I love our corner of France – the walks, the countryside, the different pace of life. Monty, too, loves his French lifestyle, revelling in the extra freedom and sunshine.
Something neither of us are keen on, though, is the vast range of local insect life. At certain times, the surrounding woods seem stuffed with tiny buzzing nuisances, intent on finding ever-more ingenious ways of biting, stinging and generally being irritating.
Each summer forest walk generally starts to the soundtrack of buzzing black house flies. They swarm and swoop around us until we’re each wearing a living halo of black dots, who cannily remain just out of reach of a swiping hand.
Next come the mosquitos, usually unseen until a sudden sharp pain indicates their presence. Mosquitos love me, and will often fight each other for the privilege of a bite, climbing over each other in their enthusiasm, and leaving other members of the walking party completely unscathed. I can only assume that in the insect world my blood is the equivalent of a vintage Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Lucky me.
What you can do
Treat exposed skin with an insect repellant such as Jungle Formula, and wear long sleeves and trousers. You can now buy clothing that’s permanently impregnated with mozzie repellant, and it seems to work quite well.
To treat the bites afterwards, every French pharmacy sells soothing cream such as Apaisyl, to help relieve the itching.
Mozzies and black flies are familiar hazards, but I’m less used to the more exotic dangers of ticks and aoûtats.
These are tiny orange mites, called chiggers in the US and harvest mites in the UK. They’re known as aoûtats in France, as they make their first appearance in August, or août. They like to lurk in long grass and in hedges, and they’re carnivorous. The adults live mostly on other insects, but the larvae like to feed on mammals such as dogs and (you’ve guessed it) me.
They like moisture, so tend to concentrate in hidden areas like waistbands, or, on dogs, between toes or behind ears. They’re so small as to be practically invisible. The larvae feed on blood and dead skin, and don’t cause any ill effects in themselves. However, they cause severe itching, which goes on for days, and a dog that’s badly bitten will often scratch himself raw unless treated.
What you can do
Humans – Jungle Formula, plus long sleeves and trousers as above. Tuck your trousers into your socks – being mistaken for a trainspotter will be the lesser of two evils. Take particular care in late summer and autumn. Treat bites with Apaisyl or dab the affected areas with alcohol vinegar.
Dogs – Check your dog for sore areas, particularly between toes, behind ears and under his collar. Topical creams can be applied to any raw areas, and a Scalibor collar should help prevent bites.
Ah yes, ticks. My current favourite subject. Ticks are particularly active in our corner of France, as they’re very discerning. They like a climate that’s not too hot or dry, and they love the Midi-Pyrenees.
A couple of weeks ago, we went to dinner with our next-door-neighbours, who’ve been living in the area for seven or eight years. They’re very keen gardeners, but told me that they’d never been bitten by a tick in all their time in France. Ironically, I unwittingly had a tick on me at that very moment!
I found it the next day, a tiny pinhead black dot on my leg. I thought it was a speck of dirt until it started waving its legs feebly.
Pulling a tick off with your fingers is not a good idea, as you risk squeezing potentially infected blood back into yourself, or leaving the tick’s head detached under your skin. Fortunately, we carry a tick removal tool for Monty. This looks like a miniature crow bar, and you just drop it over the tick and twist. I can vouch for the fact that the tick comes out neatly and all in one piece. A tick bite itches violently whilst the tick is in situ, but fortunately my tick seems to have been too small to make an impression, as I had no ill effects at all. The experience was slightly disgusting, but mostly fascinating!
What you can do
Ticks love warm, damp conditions, and are particularly active in spring and autumn. Check yourself and your dog after each walk, and remove any ticks as quickly as possible. Itchy bites can be treated with Apaisyl. Tick bites can be serious for dogs, as many ticks carry piroplasmosis, a potentially fatal disease.
Sandflies aren’t a problem in our area of France, as they prefer a more Mediterranean climate – click here for a map of the danger zones – but as we travel around so much, it’s another thing to be aware of. Sandflies look like large mosquitos, and the bite of female carries a really nasty disease called leishmaniasis, which is dangerous for dogs and humans alike.
What you can do
For humans, use the same defence techniques as against mosquitos. For dogs, a Scalibor collar will also protect against sandflies.
If this all sounds a bit much, remember that you can really minimise insect bites with a few common sense precautions – and that the mountain views and scenery on your walks will be well worth it.