I like to think the little piece of France we own is animal friendly. We don’t use pesticides, our garden has plenty of wild and impenetrable corners and I have left one side of our wood uncleared for the animals and birds. This is a farming area, but there is plenty of woodland, too. We are rewarded by sightings of deer, hare, stone martens, red squirrels and many species of birds and butterflies. We even had a family of hedgehogs living under the bush by the kitchen door (below).
Since it is relatively undisturbed, the wildlife lives to a ripe old age. I was reminded of this last week when I decided to clean our cave (cellar).
Our cave is not a proper underground cellar, but a small space tucked beneath our bolet (covered balcony). The rocky terrain would have been a disincentive to excavation. When we moved in – 23 years ago almost to the day – we didn’t even know it was there.
The cave is accessed by a low door. You have to bend double to get in. Once inside, you can easily stand upright. We have covered the earth floor with sharp sand, and the cave is now home to our small stock of wine and an overflow freezer.
Unfortunately, it’s also home to countless spiders, some of which have grown to gigantic proportions. I am not an arachnophobe, but I don’t care for being festooned with sticky webs. They had to go.
One spider in particular would have given a tarantula pause for thought. She had plainly eaten the desiccated one that hung nearby, presumably a hapless suitor. She scuttled off into the stonework before I could take a picture. The one below is pretty big, but nothing like its fellow cave-dweller.
My encounters with outsize beasts continued. Emerging from the cave, I spotted the cat dabbing gingerly with a paw at something in the undergrowth beside the path that leads to our stone table.
She’s not usually so cautious, but then I saw why. The biggest toad I have ever seen sat there, seemingly oblivious to the provocation. I shooed the cat away. Toads exude a highly toxic substance if bitten, which can kill a cat or a dog.
Luckily, I was able to get some shots of this venerable beastie (common toads can live to 12 years). The females are brownish, so I assume this one was a male, which are greyer in colour.
We often see toads around the garden. They live in the many cracks and crevices in our stone walls. They are welcome, since they consume slugs and other nuisances. Having no teeth, they swallow their prey whole.
Like frogs, toads lay their spawn in water, from which hatch tadpoles that turn into the adult version. There is very little standing water around here, so it’s difficult to know where they breed. However, it appears that they will travel some distance to breed, sometimes returning to the pond where they were spawned.
Toads are strange animals. We once found a whole family of them nestling in the middle of a sand heap, where you’d think they would die for lack of air. As amphibians, presumably this isn’t a problem. They also seem to have the ability to compress their bodies to slide into impossibly small holes. And the one I trod on in the dark by the gate one night ambled away, apparently unharmed.
Toads were long considered animals of ill omen and associated with witchcraft, probably because the poor things are not exactly oil paintings, with their warty skin.
They also appear quite commonly in French literature and in myths and legends. In his Souvenirs d’Enfance, the Provençal dramatist and film director, Marcel Pagnol, recalls that his school master father called him “crapaud”, a rather strange term of endearment. In Pagnol’s Jean de Florette, the eponymous Jean’s daughter, Manon, describes their peasant neighbour, Ugolin, as “vilain comme un crapaud” (ugly as a toad).
The toad has also given its name to certain items of furniture. A kind of armchair known as un crapaud is low and squat, while some baby grand pianos were known as crapauds.
Our own toad, unaware of all of this, crawled into relative safety under the hazel roots. The cat looked at me apologetically, feeling she had somehow been in dereliction of duty. Monsieur Crapaud lived to see another day. I hope he’ll see many more.
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