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John Lichfield: Cereal killers and bungalows lead a Norman conquest

Normandy Notebook

In Normandy, April is the loveliest month. The apple trees, a little late this year, are nearly in blossom. Primroses, cowslips and wild daffodils shine in the verges and hedgerows. Cows graze in rich, green pastures – those hedges and those cows and those pastures that survive, that is.

A long stretch of ancient hedgerow – maybe 300 metres, maybe 200 years old – has been torn out close to our village in the Calvados hills this spring. The mutilated roadside now looks like a gum with no teeth in it. As a result, the farmer from the next commune, who rents the land, will be able to plant another couple of rows of triffids.

Triffids are what we call the tall, ugly stalks of maize which have progressively invaded the Calvados countryside in the past decade. The maize is grown for cows to eat. In Normandy the maize has gobbled up the cows – and the hedges.

Just more than half the dairy farms in some of the finest dairy country in the world have disappeared in the past 15 years – including both the dairy farms in our village.

Lower Normandy used to be celebrated for its hedges – the "bocage country" in which tiny fields were enclosed by lateral woodlands as thick as castle walls. It was this landscape which grievously hampered the British and American armies in the weeks after D-Day in June 1944.

Most of the bocage has long gone. In the 1970s, the French government encouraged farmers to swap, and then join up, their jumbled scraps of land. The hedges were torn out to make bigger fields.

In recent years, many of the remaining hedges around the enlarged fields have fallen to the cereal killers. Our tiny hamlet (permanent population: 11) was an island of relative, hedge-enclosed beauty when we bought our house 12 years ago. The destruction of a first, long stretch of hedge suggests that our immunity is over.

Triffids are not the only invaders. There are new blotches of bright colour shining in the Calvados countryside this spring: not primroses and cowslips but constellations of pale-peach or cream pavillons (bungalows), which may be visible from the moon. The suburbs of the city of Caen, 20 miles to the north, are scattering bungalow seeds which are taking root in what was, until a few years ago, deep countryside.

There are no peach bungalows in our hamlet yet but a score of them have been built in the main village, just over a mile away. When the hedges go, can bungalows be far behind?