Palaeolithic Park comes to France

How a visionary ecologist is recreating Europe's past in a corner of France

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The large, male bison ambled up to us out of curiosity. He was six feet high at the shoulder. His head - noble, shaggy, ugly, doleful – resembled that of the Beast who falls in love with Beauty in the fairy tale.

He came closer and closer. And closer. When he was two yards away, he gave us a long stare, a wink and an impatient flick of his horns.

"Oh-oh, he's giving us signs," murmured Patrice, our guide and companion, "Better just move aside slowly. He's showing us who is boss here. No more pictures, please. Move slowly aside."

We moved slowly aside.

Having made his point – "this is my home not yours" – the not-quite-adult bull bison joined the rest of the herd and moved ponderously on his way.

In the distance, deer and wild horses and wild boar wandered freely in a broad valley between mountain ridges fringed with pine trees. Out of sight, beyond the trees, roamed lynx and mountain sheep and mountain goats and the occasional wolf.

Where is this latter-day Eden? It could be Montana or Wyoming in the mid 19th century. It could be western Europe 1,000 or more years ago.

We are, in fact, an hour's drive from Nice international airport, 50 steep, winding kilometres from the concrete and bitumen and the carbon-monoxide and money-soaked coastal plain of the Côte d'Azur.

We are in the midst of one of the most intriguing ecological – and economic – experiments in Europe: a Palaeolithic Park – an attempt to turn the ecological clock back thousands of years.

The big bison who moved us aside with a wink of his eyes and a flick of his horns is not one of the bison which once roamed the plains of North America (though he looks like them). He is one of only 500 remaining, pure-bred examples of the European bison (Bison bonasus), which inhabited the plains and forests of Europe until the middle ages.

His ancestors were an important part of the diet of Palaeolithic man. Their image appears in the Lascaux caves and other subterranean galleries of stone-age art. A tiny wild population has survived in Poland.

Two years ago, some of these animals were reintroduced to an 800 hectare (1,400 acre) former sheep ranch 4,000ft above the Mediterranean in the Alpes-Maritimes. Here, they now live beside wild "Przewalski horses" – (Equus ferus przewalskii) also known as the Asian wild horse. These beautiful animals, resembling a fawn-brown zebra with stripy legs, once galloped freely from western Europe to China. They disappeared from France 2,000 years ago.

The bison and the wild horses and a, part-native, population of red deer have been re-established at the Domaine du Haut Thorenc by Patrice Longour, a vet and visionary ecologist who worked for many years in game reserves in Africa.

The Domaine du Haut Thorenc is run like a miniature African game reserve, populated by reintroduced European species, not by imported African ones. The animals live behind a protective fence in a open space of five sq m. (M. Longour hopes eventually for much, much more.) Because they feel unthreatened by man, the creatures of Haut Thorenc are disconcertingly tame. Or rather, self-confident. Even the wild boar, usually among the shyest of creatures, ramble around in family groups like sheep or dogs. Red deer stags woo hinds raucously within a few yards of inquisitive humans.

Galloping through the reserve in one of M. Longour's beautiful horse-drawn wagons (cars and trucks are banned), you might think that you were in a Western movie. You might also be reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park when the visitors are suddenly engulfed by a herd of tame, genetically recreated dinosaurs. M. Longour accepts The Independent's suggested label, Palaeolithic Park, somewhat reluctantly. Yes, he is trying to re-establish the large fauna of the early stone age, which survived in smaller numbers in western Europe until about 1,000 years ago. There are even believed to have been a few bison in France up to the 1600s.

However, M. Longour says that he is also trying something much more ambitious, than that: something which will preserve the future, not just the past. He says that his domaine – entirely privately funded – is an ecological and economic experiment which could have significant implications for everything from the survival of dying, rural communities to the control of forest fires.

Five years ago, M Longour predicted that the reintroduction on to marginal land of large, long-lost native herbivores, such as the bison, would rapidly restore the biodiversity of European vegetation. The old fauna would recreate the old flora.

Some biologists scoffed at his claims. Local politicians tried to derail his plans. Yet, just over two years after the arrival of his first group of bison, M. Longour is being proved right. Large parts of the Domaine du Haut Thorenc were once covered in self-seeded pine trees, or choked by a tangled undergrowth of box and broom, or colonised by a rough form of Mediterranean grass called penné. This is precisely the kind of dry, scrub country – the country from which small-scale agriculture has retreated in the last 30 years – which fosters the spread of uncontrollable forest fires.

