Spring: 22nd April – 1st May 2013.
The small road from the ancient, bastide town of Tournon d’Agenais runs along the valley of the river Boudouyssou, a small tributary of the Lot. Above the river, on a small plateau accessed by a narrow spur road, sits the hamlet of Pech Bely; nothing much more than a cluster of old houses. All built of limestone and arched clay tiles, surrounded by lawns with blossoming fruit trees.
The farming above the valley of lush pastures is predominantly arable with mature oak-dominated woodland Quercus pubescens, small vineyards and much uncultivated ground; limestone outcrops with lichen and orchid-rich grasslands and juniper Juniperus communis and oak scrub. There is no great urgency for efficiency because the land is ample for the few that work it and hunting is the winter past-time; plants and butterflies are diverse in the many, wild corners. Roe deer Capreolus capreolus lie up in deep cover during the day before moving into the crops at dusk to graze.
Each early morning the still air is alive with melancholy and monotonous bird song: the pure double-noted fanfare of a song thrush Turdus philomelos; the dull jangle of a corn bunting Emberiza calandra from a tree top along the lane; the simple, repetitive rasp of a cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus on a post in the middle of the vines; and the jingles, wheezes and chatters of finches and sparrows. From the arable field beyond, a woodlark Lullula arboreal sounds a distant, descending flute.
The oak woodlands have an understorey of abundant wild service-tree Sorbus terminalis and whitebeam Sorbus aria, both coming into leaf; these are found mainly on the slopes of stream valleys and steep escarpments and in Britain are indicators of ancient woodland.
The spring ground flora includes much lungwort Pulmonaria officinalis and wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloids emerging from the leaf litter under the oak woodland. Field edges harbour a rich variety of plants that include common fumitory Fumaria officinalis, meadow clary Salvia pratensis, red poppy Papaver rhoeas and shepherd’s purse Capsella bursa-pastoris.
In a quiet wooded valley, a female goshawk Accipiter gentilis sits hunched on a high stick, nest staring with an unwavering eye. The nest territory is given away by the loud, piercing calls from the pair when the male brings in prey and passes the item, always a freshly killed bird, to the female. This also sets off a cacophony from the local carrion crows Corvus corone. A pair of hobbies Falco subbuteo streak over at dusk looking as though they have just arrived and the next day dance over a block of pines. A young male hen harrier Circus cyaneus passes through on a wet day, hunting the tall crops and does not stop.
The local windmill sits stuck facing west, forever still, isolated on a hill of limestone grassland, having been restored, so the local news put it in November 1998, by a local family: Depuis 1982, le Moulin à vent de Bagor, sur la commune de Couloussac (près de Montaigu-de-Quercy) renaît peu à peu de toute sa splendeur grâce à l’initiative de la famille Goetz. Histoire d’un monument historique devenu patrimoine familial!
Above the houses, the small vineyards are neatly pruned and tied. A harrow has recently been run down the rows to try to impede the luxuriant grasses. Lady orchids Orchis purpurea are spread through the top end like a weed and a few are pulled up with the dross. Every spike is carefully protected within a nature reserve in a handful of Kentish grasslands; here in the heart of their range they prosper like dandelions Taraxacum officinale. A clump of white rock rose Helianthemum apenninum is another fairly common and pretty sight, with an appearance when half-open of Easter bonnets, but, again in Britain, the species is rare and restricted to a few limestone cliffs on the Devon and Somerset coast. Southern England is a good example of nature conservation on the edge.
Burnt orchids Neotinea ustulata crowd the overgrown entrances to old fields; sword-leaved helleborines Cephalanthera longifolia and violet limodores Limodorum abortivum grow under woodland edges, the latter a purple parasite of oak.
On the outcrops of limestone, there is a rich range of Ophrys orchids: fly O. insectifera, early spider O.sphegodes, dull O. fusca, yellow O. lutea and woodcock O. scolopax. Each is designed to attract and fool a male insect both by the shape of the labellum (the boldly coloured landing pad with intricate, reflective patterns like a ‘high viz’ jacket) and the distinctive allomone or pheromone mimic that it gives off; both are equally important to entice the insect to ‘pseudocopulate’ with a flower and so inadvertently pollinate it.
Butterflies are numerous but stay low in the damp weather. A green hairstreak Callophrys rubi holds a territory in a woodland ride and rushes out to take on the passing competition from the tip of a blackthorn Prunus spinosa. Small blues Cupido minimus shelter in the long grass as do many day-flying moths.
To the north of Pech Bely the river Lot carves great u-turns in the floodplain and the agriculture is intensive on the flat fertile terraces. To the east is the great city of Cahors, neatly enclosed within a presqu’île of the Lot, and the home of a rich medieval history and Malbec. East further and the river carves the limestone into deep gorges and on one corner is the small, medieval town of St-Cirq Lapopie.
The Célé river runs south into the Lot near St-Cirq Lapopie and is a quiet valley with the famous “Chateaux des Anglais” built into the cliffside. There is a walk up the cliff top and a long view of the winding valley with the ice blue river lined by spring green poplars.
The valleys of the Lot and Dordogne rivers are subtly different. The Lot is intensive vines, vegetables and fruit whereas the Dordogne is more orchards and arable but perhaps the overcast day simply lends a sense of a slightly cooler climate to the latter.
The town of Rocamadour, another built in the cliffside, heaves with tourists and tourist shops and is eyed from the grey clouds by a passing griffon vulture Gyps fulvus and an escort of ravens Corvus corax.