When Heidi Smith and her family moved to rural Haute-vienne to set up a holiday business, they kept getting distracted by the glorious wildlife – until they spotted a golden opportunity
A nature conservationist sets up a gîtes business at an Haute-vienne mill
Hey! Look at that,” exclaimed my husband Nik one morning as we walked our dogs up the wooded track past our gîtes. Someone had left a child’s toy lizard on the path. It was about 30cm long and quite realistic apart from its garish yellow and black colouring. “It’s a salamander,” said Nik. I rolled my eyes. One of the joys of running a business with my husband and his brother Guy is that schoolboy practical jokes are a way of life, and I wasn’t falling for this one. I bent down to pick it up, thinking to reunite it with its owner, when it turned its head and fixed me with a beady eye. It wasn’t a toy. It was an actual fire salamander on our own land.
Ever since we bought Le Moulin de Pensol nine months ago, we have been entranced and obsessed with the wildlife we see in our 20 acres of land. We live in the middle of the Périgord Limousin regional park in an old mill on the pretty little River Bandiat. We have a couple of B&B rooms in the main house and three gîtes on the other side of the river, with semi-formal gardens in between. The buildings, with their soft local stone, are framed by sweet chestnut woods and meadows that lie all around. The small village of Pensol is above us and the sound of the church bell drifts down into the valley twice a day.
The place is a natural haven and each day has brought a new discovery – golden orioles singing in trees behind the gîtes; a red squirrel playing while I was hanging out washing.
Cuckoos and caterpillars
As the long, wet winter finally gave way to spring, the flowers started to emerge. First it was early purple orchids; not a few spikes as we might have been lucky to see in the UK but everywhere. Then came the cuckoo flowers, great drifts of purple along the wetter parts of the meadows and, sure enough, as soon as they flowered the cuckoos arrived and filled the valley with their hooting calls. Then came flowers we didn’t recognise; Spring Squill anyone? Burnt orchids were waiting to greet us one morning and the woods were suddenly full of common cow wheat. Like so many of these species with ‘common’ in their name, this plant is now heartbreakingly rare in the UK. One day in one of the fields we noticed clumps of hairy black caterpillars. There were perhaps 100 clumps, each containing about 200 caterpillars. Closer inspection revealed they had bright red eyes. We took to the internet to identify them and the hive-mind of Twitter and Facebook soon revealed them to be the caterpillars of the Glanville Fritillary butterfly. We were so excited and we woke in the night worrying about them during sharp thunderstorms.
His royal purpleness
The internet has been invaluable to us since we’ve been out here. There are Facebook groups for expats, buying and selling groups, and niche natural history interest groups. Such is the collective knowledge of members that you only have to post a photo of a beetle or a butterfly and within minutes someone will respond identifying the species. It’s an incredible resource.
Our Purple Emperor adventure was an example of this. Purple Emperors are large butterflies that live in the tops of trees. They rarely venture down to ground level but, when they do, the lucky spotter may be rewarded with an iridescent flash of purple on the black wings. People have been driven crazy trying to catch this butterfly. We’d been on the look-out for ‘His Imperial Majesty’ as this butterfly is known, for some time. Eventually we saw and
photographed what we thought it was. But a quick assessment by the Facebook group revealed it to be a different species, a Lesser Purple Emperor. A subsequent spot, chase, snap and post sequence a few days afterwards turned out to be another Lesser Purple Emperor, this time a different subspecies.
We were disheartened, until one evening I opened the kitchen door to find ‘His Majesty’ basking on the granite steps outside. Facebook was consulted and after an anxious wait of only 10 minutes, our sighting was confirmed: a proper Purple Emperor.
Wild about nature
This was all very well, but we kept reminding ourselves that we were trying to start a business and weren’t just here to indulge our own hobbies and interests. But as we started to speak to our guests about the nature at Le Moulin, we found them as fascinated by it all as we were. We started to wonder if this was not perhaps the key to our business, rather than a distraction from it. What if we made Le Moulin de Pensol a destination for nature lovers? So we have decided to do just that. The ideas abound. Courses on butterflies, woodland, wildflowers and photography may follow. We’ll run a moth trap a couple of times a week for our guests. A campsite, together with restoration of the top field, is a project for next year.
With this incredible abundance of wildlife comes a great responsibility. We need to manage the meadows with the grazing they need to support the ribwort plantain on which the Glanville Fritillaries feed. The River Bandiat that flows through the site is full of trout, damselflies, dragonflies and frogs so we don’t want to use weedkiller, which means weeding the gravel by hand. We can’t reinstate the old bread oven in one of the caves because it vents into the cave next door in which a couple of species of bats live. Rat poison? That’s a no-no because it would take out our adorable edible dormice too.
So, as we press on with plans to add camping, glamping and bike hire facilities to our B&B and gîtes, we will allow the needs of nature to set the rules. And hopefully, this will please our guests too!
We started to wonder if perhaps 'nature' could be the key to our business, rather than a distraction from it
The River Bandiat once fed the mill
A common blue butterfly takes a breather in the woods
The three gîtes are just across the river
Heidi, husband Nik (right) and his brother Guy (left)
Despite its vibrant hue, the golden oriole is secretive and difficult to see
Heidi, Nik and Guy in front of the mill
The vivid hues of the tiger moth
The Glanville Fritillary butterfly is rarely seen in the UK nowadays