Wildest dreams

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

French Property News - - Fpn Contents -

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.

Only nat­u­ral

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

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