Saturday, 27 August 2016

Faking It

I bet you think this is a bumble bee visiting a flower. But you'd be wrong. It is a hover fly, specifically, Volucella bombylans. This one is var. plumata, which mimics the Garden Bumble Bee Bombus hortorum or the Small Heath Bumble Bee B. jonellus with its long face, fluffy white rear end and bright yellow hair around the midriff. Another fine example of Batesian mimicry, where a harmless species has evolved to resemble a more formidible species.

This species is quite commonly found, from May to September, in open woodland and scrubby grassland. Females, like this one, will lay their eggs in a wasp Vespula spp or bumble bee Bombus spp nest. The larvae feed on debris inside the nest, or occasionally the larvae of the host, especially if they have been abandoned. They are scavengers rather than parasites.

This one was photographed near Chaumussay in mid-August on a Field Scabious Knautia arvensis.


The Burkini Ban: Yesterday at the pool I overheard an elderly white middle class French woman talking about the burkini ban. She had seen the news footage of the protest outside the French Embassy in London. Whilst she thought the burkini ban was absurd, she was even more astonished (and rather affronted) that a group of British women should feel that they needed to express their opinions so publically. According to her it is a domestic issue -- 'our problem, not theirs'. 

In my opinion, the French authorities, as usual, have handled the issue of what Muslim women wear in public extremely badly. Their approach is insensitive and bigotted, to the point that many women, Muslim or not, feel like parading around at every opportunity wearing the offending garments. According to a survey reported in the Independent, 64% of French people are in favour of the ban, 30% are indifferent and 6% are against the ban. 

Listening to French people interviewed on the news I've noticed that about half those asked support the ban, on the grounds that Muslims need to integrate and adopt French values. The others shrug and roll their eyes in exasperation at the absurdity of the ban, its vagueness and yet obvious targeting of Muslims. One young woman from Nice I heard said it was all provocation, by both sides. A man from the area said that he had never seen a burkini until after the ban.

We have someone who swims at the pool in Preuilly regularly. She always wears a headscarf and her little girl wears a wetsuit. I've always assumed she wore the scarf as an alternative to a swim cap, but maybe she's Muslim. I don't know, and I'm not going to ask her, because, frankly, who cares. I assume the child, like several others who come swimming in wetsuits or outfits that look like pyjamas, is being protected from the sun. From what I understand, Muslim women who want to dress modestly at the beach generally don't bother with the expense of a burkini. If they want to swim they wear light pyjama style garments and a headscarf. But up to now that may simply have been in the absence of swimwear they felt comfortable in. And given the number of Muslim women who have adopted modest dress and combined that with being total fashionistas, I think we can assume that the burkini is as much fashion as halal. 

Personally I think the burkini ban is the sort of thing that gives laïcité a bad name, and for that reason I'm with the exasperated eye rollers.

Anyway, about an hour after I wrote the above, the Conseil d'Etat announced that it was banning the ban. The reason given was that burkini bathers pose no threat to security and should be allowed free access to the beach. The Secretary General of the French Council of the Muslim Religion hailed the decision as one demonstrating good sense that will décrisper (defuse) the situation.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Merovingian Necropolis, Civaux

On Wednesday we visited one of the most extraordinary places we have ever seen.

As the finale to a day out with friends Niall and Antoinette doing the 'Painted Churches of the Gartempe Trail' we went to see the Merovingian Necropolis at Civaux. Simon had discovered the ancient cemetery whilst surfing the internet and we were so intrigued we were determined to go there. It's less than an hour from home so it made a great end to a day that had already included some real 'wow!' moments.

Modern and Merovingian graves.
That's the tallest nuclear plant cooling tower in France in the background...

