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:
I put a trail camera in the allotment and caught the perpetrator red-handed, walking away with one of the few remaining bulbs:
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:
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:
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:
Wearing rubber gloves, I dipped each bulb in water and then plopped it into the chilli bag before planting:
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:
Winter-visiting birds have been arriving and appearing on the cameras:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A striking feature of this part of France is the amount of mistletoe growing on the 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:
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:
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:
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:
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
Eventually we got lucky and found a small fire salamander under a log:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
The juveniles, with brown rather than black, white and red heads, travel with their parents to be shown the way:
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..