The complete guide to Natural France

Like most other developed countries, human activity has shaped the French countryside. Much of the woodland that covers a fifth of the land is relatively recent: the huge pine forest of the Landes that stretches south from Bordeaux was planted in the 1850s to stabilise the sand dunes and bring the timber industry to a poverty-stricken region. Of the lakes that are big enough to show up on the 1:1,000,000 map, most are the result of hydro-electric or river-management schemes, though Lake Annecy and Lake Geneva (shared with Switzerland) are shining exceptions. But that's carping really, when you consider the scale and the variety of the French landscape.

How natural is France?

Like most other developed countries, human activity has shaped the French countryside. Much of the woodland that covers a fifth of the land is relatively recent: the huge pine forest of the Landes that stretches south from Bordeaux was planted in the 1850s to stabilise the sand dunes and bring the timber industry to a poverty-stricken region. Of the lakes that are big enough to show up on the 1:1,000,000 map, most are the result of hydro-electric or river-management schemes, though Lake Annecy and Lake Geneva (shared with Switzerland) are shining exceptions. But that's carping really, when you consider the scale and the variety of the French landscape.

There are the spectacular and rugged mountain ranges marking the borders (the Alps, Pyrenees and the gentler Vosges), while the ancient volcanic Massif Central covers about a sixth of the country. Vast plains (the Beauce and the Berry) characterise the north and centre, while further south you find the high barren plateaux of the Causses. Five river systems split the country, often slicing through limestone to produce spectacular gorges, such as Les Gorges de Verdon, before creating broad estuaries and deltas, of which the Camargue is the best known. The coastline is equally varied with its cliffs, beaches, bays and marshes.

In a nutshell, there is a wealth of habitats for the 4,200 species of plants and flowers, 113 species of mammal (more than any other country in Europe), 363 species of bird, 36 varieties of reptile and 72 kinds of fish.

How well do they protect it?

At government level, France does not have a great reputation for conservation. It does have six National Parks (plus one in French Guiana) in which no one is allowed to live and no hunting is permitted, but these take up only a small proportion of the territory (0.7 per cent) and three of these are concentrated in the Alps. And when it comes to the construction of motorways, and high-speed train lines, ecological concerns do not come high on the agenda. There's also the question of hunting, which is described by the WWF as "a thorn in the heart of democracy". Hunting involves some two million people in a five-month battle with various species of wildlife, beginning every year in September.

Recently, though, there have been serious national attempts to halt the decline in the population of the Pyrenean brown bear. The wolf is being re-introduced in the Alps and the lynx in the Jura and the Vosges. Less politically sensitive programmes have helped re-establish the beaver in Brittany and the black stork in the east, while at a local and voluntary level, there are many active conservation groups. The Groupe Loup, for instance, is a vociferous supporter of the wolf, while the Pyrenean pass of Organbidexca is rented annually by conservationists to prevent hunters massacring huge flocks of migrating wood pigeon and the many large raptors that use this route. On 26 August, groups across France will celebrate the "Night of the Bat" with talks and nocturnal expeditions in search of the 30 species of chiroptères which flutter through the night.

How accessible is it?

Just as every region has its own gastronomic delicacies, so too they have their natural specialities. This means that you don't necessarily have to struggle into the wilder areas to experience France's natural wonders. And though most of the rarer animals and plants are to be found in the south of the country in the mountainous National Parks, there are a number of protected areas that are more accessible. The network of Regional Natural Parks, local Nature Reserves and villages called Stations Vertes de Vacances are a good indicator of places worth visiting. The 40 Parcs Naturels Régionaux ( www.parcs-naturels-regionaux.tm.fr) are often very close to cities and popular tourist destinations but are surprisingly uncrowded. Just south and west of the Burgundy vineyards, the Regional Natural Park of the Morvan is a well-wooded lake district, with an interesting economic history based on "les flotteurs de bois" – hardy individuals who floated rafts of logs down the waterways to Paris to fuel the ovens and furnaces of the growing capital.

