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Oh dear. I hate being late. I really did intend to post my April observations on 7th April but that evening, I was due to leave for the UK for a week and and and… non-screen life got in the way. So here I am, hoping that I’ll still hit the 7 day posting window.

Sweet chestnut tree at La Fosse… under a full moon at 9pm in the evening

After a warm – sometimes hot – spell in March, it’s been a bit chillier of late. The tightly closed buds are opening but as you can see from the photo above, there’s no real fuzz of green on the tree. And yet! There are a few young replacement sweet chestnuts thrusting their way towards the light and they are in full leaf.

Perhaps the bigger the tree, the longer it takes to push the sap and other leaf-unfurling instructions up the trunk and out to the branches. And perhaps that’s a hopelessly unscientific thought. I suspect it is also to do with the air temperature higher up the tree versus the comparitive shelter at the base where there’s a soil bank to the north of the wanabee saplings.

Buds in the same area as those photographed in March

Buds unfurling

It is beautiful in the detail but also amazing to see what is developing out of what looks such an unpromising start – the closed winter bud

Out of tiny beginnings, big trees grow… though this is very close to the base of the tree so unlikely to survive to be a replacement.

Two of the tiny seedlings which have germinated over the past couple of years – on the left it looks to be in its second year; on the right, that’s this year’s germination showing its first leaves

These seedlings are in the leaf litter at the base of the tree – as is the little hazel. They’re very vulnerable at that size – risks range from being grazed by passing wildlife or trodden on, or scratted up by a passing chicken in search of insect life. The chickens spend a lot of time underneath the tree turning over the leaf litter.

Baby hazel (Corylus avellana) – a rabbit would snack on that in a moment

 

I’m following a tree !

A blasted oak…

Sorting through my photos just now, I was reminded that my second choice for a tree to follow was an oak in a field adjacent to La Fosse which has been damaged by a couple of lightening strikes and is gradually reaching the end of its life.

A misty Sée river valley, winter sunset and an oak that has literally been through the wars… or at least WWII

Some winter evenings – and mornings – if the climatic conditions are right, sea mists swirl up the Sée valley straight from the bay of le Mont-St-Michel about 30 kms (20 miles) to the west and the villages of Juvigny-le-Tertre on the opposite ridge and Chérencé-le-Roussel down in the valley vanish into the haze.  Take a deep breath as the mist steals up the fields towards La Fosse and you can distinctly taste the salty, mineral-y tang of the sea on your tongue.

This tree was almost my Tree Following choice but the disadvantage is its location in a neighbour’s field. He often grazes sheep or young cattle in the field during the year and I wouldn’t want to disturb them by making regular treks over to examine the oak.

Gorgeous Normandy cattle – they’re a breed as well as a region. They’re robust, hardy animals and multi-purpose as they’re good for both milk and meat

Also, it has to be said, Sylvain – if he saw me – would probably think I was completely bonkers; enough people already think I’m odd as they pass by and see me peering into trees, down into verges, photographing ivy covered tree stumps (insects) or screeching to a halt in the car in my continuing and so far unsuccessful quest to photograph closeup either a buzzard on a telegraph pole or a kestrel hovering over a field edge.

I mentioned the second world war. I should explain that while the date in everyone’s mind is 6th June, 1944 because that is D-Day in Normandy, D-Day was very much only the start – the vital start – of the battle of Normandy with the eventual liberation of France and the other occupied lands of western Europe.

Perriers-en-Beauficel itself wasn’t liberated for further two months. The Allies, fighting their way down the peninsula from the direction of Cherbourg, Caen and inland from the coast enabled this village to be free again on 11th August, 1944.

There were recorded, intense battles around La Fosse for four days prior to Perriers-en-Beauficel being liberated on 11th August, 1944. The level of fighting in this area was brought home to us when we were having drainage trenches dug back in 2005 and the digger unearthed a cache of tracer ammunition which had been in the ground for the previous 60 years.

