Those pesky topiary elves again…!

I first posted the basis for this blog back in November 2016. At the time, I was a bit apologetic that the piece was only marginally to do with writing historical fiction, but I now am of the view that, when I write about gardens or plants, or indeed birds and wildlife, instead of historical fiction, it simply reveals another aspect of “who I am”, and is no bad thing. Gardens and gardening do often have a place in my novels, but I have always been interested in plants and nature, and so writing about them in my blog does seem just as natural as writing about writing!

The November blog was basically about topiary. And the reason I want to talk about it again is that, here in France this summer, we have revisited the wonderful, and surprising, shrub sculptures that sparked my post last year, but that I have also a sadder tale to tell about them…

You may or may not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather love it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty-five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges, shapes and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads. I think the faces are a relatively recent addition, for I don’t remember seeing them twenty-five years ago. They seem very much in keeping with the French sense of fun in their public art – public gardens and roundabouts, for example, are often wonderfully quirky and delightful. (More of this in a moment…)

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2016 photos © Author

The first time we saw them, all those years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this work. Is he/she alone, or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

To discover these clipped wonders along mountain roads for the first time was so surprising that it seemed almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though, again this year, some of the clippings were clearly quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves. (And, actually, if anybody does know the answers to these questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened! I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…)

It was lovely this year seeing some of the same “sculptures”, and some I’d not noticed last time.

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2017 Photos © Author And, yes, it’s the same chap! His friend from last year is still there too. I have a suspicion that one or two of the round ones are potential candidates for sculpture…)











For the blog last November, seeing the mountain sculptures again last year had set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times. If you’d like to read that blog, it’s here…

But, this time, I want to talk about something much more contemporary, a modern invader – albeit a pretty enough little creature – that hasn’t yet attacked these wonderful mountain sculptures, but very well might…

1854 - Cydalima perspectalis - Box tree moth
Photo © David Hughes

You may have come across the Box moth, if you have box hedges and if you live in a place where they have become invasive. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) says that the moth is a native of East Asia and became established in Europe in 2007. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, whereas the caterpillar wasn’t found in gardens until 2011. But since then it has become widespread in London and surrounding counties.

The understory is (was) box © Author
A hedge in a country garden. The green leaves are, sadly, not box © Author

It’s clearly here in France. As we drive around we can see the devastation that it causes – box trees stripped bare of leaves. It looks horrible!

We have noticed that some trees do seem to grow new leaves, but presumably only to be eaten again…

(By the way, this is not the notorious “box blight”, which is a fungal disease that results in bare patches and die-back on a bush, and I think is pretty difficult to get rid of.) In a garden, if you are willing to do so, chemical sprays can be used – quite successfully, I understand – to control the box moth, though of course spraying does have potentially serious side effects to wildlife.

Photo © David Hughes

Our gîte owner sprays his hedges (and his topiary squirrels) and, so far, they have not been attacked. I suppose that all owners of topiary gardens, and especially perhaps those whose gardens are famous for their topiary – like the Château de Villandry, for example –must take steps to guard against the dreaded moth…

But, out in the countryside, what can possibly be done? I suppose the “elves” could take a spray with them when they go out clipping – perhaps they do – but, seriously, it’s hard to see how anything could prevent the moth attacking these lovely sculptures.


Pretty (?) box moths Photo © Author
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Beautiful lavender, rather spoiled. Photo © Author

And our fears about the potential danger were confirmed when we drove into a different mountainous area specifically to look for a particularly wonderful field of lavender that we knew would be growing along one of those windy roads. We found the lavender, growing, as it has for the past several years, in all its lovely heady glory, but it was absolutely covered in – box moths!

This field wasn’t particularly close to our mountain sculptures, but these pretty little horrors can of course fly! It would simply be so very sad if they flew that way and destroyed all that wonderful topiary work…

So, that’s a potentially worrying prospect, but let me end on a much more cheerful note.

I mentioned earlier the French sense of fun in the way they present their public art, such as in gardens and on roundabouts. And, as an example, and following the topiary theme, I give you these…an elephant and a dragon.

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Elephant and friend. Photo © Author
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Dragon and friend. Photo © Author
© Author

These two charming creatures can be found in “our” village, close to our gîte, Montelier, which is one of only eighteen four-flower villages in the Auverge-Rhône-Alps region (out of 516 villages and towns in the region with all levels of  flower label). The town gardeners go in for  particularly charming animal “sculptures”, including topiary, as part of their plant displays. (More on the Concours des villes et villages fleuris – “towns and villages in bloom competition” – in a future post, perhaps…)


You probably can’t see from my photos that each topiary animal has a “person” riding them… And who might these be, one wonders…? Here is a slightly closer, yet still rather mysterious, view of one of them…

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© Author

A topiarist elf perhaps?

Nature red in tooth and claw (part deux)

My blog today is not much – well, nothing, actually – to do with writing historical fiction, or with medieval history. Instead it is a bit of an addendum to my post last month, Nature red in tooth and claw. If you follow my posts, you have probably realised by now that, as well as writing novels set in the fourteenth century, I am also pretty keen on observing the natural world, and especially birds…

So, today, I am offering a relatively short blog, and one that is not only short but also, I’m afraid, not very “sweet”. So you might want to look away now if you’re squeamish…

Bésayes, Drôme, France. View towards the Vercors mountains. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

How very tranquil the countryside seems as we sit here on the terrace of our gîte in Drôme, south-eastern France, looking across the fields towards the Vercors mountains, watching a tractor trundle up and down the rows of corn or sunflowers in the distance, listening to the crickets chirruping, thrilling to the sight of the locally-nesting bee-eaters swooping and gliding, noticing the lengthening of the evening shadows… With a glass of rosé at one’s elbow, and the barbecue coals burning nicely in anticipation of pork and aubergines and fat red peppers, it’s all quite relaxing and delightful.

