already Soya seems set to be the latest money generator for the people that exploit the cereal lands of France 

Click on photos to enlarge

It was some 30 years ago that Soya bean trials were first made in my region of Poitou-Charentes but at that time it wasn’t economically worthwhile and it was cheaper to import from abroad. As the dominate producers, (Brazil, Argentina and the United States), moved to growing Genetically Modified Soya and imports swelled as a result of an ever increasing demand from the industrial production of both meat and poultry some thought there was an opportunity to try growing Soya again. With this in mind Eric Simon of the animal food manufacturer Alicoop, Pamproux along with some others approached Ségolène Royal, (then President of the Region), to provide assistance via additional Regional subsidies alongside those available from the CAP, (Common Agricultural Policy), for this crop. With the market price and subsidies combined it’s more profitable than sunflowers and in a couple of years regional production has exceeded 2000 hectares and is set to grow exponentially.

On the plus side it is a crop that like sunflowers can manage without irrigation. It also has no requirements for fungicides or insecticides, fixes nitrogen from the air in its root nodules and provides an alternative to the Genetically Modified alternatives that are imported, all of which in different circumstances would deserve our support.

So what’s the problem?

The simple answer is the vexed issue of the continuing decline of pollinators as a result of every last piece of half viable land being turned to the plough which was already bad enough in itself but it did at least have the small virtue of sunflowers that have usually been grown as the 4th crop that has to make up no less than 5% of the land surface of any given crop producer. If Soya replaces Sunflowers, of which there is every likelihood, it will leave much of the French countryside almost devoid of food in the summer for bees whether they are Honey bees, Bumble bees or Solitary species. The one thing Soya doesn’t have is flowers that open, they are small, remain closed and internally self pollinate. Add this to the other crops that are already grown over the largest land areas, that are wind pollinated and have no nectar, wheat, barley and maize and it’s clear that it’s an expanding “green desert”, pleasing on eye to those that don’t understand but a catastrophe for our pollinating insects.