Thursday, July 26, 2012

Intermarche - and the delights of rural France

This week I’m in France. We’ve hired an old rectory near to Verdun on the Meuse, a stone’s throw from the Great War battlefields. It’s not an area I’d normally choose, but Jane liked the look of the house on the internet, and I‘ve been working on the final draft of my book – we stay in a lot, the boys swim in the pool, and every now and then I add to the list of butterflies I’ve seen in the garden.

One day we made a trip to Bar de Luc, a renaissance town to the south – it was beautiful but deserted; like a Georgio de Chirico painting. Yesterday we visited the war memorials; equally beautiful in their way, though oddly disconcerting as tourist attraction.  It’s been hot – walk only in the shade hot – and to be frank, the landscape is less than inspiring. Every day, what I look forward to most, is our trip to the supermarket.

At home Tesco is a chore – aisles of choice but no inspiration; I shop there in a dash, sticking to the list and finishing before most folks have eaten breakfast. But in France I linger. And not so much at the vegetables, meats or cheeses, as at the house-wares and stationery, the garden equipment and DIY displays – even the Tupperware boxes.

Yesterday Jane found me watching a five-minute video for the ‘Nicer Dicer’, a sort of Mandoline slicer that we decidedly don’t need. There was a smaller version called the ‘Magic Garlic’ that was equally unnecessary, but strangely tempting.  She was getting impatient: What did I fancy for dinner? Do we need any more butter?

I especially like the brushes. They’re different to ours – more like brooms, and they have nifty handles that are better for hanging on pegs. We don’t need any but that’s not the point – we don’t need half the clothes we own - so I put one in the trolley.  It falls out and I reluctantly agree it’s too awkward to transport.

The stationery next catches my eye – there are shelves of cheap exercise books, filled with squared paper (not lined).  This makes them somehow more attractive, almost exotic.  I don’t need any notebooks either, but again I linger – I’m sure I’d write more if only I had some of these.

It’s an oddity of coming to France that I enjoy their supermarkets.  Or is it? Because sometimes it’s in the everyday things that we experience the biggest difference. I once met a couple of German cyclists who’d compiled a list of English eccentricities – driving on the left of the road, salt dispensers with only one hole, front brakes on the right (that’s a cycling thing, but almost everywhere else does it the other way round), unelected House of Lords…

Today is hot again: too hot to go anywhere. My list of butterflies has stalled at the mid-teens and I’m sitting in the shade writing this – if it were not for the heat I could be just about anywhere. Except on my left is a Tupperware box with, I notice, has a rather clever design of lid - and an unusual knife sharpener that was especially effective when I used it last night. Come to think of it, we could do with both of those at home.   

Jane, do you fancy a trip to the Intermarche…?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Encounters 5 - Ringlet

Image from the web

Yesterday was the start of the Big Butterfly Count, an excellent initiative organised by the nature charity, Butterfly Conservation. It's the third year they've run the count, which encourages thousands of ordinary folk to record the butterflies they see and post the list on a website. Last year over 210,000 butterflies were recorded over two week period and the information provides a snapshot of distribution and numbers across the UK.

This year the omens are not good.  After our wettest summer on record, it's feared that butterfly populations will have been devastated. David Attenborough, the charity's president, has encouraged people to join the count - if only to confirm our worst fears.

Last year I saw eighteen species on a single day - at Somerford Common in Wiltshire. This year, I've barely seen that many butterflies in total! There was a brimstone in the park in March, and I spotted an orange tip in April. A fortnight ago I rode my bike the length of England and, despite a week of relative sunshine, I saw only 12 butterflies. I have a huge buddleia bush in my garden which we carefully pruned to encourage more flowers. It has had no visitors. Pathetic.

So as I opened the curtains yesterday and saw yet more rain I was not hopeful. By midday it had cleared to a milky sky; warm but wet. We went to the beach at Newgale, flew a kite in the onshore breeze, then drove the lanes into town - nothing doing. On our return I walked the lane opposite my house that was once a drove road, hoping there might at least be some whites or a speckled wood - still nothing.

Butterflies, for all they are in serious decline, are actually quite robust to extreme-weather. We had a similarly bad summer in 2007 and numbers quickly recovered. If we get a reasonable autumn and a better spring we'll see an improvement next year. Far worse than the rain is the loss of habitat to industrial agriculture and the overly-liberal use of pesticides. It's the species on the brink that are most vulnerable to a bad summer- clinging on in isolated colonies, a wet few months can be enough to tip the scales; years of conservation effort wiped out by a few degrees shift in the jet stream. 

So my worst year for sightings was being topped off with my worst ever day's recording. I was resigned to a 'nil entry', which the Big Butterfly Count website says are as scientifically valuable as positive sightings. That may be so, but they're crap for the spirit. Spotting a butterfly is always a little moment of joy - with the exception of cabbage whites to allotment gardeners, nobody dislikes their arriving. A summer without butterflies is the visual equivalent of a silent spring.

And so my pulse leapt as I spotted a brown flicker over the hedge between our garden and next door. Five seconds later and I'd have been indoors. It was a ringlet: close relative of the meadow brown, family Satyridae - common throughout the UK and distinguishable by a line of bright rings on the underside of the hind wings. It's one of the very few butterflies that takes to the wing in overcast weather. For all that the guidebooks will tell you it has a velvety sheen on emergence, most adults are rather dusky and look as if they've been battered in the wind. 

I didn't care. I'd seen a butterfly; and what's more, I'd recognised it from a passing glimpse, verified when it landed. I felt pretty cool, buoyed up even. I went inside and recorded it on the website - one of three contributions from Pembrokeshire.  There were eight ringlets spotted in the county - second only to the meadow brown of which there'd been ten. It's a depressing picture, but not without hope.

Today I walked to the white tower at Porthgain - one of my favourite places and pictured on the title of this blog. Dylan was with me, demonstrating how to master a wizard blast and shield block if ever I were attacked by a goblin. He cast an imaginary spell over the harbour - I summon 'rays of light' he roared. And as he did so, I saw the tell-tale flash of brown and orange eyes on a shard of volcanic rock. I ran over and they moved to a sprig of heather. It was a grayling - my favourite of all butterflies - this year's offspring of a small colony that thrives on the North Pembrokeshire cliffs.

If you visit the Big Butterfly Count website you'll see a nil sighting from Porthgain - that's because graylings weren't on the tick-list. But they are there, despite the weather and despite my worst fears - even Dylan showed a passing interest. You can too - all you have to do is look.