With my wine supplies and the Euro both at low levels it was time for a quick trip across to France to visit the Champagne region and beyond. Cruising along a French motorway is not the best way to build a good bird list. A couple of White Storks heading north were the highlight in a rather barren landscape. The countryside was one of huge open arable fields with little or no rough ground or weedy corners. The cleaned and manicured environment appeared to have little space for birdlife other than pigeons and crows. Into the champagne region, the vineyards above the arable land supported a few Woodlarks and Stonechats, whilst Serin and Black Redstart were a feature of the villages. Even birds of prey seemed very scarce; a few Buzzards, a Hen Harrier and a handful of Black Kites on the move.
The exception to this general impoverishment seemed to be the woodlands. They were full of birds; several species of woodpeckers including Black and Middle-spotted, lots of Nuthatches, Short-toed Treecreepers, Hawfinch, Firecrests, Marsh and Willow Tits. The ground flora was also rich; the abundant Wood Anemone and Cowslip seemed to be 2-3 weeks ahead of the UK.
Why should this be so different to my local woods where all the woodland specialities have dwindled to zero in recent times? One obvious difference is that all French woodlands seem to be managed. Stacks of fire wood are a ubiquitous feature both in the forest and throughout every village. The French forest management is based on high forest of native species, with long rotations, small-scale felling and mixed age structures, in contrast to the UK forestry obsession with plantations of non-native conifers that damaged so much of our ancient woodland. The French reliance on natural regeneration from ‘mother trees’ promotes a diverse woodland structure from saplings through to tall mature trees. The woodlands also seemed to be wet; lacking the network of drainage ditches so obvious in many UK woodlands.
Although deer are present, they do not seem to be in large numbers, nor do the woodlands show any obvious browse effects. Wild Boar are also obvious, or at least evidence of their foraging are everywhere. The rooting activities of Boar are claimed to be beneficial for natural regeneration but may have damaging effects at high densities. Shooting is commonplace and no doubt keeps numbers of both deer and boar in check. Again by contrast, we have ineffective deer control in many areas and a blinkered view to allowing Wild Boar to re-establish in our woodlands. My local ‘protected’ woodlands are sadly owned by the Woodland Trust who do little or no management but do promote open access. Dog-walkers and off-road cyclists seem to be the dominant users.