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Swallows In France

Our swallows are finally here. They kept us waiting until the 1st of May this year, much later than normal. We were beginning to wonder if they were going to turn up at all. Swallows have been known to arrive in Limousin as early as the 21st of January (in 1991 and 2002), but usually it’s around the 20th of March that they begin to appear. They really do announce the arrival of Spring.

Our swallows are hirondelles rustiques – country swallows. As well as these, there are three other types to be found in our region of France, Limousin. They are hirondelles de rochers (rock or cliff swallows), hirondelles de rivage (bank swallows) and hirondelles de fenêtre (window swallows). All four types are protected under the nature protection act of 1976. It’s forbidden to destroy either them or their nests. You face a fine of up to €9,000 or imprisonment if you do.We all know these days that swallows migrate to and from subtropical Africa, but in the old days, people thought they spent the winter hiding in reeds around lakes. They didn’t believe such small birds could make such enormous journeys.

Swallow numbers are declining. According to the species, they have decreased between 60% and 80% since the 1980s, which is extremely alarming. The reasons include destruction of habitat in Europe, droughts in Africa, use of insecticides, climate change and loss of hunting grounds. In 2009 we lost most of our swallows here at Les Fragnes during the freak spell of cold weather in May that brought snow and strong winds. That was a disaster for French swallows.

Our swallows are country swallows and they build their nests against or under beams in barns and other rural buildings. They are very happy to share their environment with other animals. Most of the nests here are in the stable where the guinea pig cages are and in the old woodshed which is now one of the llamas’ sheltering places. There are several nests in the llamas’ other shelter, an open-fronted stable. So it really does seem that the swallows like company.

Window swallows build on houses, along roof edges or above windows. These make themselves unpopular with home-owners because of the inevitable pile of poop that builds up underneath. This is a main reason for their nests being removed – illegally. The simple solution is to attach a piece of wood to the wall beneath the nest to stop the poop falling on heads or pathways, and to clean it once the swallows have departed in autumn. That isn’t too onerous, now is it?
Rock or cliff swallows are found on cliff faces, large rocks, barrages (dams) and bridges, while bank swallows inhabit anywhere sandy where they can burrow their nests, usually close to waterways.

We love our swallows and spend hours each year watching them catch insects over the lakes at dusk, or as they sit in long lines on the telegraph wires alongside our driveway. They dive and swoop around us as we do jobs on the farm and it’s always wonderful to see them arrive in spring. They produce two or three broods each year. Swallows lay 4 or 5 eggs which take up to 21 days to hatch. Then it’s another ten days until the babies open their eyes, but another ten or so until they’re ready to fly off on their own.

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We don’t enjoy their departure in autumn so much as it means winter is on its way. And winters here are long and cold, but let’s enjoy the summer first!

I’m Stephanie Dagg, author, editor, fishery owner, alpaca and llama farmer – oh yes, and mum and wife too. We live in the rural heart of France in Creuse, an area famous for its hazlenut cake and extremely elderly population. We’re truly Europeans having lived in England and Ireland before coming here. I blog about our daily life as expats with all its pleasures and perplexities, and fun and frustrations at www.bloginfrance.com. You’ll find my many and mostly free ebooks here on my Smashwords page www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SJDagg.