After two years of being trampled and shoved by the bison and the wild horses – especially the bison – the pine trees have been thinned out and stripped of their lower branches. The box and broom have been eliminated. After two years of being manured and grazed by the bison and the wild horses, the grassland has been transformed. Scores of grasses and flowers – clovers, plantains, wild cereals, wild peas and pulses – are thriving once again where only a few, or no, species grew before.

"Look here," said M. Longour. "This is land which the bison have not been allowed to enter until recently. You can see that the pine trees are still growing thickly together, with their lower branches still intact. The grass is mostly one species of plant, the penné, which domesticated animals won't eat. There are pine needles everywhere."

He asks our driver, Ondine, to move our cart and its two horses a little further along the track. Deer stags are roaring their best courtship lines about 100m away. Wild boar continue to scrabble in the earth nearby.

"Now look over here, where the bison have been grazing for many months. The trees have been thinned and the lower branches smashed off. Sunlight can penetrate to the ground. The pine needles have been stamped into the earth and manured by bison droppings. Bison manure has much less nitrogen and is much more beneficial than cow or sheep droppings.

"Look, at the ground and what do you see?" asked M. Longour, scrabbling in the earth for a moment like a wild boar. "Look here and here. There are six, 10, 12 species of plant to every square metre."

In some parts of the reserve, thick forest and scrubland has been turned, in the space of two years, into rolling grassland with trees. The kind of forest fires that ravage southern France each summer – and devastated Greece this year – can not thrive in such green, open country.

Bison are wonderful "gardeners", M. Longour says. They "eat like bulldozers". They are also excellent fire-fighters, or fire-preventers.

But how could turning bison loose in economically marginal, or even abandoned, hill and mountain country, help the local people as M. Longour claims?

Easy, he says. It has already been proved to work in Africa. It could also work in France – an example of Europeans importing know-how from Africans. The whole idea for the bison and wild horse reserve in the Côte d'Azur came to M. Longour when he was working for Preserve, a conservation group, in a game park in Botswana.

The Vice-President of Botswana, Seretse Ian Khama, said to him: "You Europeans are wonderful at saving African wildlife. You are less keen on protecting your own."

That was in 1997 when the arrival of wolves in the eastern Alps had caused consternation among French sheep farmers. (The wolves have spread even more widely since then. So has the consternation.) In Botswana, M. Longour had helped to persuade the government and farmers to abandon some of the vast beef ranches introduced (with British help) in the 1960s. Instead, native species such as the gnu and hartebeest were encouraged to return to the land from which they had been ejected.

"Because the native African animals do not graze so intensely as cows, because they will wander miles to find water, they are much better suited to dry grasslands than beef cattle," M. Longour said. "Once they came back, the grasslands thrived and diversified but also – and this is the important point – local people made even more money. They benefited from tourism, from controlled hunting and from culling the native animals for their meat, which is now much sought-after."

"There is no reason why the same approach could not work here in France or even – why not? – in Britain. If we could establish much larger reserves for bison and for deer, we would encourage tourism, some controlled hunting and culling of the animals for meat. In the long run, that would be ecologically and economically more viable than trying to prop up failing farms or allowing the land and the forests to be choked by scrub."

"Through climate change alone, we in this generation risk the greatest single extinction of species the world has ever known. By going in the other direction, by promoting biodiversity, we would be doing the right thing morally but we could also create new livelihoods which would be more sustainable economically."

All a pipe dream? Far too ambitious? Unlikely to survive the Byzantine politics of the farm and rural lobbies in France?

M. Longour's ideas are already breaking down obstacles as effectively as any bison. The few surviving farmers around his domain have agreed to allow deer to roam their fields. In return, they will get a share of income from hunting and venison sales.

Plans are advancing for a vast, new, 100,000 hectare park and nature reserve in the Alps behind Nice and Cannes (Le Parc National Régional des Pré-Alpes). That would complete a chain of nature reserves along the first ramparts of the Alps from the Lubéron hills, north of Marseilles, to Italy.

Initially, the park idea was pushed by local politicians who wanted to block M. Longour's animal reserve (largely because they had not thought of it for themselves). M. Longour and Nicolas Hulot, a popular and politically well-connected French television ecologist, have now seized upon the park as a way of extending the bison experiment on a massive scale.

"We may be only an hour from Nice but this is the least populated part of France," M. Longour said. "It's all very well to have a park but what are you going to do with it? There are tens of thousands of hectares up here over which the bison and other larger animal species could roam, providing jobs in tourism, hunting and meat products from the controlled culling of animals."

All a pipe dream? Far too ambitious? Bison, as we discovered, are difficult animals to turn aside.

Day, or longer, visits can be made to the Haut-Thorenc reserve. For more information see http://www.haut-thorenc.com.

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