A CONSERVATIONIST'S DEEPLY PERSONAL AND FASCINATING REFLECTION ON OWNING AND REVITALIZING A FARM IN RURAL FRANCE
A Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson's account of a lifetime studying bumblebees, was a powerful call to arms for nature lovers everywhere. Brilliantly reviewed, it was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for the best nonfiction book of the year, and it debuted the already renowned conservationist's ability to charm, educate, and tell an absorbing story.
In A Buzz in the Meadow, Goulson returns to tell the tale of how he bought a derelict farm in the heart of rural France. Over the course of a decade, on thirty-three acres of meadow, he created a place for his beloved bumblebees to thrive. But other creatures now live there too, myriad insects of every kind, many of which Goulson had studied before in his career as a biologist. You'll learn how a deathwatch beetle finds its mate and why butterflies have spots on their wings, and you'll see how a real scientist actually conducts his experiments.
But this book is also a wake-up call, urging us to cherish and protect life in all its forms. Goulson has that rare ability to persuade you to go out into your garden or local park and observe the natural world. The subtle glory that is life in all its forms is there to be discovered. And if we learn to value what we have, perhaps we will find a way to keep it.
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About the Author
DAVE GOULSON studied biology at Oxford University and is now a professor of biological sciences at the University of Stirling. He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, whose groundbreaking conservation work earned him the Heritage Lottery Award for Best Environmental Project and "Social Innovator of the Year" from the Biology and Biotechnology Research Council. His previous book, A Sting in the Tale, was a Seattle Times Best Book of the Year, and shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
Read an Excerpt
A Buzz in the Meadow
The Natural History of a French Farm
By Dave Goulson
PicadorCopyright © 2014 Dave Goulson
All rights reserved.
A Stroll in the Meadow
24 April 2007. Morning run 5.8 miles, 42 mins 2 secs. As ever, the French countryside was almost devoid of human life; I saw no people, but was barked at by five dogs, unused to seeing a runner passing by. It was a lovely cool morning, clear blue sky above, thick dew on the grass, cowslips bursting from the hedge banks. Butterfly species seen: 6 – I distract myself from the pain of running by seeing how many I can spot without stopping. I've tried this with bumblebees, but they are mostly too tricky to identify at speed. Today's butterfly haul included a holly blue and a male brimstone, sulphurous wings flashing in the sunshine. I also disturbed a pair of green woodpeckers anting on the lane above the top field, their alarmed yaffle and undulating flight unmistakable. Lesser whitethroats were singing in every copse I passed, a melodic, liquid song; the mating season is clearly in full swing – I can still hear them from all directions as I sit on the patio bench by the front door, dripping sweat on to my notes.
Sixty-five kilometres north-west of Limoges, near the lovely Roman market town of Confolens on the River Vienne, stands an old farmhouse. Roughly halfway down France, going north to south, and about 110 kilometres inland from the west coast, the farmhouse lies in the Charente, a large, sleepy département of rolling countryside, oak forests, rust-coloured Limousin cows, and fields of sunflowers, intersected by the lazy meanders of the Charente River. The house was built perhaps 160 years ago, presumably by a Monsieur Nauche who gave the farm its name, Chez Nauche. There are many grand and beautiful Charentais farmhouses in the region, built of dressed stone three or more storeys high, with ranks of tall windows arranged symmetrically around an imposing central entrance. This is not one of them. At Chez Nauche the thick walls are built from undressed, local limestone, irregular lumps of rock full of fossils and presumably dug from the local fields. The stones are held together with orange clay for mortar, also dug straight from the ground. The walls have shifted since they were built, and now lean at interesting angles. The windows are mostly small and irregularly arranged, with ancient weathered oak beams for lintels and loosely hinged old oak shutters from which the paint has largely peeled. The house is long, low and squat, facing south; the intention was that all accommodation should be on the ground floor, a common design among the more modest farmhouses in the area. The large attic was for hay storage, which provided insulation during the winter for those living below. The floors to the attic are made from thick planks of oak, laid upon massive square oak beams. The timber would mostly have come from local trees, hand-sawn, and indeed the beams still bear the saw-marks. The labour involved in building a house like this must have been Herculean, although the costs of material would have been close to zero.