WWII ammunition unearthed during the restoration of La Fosse, Perriers-en-Beauficel, in 2005

The authorities are used to WWII ordnance being found across this region – indeed, local legend is that there is a lost and so far undiscovered arms cache somewhere on the back road to Chérencé-le-Roussel.  The local authorities do the rounds every so often and collect all the latest discoveries that are often unearthed during ploughing.

We were a little nervous about our discovery and stored it under cover at the edge of our field as far from the house as possible until it could be collected. Eventually, our Maire (mayor) turned up, peered at our find, chuckled knowingly… and casually popped the box into the back of his car. We watched him in awe as he bumped off up the drive with a cheerful wave. Sooner him than us. I read a few months later of a maire further south who had a similar insouciant, devil-may-care attitude to the old shell he heaved into his hatchback. Unfortunately it was the last bit of attitude he displayed as the shell exploded.

The storms in January this year had unexpected consequences when 80+ WWII shells were found on a beach in Brittany.

But… back to the start and the point of this post… that blighted oak tree, which is probably not long (comparitively) for this world, must have seen a heck of  a lot over its life.

… in more ways than one.

Honey bees, honey (top, capped cells) larvae (brood) and pollen

First of all, we’re very sorry to be waving bye-bye to very good friends who’re moving back to the UK for a year or two. Getting Very Good Jobs is difficult in France if you’re not French and have no directly transferable diplomas or other qualifications – even if your French is very good and you’ve years of top-class, exceptional experience elsewhere.

And France doesn’t try to be friendly to small, independent businesses in the way that the UK (and no doubt other countries) is. A positive “can do” attitude doesn’t count for much here. Ability to pay about 50% of earnings in social taxes does. Anyway, having had a slew of Very Good Job offers back in England, our friends are putting their much-loved Normandy home to bed for a while and relocating to pastures new… but their little house will be waiting for them and we know they’ll be back!

Dusk, Thursday evening – three colonies of honeybees safely abed for the night

Part of putting their house to bed is re-homing their bees. They were kindly looking after two of our bee colonies over last year while Patrick became officially bionic with two new hips and now we’re returning the favour by looking after their Warre hive (the tall, elegant one) while they’re away. Well, not so much the hive but more the inhabitants and contents – honey!

Moving bees is a process. There are many different opinions, probably as many opinions as there are beekeepers :-) – for example in the link I’ve just provided, the recommendation is that bees are ideally moved in winter. That makes little practical sense as bees are often moved to where there’s a crop that needs pollination and will provide nectar which will produce honey – an orchard full of blossom; a lavender farm, an avenue of lime trees – and those movements necessarily happen in spring or summer.

Then there’s the three feet vs three miles rule of thumb: either move your hive less than 3 ft or more than 3 miles to avoid confusing and possibly losing your bees. But even so, allegedly you can move your bees more than 3 ft providing you force the bees to reorientate themselves on emerging the morning after the move. You can do that by putting a barrier in front of the exit.

This unexpected obstacle – a surprised that wasn’t there last night…” is my anthropomorphic description of the reaction – forces a re-boot of each bee’s internal sat-nav. Before flying off in search of food, the bees will take the time to work out why there has been a sudden and major change so close to the hive and, if that’s new, what else has changed? Having re-established their location and landmarks, they’ll successfully find the hive again on their return. After a few days, one can safely remove the obstacle as by then, the bees will have established their new position and while they’ll notice the lack of obstacle, it won’t affect their arrival on the landing board at the entrance.

Travel board being fixed across the hive entrance which gives some ventilation to the hive but the holes are too small for the bees to be able to exit

You should only move hives in the evening when all the bees are done flying for the day and are home for the evening. You should only do it when the weather is sufficiently warm; it doesn’t have to be hot, but ideally you don’t move bees when the weather is really cold: no matter how carefully you drive, there’s a danger of the cluster of bees around the centre of the hive being jarred apart. If that happens, they’ll re-group but in warm springs, if they have already started raising the new season’s bees – the larva, the brood – is liable to chill and all that egg laying and nurturing goes to waste.

