Monday, 3 August 2015

A Mutilated Owl

On Friday afternoon my friend Antoinette rang me to say she had picked up an injured Barn Owl Tyto alba on the side of the road near Chaumussay. Neither she nor I are birders, but fortunately our friends Tim and Pauline are, so they agreed to house the animal until we could report it to the appropriate authorities and get it cared for.

Wild Barn Owls are protected in France and it is an offence to keep them in captivity. People do keep Barn Owls, but they must be captive bred, be registered with the authorities and be fitted with a leg ring that clearly indicates their captive status.

The owl Antoinette picked up appears to have been a wild specimen that had been illegally kept in captivity but presumably escaped. It seemed to be habituated to humans in that it didn't hiss when handled or approached. Shockingly, when Tim came to examine it a bit more closely, he discovered that it had been pinioned.

Twine embedded in the owl's leg.
Pinioning is an old fashioned technique used to prevent waterfowl from flying. It involves chopping through the wing joint, and leaves the bird with half a wing. It is a barbaric practice. The bird also had an injury to the foot because of some plastic twine around the leg. This was an old injury that had caused a loss of circulation, swelling of the leg and the stunting of one of the rear toes. Its tail feathers were tattered, the result of being dragged along the ground as it walked.

Pauline rang Sauve qui Plume, a wildlife rescue organisation she knew of, but their answerphone message was unintelligible with background bird noise, a mumbling speaker and a staticky line. Antoinette tried later and got through to them. They requested that the bird be brought up to them at their base north of Tours on Saturday morning. Tim and Pauline were busy so Antoinette and I volunteered to do it.

Sadly, when Antoinette arrived to pick the bird up it had died. Tim weighed it and found that it was very underweight, by at least 100 g, which in a bird is significant (about a third of its expected body weight). Antoinette rang Sauve qui Plume again to let them know we would be delivering a dead bird, not a live one.

 The hacked wing with exposed bone and what we think is tendon.
When we got up there it was lunchtime. We rang the bell and after a few minutes a man emerged. I recognised him as Yves Sionneau from the website. He took the owl and examined it. We got the impression he had never seen anything quite like this before. He commented that normally wing injuries that involve the loss of part of the wing are the result of getting tangled in wires, but this was clearly not the cause of this bird's injury. He also commented on how thin the bird was. It presumably had been unable to catch anything to eat for some days.

Pauline had seen an article about a similar case in California some years ago. She had also read that sometimes Barn Owls would be kept tethered in barns and used as rodent control. Yves had never heard of this and said that a pinioned owl wouldn't be able to hunt. That was what I thought too, but Tim thought they might be able to scurry about quickly enough to get the odd mouse. I also thought that a pinioned bird would have a high chance of being killed by predator like a marten or a fox. It didn't seem like the most intelligent approach to rodent control, especially given the easy availability of cats in this area.

Antoinette filled out a report and it and the corpse will be passed on to the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (National Office for Hunting and Wildlife), who are responsible for administering wildlife crime in France. They will examine the body and produce their own report. The police will be notified, but there is no chance of ever finding out who committed the crime.

 The sign at the entrance to Sauve qui Plume.
Yves was fairly matter of fact about the whole thing. I guess he's seen worse, and it's disheartening being handed a case that you can't really do much about. We made donations to Sauve qui Plume and went on our way.

If you are interested in the work done by Sauve qui Plume they are currently seeking a volunteer. Recently they released a number of young hand reared Kestrels and Buzzards into the skies around Villandry. They are really the only organisation in our area who are caring for injured wildlife, so well worth supporting.

 The office at Sauve qui Plume.
For information on what to do if you find an injured bird or mammal in France, Chris Luck's website gives you the basics.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Top End Flooding

The 'Top End' of Australia, as the northern half of the Northern Territory is often known, is tropical. The spring and summer monsoon rains can lead to some spectacular flooding events. When I was there in April 2006 with my family we just missed big floods in Katherine (see the debris in the tree above) and the helipad at Springvale Station was more or less under water. (A station is a big livestock farm, similar to the American ranch.)

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Large Flying Beetles in France

Recently someone arrived at the blog by using the search string 'large flying beetles in France'. I hope they found what they were looking for and identified their visitor, but it prompted me to write a blog post especially for them and their ilk.

I'm not surprised someone in France was trying to identify a big beetle this year. It's been a good year for them. All this warmth suits big beetles nicely.

