Reasons to be Cheerful.

It is easy to think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The terrible fires in Australia, the destruction of the Amazon and the extinction of species in every corner of the globe, makes pessimism natural; but I am not alone in believing that things can be improved.  There are millions of people who care about the environment and millions more who care primarily about themselves, but are realising that their life also depends upon the quality of the air that they breath, the food that they eat and butterflies that amuse them.

So I share this article with you about the city of Ghent that has gone car free. As I read the testimonies from the people who live there about what a profound improvement this has been in their lives I found myself grinning from ear to ear. Change for the better can really happen, things dont have to always get worse, politicians and voters can make intelligent and brave choices and we can make our cities (and our suburbs!) green and pleasant places.

Take a minute to read it and consider what the future could be .

Reasons to be cheerful part 1!

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/20/the-streets-are-more-alive-ghent-readers-on-a-car-free-city-centre?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

ps I dont have any photos of Ghent, so this  is Basel on wet day at Christmas!

 

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Living with the aliens.

There is always conflict for the naturalist when confronted with an alien species. On the one hand we are delighted to see a wild animal or to admire a beautiful plant, on the other hand a creature in the wrong place can push a whole ecosystem out of balance and destroy native life. Every country has its own tales of trouble from European starlings in America to Costa Rican toads in Australia and Japanese knot weed in Britain.

When crossing a road bridge in a local village I was astonished to see a large muskrat peacefully munching on a long frond of water weed, as the traffic rumbled on overhead. It was the best view I have ever had and I spent a long time admiring his white whiskers; delicate dexterous paws and ears sunk deep in his thick, silky fur. That thick fur is the whole reason why he was here, so far from his native North America. Muskrats were brought to this area to be bred for fur. When the fur market collapsed in the 1930s, the fur farmers of the Vosge mountains simply opened the cages and just let the muskrats go free. They didn’t take to find their way to the waterways and now they breed naturally .

I enjoyed watching it going about its business. I find all animals fascinating and was reminded of the pleasure of watching grey squirrels feeding and playing In British parks and in my own back garden (we named a particularly bold one Sharlene). They were aliens, they outcompeted the indigenous red squirrel and they are an official pest. However the movement of flora and fauna has been going on since life evolved, on the wind, on the tides ,on the feet of birds and the life around has always had to adapt. The ethical question of which creature has a right to exist is as complex as the evolutionary question of whether  creatures that evolved in one place are more worthy than those who have moved , or been moved, to another place.

And then there are the human creatures, to whom all the same questions apply as to the muskrats under the bridge.

More tea anyone?

 

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The curse of tidy.

A warm week has sent me out into the garden . The place is wet and the mud weighs down my boots,  but the air smells almost like spring and tidying over takes me.

There is plenty of dead vegetation to trim and forgotten leaves to rake and my enthusiasm is intoxicating. However it is only January and there is along way to go until spring. Tidying, trimming and raking wont make the days longer or the earth turn faster,  so not only is my decimation of the garden pointless, it is also positively  harmful.

Last years growth is full of over wintering wildlife: butterfly caterpillars, lady birds and hedgehogs and tidying up is not the same as emptying a kitchen sink of washingup; this is habitat destruction in my own tiny bit of the planet.

So, I move away from the shears and the pruners, put down that rake and leave the garden in peace! There will be time in the spring to make way for the new growth and rushing the season will just make less space for the wildlife that badly  needs somewhere  quiet and safe to spend the winter.

Much better for the planet to have a cup of tea and do nothing!

Shall I be mother?

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Plants before Pandas

This video clip about a young man who is passionate about plants and reintroducing lost species to his own area. It gives me great hope for the future when I see knowledgeable and active men starting with the rewilding of their own area.

I am not chauvinist or nationalistic about any fauna or flora, if we all take care of the wildlife of our own areas then the whole planet may just have a joined up, healthy future!

https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2020/jan/06/plants-before-pandas-young-botanist-tackling-extinction-own-backyard-video?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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Holiday reading

I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.

At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides  and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests”  and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.

I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying  on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!

I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.”  I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.

The book  that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the  one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.

The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..

Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!

Happy New Year to all!

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Winter solstice.

In winter the whole world seems older.