Well, yes, I am putting a shamelessly romantic spin upon it all, but only really to point up the contrast between what we see out there with our rose-tinted eyes, and what we know is actually going on…

For, of course, at the micro level, the countryside is anything but tranquil, and you can be sure that, each day, many creatures, small and larger, meet their – often gruesome – ends, mostly in the service of another creature’s belly (or, at this time of year especially, those of their growing young).

It’s not often one has the opportunity to observe this playing out of nature – perhaps indeed you wouldn’t want to? But, yesterday evening, we did observe it, and admittedly it wasn’t pretty. However, what we saw was not just a death but, more intriguingly, a display of social interaction between different species of bird, which was grimly fascinating to watch, and yet we felt somehow privileged to be doing so.

Unfortunately (or, you might think, fortunately) I can’t show you photos of what we actually saw, for the scene was played out just a little too far away, even for a bird-watcher’s excellent long lens camera. But here are the actors in this everyday drama of French country life…

(Images courtesy of the RSPB website)


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Photo © Chris Shields for RSPB

It was early evening and dinner preparation was under way – apéritif, barbecue and so on –  when we suddenly heard the raucous squawks of crows and the harsh rasp of magpies, somewhere not all that far away. Looking from the terrace across to the fields just beyond the hedge, a gaggle of birds – four magpies and six carrion crows – was flapping and hopping noisily around a buzzard, clearly safeguarding its recently captured prey. It seemed clear that the poor thing – from its size and colouring, a rabbit – had been recently captured from the continued jerking of its hind legs. This might have been its death throes, but the movements were vigorous enough to suggest an, albeit hopeless, attempt to escape its grisly fate.

Horribly voyeuristic as it might seem, I’m afraid that we set up the tripod and telescope for a better view. Because what was happening was not just “nature red…” but also a stand-off between the buzzard and the would-be purloiners of its dinner, and we were intrigued to know which of them would win the day. Ten to one seemed poor odds against the buzzard, but the other birds (and I’m going anthropomorphic here!) seemed to be all talk and no trousers, as they flapped and swooped and barked at the buzzard, but most definitely kept their distance.

© Spencer Wright, North Walsham, England (, via Wikimedia Commons

They were undoubtedly safe enough from the raptor’s talons, which were keeping tight hold of the hapless rabbit. But one imagines that just one peck from that vicious beak could do a huge amount of damage to a magpie, or even a crow.

Buzzards are a good deal bigger than crows and magpies. The smaller birds are similar to each other in length, approximately 45cm, although the carrion crow has a wingspan half as much again as the magpie, and is twice its weight, at about half a kilo. But the buzzard – and I think the one we had here was a fairly large example – is more than a quarter longer than the others, with an additional 20cm or so of wingspan than the crow, but it weighs twice as much as the crow and four times as much as the magpie. And it’s got that scimitar of a beak!

So it’s hardly a surprise that, despite the greater numbers of their posse, the aspiring thieves were exceedingly cautious about getting too close to their target.

Nonetheless, they didn’t stop their harassment. The buzzard might have been the big kid on the block, but perhaps the crows and magpies knew that, precious as its meal was, it wouldn’t risk a physical confrontation with them.

Buzzard and Carrion Crows, Bough Beech
Photo RSPB

You see this also in the air, where it’s very common to see crows mobbing a buzzard, presumably because the buzzard got too close to their nest or had simply invaded their territory, although I think it’s rare that physical contact is ever made, as it could be very damaging to all involved. Usually the buzzard just seems to fly off, presumably to look elsewhere for easier, less taxing, pickings.

So crows – and magpies – are brave, but presumably know from experience that, if they keep up the pressure long enough, they stand a good chance of winning.

And that is actually what happened, although not for a good fifteen or twenty minutes…

The poor rabbit struggled on a while, and the buzzard tried to eat a little something of its dinner. But, with the constant interruptions from its tormentors and its own failed attempts to see them off – we could see quite clearly that, beak open, it was shouting at them, telling them to scram – it didn’t seem to be enjoying its meal very much, and was perhaps already thinking better of bothering to defend it.

In fact, some of the crows and magpies did scram, but there remained a persistent few of both species that weren’t going to let this potential free meal go.

I thought the buzzard might try taking off with whatever was left of its dinner in its talons, but the rabbit might well have weighed as much as its captor, or even more – it did look quite big – so maybe that wasn’t a practical possibility.

And, in the end, leaving the remains behind, the buzzard did simply fly away, with a parting bark at the victorious corvids, who then pounced upon their prize and tucked in.

So, for them – the crows and magpies – there was such a thing as a free lunch (dinner). All they had to do was have a degree of courage and a fair amount of patience, and be really, really irritating for long enough to force their bigger rival to feel the effort of the fight was greater than the reward.

Thus, in this case, the underdog(bird)s won out over the top dog(bird). But I imagine it doesn’t always work out that way…