Casta Cattle, La Brenne, France [Alamy image ref. AFDKKH]

It’s always a pleasant surprise when a publication chooses two or more images from one’s Alamy stock on the same day… as happened recently with three of mine taken on the same day in the “Parc Naturel Régional de la Brenne.” I have visited the Brenne many times and illustrated it previously… click on “Brenne” in the keyword list in the sidebar right]. It is a 1,672 sq km (646 sq mi) area of natural landscape located in the Indre département of France and was created in 1982. Previously La Brenne was a region in the old French provinces of Berry and Touraine, west of Châteauroux and east of Tournon-Saint-Martin, an area bisected by the river Creuse. Like in all French national and regional parks, there are people living within the boundaries… so the park has 47 communes, of which the capital is Le Blanc with a population of around 7,500.

La Brenne is said to be one of France’s best kept secrets due to its large area and numerous secret locations – some private and others restricted – but a good map and guide will open up a wealth of opportunities to the naturalist and ornithologist. Its origins date back to the middle ages when many lakes and ponds were formed for fish farming by local monks who had established abbeys at Fontgombault, St.-Cyron and Meobecq.

It is an exceptional location for bird life with over 260 species recorded of which 150 are resident or breeders. It is also home to an abundant array of insects, butterflies and dragonflies. The woodlands and heaths provide natural shelter for horses, cattle, wild boar and deer which can be observed from numerous well-constructed hides and observation points.

Le Temple lake, La Brenne, France [Alamy image ref. AFDKKN]

The first of three images used by the same magazine I have already described from another usage, the second image being of the French “Aure et Saint-Girons” breed of cattle. They are also named “Casta” meaning chestnut colour. This breed comes from the south of France, in the middle part of the Pyrenees, and is bred from “Aure” cattle – draught oxen used to bring down timber from the mountains to the valleys, and “St Girons” cattle, a dairy cow used to make a mountain cheese named bethmale.

Originally a multipurpose breed, it is today used mainly for meat. The cow usually produces one calf per year for as many as 15 years… spending five months grazing in the mountains during summer. Only a few farmers continue to use the milk to make cheese, and a small group of breeders from the “Midi-Pyrénées” region are trying to increase the number of cows to save the old breed.

My third sale that day was of the “La Temple” étang, or lake, and was taken with my standard 55mm Nikkor not long after the dawn image of the cows (70mm end of a 70-200mm Nikkor) with the sun still quite low above the horizon and just after the early morning mist had cleared. I was aware of many bird calls and rustling in the trees and surrounding undergrowth, but no large birds were visible for my long lens… although on other occasions I have seen many Grey Herons and Cranes roosting and fishing.

Both these plus the Château le Bouchet image were RM licensed by Alamy for one month in a British magazine with a 100,000 print-run under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Cornflowers, France. [Alamy image ref. B1TXW7]

I did a double-take when I saw this corner of a French cornfield full of Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) – also known locally in the UK as Bachelor’s Button, Bluebottle, Boutonniere Flower, Hurtsickle and Cyani Flower. It is a small annual flowering plant in the family Asteraceae, native to Europe. In the past it often grew as a weed in crop fields, hence its name (fields growing grains such as wheat, barley, rye and oats are generically known as cornfields in the UK). However, it is now endangered in its native habitat, almost entirely wiped-out by agricultural intensification, particularly the overuse of herbicides, in the United Kingdom where it has declined from more than 264 sites to just three in the last half century.

In “Turner’s Herbal” (1568) it is introduced to the reader as… “Blewbottel, otherwise called Blewblawe, is named in Greek Kyanos; in Latin, Cyanus, or Ceruleus; in Duche, Blaw Cornblumen; in Frenche, au Fioin, or Blaucole, or Bleuet.”

The traditional English name Hurtsickle also receives a mention by Gerarde… “…it hindereth and annoieth the reapers by dulling and turning the edges of their sickles in reaping of corne.”

Whereas the Poppy is recognized by British and Commonwealth forces as the flower for Remembrance Day (November 11th) the Bleuet – as it is known in France – was chosen by French forces because of the colour similarity to the uniform of the young soldiers, who were known as “Bleuets” during the Great War or 1914-18. The bluet was the nickname given to the young “horizon-blue” uniform jacket clad recruits by the first “Poilus” (the French soldiers of WW I), who also used to wear madder-red trousers! The “French Bleuet” is the commemorative symbol of the First World War… a brooch or a pin people generally wore in the button hole.

