Monday, 31 December 2012

Seals and people

It has become somewhat of a winter tradition for us to visit the grey seal breeding colony at Horsey between Christmas and New Year with various members of the family. This year, we set out on the morning of 30th December to do just that only to discover that the increased awareness of this amazing opportunity to get face to face with some of the most charismatic of British mammals means that visitor numbers have rocketed. So much so that several of our party were unable to park near enough to the site to make it viable. Those of us that did, still faced a long-ish walk and hundreds of other visitors. But we were rewarded with a beach full of pups - nearly 300 on the day that we visited - as well as adults on land and in the sea.

It is easy to get disgruntled when a favourite thing (book, film, music, wildlife site...) becomes well-known but I managed to quell this feeling as so many of the visitors were young families with children. It is so unusual to see so many children simply enjoying getting close to wildlife and being outdoors in a way that we took for granted growing up and their palpable excitement hopefully means that they will be inspired to continue engaging with the natural world as they grow up.

Of course, the pressures that all these visitors bring has to be balanced with the needs of the very seals that they have come to visit. So it was pleasing to see that there is now an excellent infrastructure of volunteers, roped paths and signs to help people enjoy the sight without inadvertently upsetting the seals. If you haven't ever been, then it is well worth a visit, but I would suggest avoiding a sunny morning in the christmas holidays, or at least make a prompt start!

Sunday, 16 December 2012


Wildlife observation is difficult currently as I rush from one family Christmas commitment to another to work to bed. I resort to things I remember, on a nature theme.

When I was a child, I used to stay with my grandparent's on their Essex farm every summer during harvest. One of the many books I used to lie awake reading, with the hum of the grain dryers in the background, was this one by Norman Thelwell ( Died in 2004 ). I used to pour over the pages taking in all of the little details and his illustrations will forever remind me of wonderful summers exploring the English farmland countryside, blue-bell woods and streams around their Epping farm. 

Famous for his horse riders and sailing illustrations,Thelwell was also a wonderful observer of wildlife, as in these studies of foxes and birds. The drawings in this book were an early inspiration and one of a number of influences that made me want to draw. When my grandparents died in the 1980's the book was one of the few items I asked if I could have, along with a battered armchair and a collection of Giles annuals.

• On a completely different note, but still bird related - I am putting together a presentation about book illustration and I am including this classic book page from the 'Diary of an Amateur Photographer' 1998 - by the wonderful Graham Rawle. (

The Summer Day

I have recently come across the work of American poet Mary Oliver. Like poets throughout history she deploys imagery from nature to illuminate the human condition, but I particularly enjoy the close observation of nature that she brings to bear. This poem, The Summer Day, exemplifies this, additionally bringing a little summer into our midwinter.

Being somewhat morbid, my first thought on reading this was that I would like this read at my funeral (not that I anticipate that being imminent but always good to be prepared...)

Monday, 3 December 2012

Pupae Identification 2 - Magpie moth?

I suspect it was a Magpie Moth given the distinctive gold banding.
And that the caterpillar apparently feeds on blackthorn and hawthorn (abundant around us) makes it even more likely.

Looking for images of pupae reminds me of the incredible richness of names of British moths, names that as a child I loved poring over in my well-thumbed Collins guide to Butterflies and Moths. Here are a few choice ones:
  • Currant Short Borer
  • The Forester
  • The Festoon
  • Apple Leaf Skeletoniser
  • Cotoneaster Webworm
  • Plum Tortrix
  • Satin Lutestring
  • Argent & Sable
  • Toadflax Pug
  • Hoary Footman
I could go on. They are such beautiful, gothic names, like grand guignol characters from the pages of Mervyn Peake, reinforcing the sense that Duncan recently referenced that they inhabit some Dickensian, oil-lit world, all deep rich woods, leather bindings and shadows. I must write a song including some of these names...the Ballad of Glaucous Shears...or maybe a cycle of fiddle tunes...they are too good not to.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pupae Identification - 'Puss Moth' ?

With the wonders of the internet I can now suggest that the pupae you have found could be that of a puss moth perhaps, what do you think?  It does indeed look very like a pellet with the stringy elements.

