Finding a niche for a business venture in France
PUBLISHED: 09:55 28 January 2019
When Heidi Smith and her family moved to rural Haute Vienne to set up a holiday business, they kept getting distracted by the glorious wildlife - until they spotted a golden opportunity to make it a key part of their B&B and gîte business
“Hey! Look at that,” exclaimed my husband Nik one morning as we walked our dogs up the wooded track past our gîtes. Someone had left a child’s toy lizard on the path. It was about 30cm long and quite realistic apart from its garish yellow and black colouring. “It’s a salamander,” said Nik. I rolled my eyes. One of the joys of running a business with my husband and his brother Guy is that schoolboy practical jokes are a way of life, and I wasn’t falling for this one. I bent down to pick it up, thinking to reunite it with its owner, when it turned its head and fixed me with a beady eye. It wasn’t a toy. It was an actual fire salamander on our own land.
The wonder of nature
Ever since we bought Le Moulin de Pensol in Haute-Vienne, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, nine months ago, we have been entranced and obsessed with the wildlife we see in our 20 acres of land. We live in the middle of the Périgord Limousin regional park in an old mill on the pretty little River Bandiat. We have a couple of B&B rooms in the main house and three gîtes on the other side of the river, with semi-formal gardens in between. The buildings, with their soft local stone, are framed by the sweet chestnut woods and the meadows that lie all around. The small village of Pensol is above us and the sound of the church bell drifts down into the valley twice a day. The place is a natural haven and each day has brought a new discovery – golden orioles singing in trees behind the gîtes; a red squirrel playing while I was hanging out washing.
Cuckoos and caterpillars
As the long, wet winter finally gave way to spring, the flowers started to emerge. First it was early purple orchids, then came the cuckoo flowers, followed by flowers we didn’t recognise; Spring Squill anyone? Burnt orchids were waiting to greet us one morning and the woods were suddenly full of common cow wheat. One day in one of the fields we noticed clumps of hairy black caterpillars. We took to the internet to identify them and discovered they were the caterpillars of the Glanville Fritillary butterfly. We were so excited and we woke in the night worrying about them during sharp thunderstorms. The internet has been invaluable to us since we’ve been out here. There are Facebook groups for expats, buying and selling groups and niche natural history interest groups. Such is the collective knowledge of members that you only have to post a photo of a beetle or a butterfly and within minutes someone will respond identifying the species. It’s an incredible resource.
The seed of an idea
This was all very well, but we kept reminding ourselves that we were trying to start a business and not here to just indulge our own hobbies and interests. But as we started to speak to our guests about the nature at Le Moulin we found them as fascinated by it all as we were. We started to wonder if this was not perhaps the key to our business, rather than a distraction from it. What if we made Le Moulin de Pensol the destination for nature lovers? So we have decided to do just that. The ideas abound. Courses on butterflies, woodland, wildflowers and photography may follow. We will run a moth trap a couple of times a week for our guests. A campsite, together with restoration of the top field, is a project for next year. With this incredible abundance of wildlife comes a great responsibility. We need to manage the meadows with the grazing they need to support the ribwort plantain on which the Glanville Fritillaries feed. The River Bandiat that flows through the site is full of trout, damselflies, dragonflies and frogs so we don’t want to use weedkiller, which means weeding the gravel by hand. We can’t reinstate the old bread oven in one of the caves because it vents into the cave next door in which live a couple of species of bats. Rat poison? That’s a no-no because it would take out our adorable edible dormice too. So, as we press on with plans to add camping, glamping and bike hire facilities to our B&B and gîtes, we will allow the needs of nature to set the rules. And hopefully, this will please our guests too!