Licensed RM by Alamy for a Russian Federation consumer magazine with a 10,000 print-run, specialising in arts and crafts, under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Sentier du Blizon sign, France. [Alamy image ref. AFDJRH]

La Brenne National Park in central France covers 166,000 hectares – or several hundred square kilometres – and is situated about 80 km south-east of Tours. It’s an area of shallow man-made lakes – more than 2300 in total according to some sources (I have to say I can’t believe it, rather than I doubt it). The first lakes were dug in the Middle Ages for rearing fish, and there are some fairly recent ones as well which I believe were for clay extraction used for the manufacture of roofing tiles. For the ornithologist and botanist the area is a haven of discovery with apparently more than 2,300 insects and animals as well as more than 1,200 plant species recorded. Noted are the European Pond Turtles, Purple Herons, Black-Necked Grebes, Eurasian Bitterns as well as many Orchids, Dragonflies and Frogs.

The “Sentier du Blizon” (Sentier = trail) is a lake and marshland location with a Nature Trail about 1.5km (1 mile) in length there and back where one can spend a single day watching and listening to wildlife. This sign itself is a modern design which blends-in well with the surroundings.

It is not the first time I have sold a sign rather than the location it announces… I suspect many photographers arrive at such beauty spots and concentrate on the subject itself rather than the information provided about it. As a matter of course I photograph town names at each place I visit because I don’t have an iPhone or other such device with GPS data recording… so unless I make a visual record (my mental recording is suspect) I’m apt to forget exact locations I have been to – especially in the Brenne where, to be honest, more than 2,000 lakes look very much the same – before I’ve returned to my base above a bar… which sometimes doesn’t help matters!

Licensed RM by Alamy for reproduction in a French retail book with a 5,000 print-run for 1-year under my “Nature” pseudonym, which includes everything to do with my countryside but non-farming landscapes, woodland, animals and flowers, etc. images.

Ants farming aphids, France [Alamy image ref. ACWKBP]

A few years ago, whilst residing at a friend’s house in the country which had a large garden, I took advantage of the accessibility of trees and plants to, not so much experiment with macro photography – my patience and equipment is too limited for that speciality – but to look more closely at Nature to see what it offered that was different from my time from living in a town

One such observation was that ants – previously frequently observed in their hundreds forming a scurrying line to and from my garden to the kitchen and back again – were sometimes more content to collect, arrange and milk a captive insect for their natural sweetener rather than using my sugar bowl and its refined contents.

Even though ants are extremely numerous and observable – there are a million ants for every human on the planet – I had never seen the above scene before moving to France… perhaps French aphids are more tasty!

From Wikipedia… Some species of ants “farm” aphids, protecting them on the plants they eat, eating the honeydew that the aphids release from the terminations of their alimentary canals. This is a “mutualistic relationship”.

These “dairying ants” “milk” the aphids by stroking them with their antennae. Some farming ant species gather and store the aphid eggs in their nests over the winter. In the spring, the ants carry the newly hatched aphids back to the plants. Some species of dairying ants (such as the European yellow meadow ant, Lasius flavus) manage large “herds” of aphids that feed on roots of plants in the ant colony. Queens that are leaving to start a new colony take an aphid egg to found a new herd of underground aphids in the new colony. These farming ants protect the aphids by fighting off aphid predators.

When I first observed this symbiosis I couldn’t believe the regularity of the arranged captive aphids… so I snapped a few shots (sans tripod) trying to get as much in focus whilst fighting the natural shallow depth-of-field at close distances.

Of the 38 “ant farm aphid” images on Alamy all but one (mine) from three or four other photographers show random displays of these insects rather than the very regular ranks of aphids shown in my image. There are 21 aphids here surrounded by seven ants… so perhaps each ant needs three aphids to feed from!

This image was licensed by a German monthly magazine with a print-run of 10,000 for a “spot size” inclusion on a front cover.

Praying Mantis, France. [Alamy image ref. B3GYAW]

I spotted this insect in a friend’s garden here in France about a day before I really saw it. I should explain… the Praying Mantis will often sit for hours (or for an extended day in this case) waiting for it’s prey to stray within range. They will remain motionless, and extremely well camouflaged, blending-in with their surroundings so well that you cannot be sure if you are seeing what you think you are seeing… if you know what I mean.