'The puss moth caterpillar has a green body with a black or brown 'saddle' on its back, which is bordered in white.  There can be variations in the colour of the 'saddle'although the white lines are always present.  The head has a bright orange ring around it with two false black eyes.  Just prior to pupation most of the body turns orange and then purple but the white lines remain.
The rear legs have developed into long whip-like appendages which it flails around when in danger.  As an extra defense it can spray formic acid from its head.
The puss moth caterpillar overwinters on tree trunks, or wooden posts, inside a tough cocoonwhich resembles a limpet shell.'


Out walking on a crisp, wintry day, I found this case in a cleft in the bark of a local oak (a loakal?). I
can't claim to be too certain on what it is other than an empty pupae case - possibly from a moth? It is beautifully articulated, with striped segments not dissimilar to a wasp. It was attached to the tree with some silk, but the way it was wedged in to its deep crevice meant that it would have stayed without it. Its placement provided fantastic protection, which  once it was empty was exploited by a little spider that scuttled out after I inadvertently dislodged it.

Dorcas Casey's finches.

My friend Dorcas Casey makes the most wonderful sculptures and as I assemble a sheet of inspiring sculptural images, to hand out to my level 2 art students this week, I thought I'd post a couple of Dorcas's finch sculpture images, assembled from wire, found objects and vintage ink dip pen nibs.

I have also attached the 'Animal Sculpture' sheet that I am giving my students, as it collects together a wide range of interesting ( *at east I hope the students will find it interesting) animal inspired 3D work.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Anatomical Garden Tiger

I'm thinking about making a sculptural piece which combines an intricate wax anatomical model with some pinned insects. With this in my mind currently I also decided to donate a postcard to an art student fundraising auction at Newcastle University and so bought a moth and anatomical study together in a drawing. There is in my mind something Victorian about moths, and also anatomical drawings, and I feel the combination has potential. Moths also appeal as they have, for me, wholly different connotations than butterflies, not dark but certainly perhaps predictably something of the night. In retrospect it's perhaps an unusual choice then that I chose to draw the garden tiger, one of the day flying moths, but having seen them and the Oak Eggar in France this summer they are clearly still with me creatively.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Flood waters receding

I walked out of work at lunchtime to look at the swollen 'Brue' river running past the college, between us and Glastonbury. It's still up to the edge of the banks and the dykes and ditches around are still overflowing into the fields and roads. The water in the fields (beneath) is at least now flowing back into the drainage ditches, not from them, and in the next day or two the waters will have subsided. 

I talked to Emma yesterday, a friend who is very busy this week working for the environment agency, and we were discussing how although this is framed by the media as a disaster it is of course the landscape doing what it has done for thousands of years, accommodating excess water in the flood planes before it can run away, spreading fertilising silts and mud. We have of course now built houses, farms and roads on these flood planes and are consequently now disrupted when the water rises and even with improved drainage and with all of the sluices and control gates open, we seem unable to prevent it from happening.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Beetles ate my Bumblebees

Spent a rather dispiriting few hours sorting out some of my cases and boxes of collected insects as many of the collections have again been decimated by carpet beetles and clothes moths. Even though I had some napthl crystals in the cases a few weeks ago there were still live wooly bears creeping about stuffing themselves on my beetles, moths and bumblebees. The bees look as if miniature explosives have gone off inside them with a plume of dusty remains only recognisable by their discarded wings. The French stag beetle heads, collected many years ago, were untouched and bits of cockchafer case also but anything soft has been consumed. The bottom of the cases are now a landscape of dust wings and disconnected legs. My board of pinned UK dragonflies and previously perfect bumblebees are also badly damaged with each specimen hovering delicately over an island of dusty remains, discarded by the voracious miniature beetles. I have sorted out the cases and put napthl crystals inside but I'm bot sure much that I can do will stop this happening again as I've also lost several of my best taxidermy birds this year and I really need to get on top of this before I loose more specimens.

Wikipedia - Naphthalene has been used as a household fumigant. It was once the primary ingredient in mothballs, though its use has been largely been replaced in favor of alternatives such as 1,4-dichlorobenzene. In a sealed container containing naphthalene pellets, naphthalene vapors build up to levels toxic to both the adult and larval forms of many moths that attack textiles. Other fumigant uses of naphthalene include use in soil as a fumigant pesticide, in attic spaces to repel animals and insects, and in museum storage-drawers and cupboards to protect the contents from attack by pests.