Dusk – bee hives secured for moving – strapped down to prevent sliding on the trailer base and all exits secured to prevent bees leaving during transit

There’s a big advantage – in our opinion – to moving the bees at dusk: you’re more or less guaranteed to move the entire colony. Call me an old softie but I hate the thought of late-returning bees arriving at an empty space if they’ve missed the departure. As far as I could see last night, only one bee left the building while the hives were being made ready for transport so only one bee will have returned last night to an empty tree stump to be left wondering where her home had gone.

So we drove them carefully to their new abode in our field near the workshop just below Perriers-en-Beauficel and in the dark we carried them on to their new stands. Can I say that unless you’ve rested your cheek against a buzzing box, you really haven’t… experienced fear! Very annoyed bees sound exactly that. Having located them on their stands, we left them to settle down and at 7am this morning, Patrick tiptoed over to remove the travel boards which enabled them, once the air was warm enough, to come out and greet the morning.

Two and a half bee colonies – the box on the left is a small colony which is in a half-size Dadant hive – they were a late swarm from last year and we’re delighted they survived the winter as we weren’t sure there was enough bee-mass to keep the interior of the hive warm and dry

Their location on our land in Perriers-en-Beauficel is as good as we could get it: north side they have a thick hedge so deflect the cold, northerly winds; east side is similarly protected. They get any winter sun all day but once the trees and hedges are in leaf, they’ll be protected from the full summer sun in the middle of the day.

The Warre hive will stay with us year round but the other hives will probably go on their holidays to the gardens of friends (both over 3 miles away!) where they’ll get a good variety of flowers, trees and shrubs. Then we’ll plan to bring them back to overwinter in the spot they’re in now.

The Warre hive at about 2pm this afternoon

All the hives were showing a nice level of activity this afternoon – it was breezy but sunny and bees were not only setting off to forage but they were bringing back plenty of pollen.

Busy bee with pollen saddlebags

The entrance guard is dual purpose – this way up it is a mouse guard and is used in winter to preventing mice nipping in and stealing honey; inverted, the smaller holes provide ventilation but not a way to exit the hive during, for example, transportation to a new location

The weather isn’t forecast to be so good for the next few days but the bees should still get some flying hours in and, depending on the temperatures, we may give them another feed of fondant – in which case photos will be taken and blog will be updated – to ensure they settle in well.

Bees in the full-size hive this afternoon – I love the two on the left who look as if they are having a real head-to-head confrontation… perhaps they are?

Dear me, bit of a marathon post this time. The thing is, bees are so interesting and there is so much to say about them that it’s difficult to be brief and pithy. If you’ve made it thus far, you deserve a pot of home-produced honey. Although… you do know that honey is more or less dehydrated bee spit? Don’t you? :-D And on that note…

This is a wildlife and plant blog -  even a tree is a big plant with a stick up the middle* – but I love cooking and food generally so occasionally I can’t resist including the occasional post that is more culinary than botanical. Especially if it kind of combines the two.

I recently discovered apple chestnut wine in a shop in Bayeux – looked but didn’t buy; it was the sort of shop where a small bottle of Very Special Calvados (apple brandy) was 40+ euros a bottle. Eeek.

On a trip to Granville last week – the fabulous covered market of which more soon on the ‘What’s Happening’ tab above – we discovered sweet dandelion jelly, primrose and violet jelly and even rose petal vinegar. All were ‘bio’ – organic – and home made in small quantities by an artisan producer.

Patrick and I had a goûter - a small taste – of both. I have to say that the pissenlit gelée was a bit dull… but no doubt a good addition to a morning slice of toast if one has water retention issues! but the primrose and violet jelly was startling and a very original flavour.

Cramaillotte – gelée de pissenlits (dandelion jelly) along with (at the front) gelée primverte (primroses) violets. The bottle in the centre of the photo is rose vinegar

The gentle impression of violets was the enduring taste but there was a really fresh and green flavour from (we assumed) the primroses. It was lovely and inspired me to find a recipe to enable me to make my own… well, more accurately, a recipe to add to my to-do-one-day list.

My search led me to a very nice-looking blog: Life in mud spattered boots where, in the serendipitous way of the www, a post relating to violet jam was posted yesterday. It’s a blog I’m definitely going to take the time to explore.