The beetle might have been a Cockchafer Melolontha melolontha but I think many people know what they are and wouldn't have to look them up. Plus they are not quite big enough to be really impressive. Other candidates are the really big longhorn beetles, such as this one in the next valley, but they are rather rare, so you would have to be very lucky to see one.

A female Stag Beetle, encountered sitting on a sunflower leaf at the edge of a small wood.
In my opinion the two most likely candidates this year have been European Stag Beetle Lucanus cervus (always a good bet for 'large flying beetle in France' questions) and Rhinoceros Beetle Oryctes nasicornus. I've spotted female Stag Beetles going about their business several times this summer, including photographing one at Tim and Pauline's that appeared to be laying eggs behind the bark of an old willow in their park. They have a known breeding population and have written about their experiences on their excellent blog Aigronne Valley Wildlife.

 A male Rhinonceros Beetle, found dead in the street in Preuilly.
I've never seen a live Rhino Beetle, but I have found several this year that have been hit by cars and fallen dead in the street. The last one was a magnificent male I found outside the primary school when on my way to the swimming pool. I picked him up to show everyone at the pool and he was a tremendous hit. Several people photographed him, nobody thought it was weird that I picked him up and brought him along and no one indulged in melodramatic squealing repulsion. It's always pleasing when people are positive about insects and entomology.

A la cuisine hier: The tricky business of blending this year's Sour Cherry Liqueur. It's been festering away in a glass jar on the kitchen bench for some weeks. Once a week the resulting liquid is drained off and put aside. Once no more liquid can be extracted from the cherries each week's contribution is assessed and carefully blended. This year the brew seems to have been rather sweet and syrupy, making it instantly drinkable, but not necessarily very complex. Over the next few months it should develop a bit more character though. The base alcohol this year is some eau de vie des prunes, which I was given by a friend of the distiller's.
And finally: It's Preuilly sur Claise's brocante today. There's sure to be quite a lot of stuff there. but as anyone knows, brocantes are most useful for replenishing your strumpf collection.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Merde Hits the Highways (and Boulevards)

At the beginning of the year the European milk market was deregulated. As expected the industry is now in crisis. French farmers, not just dairy producers, but livestock farmers in general (beef and pork) have been blockading tourist attractions, processing plants and major routes in northern France. In our area I know of protests in Poitiers, Tours, Chambord, Montbazon, Obterre, Joué les Tours and Sainte Maure de Touraine.

A dairy herd near Preuilly.
There is a pile of barn sweepings and a hand painted sign that says 'Mangez Française' on the roundabout as you enter Sainte Maure on the D910. In the early hours of Monday morning a couple of weeks ago Simon and I were awoken by the crashing and banging of several dozen tractors, trailers and trucks rushing through town. Nobody seems to know what was going on. They might have been racing to get the harvest in before rain, but I have a suspicion these were local farmers either on their way to a protest or on their way back. Several of the vehicles stopped at the bottom of our street for some minutes but I don't know what they were doing.

A dairy herd near Charnizay.
There are lots of issues which swirl around to complicate primary production here. Farmers' representatives criticise Germany, where 100 000 cow dairy herds are allowed and until recently there was no minimum wage for farm workers (who often worked as day labourers with no contract as well). Here in France there is a minimum wage and social charges. The largest herd in the country is a highly controversial 796 animals. This one farm must be taking advantage of a loophole because herds are limited to 500 cows by law here. Farming in France is largely small scale, family run and cows graze outdoors. They cannot compete with industrial farms which keep the cattle in stalls 24/24. The senator for Camembert in Normandy, obviously a constituency with a large dairy contingent, calls German industrial and commercial practices 'industrial dumping'. And the EU/US 'free trade' agreement currently being negotiated will only exacerbate the problem. The senator also pointed out that the food industry network currently consists of too many intermediaries (who all need their cut) and not enough abbatoirs (so animals have to be transported several hundred kilometres to slaughter rather than just down the road).

Raw milk delivered to my door by a dairy farmer from a few kilometres away.
In addition, the supermarkets drive prices down. The Chinese are producing more and more milk domestically and not importing so much. One of the major French supermarkets has switched from French beef to Irish beef. Russia has embargoed EU products. It's a case of the industrial economic model versus the peasant small farm model. Industrial farms concentrate subsidies. The government focuses too much on export, which is only 10% of the dairy sector worldwide.