QUOTE, ref Carpet beetles : 'The larvae are just tiny when they hatch – less than a millimetre in length – which allows them to winkle their way through the smallest of cracks in any museum case. Feeding voraciously on any animal product in sight – they particularly enjoy stuffed animals, fur and feathers, and woollen textiles – the larvae swell up into “woolly bears” somewhat bigger than their ultimate adult forms. The varied carpet beetle larvae is dark brown at either end, lemon yellow in the middle, and hairy all over, while the two spot carpet beetle is torpedo-shaped with tufts of bristles at its posterior end." (From:

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Flooded Landscape

There has been a great deal of rain in Somerset. One unfortunate man actually drowned as his car was washed away in a ford earlier this week and its continued to rain steadily. There was a let up at the end of the week as the rain was replaced by strong winds which blew our rabbit hutch about the garden but today the rain is back with a vengeance. I'm very glad I dismantled the leaning log shelter last weekend, and cleared the leaves from the gutters, and today I found myself crawling on top the my studio shed roof battening down tarpaulin as the water is getting in and damaging my artwork. 

The levels are flooded in great areas between us and Wells with the distinction between the riens, drains and fields all but lost. I always quite fancy running about on the flooded fields when they are like this but the inability to decipher depth from the level surface would surely lead to trouble. The swans free to explore these vast expanses of water, and the gangs of lapwings all seem quite happy with the conditions, although I saw three dead badgers in the road within 5 miles of each other and I wonder if they are perhaps less happy and flooded out of their tunnels when the water is particularly high. The tops of submerged fenceposts, lines of pollarded trees and clear strips of open water are all that currently define the usually clear boundaries between land and water. The South Drain and Kings Sedgemore Drain are both above their banks this afternoon but still flowing strongly, unable to keep up with the sheer volume of water weeping constantly out of the saturated peat.

It is now 10-o-clock and I've just been out to collect my daughter from the theatre and it's again raining heavily as predicted. The Sainsbury's car-park in Street is predictably below water this evening with trolleys abandoned and the van dragging in the giant puddles crossing the roads as rivers of water run off the fields. I'm very glad that we live on the side of a hill, high above the low lands.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

'Supers' full of honey - the bee training continues.

Bob called me over this evening to look at three honey filled 'supers' that he had in his garage. They had come from some other hives that he had in Taunton and are going to be used to feed the hives here in Ashcott. A super sits above the queen excluder above the brood chamber in the hive and is where the honey is laid down in capped off cells with no grubs. It has been a really lean year for the bees and this honey will help sustain the colonies over the winter in the hope for a better season next year. You should only take honey when there is plenty of extra as if you deprive the hive then the colony can diminish in size and vigour and you could loose them over the winter. Hives can apparently contain anywhere between 20 and 100,000 bees ! Bob has extra supers on some of his hives so that the brood chamber and extra super provide a really solid foundation for the bees over the winter. Bees apparently live as house bees for 3 weeks building cells, gluing things with propolis, feeding grubs and the queen, guarding the door, fanning queen scent into the atmosphere to guide foragers and other tasks. When it's particularly cold the bees come out and fan their wings on the outside of the hive to generate heat before going back in and taking turns to share and benefit from the the warmth. Once the bees graduate at about 22 days they become foraging bees and set of to hunt for water, pollen and nectar from within about 2 miles of the hive. They do this for 3 weeks before, at less than 2 months old, unless squashed, eaten or poisoned, they die of exhaustion.

Each frame can hold up to about 4lbs of honey which you get out by cutting the top of the capped cells with a hot knife and then spinning the frames in a special device. In the picture beneath you can see capped cells in the midde. The frames within the super are an interesting mix of the man made, straight wooden frames and the insect made, organic, hexagonal organised chaos. There is a beautiful sweet smell rising off the frames as you hold them, surprisingly heavy and dripping with honey. 
So much to learn.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Memories of Warmth

DSCF3767As the mornings regularly greet us with a light frost and a chill wind, it seems hard to recall the feel of warm sun we had just a few short weeks ago in Italy. A couple of the highlights included a walk in the high alpine meadows of the Sibillini mountains, where large butterflies flitted across our path, thriving in huge numbers. We even came across this Swallowtail caterpillar - something I've never seen even though we live close by their Norfolk heartland.