To produce an oak beam, the practice was simply to find the nearest oak tree with a fairly straight trunk and chop it down. The builders would then dig a pit under the fallen trunk, deep enough for one of them to lie in, and they would saw the trunk into square beams using a huge two-man saw, with one person lying in the pit, his face sprinkled with sawdust, and the other standing on top of the trunk. Finally they would use a horse to drag the beam to the house, and ropes to winch it into position.
The terracotta tiles on the roof are also fired from local clay. They are known as canal or channel tiles, a design that dates back to the Romans, and are laid in alternating rows of gulley and ridge. I doubt that Monsieur Nauche made those himself, since firing them is a bit of a specialist job, so they are probably one of the only major items that he had to buy in, but they would not have come from far away. Otherwise, pretty much the entire building, and its surrounding barns, was constructed from materials that could be gathered for free from the immediate surroundings, and this gives the buildings a natural, organic feel, almost as if they grew up from the ground of their own accord like an eruption of unusual, rectangular mushrooms.
I bought Chez Nauche in 2003, from an old farmer named Monsieur Poupard. So far as I could establish with my feeble grasp of French, he had lived there all his life, keeping dairy cows and growing arable crops. Well into his sixties and with no children to leave the farm to, he had decided to sell up and retire. He had not looked after the old place, allowing it to fall gently into ruin. The roof leaked, so that the internal timbers were slowly rotting, and the old lime plaster was stained black with mould and was peeling from the walls. The window frames were rotten, the glass was cracked and covered with patches of old plastic sheeting, and the front door was rotted away at the base, with old pieces of tin can hammered flat and nailed over the gaps. The plumbing consisted of one old dripping tap above a stone sink – there was no bath, shower or toilet, and the lavatory facilities consisted of a bucket in the shed.
It was, to put it mildly, a doer-upper, but for all its shortcomings it held one huge attraction for me, as a wildlife-obsessed biologist. Monsieur Poupard's lackadaisical maintenance schedule had allowed the house and its surroundings to be infiltrated by a myriad of creatures. In many modern British houses, house-proud home- owners are horrified if they see a single woodlouse on the carpet, or an ant in the kitchen. This attitude must swiftly be abandoned at Chez Nauche, or a nervous breakdown would inevitably ensue. The house has slowly settled into its environment over the decades, and is swamped and overrun with plants and animals. Although I have made some improvements in the ten years since I bought it, it remains to this day a haven for wildlife. The roof tiles are crusted with orange, black and cream lichens, which are grazed upon by caterpillars. Mosses grow in the gullies between the tiles, particularly on the north side of the house, and millipedes, woodlice, water bears and numerous other small insects live amongst the damp green cushions. The walls are also encrusted with lichens, and are smothered under the lush foliage of the grape vines that cling to rusting metal brackets along the wall. When the sun shines, as it often does, these walls are a popular basking spot for butterflies, bees and flies, warming themselves before going off to look for a mate or nectar to drink. These insects are hunted by zebra-striped jumping spiders and mottled brown-and- green wall lizards, agile creatures with long, clawed toes that scurry impossibly quickly over the vertical masonry, dashing into holes in the soft clay mortar at the first sign of danger. Most of the insects are too quick to be caught, especially if they have managed to keep warm and ready for take-off, but once in the air they run the gauntlet of the swallows that nest in the barns and swoop low past the house. From the base of the wall at the front of the house sprout old lavender bushes, their twisted, woody stems sagging under the weight of purple blossom in summer, alive with bumblebees, butterflies and the blurred wings of hovering hummingbird hawkmoths, their long crooked tongues reaching down into the nectaries of the flowers.
An old cobbled path runs to the front door, and the cracks between the stones are inhabited by bulbous-headed black crickets, the males singing cheerfully and incessantly to attract a mate. The lizards and young western whip snakes also make use of the holes amongst the warm stones, hunting there for beetles and spiders. In front of the house is a stooped and gnarled selection of ancient nectarine and plum trees, with bracket fungi sprouting from some branches, and chubby green caterpillars of the scarce swallowtail grazing on their leaves. Great green bush crickets perch on the branches, the males rasping out their incessant chainsaw-buzz in an attempt to drown out the black crickets down below.