The houses are lit up, but the gardens are empty, only rain and wet birds buffet over the sodden ground. Youthful  pretention is swept away; no awnings and patio furniture; no bbqs; no tofu: just wind and dead leaves.

A kite quarters in the dark clouds; a bull finch calls with its monotonous single note; the wind chimes clash in a sudden squall and the wood smoke blows the years away between today and Bruegel and every long, waiting winter day, still raging at the dying of the light.

 

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Friday 13th election.

Chaff scuds before the wind

low and twisting, it lifts and turns like laughter.

The harvest has long since been gathered

and only the paper that curled around the husks remains behind.

Chaffinches, dun brown and rose chested chatter from rose hipped hedge to empty field,

And when they turn in the late winter light,

no one can tell them apart.

 

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The bare truth.

I love the shape of winter trees.

Now the tattered remnants of autumn have blown away, the filigree beauty of the trees is revealed shining in a steady cool rain.

In summer all is the soft fur of green leaves, snuggling promiscuously over one another, almost indistinguishable in the pulse of sap and growth.

In Autumn there is some individuality of colour; the different varieties of vines on the hill side are briefly visible as each line of leaves turns a different shade of red in its own time before falling to the ground. Beech and hornbeam flare orange in the woods, before scattering each dry, curled leaf into the wind like sparks from a wildfire.

But in winter, there is no summer hiding, no autumnal showmanship: this is the real shape of the tree. Each limb is smooth, or broken, pruned or leaning slowly out into the sunlight. Each silhouette tells a tale of genes and weather and often the hand of man.

Winter trees are honest, bare and very, very lovely.

 

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Brouhaha in a pear tree.

The fieldfare are here and the starlings too. They have a lot of catching up to do since last autumn and they never stop talking.

I thought brouhaha was a children’s word for a lot of noise until I watched a film with French subtitles for the hard of hearing and saw the noise of many voices in a crowd rendered simply as brouhaha. It is the right word to also describe the racket coming from a pear tree laden with ripe fruit this afternoon. No one had bothered to pick it, the fruit was too small, but the birds were loud in their appreciation of the owner’s forgetfulness.

There seems no limit to the variety of sounds that starlings can make. They pop, wheeze, exclaim, whistle and shriek and they shout over one another with a wonderful lack of inhibition. Add a flock of fieldfare, half drunk on the fermenting fruit and the result is as cacophonous as a bar when the football is on. I love this raucous  sound of autumn; everyone has something to say and are determined to say it.

The first snow has fallen on the Black Forest in Germany and on the Grand Ballon in the Voges; tonight there will snow here in the Jura, but today the sun in shining and the birds are making merry in the pear tree!

 

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Just don’t ask me to eat it!

I am almost over my horror of fungi.

This autumn has been extraordinary in the rich variety of mushrooms coaxed up by the rain, but I will never be tempted to eat any of them again.

This particular mushroom cap was thin and as smooth as porcelain. The edge was lined, as if it had shrunk back with delicate avoidance of the falling leaves pattering down all around it.

The aspen leaves were yellow and then black – no warming russets or browns to lull you – they know winter is coming and lay down to die with minimal fuss.

They only leave behind an unexpected perfume without the slightest a hint of decay . Something soft left lingering in the air.

Sky lace.

The swallows and martins are almost gone.

Over the garden they have poured in their hundreds, companionably calling as they weave their way to far away Africa.

Ted Hughes  wrote that they were stitching the sky and so I have always thought of them, but there were such thick clouds of them last week that I thought maybe they were lace making against the clouds, pulling delicate nets of fine worked lace  behind them.

Our house in on a migration route from Europe to Africa and every year the birds pour over us. Swallows and martins, chasing hobbies, red kites, honey busards, even the odd osprey and flock of blue, blue bee eaters stream over, sometimes high and sometimes low enough to feed from the insects rising from our garden.

The image of the fine lace woven by  the flight  patterns of wings for an instant and then rewoven, reassembled and pulled delicately across the whole world amuses me, something so much lighter and freer than a net : starting in the barns and eves of Europe and then being pulled by the interlacing wings all the way to Africa, a world unified  and beautified by birds!

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Other Eyes.