Charolais beef cattle near Preuilly. 
Charolais is the commonest beef breed in France.
500 farmers committed suicide last year in France, a higher number of deaths than in any other sector. One farmer's representative I saw interviewed pointed out that the direction of subsidies was a matter of political will. She observed that actors are subsidised in France, but the system is stacked against the small livestock farmer. She also suggested that it doesn't have to be the farmers who are directly subsidised. Consumers can be subsidised in ways that can help farmers. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was 'reformed' 2 years ago, but nothing much changed. The subsidies still go to the big producers, not to small scale farmers and not to those producing vegetables (ahem...I assume this is a round about way of saying that cereal producers get the bulk of the subsidies).

Limousin beef cattle near Chaumussay. Limousin is the second most common beef breed in France and the one most commonly raised in the Touraine.
Nevertheless, one former dairy farmer I saw interviewed said that he made the decision a few years ago to switch his production to legumes. He now grows peas and lentils and makes more out of 1 ha of land than he made from the entire farm when it was a dairy.

Home cured pork ready to be cooked.
Retailers are favoured by government policy in order to boost consumerism. On the other hand, it is widely believed that we pay too little for food. Consumer spending on food has dropped from 40% of the household budget to 15%. There are many overheads in primary production that consumers are blissfully unaware of, and many pork and dairy farmers are getting less than the cost of production for their pork and milk.

After several days of shifting blockades Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, called on abbatoirs and processors to be good chaps and pay the farmers a bit more. I assume there followed the noise of raspberries reverberating throughout France, from both sides concerned. On Wednesday 22 July the Agriculture Minister Stéphane le Foll announced a €600M emergency aid fund. Its purpose is to allow French livestock farmers to delay their tax payments and restructure their debt. Most farmers think it is a drop in the ocean and the protests continued.

A typical local piggery.
So what do I think? I think there will be a painful adjustment of the industry to bring about a better match of supply and demand. I also think that consumers need to pay a bit more for milk and meat (just a few cents per litre or kilo) in return for that price increase being passed on by supermarkets and processors to the farmers. I think supermarkets need to be honest about where their milk and meat comes from and that they should have local buyers who are enabled to do business in an ethically and sustainable way. I think consumers should have the opportunity of buying locally and be encouraged to do so.

I also think some farmers should start value adding and producing artisanal dairy lines. Others could go out of dairy altogether and start raising rabbits for meat, grow soft fruit or adjist horses (or whatever...). I'm inclined to discourage ploughing up cattle pasture to grow peas because open grassland is a disappearing resource. Keep the grassland, make hay with it if you no longer have grazing animals. Diversify, encourage farm visits and stays, network and form partnerships (if you don't want to make cheese, find someone who does). Swap the cows for goats or sheep.

Contented young pigs at a local piggery.
It seems to me that it is actually the pig farmers who have fewest choices. They could follow the lead of Peter Gott or Jimmy Doherty in England, creating a respected and quality brand for their own value added product, but in fact this is already widely done in France. Curiously it is the fresh pork market that tends not to be pursued. My butcher tells me that his supplier, a small abbatoir that works with a group of carefully selected pig farmers, cannot meet the demand for good quality fresh pork and is seeking at least 30 more producers in the area. One option, as is favoured by the Midi-Pyrenées producers, is to go down the route of Label Rouge certification (a respected and valued 'brand' in France). They could diversify into other livestock or arable, but many pig farmers have already done so. The number of pig farms has already decreased by two thirds in the past few decades. There isn't any more wriggle room.

One way or another it is important that farms are not abandoned, or subsumed by the big industrial outfits. Those farmers who have already established a local market will survive. Those that rely on supplying big processors and supermarkets are in for a really rocky time. I frequently meet young men and women who have a dream to be farmers. They don't necessarily come from a farming background and the one thing they all say is that finding affordable land and raising the capital to start is very difficult. The ones who manage to set it up work incredibly hard to establish and maintain the dream. In the main they are not fools, they are switched on and networked, and they recognise that the farm is a business as well as a philosophical choice. Some of that €600M should be funnelled towards them in my opinion, and a generational shift should be encouraged.
A la cuisine hier: Since my friend Ingrid was so kind (!) as to give me a zucchini weighing 3 kg (!!) I am endeavouring to use it up. Yesterday half of it went in Cheesy Baked Zucchini Noodle Casserole, which was pronounced quite good.