Chilli Tulips

Last winter I was engaged in an intense battle of wits with a rat who hoped to carry off all my tulip bulbs. I had planted over a hundred tulips in November but, by early December, I noticed that nearly every bulb had been very precisely dug up and removed:

A row of neat holes where previously there had been planted bulbs. The rodent must be able to locate them very accurately by smell

I put a trail camera in the allotment and caught the perpetrator red-handed, walking away with one of the few remaining bulbs:

A rat making off with a bulb

Although by then it was late in the season, I did manage to buy forty more bulbs. After they were replanted, wire netting was pegged down over the bed:

I rather smugly supposed this would be the end of the matter but the rat had other ideas. It dug down at the edge of the wire by the rosemary bush and tunnelled up to each of this second batch of bulbs from below:

The access hole, leading to a network of underground tunnels. I was surprised that a tulip bulb was worth expending so much effort for
Another bulb has disappeared even though it is completely covered in wire from above
The rat emerging from the hole by the rosemary with yet another tulip in its mouth.

Although I was rather impressed with the rat and greatly admired its ingenuity, I also really like growing unusual varieties of tulip to cut and bring into the house in the spring.

This April we visited Pashley Manor’s tulip festival and a bulb supplier, Bloms Bulbs, had a marquee there to showcase their wares:

The Bloms Bulbs marquee at the Pashley Manor tulip festival in Sussex this April

I asked if they had any suggestions for dealing with my rat conundrum. I was expecting them to recommend poisoning or trapping the rat but, instead, I was pleasantly surprised when they suggested rolling the bulbs in chilli before planting.

This November, full of optimism for the new chilli weapon in my armoury, I have again bought a hundred tulip bulbs:

I also purchased a kilogram of chilli powder:

As an additional measure, we decided to plant the bulbs in a raised bed which would be easier to net and would offer more protection to tunnelling in from the side:

The raised bed, prepared and ready to go

Wearing rubber gloves, I dipped each bulb in water and then plopped it into the chilli bag before planting:

Bright red chilli tulips before I raked over the soil

So, this year’s battle has now commenced and I await the rat’s next move with interest.

This autumn has been wet and stormy and the trail cameras have kept needing to come in to be dried out on the Aga. But they have managed to get some photos of all the five species of birds of prey that have been hunting in the meadows this season:

The ringed kestrel has been regularly seen
She’s a beautiful bird
There have been several different sparrowhawks out and about
I am not sure if this bird was sunbathing or if she was shrouding prey on the perch
The feeding cages and all the birds that visit them are a big attraction for the sparrowhawks
Sparrowhawks often adopt this insouciant resting stance
The buzzard has also been around
Placing the camera up on the hay pile
It has been hunting from the top of the hay pile, although the camera I have got up there has got a slight crack in the lens cover and is very affected by the rain..
..but it has shown us that a fox curls up and rests there most nights..
..and I think this is a tawny owl that has been using the camera itself as a lofty perch
A barn owl is appearing on the cameras most nights this autumn
It’s good to see that the meadows are providing it with food

Winter-visiting birds have been arriving and appearing on the cameras:

A woodcock in the meadows. This bird has probably just arrived from Russia or Finland and will soon move on to woodland further inland. Our own wood near Canterbury has many over-wintering woodcock every year – maybe this bird will end up there
Goldcrests arrive here from the colder parts of Europe in the late autumn..
..as do the rarer firecrests with those black stripes around the eye
There has been a lovely influx of blackbirds and thrushes as well

A long term resident of the meadows is a handsome fox who was the mate of the One-eyed Vixen and over the years the pair have raised many cubs in the meadows.

