Don’t get your feet wet!

World Wetlands Day occurs every year on February 2nd, the anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

The significance of all this for me?  In a magazine published by the Herault Department I noticed a little snippet about a guided visit at Domaine de la Plaine near Nissan-lez-Enserune (yes, there really IS a town called Nissan in southern France!!).  I’m always on the look-out for interesting outings, so I headed to Nissan with a group of friends and we met our guides in front of the Mairie on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.

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The Mairie building has an incredible 1900 facade, improbably grand and glamorous, and a real surprise to find in such a small village.  Once everyone had arrived, we set off in a minibus and an assortment of cars, all provided either by the municipality or the Department.  As we got nearer the site I was very glad that they had provided the transport: some of the tracks along the way were incredibly muddy!!  🙂

Once we got to the site, our three guides introduced themselves:  Rodolphe Majourel from the Conseil General de l’Herault, Remi Jullien from the Conservatoire du Littoral, and John Holliday from the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude. It took me a little while to figure out the role of each, but I think I got it right:  The Conseil General owns the land at Domaine de la Plaine, 42 hectare in total; the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude is responsible for the management of the land; and the Conservatoire du Littoral has an advisory capacity.

That out of the way we went for a little walk to an abandoned bergerie or sheepfold on the property.  The bergerie is built on a small, raised part of the land, designed to keep the building (and the sheep) dry when the surrounding lands flooded.  Have a close look at the building; can you see the little niche above the door?  In olden days it would have held the statue of a saint, who would have protected the shepherd and his flock!  The niche is still used today, albeit by birds of prey; our guides told us this with authority – apparently the white traces on the wall are a giveaway.  Our guides were also very excited by stuff they found inside the bergerie:

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These pellets are regurgitations from birds of prey, the ones near the fingertips are from an owl species, the larger ones in the palm from a raptor.  I had forgotten to take my note book and they were talking so fast that I cannot tell you the name of the birds, I’m sorry!  The presence of the pellets means that the birds regularly visit and hunt here, adding to the biodiversity of the site.  The bergerie was connected to dry land by a raised path, which is currently mostly overgrown.  Restoration of the path is on the list of things to do, as is the restoration of the building itself.

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While we were talking, something was soaring overhead – too high up for my lens to capture it properly, and my knowledge of birds is too sketchy to be able to identify what was gliding up there in the sky.

The land at Domaine de la Plaine is almost at sea level, and the river Aude is only 1.8km away, so it’s easy to see how the land would flood reasonably frequently.  Because of the land lying so low the soil contains salt, which during periods of draught rises to the surface.   The salt presents a very challenging environment to plant life, but there are many plants which are adapted to these conditions.  The lands around Domaine de la Plaine were used in the main for two purposes:  grazing and making hay.  Sheep were very much a part of everyday life in the old days, and the village of Nissan had three herds of around 500 sheep each.  Today, the Conseil General is in partnership with a local shepherd, M. Henriques, who grazes his 900 sheep on land all across the lower plain of the Aude River, including Domaine de la Plaine.  He came to meet us at the bergerie to talk a little about his way of working.

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In the main he moves his flock from pasture to pasture on a very regular basis, leaving the sheep on any patch for only a short period, to avoid overgrazing.  He also moves his sheep to the mountains in the summer months, into the high Pyrenees.

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And of course he works his flock with the help of several dogs, two of which he had brought along for us to meet.  After all the explanations, we made our way back to where we started, to see some of his flock, waiting in a trailer for us.  On the way back our guides found some partridge droppings!! 🙂

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The sheep were pretty excited to see us (who wouldn’t be? :-)) and they had a bit of a gambol around the meadow.  When the sheep and the dog had calmed down a little they even managed to graze a bit.

I learnt a lot during my time with the shepherd!!  Apparently you can tell the age of a sheep from their teeth – they have milk teeth to start with, and then the adult teeth appear in pairs.  From about four years old sheep can start to lose their front teeth, which in turn can lead to problems with feeding.  Sheep only have lower front teeth, and they cut against a bony plate in the upper jaw.  Most shepherds start sending their sheep to the abattoir after they are four years old.  Not M. Henriques, he prefers his sheep to have a long and happy life!

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One of our group asked about the purpose of the crook at the end of a shepherd’s stick.

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As soon as the question was asked, M. Henriques swung into action to demonstrate just what it was for!!

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Look, no hands!!  Apparently this is a very good position for examining the hooves and the teeth!   After the “ladies” were once more safely in their trailer, we made our way back to Nissan for a slide show about the fauna and flora to be found at Domaine de la Plaine.  Winter is, of course, not the best time to visit, but it is such an interesting place that I’m sure I’ll be back!  And no, I didn’t get my feet wet!

Fall on foot

Autumn is a perfect time of year to go for walks – the weather is usually very good but not too hot, and there is plenty to catch your eye, from the first leaves turning colour to interesting critters, and more.  I went for a 9km hike with friends recently, starting from St Chinian, and thought I’d share this with you.