And I really had to include this photo of an amazing bank of radishes! Have you ever seen so many bunches of crunchy heat? France is very seasonal in its attitude to food and we deduced that March is apparently the start of radish season. While admiring the display, have to say I took a moment to admire the vendor too! :-)

Radish time at Granville market, Normandy

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* A definition courtesy of Colin Tudge, author of The Secret Life of Trees – a recent charity shop find of mine and a fascinating, thought-provoking book

Tree-following at La Fosse – March 2014 – my Castanea sativa tree is quietly biding its time until the daylength and temperature is right to start a new season of growth

I chose the tree, I measured its height and approximated its age, I showed it in the landscape… I took several portrait and personality shots… what else can I say at this stage? Because, you see, my sweet chestnut tree isn’t doing anything.

Chestnut twigs with shiny but not-very-exciting-yet buds

That’s not true, of course, because a lot is happening inside my trees at the moment – I just can’t see it. Trees are preparing for the new season. The sap is rising. Root pressure is sending water, food and messages up the tree and as the weather warms and the days grow longer, transpiration will aid root pressure to provide the long-distance impetus to get the tree ready for a new year’s growth.

Close up of the buds – tightly closed at the moment (9th March) but the forecast week of warm, sunny weather is going to make a big change to all the plants at La Fosse

So, not so much what’s left to say? but more, where do I stop?

We estimate our tree to be about 200 years old but they will live till they are 700+ years old.

They’re good for wildlife – vital for our bees both from a pollen and a nectar (therefore honey) point of view – but chestnuts are also useful for a wide variety of insects, birds – and even provide a nice winter home for gastropods!

A snug cave at the base of the tree

Snail in residence

Chestnuts are good value commercially – around here, they’re a hedgerow crop. Many are harvested every 20 or so years by coppicing.

Chestnut and beech coppicing, winter 2014, in the voie-verte adjacent to La Fosse in Perriers-en-Beauficel, Normandy

The better quality wood is then used – or sold – for fencing posts, paling fences, rustic garden gates because it is rot-resistant even without being treated. And it is also used for firewood.

Our next-door neighbour has been felling chestnuts at the edge of his field this year and some of the harvest will be providing winter heat in his 89-year-old mother’s wood-burning stove in a few years time after the wood has seasoned.

Younger wood will turn into planks successfully and is a beautiful, warm golden colour providing beautiful, long-lasting floorboards. Chestnut wood can generally be used in the same way as oak.

The fruit is edible – but a bit over-rated in my opinion. And at some point, I need to explain the difference between our sweet chestnut tree and ‘marrons’, the large chestnuts which are the type best used for roasting. But France, looking for as many uses as possible for all edible fruits, has come up with a use for chestnuts that I’ve not tried… but must do so one day!

An interesting fusion between apples and sweet chestnuts – similar in alcohol content to a glass of wine. I’m guessing it is usually used as an aperitif

Here endeth my first official Tree Following post…

…and even highlights what is likely to be a contributory factor to the environmental problems that the planet faces… but it is still interesting.

This part of rural Normandy is ideal for viewing the clear night skies – the stars, planets, the meteor showers – the Perseids in August particularly – the views of the ISS… all of this is a real, regular – and calorie-free treat. But during the day, and especially on a peaceful Sunday lunchtime when we have time to look up at the sky, we watch the aircraft contrails. Where have they been? Where are they going?

Contrails above La Fosse on a sunny Sunday in March. Contrails – condensation trails – are water vapour

Whatever one thinks of air travel and the impact on the environment – and it is an enormous, multi-faceted discussion – the stunning blue skies over the past few days have give us chance to look up and watch the criss-crossing of enormous, complex machines and the lives they carry in a hostile environment.

If you’re interested, have a look at flightradar24.com. Click your way to the sky above where you live and click on the aircraft icons to get surprisingly detailed live flight information for the planes passing above your head. I love this site.

Flightradar24 – the aircraft highlighted is the one on the right of the blue skies photo above, ie, the contrail due to travel from right to upper left

Of course, the site still works at night so when you’re lying back in a lounger, glass of wine at your side and looking up at the sky waiting for the next sighting of the ISS, you can still check where those blinking lights (satellites don’t blink) are going.