One of the things that intrigued us was the fact that we knew of Civaux, a small town the size of Preuilly, for some much more modern 'attractions'. First, it is the site of one of France's nuclear power plants, and the steam rising from the cooling towers can be seen for miles. Second, next door to the power plant is a large aquatic centre, which uses the warm water from the cooling towers in the pool, spa, and scuba diving training tank. Third, also next door is Planet of the Crocodiles, a domed zoo specialising in crocodilians, which I assume also uses the warm water from the nuclear power plant. As soon as we came over the hill across the river from Civaux and saw the towers looming, Simon announced his aim photographically was to get a shot of the Merovingian sarcophagi with the cooling towers in the background. Once we got there and parked by the cemetery, even though we had seen photos, we were simply gobsmacked by the extent of the site and the ambience, the sense of mystery and uniqueness.

 Merovingian stone coffins in their original positions.

The Merovingian Necropolis is entirely enclosed by sarcophagi lids, turned end on so they are set like menhirs, forming a unique boundary of 90m along each side. In addition, inside the cemetery several hundred sarcophagi are visible, some in their original positions, some that have been moved. Most of the sarcophagi are in the north-east corner, close to the chapel.

The majority of them date from the Merovingian period 500 - 800 AD. They are trapezoidal in shape and most are decorated with a three barred cross, characteristic of Poitevan ornamentation at the time. The oldest dates from about 400 AD (and there may be Roman coffins in the mix as well). Originally the sarcophagi were shallowly buried. Many of them are now above ground as a result of digging vaults in the 19th and 20th century. Those that are still in situ are aligned east-west, with the head at the western end so that the deceased can watch the rising sun. The stone coffins without lids can weigh up to 800 kg. They are made of limestone from a quarry just across the river Vienne.

The cypress and sarcophagi central alley.

Drawings from the 18th century show that the enclosure of sarcophagi lids was already in place by 1747, but that the necropolis was once vast, extending to the north and the east and covering more than 3 hectares. It seems likely that the enclosure was created between the 15th and 18th centuries in order to limit the size of the necropolis. There is a central alley of cyprus and sarcophagi, created in the 20th century. The current enclosure only covers a quarter of the original site. It is estimated that it once contained between 7000 and 15000 sarcophagi. Over the years they have been reclaimed as building material (paving stones, blocks of stone), troughs and to make stock watering places. After the sarcophagi had gone the land was cultivated.

Mission accomplished.
(And you can just make out the three armed cross on the lid of the coffin on the right.)

There is a legend associated with the site to explain the large number of sarcophagi. According to the local story the graves belong to the Frankish warriors of Clovis who were killed in the battle of Vouillé in 507 against the Visigoths. After the battle stone coffins rained down on Civaux. Modern historians think the place should be viewed in the light of the very early Christianisation of the area. The church and baptistry of Saint Gervais and Saint Portais was established at Civaux and was where large numbers of the faithful chose to come to be interred because of the reputation of the sanctuary with its relics of this pair of important early saints. Thus they hoped to facilitate their ascendance to heaven. Or it could be that for some reason there was a monopoly on the manufacture of sarcophagi and burials at Civaux.

Before the Merovingian necropolis part of the site was a Roman cemetery, and some of the Merovingian sarcophagi covers are reused Roman columns cut in half. Today the enclosure serves as the modern cemetery. There can't be many places that have served as a burial ground for two thousand years.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Flint Extraction

Recently I was taken to some woodland on a limestone ridge overlooking the Gartempe river. Nothing unusual there. I'm frequently to be found exploring such sites, either alone or in the company of friends who are experts in some aspect of the natural and cultural history of the Touraine. In this case the site we encountered was intriguing, but none of us had the expertise to explain it.

The stone would have been relatively easy to extract.

On the summit of the ridge there was exposed limestone and evidence of a quarry. Nothing unusual there either. These small quarries exist all over the place and can date from just about any time in the past. 

What caught my attention was the horizontal channel cut into the limestone face. Obviously a seam of flint had been extracted, whereas much of the limestone had been left in situ. Naturally when one thinks of flint extraction in the Touraine one automatically thinks of the prehistoric. But something about this site made me wonder if it could have been later, and if so who would have been using flint other than Stone Age man.