We started off along the D612, heading out of St Chinian in the direction of St Pons.

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I imagine that the circle near the top of the gate must have held someone’s initials at some point!  Soon we left the main road and walked along the D176E7, and at Pierre Morte we left the road altogether, and followed a track through the vineyards.

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The grapes in some vineyards had not been harvested yet, and they tasted deliciously sweet!  In some gardens the tomato plants were still in fine fettle too…

P1050022…and it wasn’t too long before I found my first “interesting critter”.

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We kept walking towards Bouldoux, and just before you reach the village there is a little hut, with a bench alongside.  I’d come prepared: in my rucksack I had a thermos of tea, some plastic cups and a few biscuits.  Perfection, sipping a cup of tea whilst basking in the sun!  On we went after our brief rest, and there followed a bit of a climb, crossing the main road (D612) and up a little farther.

Another critter picture – this is the caterpillar of a swallowtail butterfly.  I have not been able to find out exactly what kind of swallowtail butterfly it will turn into, but I am sure that it will be beautiful!

After the climb the vegetation changed completely.  Whereas before we had been surrounded by vineyards almost as far as the eye coud see, we were now in more rugged terrain, with lots of brush and some woodland.  And here’s a little surprise:

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According to my friends, the toaster has been there for some time and it just stands there all by itself.  Why, I thought, but then decided not to pursue that line of thinking :-).

The roses had produced a good crop of hips, and the olives were hanging heavy on the trees.  Around the next bend there was a large kennel, where hunting dogs are being kept.  They all started to howl as we came past, but none of them seemed vicious or hell-bent on chasing us.  They were safely behind fences and we kept a respectful distance.  Not long after we had to make a decision as the path forked.  We took the turn to the right, and I’m glad we did.

P1050099The flowering heather is just so beautiful!

And we came upon this quirky “potager” in the middle of nowhere.  Someone had lovingly created a vegetable garden in the wilderness, and decorated it with upturned terracotta pots.

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All too soon we were approaching St Chinian, but not before we went through a grove of trees where the lichen were growing abundantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as luxuriant or large as these.

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And then it was home and time for a drink and some rest!

All kinds of everything

Do you know what a nightingale sounds like?  I didn’t until I moved to St Chinian, and even then it took me a while to figure it out.  The nightingales are truly wonderful to listen to, and there are a good many secluded walks, where you can just sit and listen to them and they sing their hearts out.

The quality in the videos is unfortunately not as good as I would have liked it to be, I had to take out my old camera for the evening…  On the way to my favourite nightingale spot, I passed this flowering lime (linden) tree.  The whole tree was abuzz with honeybees and the scent of the flowers was intoxicating – simply divine!  Each year it takes me a couple of days before I realise that the heavenly scent means that the lime trees are in flower!

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Another spring/summer sound is this one:

definitely an acquired taste, but so long as they are out in the wilds and not below your bedroom window they are fun to listen to.

There’s been so much going on in the garden, and so this post is just a collection of random pictures, and it has no real story to it.

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This panorama was taken on a recent cherry picking trip near Les Rossignols, just outside Roquebrun.  Isn’t it amazing?

I found the most interesting critters in my garden this year.  This is a moth called Proserpinus Proserpina or Willowherb Hawkmoth.  I was clearing up some stuff and first of all I thought it was a dead leaf.  Luckily I didn’t brush it off, and I did manage to get some decent pictures.  I like the way it seems to hide its head under its forelegs.

And here’s another moth, this one is Epicallia Villica or Cream Spot Tiger.  Wonderful name and a wonderful looking creature.  I’ve not found caterpillars of either moth in my garden, so have to assume that they hatched elsewhere and just came in for a visit.

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This flower, I have been reliably informed, is Tragopogon Porrifolius or wild salsify – I’ve just been looking up the wikipedia entry and it sounds as though the whole plant is edible, though I guess for some of it it’s too late.  I will try and see if I can get at the root though.

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The gorgeous frog was probably still a little dazed from hibernation as he let me come really close.

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This is Cistus Monspeliensis, one of the emblematic flowers of the region.  Visit at the right time and you’ll find whole hillsides covered in different types of cistus

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The new season’s garlic has also made its first appearance!  The flavour is amazing – a little less pungent than the dried variety which will be on sale later on, and good enough to just eat raw, if you dare 🙂

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Now I don’t know what the flower in the top picture is, but the one in the bottom picture is Lavandula Stoechas, which is native to the Mediterranean region and found all over the garrigue.

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And then there was this little guy – I have a certain fondness for these bugs (they remind me of striped sweets) but of course Colorado beetle can be very destructive in the garden.  As luck would have it, I found this one on a hydrangea on the terrace rather than in the garden.  I had Colorado beetle on my potatoes six years ago, and it wasn’t really fun collecting the red larvae that were munching through my plants 😦

And finally, the first apricots, peaches and tomatoes arrived this weekend – the apricots were simply divine, and the peaches and tomatoes pretty good.  The promise of more to come…