At sunrise, the road across the marais de Brouage runs straight as a die towards ancient hills in the east. We are staying at a gîte in Marennes, the ‘City of Oysters’, as we put the final coat of paint on the walls of a recently purchased property a little further inland. It is late September, and each day we make the early-morning run to new schools through the marshes and ponds that make this part of the Charente-Maritime the second largest wetland in France.
Keeping to the speed-limit is difficult in a car populated by four small people who are intent on not being late, and as I am preoccupied with the logistics of renovating our 200 year-old property, I take little notice of the small furry bodies that lie sporadically along the road. Well, I take no notice until the argument starts. “That was a fox, Mama!” says one small person.
“No it wasn’t – it was a rabbit,” replies a smaller person. “It wasn’t! It was a fox, it was way too big for a rabbit!” says the biggest of the small people.
“Perhaps it was a deer,” I interject, peering intently through the windscreen at the early morning mists as water, reeds, tall birds and lonely cattle flicker past the steamed-up windows.
Three days later, I stop gingerly by a small corpse on the way home one morning after yet another debate, and tentatively identify it as an otter. But I know it’s not right. Thinking hard on the way home I then decide it might be a mink, a solution confirmed later by Mr. Google as a map of the animal’s distribution clearly shows the European mink exists in only five areas of France, and the various marais of the Charente-Maritime is one of its last strongholds. Intrigued, I manage to persuade the family to join me in seeing if we can find a live one.
Days pass as we search the marais de Brouage with enthusiasm, but without much success, our hours of adventure restricted by school to the evenings. Although we find no mink, we discover by default that we live next to a magnificent eco-system; an area of 16,000 hectares of reclaimed land that once lay under the shallow waters of the Atlantic. Bounded to the north by the marais de Rochefort, and to the south by the marais de Seudre, the area is a paradise for many species of mammals, birds, fish, crustaceans, shellfish and insects.
We become aware that what at first seems to be an indistinguishable mass of waterways is instead a busy patchwork of ponds, flats, streams, marshes, reed-beds and lonely isolated hummocks with farmhouses perched on the skyline like exposed reefs at low tide. In every direction, things fly, swim, scrape, slither and hop. Twice each day the tide oozes in from the sea, fills the hollows and mudflats, and eases out again like some living primeval sludge; the flute of the curlew and the shrill cry of the kestrel float hauntingly on the salty smell of decay in the breeze.
Once the bed of a shallow bay, the marais was reclaimed centuries ago by man, and decades of mixed-farming, shellfish production and a continuing salt industry have left a rich heritage of man-made scars across the tidal landscape which the birds, in particular, have made their home. In the space of a week, we become half-expert in sorting our geese from our swans, our hen harriers from our short-toed eagles, and our greenshanks from our lapwings. Purple herons, night herons, blue herons; cattle egrets and lesser egrets, a dusting of autumn butterflies and a rash of deep red autumn sunsets.
At the beginning of October, we move into our house, perched back on the hills in a small village with a 12th century fortified chateau that once protected salt-workers, farmers and oystermen from corsairs and pirates. We still look for our mink, and in our wanderings become acquainted with various cows, horses and small ponies we meet in the gathering evening gloom. Once, we discover the scat of what we assume to be mink, and we also find a half-eaten crayfish, but it is not until early December that we finally come across our quarry. Close to the road just below the hill we find a family of mink feeding on grass shoots in the sunset; they set the surface of the water a-quiver when they subtly duck away after noticing us. This initial success leads to evenings when the mink become less cautious, though a decent photograph evades us. I grow fond of our aquatic family, complete with young, and feel great pride in our success.
Just before Christmas, a French friend comes to stay with his family. Triumphant in our local knowledge, we lead them down to the marais one evening for an English-guided ‘mink safari’, feeling smug with our hard-earned knowledge. We draw up by the raft of reeds where the mink live and patiently wait, being quickly rewarded by the arrival of our lithe aquanauts.
We expect serious discussion, and some gesture of appreciation for our hard work, but we are unprepared for the humour. They roar with laughter; across the small canal our mink slip, worried, into the water. Once they can keep a straight face, we learn a hard truth. Our mink are not mink. Instead of being a rare and endangered species, the animal we have spent three months searching out and integrating with is one of France’s most disliked aliens, the notorious coypu of South America – an aquatic rodent introduced two centuries ago as a source of fur. Since then, the coypu has since run riot through Europe, as far east as the Danube, and now exists in almost every European country as a pest, disliked by naturalists and scientists alike as a savage destroyer of marshlands with its twin weapons of plant destruction and ability to burrow deep under banks.
I put the blame of misidentification firmly on my husband’s binoculars. The mink are there, for we have now seen several, but we still don’t have a photograph. Of course, I also now know they do not eat grass!
We are a British family living in the South West of France with our five children. Our love of France and our country lifestyle have prompted me to write the blog Our French Oasis, tales and photos from our everyday life: www.ourfrenchoasis.com