Exposed limestone with evidence of quarrying and blocks being removed.

Once I started thinking about it and doing a few internet searches a possible answer appeared -- gunflint, for flintlock firearms in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. Gunflint apparently needs to be hard black flint and in the field below this quarry we had found a lot of pieces of black flint, which is a little bit unusual for this area. But was it the right quality for gunflint? I don't know, but it made me wonder -- was this a gunflint quarry?

When the flintlock firearm mechanism was invented in the early 17th century it didn't take long for it to become widely used and all the old known prehistoric sites were scrutinised for any remaining useful seams of flint. During the Napoleonic Wars the Touraine became the principle producer of gunflint for the French army and it was an important cottage industry. Flint mining and knapping was undertaken in the winter, when there was less to do in the fields.

The channel where the seam of flint would have been is clear in this photo.

So...I just wonder...

Further Reading: A post about central France (Indre, Indre et Loire and Loir et Cher) as the centre of the French prehistoric flint tool and later gunflint production on the Ohio History Connection Archaeology Blog. French gunflints have been found all over the world. And it turns out that whilst British gunflint is black, French gunflint was more highly regarded, and not black. It seems that you can even still buy French gunflints, to make your reenactment events even more authentic.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An Update From the Lab Bench

After the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew team researching the Red Helleborine Cephalanthera rubra went back to London they set to work trying to grow mycorrhizal fungi from the root samples that they took. Within a couple of weeks they reported that they had some fungi and it showed signs of being a typical mycorrhiza for the orchids. Mycorrhizae are essential for the healthy propagation and growth of plants and each plant species has a symbiotic relationship with one or more species of fungi that provides both with an exchange of nutrients.

The Kew team's first sight of the patch of Red Helleborine near Chaumussay. 
(From bottom to top, Jon, Sarasan and Kaz.)

They asked me to go out and collect seeds (we had Prefectural permission to do so) and calculated the date when they should be ready. Unfortunately when I went to check the site there was not a seed capsule to be seen. They had all disappeared and there were just a few wispy orchid plants, very brown at the tips. The French orchids had matured much more quickly than expected on this very hot and dry site. 

 Green seed capsules on a Red Helleborine plant at Boussay.

Hoping to salvage the project and thinking that some seeds were better than none I checked several other sites that we had permission to use. Luckily on two of them there were plants with green capsules still attached and in good condition. Jon asked me to collect what I could find and they would adapt their propogation methods to the condition and maturity of the seeds. He advised me to wrap each capsule individually and send them in the ordinary post. They took over two weeks to get delivered from Preuilly sur Claise to Kew Gardens in London. Boo to the postal system! Luckily, although the capsules had dried out the seeds were still in reasonable condition.

 The Kew team taking soil samples and notes.

I wasn't certain of the species of some of the seed capsules that were more mature when I collected them. I was a bit worried that they would turn out to be Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera, so Jon is going to sow some for verification.

 The Palm House at Kew Gardens.

The good news is that by the time the seeds arrived at Kew it was clear that the team in the lab definately had fungi that appeared to be mycorrhizal growing from the root samples taken earlier. Jon used the fungi to germinate some old Narrow-leaved Helleborine C. longifolia seeds that they had in the fridge. He says he has never managed to germinate this seed before, so he is a very happy plant scientist. Perhaps one day the French fungi will be successful in germinating the precious British Red Helleborine seeds and saving the species there.

Taking root samples.

It's still early days though...

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Bats Spurn the Belfries

A mother and baby Pipistrelle on a towel.
Photo courtesy of Roger from Our French Adventure.

Roger got a shock recently when he swung a normally unused shutter at his place and discovered a maternity roost of Pipistrelle bats Pipistrellus sp (Fr. Pipistrelles). He quickly snapped the photo below, but only succeeded in getting the few slower reacting individuals still clinging to the wall.