 

There is so much bad news , so much that scrapes the skin  from your flesh and leaves just flinching, flayed nerves alive to every sadness. And so we turn our eyes away, watch a moth bulging at our self indulgence with blissful alien incomprehension, listen to the hoot of an owl, calling between the roar of the jets, read haikus, allow a late flower to suprise us and to delight us and we hold on as the world turns and turns and we hold on, hold on.

 

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Away.

It is still summer and glittering.  Jewels hunt amongst the rose petals and the perfume of heat is strong.

But the night is cooler and the dawn later. The bats are coming into roost over the apple trees when I have to leave for work, their tantalising trails of clicks and whirls are caught by the bat box and then forgotten in the blur of noise and traffic and faces and faces and faces that fill the working day.

And take me away.

 

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Living in the Modern world.

This swallow was nesting above the cutlery shelf in a busy English beer garden. Drinkers clattered by collecting knives and forks, ketchup and vinegar and bar staff plonked down ploughmans’ lunches, Sunday roasts and Branston pickle sandwiches on their way to tables ringed by hungry drinkers.  The swallow ignored them all  and safe between the electrical wires and heating ducts brought butterflies and bugs back to its brood of hatchlings .

I have put up artificial, purpose made nests for swallows and house martins all round my house, just above my garden which is heaving with insect banquets and the birds have spurned them all. I have laughed at the improbability of my neighbour ever populating his huge new house martin monster hotel as he insists on constantly shaving the grass beneath with noisiest  lawn mower known to creation. However, it seems I have been totally wrong about what these birds want, as this picture proves. To attract swallows to nest in harmony give them chatter, clatter, the smell of cooking and the fumes of plenty of good bitter beer!

Every step you take.

Walking by the edge of an old duck pond , the shadowed earth between the grass shivered. A tiny vibration of stalks and a sense that the ground was spotted with raindrops falling upwards: the frogs had emerged.

Great lumbering things that we are, we minced and high footed our way, conscious at once of our potential to massacre with each clumsy foot fall.

This single froglet rested momentarily in an outstretched hand. Its pin prick heart beating blood around around this minuscule body; nerves registering our heat, eyes wide to the boundless ocean of our enormous flesh.

Two animals together for a single heartbeat next to an old duck pond in the July shade.

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The first time.

Today was the sound of kestrels learning to fly, keening, crying , mewing, mewling, over and over as they flopped and fell and soared and swooped for the very first time out of crowed malodorous nests in dark church towers out, out into the wide blue sky flying with clouds and martins and jackdaws and the clacking of stork bills and the unrepeatable perfume of lime trees in flower for the first time, the first time, the very, very, first time in to the new world.

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Hogs need holes

I was telling my neighbour about the hedgehogs is the garden and she told me how amazed she was to see them in her garden too. There is no surprize in this as a hedgehog roams about two kilometres a day. The problem is that so many gardens are so securely fenced off from each other that hedgehog cannot move from one to another. Small gaps between fences panels or holes under lines of wire fences are all that is needed for a prickly hog to squeeze safely through and to find enough to eat each night.

Humans are obsessed with tidiness. We like straight lines and we fill the gaps in with unyielding concrete in the name of tidiness. We strim down the rough patches and we mow the grass within an  inch of its life. Tidy gardens have very little wildlife and are such a waste of wonderful spaces!

Putting hedgehog path ways through new and old fences is a wonderful way of cooperating with your community, getting to know the neighbours and helping one of the most irresistible mammals I know.

This link to the wildlife trusts of the UK shows you how to do it.

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-create-hedgehog-hole

How to moth trap.

This post is for those who would like to trap moths and discover what is flying at night when they are safe in bed. If moths give you the heebie-jeebies then skip this post!

I am sure there are other ways of doing it, with other equipment, but I am just sharing my own experience for those who are curious.

I have been trapping for about 12 years on a regular basis.  I had been out with other naturalists many years ago in Wales, but it wasn’t until my husband bought me a trap for a present that I started in earnest.

 

First thing you need is a moth trap.   

https://www.watdon.co.uk/   Watkins and Doncaster provided Charles Darwin with his equipment.  They send across the world and they know what they are doing.  I recommend their basic plastic bucket trap to start with and two bulbs (in case you smash one!).