The heart-warming photo of the One Eyed Vixen on the right grooming her mate back in 2020. Foxes pair for life and this couple were together here for several years

This year, however, he has had an annus horribilis – we have lost the One-eyed Vixen and he is now a widower. But, as well as that, he has had mange all year. I tried to treat this twice earlier in the year but was unsuccessful. This autumn I have treated him again and am pleased to report that this time it has worked:

I haven’t posted photos of this fox this summer because I found it all too upsetting. But here he is now as he starts to recover. The bare black skin on his face is where he had open sores a couple of months ago
This widower fox loves pears and has been hanging around the orchard all autumn

I am dedicating this blog post to my special father-in-law who died this week. Joining the RAF as a young man during the war and remaining with them for most of his career, he had a long and rich life, full of adventure. He was good company, a dispenser of amazing stories and very interested in the lives of other people. He was also a kind and lovely man.

RIP Steve 1928-2023

Cranes in Champagne

November can be a difficult month so this year we decided that, rather than simply enduring it, we would celebrate it instead by going to France to witness a wildlife spectacle that happens there at this time of year. Lac du Der is in the Champagne region of France and, in November, thousands of common cranes gather at the lake before continuing their migration onwards towards Spain.

Ferries manoeuvring in the Port of Dover as we left for France, the day after Storm Ciaran had raged through

The weather forecast for the week was pretty awful so we packed all our waterproofs and warm clothes and got onto a ferry heading across The Channel. We were joining a Naturetrek holiday and the cranes were to be the grand finale of the week. The first part of the holiday was spent exploring the area around the Forêt d’Orient.

The Forêt D’Orient is situated just to the east of Troyes and Lac du Der is at the top right of the map. This southern section of the Champagne region is roughly a four hour drive south of Calais

We arrived a day before the rest of the group and spent time exploring the region, including visiting Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where Charles de Gaulle lived and is buried. There is now a fantastic museum and a memorial to him there.

Next to the museum, the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of Free France during the Second World War, proudly stands over the Champagne countryside. Charles de Gaulle escaped to Britain in 1940 and broadcast the Appeal of 18th June from London which was a call to arms for the French Resistance and remains one of the most important speeches in French history
A contemplative bench with a beautiful view in the Charles de Gaulle museum

This sign propped up by the side of the road reminded us that hunting (la chasse) in France starts in September and goes on until the end of February and that we needed to take great care when walking in woodland.

Over the course of the week we did see several men wandering about the countryside dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles or shotguns

A striking feature of this part of France is the amount of mistletoe growing on the trees:

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite – although its evergreen leaves do photosynthesise, its specialised roots grow through the bark of the tree to plunder nutrients and water as well
Its white berries are sticky and are eaten by mistle thrushes and blackcaps especially. Some of the seeds get stuck to their beaks and are then transferred across to other trees

Once we had joined up with the Naturetrek group, who had travelled to Paris on Eurostar and then been picked up in minibuses, the fifteen of us spent several days exploring the woodlands and lakes of the Forêt D’Orient along with our two guides.

By the end of the week, the group had seen around a hundred species of birds, some of them absolute corkers. Sadly, though, we did not see or hear the enormous black woodpecker although we did have several sightings of a middle-spotted woodpecker, a new species for us.

We also saw a lot of water pipit, another first:

Water pipits are rare winter visitors to the UK but seemed fairly common in Champagne

It is always a delight to see little owls and a pair were spotted on a walk around one of the villages:

We saw three white-tailed sea eagles, although all at a great distance. This juvenile bird is next to a corvid to give it scale:

It takes seven years for the eagle to reach adulthood and only then does it get its white tail:

An adult white-tailed sea eagle

There were a very large number of great white egrets and grey herons living in and around the lakes:

There were also cattle egrets:

I found this next scene quite frankly amazing and stood mesmerised by it for ages:

Great white egrets standing on the edge, cormorants in the water and seagulls hovering above. So many birds in one place

The lakes are actually man-made reservoirs supplying water to Paris and are at their lowest levels at this time of year. I assume that a shoal of fish had become stranded in this little inlet causing this bird mayhem.