Inside the house, where it is cool and dark and the buzz of the crickets is just a distant hum, crepuscular creatures abound. Spiders of numerous species spin their webs amongst the ancient beams; spindly daddy-long-legs spiders spin irregular, shoddy webs from which they dangle upside-down, while giant Tegenaria house spiders prefer to make close-woven, funnel-shaped webs leading to a deep hole in which they can hide. The beams themselves are tunnelled by the fat white grubs of long-horn and death-watch beetles, and also by woodworm (not a worm, but a tiny beetle). Under the furniture and in the kitchen cupboards lurk satin-black darkling beetles, ponderously slow but heavily armoured, so they have no need for speed.
At night, the mice take over; on the floor, house mice scurry, with the occasional larger, huge-eyed wood mouse. They search for scraps of human food, tasty spiders or day-flying insects that have blundered into the house and become trapped. On the walls and beams, dormice scamper: garden dormice, with delicate racoon-like facial markings and a long tail ending in a fluffy tip; and the scarcer edible dormice, favoured as a delicacy by the Romans. Endearing to look at they may be, but the garden dormice are aggressive little beasts, churring at each other through the night, and they often wake me with their rumbustious skirmishes. Because of the nuisance they make of themselves, I have trapped many dozens of them; they are absolute suckers for Cantal, a hard and pungent cheese from the mountains of the Auvergne – it gets them every time. When my eldest boys Finn and Jedd – at the time about seven and five years old – first saw one of these garden dormice, growling angrily at them from the trap and gnawing at the mesh to escape, they rushed to wake me up with the news: 'Daddy, come quick, we've caught a tiny demon!' It did look pretty ferocious – the poor thing had rubbed its nose red-raw trying to get out. I always release the little demons far away from the house, having given them a good feed, but my efforts never seem to make any dent in the population. The edible dormice seem to be much gentler, with a beautifully thick fluffy tail; they are so large as to be easily mistaken for small, exceedingly cute squirrels. I cannot bring myself to evict them from the house.
The various mice are nervous, for barn owls roost in the attic, leaving huge piles of pellets, which are consumed by the grubs of clothes and skin moths, species adapted to feeding on the desiccated remains of animals. There is also another, mysterious beast that they should fear. Some years ago I installed some Velux windows in the old roof, and soon afterwards noted the footprints of a largish animal on the glass. I also found pungent, elongated scats, sometimes on the drive to the house, and once on an inside windowsill. Whatever this beast was, it could take on formidable prey; on one occasion I found a wing and the head of one of my barn owls strewn in the attic. On another occasion, when on an early-morning excursion, my young boys found a bleeding chunk of flesh on the drive, all that remained of a large whip snake. From its width I would guess the snake had been a good one and a half metres or more long, but everything had been consumed, apart from a fifteen-centimetre section of its midriff. The beast took on a mythical status in the family, with the children speculating wildly as to what it might be, and it was many years before I finally worked out what it was.
Let me take you for a stroll. We'll start at the top of the drive, to the north of the house, by the big horse-chestnut tree. It is late afternoon, towards the end of May, and the tree is in full bloom, the cones of frothy cream flowers attracting scores of bumblebees, whose bustling dislodges petals from the older flowers that rain down upon the drive. We amble down the old tarmac drive, its warm surface cracked by tree roots pushing through from beneath, sparse tufts of crested dogstail grass sprouting from the crevices. On the left we stop to admire the wood-ant nest, a gentle dome of cut, dried grass stems thronging with large chestnut-coloured ants. The nest has been in the same place for ten years now, to my knowledge. My boys love to watch and poke the ants, and occasionally, I suspect, they throw them insect prey. The slightest disturbance causes ripples of activity to spread across the nest as the ants release alarm pheromones warning of danger. The ant trails radiate from the nest across the tarmac, with incoming ants carrying all sorts of fragments of plants and insects to feed to their brood in the nest.