But our last morning there gave a last moment of contact with the local wildlife. Strolling down to our usual breakfast spot, looking across the rolling, lightly wooded slopes towards the high mountains, a blue sky above and a gentle sadness at our imminent departure inside, I noticed that amongst the grass, in the shade of an olive tree was resting this beautiful hind. Our eyes met for a moment as I clumsily took a photo before she clambered to her feet and, unsteadily at first, trotted off into deeper cover. It was one last taste of the bucolic idyll that had surrounded us for the week. Something in the set of the landscape, in equal parts wild and settled, gently animated with sun-kissed life, just seemed to resonate with something deep inside me - was this a more 'natural' way to live? Maybe it was just the beauty of the place, but there seemed to be a deeper connection, a more equitable balance between man and nature in those hills, so long settled by man but somehow treading more lightly than in intensively inhabited southern Britain. Of course, being a casual holiday-maker one is in a privileged position not least in the ability to merely soak in and enjoy such moments. But the privilege continues - I can hold that moment in my mind's eye and know that it will sustain me until I feel the warm sun on my back again. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Beekeeping beginnings.

Spent a wonderful morning with Bob, along the path opposite my house, having made an approach to ask if he would mind me talking to him about keeping bees. He didn't mind 'at all' and after 3 hours of bee talk I am much better informed and raring to learn more. Bob has been keeping bees for 40 years and I am going to help him in the coming year to learn the ways of the beekeeper. We got on really well which is great as there is clearly a great deal to learn. What is particularly nice is that although I am of course interested in the production of honey I am perhaps more interested in the work life of the insects themselves and a very 'busy as a bee' life it is !
Here are the 20 or so of Bob's hives with local bees and a few hives with a different strain of hardy bees from Snowdonia in Wales and some French ones also.

Bees coming in after flying in the autumn sunshine collecting pollen from the late flowering plants and arriving at the hive entrance on the landing board.

An open hive. This small hive had contained a 'nuke' ( nucleus of a new colony ). Unfortunately the colony have died or moved on but the evidence of their initial work was there to see with the brood chamber frames all sealed into place with propolis.

Old frames full of 'dross' to be cleaned over the winter in preparation for setting up new brood chambers with larger frames and super's with smaller honey frames. Far too much to write down her but we talked about how to catch a swarm, what smoke does, the life of the bees, queens, how to look after the hives over the year, how colonies generate heat during winter and the importance of being calm and not panicking. More later as the seasons progress. I need to get a suit.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Insect Lab

Found the work of US artist Mike Libby online. Wonderful quirky sculptures combining watch parts and insect specimens. Terrific combination of found objects, specimen, intricate detail, precision and suggested fantastical function. Wonderful interesting objects.

Quote from Mike Libby's website:
'Robot-like insects and insect-like robots are the stuff of science fiction and science fact.
Often in science fiction, insects are frequently featured as robotic critters.  There are many examples in TV, movies, video games, comic books, even on album covers.  From Cronos to The Golden Compass, the insect/robot archetype has been used, re-used and re-imagined countless times.
Both biologists and engineers look to insect movement, design and social behavior to inspire new technology and applications.  Some of the most advanced aircraft is smaller than a dragonfly, and NASA scientists are making walking rovers and “swarm theory” probes for planetary exploration.  Technology is finding that the most efficient design features comes from natural systems.'

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Locust Birth

A group of my locusts have all recently matured into adult specimens. They seem to respond to sudden feeding, as when presented with a glut of new brambles last week the juvenile locusts all hatched out in the space of a few days. 

They crawl up onto the branches and whilst clinging upside down they remain still for a few moments and then begin the slow process of shedding their immature skins. It seems incredible that the large adult specimen can appear from the juvenile form, the insect doubles in size and the soft adult must somehow mature within the juvenile whilst still wearing it's youthful skin. How can one form exist almost perfectly grown within the smaller still functioning form ? To sit with the children watching the  unfolding of the adult is astonishing, as the new head, thorax, abdomen and legs imperceptibly shrug out of the smaller skin as if extricating from a tight wetsuit. The new adult form then hangs from it's abdomen for an hour or so as the wings unfurl and stiffen leaving the abandoned shed skin husk, with it's functionless wing stubs, hanging on the bramble. If left in the tank the locusts eat the shed skin.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hiding from the cold

Thursday: After a terrific autumnal family meal in Strumpshaw, Adam and I went to look at a small wren that I had seen squeezed into a small space under the roof of the boiler shed. The wren was still there, small and alert under the eves, and we talked about how we had heard that wrens can sometime congregate in the 100's in nest boxes to keep warm as the weather gets cold. Inside the boiler shed itself there was also a long eared bat suspended from the joist on the ceiling. I have seen long eared bats in the boiler shed before but this is the first this year, with it's ears curled up almost mechanical in appearance folded against the roof - like the creature in the shuttle unfolding in Ridley Scott's film Alien.

