Who stole the wood?
Ever since a helpful neighbour had explained the dire consequences that would follow if we didn’t cut down half of our trees, we’d a good idea of what débroussaillage involved. The rules seemed clear. Being in a ‘red’ fire zone we had to cut the undergrowth within a 100 metre radius of the house.
Oh, but hang on a minute, we’re talking France here, aren’t we? No, the rules are most definitely not simple. Without going into the complexities of who is responsible for cutting what, let me just say that in all likelihood not even the French forest authorities understand it (much like their tax system and every other system in the land). I’d tried mapping out a diagram but it ended up looking like one of those Venn diagrams from first-year maths lessons and gave up.
Hubby and I were enjoying a sit-down and a cuppa in the garden when we heard the sound of chain saws. It sounded as if the chain saws were having a go at our woodland, but we couldn’t really believe that.
We peered anxiously through the trees and thought we saw movement but being cowards we decided to wait until evening before investigating further. Later that day, once everything had gone quiet we walked along the path from the house into our woodland and couldn’t believe our eyes. Half of the woodland had been cleared – debroussaillaged, in fact. Little strips of red plastic had been tied to the trees to mark the limit of the cleared zone and what had been a jungle of gorse bushes was now nothing more than a thick carpet of wood splinters.
A few of the larger limbs had been chopped and placed next to the sizeable pile of oak logs that hubby had already cut and stacked.
We soon realised that clearing our patch of forest fell under the responsibility of the locallotissement (group of houses) and that the contractors had included us in their annual clearing of the land. Although it was a shock at first, we soon realised that it had saved us a lot of work.
A few days later we were enjoying a cup of coffee with Arthur in the garden. Although his Parkinsons was getting worse, he tried to walk every day from his own house on the lotissement to us, his dog at his heels. Rather than negotiating the steep, windy road he took the short cut through our woodland.
“You do know that a man in a brown saloon car was loading up all your wood pile don’t you?” he said, sipping his coffee.
Hubby and I both leapt out of our chairs at the same time and ran through the wood. Sure enough, our wood pile (prime oak, mostly cut and stacked by hubby) had disappeared.
“Sorry,” Arthur said sheepishly. “I walked past and shook him by the hand, I thought you knew about it.”
Err, no, Arthur, we hadn’t given some random person permission to steal our wood!
Apart from the debroussaillage contractors stealing our wood, so far we’d managed to avoid all contact with the Forestry Police, men in green uniforms, a green van and a clipboard —in fact a little like officious garden elves.
Every year during spring since we’d moved into the house we’d noticed them going around the area, visiting all the properties round about. These visits were followed by manic cutting and burning activity on the part of our neighbours, including of course that part of our own woodland. But we’d never had a visit and we smugly thought we’d somehow escaped their notice. Perhaps Pierre had cast a spell on them.
This, of course, was not the case and one day two green men came up the drive, clipboard in hand. They explained that the work had to be done due to the fire risk and outlined the rules. We would be allowed ‘islands’ of trees of a certain size as long as there was a clear 5 metres all the way around.
Apparently, the French say of us Brits: ‘ils sont à cheval sur les regles’, that is, they follow the rules. True to type, the very same day hubby and I rushed out with a tape measure and started marking out our islands. Then the hard work started of cutting the trees, dragging out the good wood and burning the rest. After two weeks of this we had a mountain of wood in the orchard and we’d almost finished.
A neighbour came past and gaped with astonishment. “What on earth are you doing?” he said.
“We’re doing what the ONF told us,” hubby replied, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Pffft! You don’t need to do that. They’ve told us to do far too much this year, I’m meeting the Maire to discuss the issue tomorrow. Stop now, for goodness sake.”
“But I might go to prison,” I said.
“Hah!” the neighbour said. “The English – the fools, they always follow the rules!”
One of the things we love about the area we live in is its wildness and the wildlife it supports. Although we’d lost chickens, sheep and goats to nameless predators, we still preferred to live somewhere ‘a little on the wild side’. We’d heard reports of a lynx in the area but can only confirm that of a genet, a kind of large cat, as hubby had captured a photo of it on his trip camera. Unfortunately, we couldn’t lay claim to ever seeing wolves.
Much maligned and feared, the wolf has been persecuted down the centuries. It disappeared from France in the 1930s but in recent years the numbers of wolves has steadily risen due to an influx over the Alps from Italy. There are now reports of a few individuals in the Pyrenees and perhaps as many as 300 in the Alps, where they are hunted, illegally, by farmers anxious to protect their livestock.
Hubby and I first visited the huge old fortified farmhouse called Mas Taillede, above Corsavy, when we put our Angora goats and llamas in one of the fields there one summer. Since the goats disappeared into the blue yonder and we had to retrieve the llamas (as they were up to their necks in snow) we hadn’t been back. Lumberjack Andrew told us that the syndicate of environmental scientists who owned the place had put it up for sale.
“If only I were 10 years younger,” hubby sighed.
“You mean 30, don’t you?” I added.
We were delighted when the mas with its many hectares of forest was sold to some English friends. They had plans to renovate and rent out apartments and also to offer the place as a wedding venue or conference centre. We wished them well but privately I was glad we did not have such a daunting challenge ahead of us – Mas Pallagourdi had proven enough of that for one lifetime.
Our friends held a party, put out trestle tables on the new patio, put on a band, and invited friends from near and far. We met up with Lumberjack Andrew and his family as well as a very interesting lady from Russia. Olga described how, as a girl, she’d grown up in the depths of the countryside outside Moscow. Her grandfather would come in from his morning walk to tell her that he’d seen wolves down by the river, and so Olga grew up with a passion for these persecuted animals. She and her partner intended to buy a castle in Spain and set up a wolf refuge. How exciting! We hoped to stay in touch and be involved, somehow or other, in the project.
But with no wolves to offer excitement at Mas Pallagourdi, at least our animals had only the chasse to worry about. I say only, but the previous winter, during a chasse one of our lambs had completely disappeared and despite a letter written in proper French by a genuine French person to the Ceret chasse, they had never replied. We always worried on chasse days, often locking the sheep in a shed when we saw the hunt members congregating on the road. In fact, we were a little frightened of these men who swaggered around with guns over their shoulders. Paul, who lived further up the valley in an isolated spot, had complained to his local Mairie once about the hunters crossing his land without permission. The following week a bullet had whizzed past his ear as he tended to his garden.
So when one winter Saturday I heard pandemonium outside, I ran outside as fast as I could. I was just in time to catch sight of a large boar streaking across the orchard. Gyp was barking and the sheep bleating. In hot pursuit of the boar were six hunting dogs in full cry, running hither and thither, noses to the ground. They broke through the electric fencing and the sheep scattered to the four winds. I picked up a stick and started chasing the dogs, watched from behind the wooden gate by a very excited Gyp. Eventually he couldn’t take the excitement any longer, and squeezed through, joining in the chase.
When the last of the dogs had been chased down the road to Gyp’s satisfaction he came home, tail wagging. I marched up the road ready to complain but the men with guns had gone.