Good site to plot the ISS – international space station – views from your garden

Good site for the sky, stars and planets above your location…  heavens-above.com.

Those are my usual ‘go to’ sites but there are others – let me know if you’ve a favourite sky-watching site.

Snowdrops against a blue blue sky at La Fosse, Perriers-en-Beauficel, Normandy

I was going to open by pointing out that it’s not all bad, being a worm. On sunny days in late winter, you can get a worm’s eye view of some short in stature but very beautiful flowers that us bipeds can’t readily appreciate in detail because the flower heads point down to the ground. I don’t think I have ever looked up at a snowdrop against a bright blue sky before…

There’s a flaw in this thought though – worms can’t enjoy the view either – they don’t have eyes. They can differentiate between the light intensity of day versus night but they too will be missing out on the beauty that is a snowdrop flower.

Two snowdrops, probably both Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop) with the multi-petalled one being Galanthus nivalis floripleno

Gorgeous.  Of course, I had to pick them to get these photos but they’re in a tiny vase by my bed so their picked beauty is not wasted. We often look at a sweep of snowdrops against brown soil but it’s only when you lift them up that you really appreciate the quality of detail in the bloom.

Snowdrops in bud, February 2014 – short in stature but big on presence and beauty

Many people assume that a snowdrop is a snowdrop… they’re all the same, aren’t they? No. There over 500 varieties (admittedly, some of them are very very similar) and we used to visit a wonderful garden in Gloucestershire, between Cirencester and Cheltenham which grew about 250 of them. The sight – and scent – was breath-taking.

The varieties differ in often minute ways but one identification criterion is the ‘petal marks’.

The ‘petal marks’ are the little marks on the outside of the petal – not the ‘stripes’ inside

These petal mark variations are described in quite mundane but effective ways: scissors, boxer shorts (!), sad face, etc – see N J Crawley’s pdf link below.

I think my snowdrops above both have a typical (ie, unexciting!) inverted U shaped mark. Or perhaps if I close my eyes and squint a bit, it’s a double-headed tadpole? I really fancy growing some with the mark of the boxer shorts! Boxer shorts and snowdrops in one sentence. Who’d have expected that?

Snowdrop identification aide by N J Crawley

Best snowdrop garden ever – Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire

Further, serious (and interesting) reading at the Kew website

Days on the Claise

Mostly a wildlife and plant diary for this part of Normandy in the Vire / Mortain / Villedieu-les-Pôeles area. But also a record of a miscellany of thoughts, events and activities. Pictured below are Red Admiral butterfly, Great Green Bush Cricket, a glow worm and a Jersey Tiger moth

Real Food Lover

What I eat: organic, local, green, fast slow-food

French wildlife and beekeeping

Mostly a wildlife and plant diary for this part of Normandy in the Vire / Mortain / Villedieu-les-Pôeles area. But also a record of a miscellany of thoughts, events and activities. Pictured below are Red Admiral butterfly, Great Green Bush Cricket, a glow worm and a Jersey Tiger moth

Pencil and Leaf

Mostly a wildlife and plant diary for this part of Normandy in the Vire / Mortain / Villedieu-les-Pôeles area. But also a record of a miscellany of thoughts, events and activities. Pictured below are Red Admiral butterfly, Great Green Bush Cricket, a glow worm and a Jersey Tiger moth

The Spinning Shepherd § La Bergère Filandière

Mostly a wildlife and plant diary for this part of Normandy in the Vire / Mortain / Villedieu-les-Pôeles area. But also a record of a miscellany of thoughts, events and activities. Pictured below are Red Admiral butterfly, Great Green Bush Cricket, a glow worm and a Jersey Tiger moth

LOOSE AND LEAFY

Mostly a wildlife and plant diary for this part of Normandy in the Vire / Mortain / Villedieu-les-Pôeles area. But also a record of a miscellany of thoughts, events and activities. Pictured below are Red Admiral butterfly, Great Green Bush Cricket, a glow worm and a Jersey Tiger moth

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