Note: On Friday evening there were 2 bats on the ceiling but when I looked during Saturday daytime there were no bats in the shed. Presumably they roost in the day and fly during the night but I have only seen them in the shed at night and only in the colder months of the year so presumably they roost elsewhere in the summer.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Kites and Buzzards

Driving home from the west country towards Oxford from Bristol we saw 3 kites today. I only very rarely see kites in Ashcott and then flying high with the buzzards.

On the M4 however I saw all 3 low to the ground, clearly recognisable with their red brown plumage, forked tails and deliberate movements. I have previously seen them from the M3 hunting low over Salisbury Plain but when I used to drive the M4 regularly 10 years ago I don't recall seeing kites, just the ever present west country buzzards sitting on the roadside posts and tree branches. The kites move in a different way from buzzards, more mechanically with clear lifts and tilts evident in the wings and tail, unlike the buzzards with their slightly more lugubrious and relaxed attitude. I also saw a buzzard above the trees near Thurton in Norfolk and although common in the west country they were not something I saw in Norfolk as a child.

This all fits with the increase in raptor numbers across the country as populations climb after a reduction in pesticide use and cases of poisoning and persecution. A man on a radio 4 programme recently was explaining that although some people read the 'sudden' increase in birds of prey as a problem and 'out of control' it is infact a gradual rebalancing of native populations in recovery. The attendant, but apparently low level and largely localised, taking of farm bred and abundant pheasant chics is of course an inevitable side effect of this recovery and no doubt a motivation for those who have tragically been using poisoned baits to kill birds recently, a crime that is apparently increasing.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Crow Country

As autumn ticks inexorably towards winter, it is time again for the gathering of the crows. One of the most remarkable sights in our part of Norfolk is the huge corvid roost just north of the river from us at Buckenham. Tens of thousands of rooks and jackdaws gather from across the landscape as dusk approaches. Drifting in in small numbers at first, the volume rises and rises, before a huge influx streams in across the twilight. After settling in droves in surrounding fields, just as dark sescends they rise up in tumults before hurtling down to settle in the carr to sit out the night.

The phenomenon has been thoroughly documented and explored in Mark Cocker's fantastic 'Crow Country', which I heartily recommend. Having observed it several times last winter I look forward again to the sight again this year. This short film culled from footage I shot last year cannot convey the awesome spectacle or indeed sound, but I hope gives some taste of the scale.

I wrote the music as a response to this experience. For me there is a sense of foreboding and high drama about the spectacle, which I tried to reflect. I made no attempt to imitate the actual sound, instead drawing inspiration from the mix of sounds; the deep organic chatter of the rooks mirrored in acoustic guitars whilst referencing the higher, almost electronic noises of the jackdaws, using a theremin.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

A saturday morning visitor

Saturday morning. Woke up, opened the curtains. Got back into bed, looked out the window to see this:

Cue silent garden. Even I was slightly mesmerised by those glaring yellow eyes, so god knows how a sparrow feels. Thanks to some stealthy work grabbing my camera from my assistant, I was able to get off a couple of shots before sudden death no doubt descended on some unsusepcting passerine.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Reliquary - Exhibition Opens

My new sculpture exhibition opened in Bath on Saturday and, after many weeks of late nights, my work is now finished and on display for the next 3 weeks. Amongst the new works the 'Dordogne Collection' is now assembled, containing all of the natural history specimens that I found during our week in the south of France back in August. The 'Reliquary' wall triptych is now also complete with its hundreds of organised mouse and shrew bones collected from the many barn owl pellets picked up in barns in recent years. A shrine to the joy of collecting and observing the natural world around us.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Conference of Birds

I was lucky enough recently to meet composer Peter Cowdrey, who along with the company 'Opera Unlimited', explores the relationship between birdsong and music. As well as guiding birdlistening walks and undertaking educational activities in schools he has composed and compiled music directly inpired and derived from birdsong in the ensemble piece ' The Conference of Birds'. You can read more about this and hear extracts at the website

