Château Belgrave sits just off the D101 which runs west out of St Julien, on the south side of the road. Having parked my hire car near the entrance, marked by six diminutive stone posts strung together with chain, I wandered down the driveway of grey-white gravel in order to take a look at the vineyard and château. The driveway is not a short one, being perhaps 400 metres long, the château (pictured below) at the end positioned slightly off to one side, and completely obscured from view by the many trees that grace this corner of the estate. Running alongside the driveway, a few metres to one side, is a stream that empties into the Jalle du Nord, the drainage ditch that separates the vineyards of St Julien to the north, from those of the Haut-Médoc to the south.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of movement in the grass. There in the distance, surely spooked by my approach, quickly scurrying towards the stream, were a group of large, otter-like creatures. Except they weren’t otters; the bodies were the wrong shape, and the tail completely wrong, thin and strap-like rather than the strong, muscular tail of an otter. Curious, I tried to catch up to investigate, but the creatures slid from view into the stream. As I reached the watercourse I peered over the edge; there was, of course, no sign of them.
Later in the day I asked some local friends if they had any idea what I had seen. They had, although my questionable translation meant that at first I thought they had said they were capybara, which on viewing some images I could see patently wasn’t true. Capybara are huge rodents, and semi-aquatic, but more like giant guinea pigs, and they have only vestigial tails. It eventually turned out that what I had seen were coypu, a smaller rodent known locally as the ragondin; once farmed primarily for its fur this species was introduced to France in 1882. The first escapees were reported in 1939, and in the ensuing years the invasive species has made France (and most other European countries) its home. As you might imagine the marshy Médoc, criss-crossed with streams and drainage ditches, is nirvana to such creatures. And the drainage ditch running between Château Lagrange and Château Belgrave is as good as any other.