Michael McCarthy: Where the really wild things are

Nature Notebook: Swallows dashed around the apple trees like kids in a school playground
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The Independent Online

What was the Lord thinking of when He created the Jersey tiger moth? What weird mood was He in? I mean, was there ever a beast so extravagant in appearance, so over-the-top – the upper wings black with slanting cream stripes, and the underwings of an orange so throbbingly brilliant it might have emerged from an LSD tangerine dream? My fashion-conscious 17-year-old daughter, summoned to admire it on the buddleia with my 13-year-old son, got close to its essence, perhaps unwittingly, in her first reaction. She said: "It's like something from the Sixties."

Of all the creatures in our holiday garden I think that was the most arresting, but there were a number of others which ran it close (and I won't list the 13 species of butterflies). Humming-bird hawkmoths nectared the buddleia with their probosces out, tongues half the size of their bodies, while violet carpenter bees, each as big as a child's thumb, buzzed about the sweet peas. Swallows dashed around the apple trees like kids in a school playground and they were exhilarating, but the far more private spotted flycatchers were better still: they had bred in the garden next door and they perched on the telephone wire for their discreet sallies after passing insects, the essence of understated charm.

As evening arrived, with Vega the first star to appear, cold and blue and right above our heads, bats replaced the birds, and in the gloaming, bee hawkmoths fussed about the sweet peas' dim white flowers while frogs croaked in the pond. When the dark descended, and the Milky Way stretched across the sky, we still were not done with the garden's offerings; close by the gate were two tiny, brilliant emerald points of light: they were glow-worms. The children were enchanted. So were my wife and I, for that matter. It was a garden that seemed to have an endless variety of life in it, quite apart from its plants, and I wish I could say it was in Britain, but I have to say it was in Normandy.

Flowers to remember

On our Norman holiday we paid a call on The Independent's Paris correspondent, John Lichfield, and his family, in their cottage buried deep in the hills behind Caen, and in the course of an after-lunch walk I had the best wildlife experience of all: cornflowers. These wonderful blooms of an intense deep blue have virtually gone from England, but there they were, illuminating the edge of a barley field. As John reminded me, for the French, les bluets are the First World War memorial flowers, just as the scarlet poppies are the flowers of the trenches for us. So beautiful and so sad.

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