A Pipistrelle maternity roost on a wall behind a shutter.
Photo courtesy of Roger from Our French Adventure.

Elizabeth was delighted to return home one day recently and find this Geoffroy's Bat Myotis emarginatus (Fr. Murin à oreilles échancrées) installed under the roof of her porch. The little guy was kindly identified by Virginie Culicchi, our local bat expert. She says this is a typical place to find Geoffroy's Bat in the summer time. Unfortunately when I visited a few days later, it had gone, after roosting there for several days in a row, so I don't have photos of my own.

Geoffroy's Bat roosting under a porch.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth from The Story of Our Life in and Around Braye-sous-Faye.

The photo below of a Greater Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus ferrumequinum (Fr. Grand Rhinolophe) was taken in the cellar of a local privately owned chateau whilst conducting the summer survey of bats in the southern Touraine in late June. Virginie has asked me to point out that the bat knew we were there and has drawn itself up, a subtle sign of a little stress caused by our presence. This is almost inevitable when surveying in the summer, because the bats are not in torpor like they would be in winter. Ideally, a resting Greater Horseshoe should look like the one in this post, hanging from fully extended legs.

Greater Horseshoe Bat.
Photo courtesy of my sister Kathy.

At the same chateau we encountered a maternity roost of Lesser Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus hipposideros (Fr. Petit Rhinolophe) in a disused bathroom. We were expecting to find them, as during the winter survey there was plenty of evidence of their previous occupation of the space.

Lesser Horseshoe Bat maternity roost in a disused chateau bathroom.
Photo courtesy of my sister Kathy.

As part of the summer bat survey in June we went up three church belfries. After all, that's where you would expect to find bats, n'est-ce pas? Sadly, not. Unfortunately all the nesting pigeons disturb them and they have abandoned the belfries for barns and quiet domestic dwellings. And let me tell you, belfries are disgusting places, full of pigeon poo, dust, dead pigeons, spider webs and all manner of unidentifiable crud. I was convinced I would end the day with psittacosis at the very least.

The bells of Saint Martin's church, Bossay sur Claise.

Climbing the belfry in the church at Charnizay. Jean-Claude's legs on the left, my sister Kathy below.

A bat at the bottom of a vault rib in a 16th century building. Do you know where?

Monday, 22 August 2016

You Know the Summer Holidays are Coming to an End When...

... almost all of your swimming companions depart on the weekend for Paris or the Netherlands. After having arrived in the Touraine in mid-July to spend six blissful weeks in their maisons secondaires (holiday homes) they are now back at home, preparing to go back to work and getting the kids ready to go back to school.

While they are here Huub, Ingrid, Anneloes, Tristan, Bruno, Anne, Carole, Chantal, Jean, Marie José, Constance and me arrive at 10.30 am for a couple of hours swimming. It's all very informal. Everyone has different goals and there is quite a lot of chat. I've been regularly swimming a kilometre. Bruno has been training as a swimming instructor (Fr. maitre nageur). Tristan has been working on his technique. Huub has been testing new products and achieving a personal best. Marie José swims to relieve a back problem. We all swim for general fitness and well being. 

For six weeks swimming is top priority, then the holidays end and we go our separate ways until next year. We rarely see one another outside the swimming pool, and in fact, if we do run into one another, comment that we hardly recognised the other with their clothes on!

All photos courtesy of Ingrid de Winter (and in case you hadn't realised, the swimmer is me).

To see previous posts about Preuilly's excellent swimming pool click the following links:


Loire Valley Nature: A photo has been added to the entry for Agile Frog Rana dalmatina. This is our most common frog.
A photo has been added to the entry for Swifts, Swallows and Martins. It shows young Barn Swallows gathering on the electricity wires prior to beginning their first migration south for the winter.
An entry has been started for Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus. This lovely wader is occasionally recorded in the Touraine.