Beyond the ants' nest on our left is a thick hedge of gorse, five metres or more across. A male stonechat perches on the highest point, his trademark call sounding very much like two dry pebbles being struck together. The female is no doubt sitting on her cup-shaped mossy nest somewhere deep in the gorse thicket, incubating her clutch of sky-blue eggs. Peering through the thick gorse hedge, to the east of the drive we can just see my orchard: fifty well-spaced young apple trees that I grew from pips. The largest are now nearly four metres tall, and two of the trees bore fruit for the first time last year. My three boys are chasing butterflies fifty metres away amongst the trees, the two eldest, Finn and Jedd (now aged twelve and ten) leading the way through the long grass, chattering excitedly, each armed with a huge kite net. Behind them our youngest, Seth (aged three), is gamely battling to keep up, his white-blond shock of hair all that is visible of him amongst the greenery.
On our right I point out a bee orchid, its single purple flower mimicking the smell and texture of a female bee and thus luring male bees to attempt to copulate with it. All they get for their trouble is a ball of pollen glued to their heads, but they must be foolish enough to make the same mistake again or the bee orchid's strategy would not work.
Further down, the drive is shaded by a line of large oaks on the right, and a mix of elm and oak on the left. Brittle brown acorns from last autumn still litter the ground. The elms are repeatedly attacked by Dutch elm disease, which quickly kills the trees once they reach six or seven metres in height, but luckily the trees spread rapidly by suckers, so there is a constant crop of new saplings coming up. A territorial male speckled wood butterfly dashes up from a warm sunspot on the drive to chase away a brimstone that has dared to enter its domain.
I love the French names for butterflies, compared to which many of the English names are a little unimaginative; for example the English orange tip is simply descriptive, while the French l'aurore – the dawn – is rather more poetic. What do we call a speckled butterfly that lives in woods? The speckled wood, of course, while to the French it is le Tircis, named after a shepherd in a seventeenth-century fable by Jean de La Fontaine. A few years ago I hit upon the idea of organising a guided butterfly walk at Chez Nauche for any interested locals. I sent posters advertising the walk to the mayor of Épenède, the local village, and also to the mayor of nearby Pleuville, asking for them to be displayed on the village noticeboard. I bought lots of lemonade for my visitors, and boned up on all the French names of butterflies and other insects, although I was somewhat worried that my inability to say much else in coherent French might be a handicap. On the day of the event I waited nervously outside the house, but no one arrived at the allotted time. Ten minutes late a car at last drew up; an English lady, and her young daughter, who lived nearby. I had not met them before, but was happy to take them for a walk in the meadow, though also a little disappointed by the turnout of the French contingent. Perhaps chasing butterflies is an eccentric English activity, and not something that appeals to French country-dwellers. It is certainly true that membership of conservation charities such as the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation is far higher in the UK than in any other country in the world. We had a pleasant walk, spotting bumblebees, butterflies and grasshoppers. Towards the end of the walk I took us past an old piece of corrugated tin that I had laid out on the edge of the field. Snakes love to bask under tin sheeting, and I had a pretty good idea that there would be something dramatic underneath, to form the perfect finale to the walk. Sure enough, there was a sizeable Aesculapian snake underneath, which I managed to grab with a flourish. We walked back to the car so that the mother could take a photo of her daughter stroking the snake, and finally we let it go. I hadn't quite anticipated what happened next. The snake shot under their car, then climbed up into the still-warm engine. We spent the next hour with the bonnet up, trying to find it – without success. In the end the poor lady and her daughter had to drive away reluctantly with a snake somewhere in their car. I very much hope they all survived the journey.
Excerpted from A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson. Copyright © 2014 Dave Goulson. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Part I Tales from the Meadow 1
1 A Stroll in the Meadow 3
2 The Insect Empire 20
3 Chez les Newts 33
4 Mating Wheels and Sexual Cannibalism 47
5 Filthy Flies 56
6 The Secret Life of the Meadow Brown 75
7 Paper Wasps and Drifting Bees 94
8 The Mating Habits of the Death-Watch Beetle 107
9 The True Bugs 118
Part II The Rich Tapestry of Life 133
10 Hothouse Flowers 135
11 Robbing Rattle 154
12 Smutty Campions 171
Part III Unravelling the Tapestry 185
13 The Disappearing Bees 187
14 The Inbred Isles 219
15 Easter Island 237