Trying to make an interesting image was not easy – more so as I am certainly NOT a nature photographer – but I decided to try to reveal the insect more by using it’s lighter body colouring against a darker shadowed background… whilst keeping the entire length of the insect within the narrow depth-or-field restriction imposed by the close-up position. Luckily, the creature didn’t move a muscle or take a nip at my fingers during my repeated clicks and refocusing attempts, and I got a series of usable images from the session. In fact, having sorted and retouched a selection of shots for Alamy, I returned to the garden shrub a few hours later to find the Mantis in exactly the same position… although I doubt she was thinking, “I’ll wait around for a few more hours and give him another opportunity at making a saleable shot if his first attempt didn’t look too good!”

From Wikipedia“Mantises are camouflaged, and most species make use of protective coloration to blend in with the foliage or substrate, both to avoid predators themselves, and to better snare their victims. Various species have evolved to not only blend with the foliage, but to mimic it, appearing as either living or withered leaves, sticks, tree bark, blades of grass, flowers, or even stones.”

The Praying Mantis has a typical “prayer-like” stance, although it’s name is often misspelled as “Preying Mantis” since they are essentially predatory. In Europe, the name Praying Mantis refers to Mantis religiosa. That’s as much as I know about these creatures having no knowledge or expertise about the Natural kingdom apart from the fascination of what I see through a close-up lens attached to my Nikon. All I can do here is to point readers to an excellent website dedicated to the Praying Mantis here.

Sold by Alamy quite quickly under my “Nature” pseudo to a retail book publisher in France for a 5,000 print-run as a 1/8th-page on a 1-year licence.

As a side note… there are 1,739 images on Alamy captioned as “Praying Mantis” and another 356 with the “Preying” spelling. Are those using “Preying” losing out… or should the 1,739 other images include “Preying” to attract those researchers who use the incorrect spelling?

Wild horses, la Brenne, France [Alamy image ref: AFDK4N]

About half-an-hour drive from my base in central France is a concentrated area of wild habitat and wetland including over a thousand lakes. It’s a haven, as one can imagine, for the wildlife photographer and living so close I thought it would be a ‘natural’ for me too. Well, I obviously didn’t reckon on the necessary investment in stealth, patience, long lenses, camouflage and… did I mention patience?

I found out quite quickly that although I regularly get up at 5 ‘o-clock in the morning… that time of day was too late to make a start. I‘d also read many photo books profusely illustrated with what could be called ‘intimate’ close-ups of nature… which indicated that photographers were literally living with their subjects. Another downside was that nature also means insects… and I don’t like getting bitten or stung. Then there was the problem of long fast lenses… the most desirable were simply out of my price range and the least desirable were called just that for good reason. So overall, it wasn’t for me… I decided there were plenty of other subjects to specialise in… and therefore enjoy!

However, one late August afternoon, I was driving through the Brenne and saw a herd of around fifty wild horses grazing on an unfenced area of scrubby grassland. I parked and started to approach… the horses didn’t look up but carried on grazing whilst slowly wandering further afield… I approached some more… but the animals galloped away a little then continued grazing. I think they have a second nature which tells them, ”This photographer has neither a very long lens nor sugar cubes!”

I was carrying a telephoto lens though – an old 300mm f/4 AF Nikkor which was very sharp if and when it could be held steady. With the aperture 1-stop down at f/5.6 the minimum shutter speed indicated was 1/250th… not quite fast enough when adopting the “reciprocal of the focal length” rule of shutter speed and focal length as the 300mm on the Nikon D300’s APS-C size sensor becomes 450mm with the x1.5 multiplication factor. Being a little breathless after the exertions of the chase, my Gitzo monopod gave me the equivalent of an extra couple of stops of shutter speed for steadiness. Also there was quite a lot of haze that afternoon, so the image had to be strongly tweaked in Lightroom to bring out the back-lighting on the horses’ outlines.

When I look through my Lightroom catalog there are almost 150 shots from that afternoon’s shoot (I really need to edit that number down by 75%)… of which from the bunch I uploaded to Alamy, a general view of the horses’ asses was the one licensed for use here in France for a textbook with a one million print run (educational?) for one year. As a one-off it was rewarding… but the experience doesn’t make me a wildlife photographer!

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