This dense black slick in the water was discovered to be hundreds and hundreds of coots and they stayed all together like this for the entire time we were watching them. This was very odd and I have no idea what was going on:

November is a great time to see fungal fruiting bodies and there were many of these to be seen in the forest. I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing when I found a small group of scarlet octopuses amongst the leaf litter:

This is the Devil’s fingers fungus, or octopus stinkhorn. Originally from the Southern Hemisphere, this startling fungus is also occasionally found in Britain
The magpie inkcap is another distinctive fungus. This is found in southern Britain too, although is not common

One area of the forest is known for fire salamanders. The larval stage of these salamanders lives in water but the adults are to be found under logs by day, emerging at night to hunt for their invertebrate prey. We walked around the woodland, carefully turned over logs to see if we could find one of these salamanders:

At first we only found frogs under the logs. Although these look very much like our British common frogs, they are in fact a different species – they are agile frogs. These frogs can jump up to two metres in a single leap when escaping from predators

Jersey is the only place in the British Isles where agile frogs are native

Eventually we got lucky and found a small fire salamander under a log:

This salamander will have hatched this year but adult fire salamanders can grow to twenty-five centimetres and are in fact Europe’s largest salamanders. The yellow and black patterning is variable between individuals

Over the course of the week, we saw several Asian hornets flying around. We also spotted an abandoned Asian hornet nest five metres up a tree:

The week’s weather was very much better than had been forecast and we managed to spend a series of long days out in the field. Our picnic lunches were prepared by our two fantastic guides, Jason and Emilie Mitchell:

Lunch prepared in a village square with our two minibuses and our two guides. Note that lunch always included wine!

One afternoon we were shown round the medieval centre of Troyes by a city guide.

The building below was used as a local headquarters by the German army when they occupied the city during the war:

When the American Army arrived to liberate the city in 1944, the building was heavily machine-gunned and, spine chillingly, still bears those scars today:

On another afternoon, we had a tour of the cellars and bottling plant of the Drappier champagne house:

Drappier champagne is available in many sizes….

…including their largest bottle of all – a thirty litre melchisedech bottle. This bottle costs around six thousand euros and is very difficult to lift and pour but they do still sell several a year:

Jason and a melchisedech. We didn’t stretch to one of these but we did buy a magnum to take back for Christmas

The tour ended with a champagne tasting. The champagne was very enjoyable – including the ‘nature’ type, where they add no sugar so that the champagne taste is pure and not masked by the extra sweetness. We bought a bottle of that as well. But the whole experience was made all the more memorable because we were joined by old Monsieur Drappier himself – now ninety-seven, he was the person who first started making champagne rather then red wine there back in 1947. He has now safely seen in seventy-seven harvests.

Monsieur Drappier and our guide Emilie

But now to finish with the cranes. Lac du Der is also a reservoir supplying Paris and the water levels are really low in November, exposing many islands and promontories for the cranes to safely roost on.

Three villages were drowned when the valley was dammed in 1974:

Common cranes breed in Russia and surrounding countries and then migrate along a straight line south-west to spend the winter in Spain. Lac du Der has become an important stop-over point along this route where they roost in the lake basin by night and fuel up on missed potatoes lying in the nearby fields by day. The number of cranes here is variable but on 3rd November 2019 there were a record 268,120 of them there. The global population of common crane is now 700,000 birds – this is gradually increasing as a result of changes in farming practices which now supplies them with an abundance of food during the winter and along their migration routes. I do so love a good news story.

Some of our group watching the cranes fly back to the lake basin at sunset

The bird count a few days before we arrived at Lac du Der was 23,000 which was well short of the record, but there were still just so many cranes coming in to roost before dusk:

Cranes coming in

They are loud and vocal birds as they fly and the soundscape was all encompassing. We stood and watched in awe as group after group arrived and landed:

Starting to gather by the lake
One of the adults is colour-ringed here and I was able to report this sighting to iCora, the body administrating the crane ringing scheme

The juveniles, with brown rather than black, white and red heads, travel with their parents to be shown the way:

A skirmish between juveniles
The welcome sight of a group of cranes out and about in the fields during the day

Although we had thought it a good idea when we booked this holiday months ago, as the time drew near and the weather and forecast were terrible, we were not looking forward to it at all. But in fact we had a wonderful week, surrounded by Frenchness, in a lovely group of people and seeing lots of things that we had never experienced before.

Now we need to have a think about what to do next November..