All a trap is, is a UV light bulb which attracts the moths, above a plastic funnel.  The moths then fall down into the bucket below, where they perch on cardboard egg boxes in safety for the night.

The next morning you switch off the light, open the trap gently and carefully remove each egg box one by one. You then photograph the moths (in case they fly off!) and then try to identify them using a good guide book.

I use British Moths by Chris Manley published by Bloomsbury.  I have not found a similar single volume guide for France.  I am certain there are excellent guides for where you live.  There are also some excellent free on line identification sites.  I use https://ukmoths.org.uk/systematic-list/ and also http://montgomeryshiremoths.org.uk/ which is very good for showing what is around at the right time of year.

You make a note of the weather and date and keep a list of what you find in English and or Latin.  I tick off all the species that I have confidently identified in my guide book, so that I can find them again more easily.  I later send my list and photos to my local naturalist organisation, https://faune-alsace.org  so that my records can be compared with others, but you can skip this bit!

That is the bare bones and I am aware that it sounds unutterably dull and nerdy.  The reason for doing it is because you get to see the most wonderful creatures with your own eyes, while drinking a cup of tea on the back step of your own home and that takes some beating as a wildlife experience.  I have been lucky enough to live in Zambia and to spend months on safari, I have lived in Costa Rica for four years and in Brazil for two and spent as much time as possible in the forests, rivers and oceans, seeing wildlife that most people only see on David Attenborough tv programmes and yet I have never enjoyed wildlife in such comfort, or been so amazed on a daily basis as I have been when moth trapping in my own back garden!

 

Tips.

  1.  It takes a long time to learn the common moths that you will encounter on your patch.  It has taken me 10 years to be confident with the common moths and even then I make mistakes.  There are a lots of moths and many of them look the same!!!

2. Start by identifying the ones with clear colours or markings.  Leave the dull ones until much later.  There is no shame in being confused.  If the guide book says the moth that you have spent hours identifying is very rare in your area, then you probably have made a mistake.

3. Keep your moths cool.  If it is warm and the trap has been left in the sun before you open it, then they will all fly away before you identify them.  Move your trap into the coolest shade you can and let them settle before taking out the boxes.  If you do this, you do not need to put them in collecting jars to look at.  They will sit happily on the egg box while you admire them.

4. Take a photo on your phone or camera, so you can look back at them and identify them when you have time.  This final phase often requires a glass of chilled wine and a sofa!

5. Let the moths fly off when they want to, or shake onto a bush.  My cats used to try to eat them, but now treat them with feline disdain.

 

Enjoy!!

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1. UV light and plastic funnel.

2. Box containing old egg boxes and electrical connection.

3. Lead to mains or to a big battery if you want to set up the trap in a remote place.

4. Identification guide.

 

Gifts of the night.

It has been painfully hot here. My garden has had to fend for itself, as going out in the sunshine has been impossible.  Luckily we are on holiday and can sleep the heat of the day away and get up before dawn, open up the house and let in a breath of cool air.

My moth trap has been on almost every night and a wonderful range of visitors has appeared to be sorted over in the pearly morning light before the sun races up over the hedge.

I have been trapping for more than 10 years now and I never cease to be amazed by the diversity and beauty of the moths that I find and how they vary with the seasons.   I have identified more than 160 species of moths just in my back garden over the years and 67 species this year so far. Every time I open the trap there is a possibility  that I will find a moth that is a  totally new record for me and that is a real thrill. I send all my records into my local wildlife society on line and it surprising how under recorded French papillon du nuit (butterflies of the night) are.

The photo at the top is a lovely large emerald that fluttered out of the  trap onto the lawn.

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And this beast is a privet hawk moth.

As they say in the film credits “no animal was hurt in the making of this blog” and all these gifts of the night fly away after identification.

Who knows who will arrive tonight?

Rose Bower

I have always wanted a rose bower.

The very word bower sounds secret and enclosing.

I have trained  roses up wrought iron arches with varying degrees of success, but our wild dog rose has produced the longest, most exuberant arms of flowers to wrap around the old wheel barrow and make marvellous the compost corner.

Its simple pink blossoms are transient, perfumed and perfect. No dog ever wagged so      wonderfully!

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