For me it was particularly inspiring to hear how he has managed to use the structures and sounds of birdsong as a creative 'jumping-off point'. Although the musical structures of birdsong are not always as clearcut as human-composed music, familiar musical tools such as repetition, clear motifs and rhythmic contrast are evident, particularly once the song is recorded and slowed down. I've never really found a way of incorporating birdsong into my own music-making, but Peter's work affords an interesting and inspiring model for how it can be done.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Theatre of Insects - Lacock Abbey

Fantastic insect photography exhibition at Lacock Abbey by the artist Jo Whaley. Theatre of Insects consists of many images of preserved insects photographed against carefully arranged backgrounds and sympathetic objects. The artist was in the gallery for the opening of the show and able to talk to our students and also provided a table of sketchbook imagery. The illustrated pages and photographs demonstrated how the work was created, with careful lighting and reflective mirrors used to highlight the features and details in these miniature dioramas. Terrific.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

3 British Reptiles in 10 minutes.

Great trip down to the Avalon Marshes centre with the children to enjoy the tractor trailer rides, withy fish making and pond dipping. Caught a great diving beetle, as we did last time, and was again astonished at it's size and vigour, if you were a baby newt or tadpole you would be very intimidated by this insect, clearly the biggest feistiest beetle I have ever seen in the UK.

We rode through the Shapwick Heath reserve in the trailer tractor, along the track by the south drain, looking out for otters and birds with the children clutching binoculars and clip boards. Not a lot about but beautiful wind swept reed beds and rafts of coot, swans and ducks. Towards the end of the ride we all got off to look for reptiles, at the same spot that I hunted in vain earlier in the year, and we carefully stepped down off the trailer to avoid scaring anything away with vibrations. The guide was excellent and sure enough beneath the first piece of corrugated iron we saw two slow worms and a grass snake. The grass snake made a quick exit, (*see picture beneath), but the slow worm was predictably slower and the guide pointed out the moving eyelids which differentiate a legless lizard from a snake as it warmed up in his hand and became more lively. Under a second sheet we saw 2 further small grass snakes and 2 more slow worms, all trying to warm up under the metal on an early autumn morning. We went to look at the compost heap, where baby grass snakes had hatched earlier in the year from eggs inside the warm heap, and the guide pointed out that slow worms give birth to live young. Then amazingly we saw an adder at the back of the compost heap but as we tried to see it clearly it slipped away into the hedge and we were only able to glimpse its zig zag back retreating from the attention. (*see photo of the bottom of the hedge near the adder!) It would be great to sneak back in a few days to try to get a clearer look at the adder as I'd love the children to be able to identify the differences clearly for themselves.They will certainly remember today and I have certainly never seen three of our resident reptiles together in one location within moments of each other, such a terrific end of summer experience.

Italy wildlife part 1

We've just got back from a fantastic trip to 'Le Marche' in Italy. It is an area on the Adriatic coast which encompasses the dramatic Sibillini Mountains. We arrived at the port city of Ancona, where we saw still-migrating swifts, swallows and martins, which presumably follow the Italian coastline before heading out across the mediterranean to their African wintering zones.

Heading inland to the rolling uplands of olive groves and farmland punctuated by small, red-tiled hilltop towns, we found that birdlife was much less evident than in our corner of Norfolk. We hypothesised that this may be to do with a range of factors, from land management regimes, lack of hedgerows, hunting and widespread feeding of birds in the UK. But maybe the large numbers of lot of raptors also gave a clue?

But the diversity, size and abundance of insect-life was really staggering. If your thing is crickets, grasshoppers and butterflies, it is the place for you. In the garden around us there were huge numbers of all of these. And this in turn meant large numbers of things that predate insects such as lizards, spiders (including this beautiful Wasp Spider Argiope bruennich) and amphibians.

For me, one of the most exciting insects was this enormous bee that we saw. It was around an inch long, fat, mostly black with iridiscent blue wings, and sounded like a small power tool. I think it is probably a Violet Carpenter bee Xylocopa violacea which have occasionally been seen in the UK, but are mostly only found in southern Europe. The butterflies were also great - more about those to come.

And just like Duncan in France, no trip abroad is complete without nearly treading on a huge, ugly toad, such as this chap...