Nowadays it is tourism that keeps the Morvan going and it lends itself well to exploration by bike or walking, particularly on the Grande Randonnée 13 which crosses it. Another accessible park is La Grande Brière, a few miles from the Breton city of Nantes, with 100,000 marshy acres that only the Camargue can better. Explore it in a chaland (a flat-bottomed punt) and, with or without the help of a local guide, observe the coots, spotted crakes, grey and purple herons and maybe an otter. A boat or canoe is an excellent way of seeing wildlife without scaring it away and on sleepy rivers like the Dronne, north of the Dordogne, you'll find kingfishers and, equally important, places to rent a boat for half a day. To find the best things to see and where to see them, it is worth contacting the local tourist office (Riberac is the largest town nearby – www.tourist-office.org/tourisme/france/aquitaine/dordogne/dordogne.htm) and maybe, if you can trust your French, go on an organised nature ramble. There are plenty of these, sometimes advertised in the local press and they can be very convivial and informative.

When's the best time to go?

Spring for flowers, autumn for mushrooms, winter for bird-watching – particularly around some of the large lakes in the north and east, where northern birds come to escape chillier climes. You can see cranes at Lac de Chantecoq and Lac d'Orient (near Troyes) and white-tailed eagle and spotted eagle regularly visit the lake of Lindres in Lorraine, which is also the only place to see the collared flycatcher.

The summer of course is great for everything, including crowds. To experience the charms of the National Parks ( www.parcsnationaux-fr.com) in mid-summer, it's worth avoiding the main honey-pot areas like the Pyrenean Pont d'Espagne and the Cirque de Gavarnie, splendid though they are. Having said that, if you brave the crowds just beyond the car-parks, a two-hour walk will generally take you into more tranquil wilderness.

How different is it from the UK?

The real change comes when you cross the Massif Central and arrive in a southern town like Aubenas in the Ardèche. Souvenir shops stock bizarre replicas of the cicada, while in the scrubland outside the town you'll find the real thing. The Midi with its Mediterranean climate, vegetation and wildlife is a real sensual gear-change bringing heat, the smells of the herbs and the night time calls of frogs, toads and the Scops owl. Southern France has beautiful, colourful birds like rollers, hoopoes and my own favourites, bee-eaters. Multi-coloured (yellow, green, chestnut and blue) with acrobatic flight and a lovely, liquid song, they can be seen across the Languedoc region, in the Camargue where they nest in colonies, up the valleys of the Doubs and the Rhône towards the Ardèche and even as far north as Brittany.

Most of the major animals – izards, chamois and bouquetin – inhabit the Alps and the Pyrenées, though the largest population of the horned, wild sheep, the mouflon, is in the Languedoc Natural Park near Douch. Other exciting possibilities are red squirrels, martens, deer and wild boar which can be found in large forests throughout the country. To see plenty of unusual wild flowers still in bloom in midsummer, you have to climb to a decent altitude in the Cévennes, the Pyrenees or the Alps, though there are orchids to be found in more accessible places like the Dordogne and the Vendée including the beautiful bee-orchid and the sinisterly named homme-pendu (hanged-man).

There are unique habitats all over France. The Seille valley in Lorraine, where the large salt deposits produce coastal vegetation in the middle of the continent; the Vercors Natural Park, close to Grenoble boasts three different climatic influences and four vegetation zones – the purple Martagon lily blooms there in early July and the bird-life includes Peregrine falcons and Golden eagles.

Any endangered species?

In a word, yes. The river otter, certain species of bats and Bonelli's eagle, to name a few. It's also unlikely you'll spot the tiny and retiring desman even if you're in the Pyrenees beside a fast-flowing stream, which is the natural habitat of this tiny shrew-like animal with webbed feet and a little trunk. There's even less chance of coming upon one of the half-dozen surviving Pyrenean brown bears, and perhaps that's a good job.

Five years ago, a number of Slovenian bears were brought to the Ariège to swell the numbers, despite great opposition from farmers and shepherds. One of the young male Slovenian bears has recently gone on a long trek west in the direction of the indigenous bears' territory.

Never mind endangered. What about dangerous?

The only poisonous snake is the adder, though the water-dwelling couleuvre de Montpellier, Europe's largest snake, can give a nasty bite if angered. Then there are the shiny black scorpions that look so sinister on a white-washed wall in Provence, but in reality are no more dangerous than wasps. As nasty a sting as any is administered by an unpleasant little fish called a vive, which burrows under the sand of beaches, particularly on the northern coast and at low tide is only too pleased to sink its poisonous spines into your foot. Watch out for warning signs on beaches in Brittany and Normandy. In fact, the main natural threat to human life comes not from wildlife but from avalanches in winter and the violent storms that sweep the south in the latter part of summer, bringing floods and sometimes mud-slides in their wake.

So do I have to do it myself?

Not at all. There are a number of companies that offer specialist trips. The Travelling Naturalist (01305 267994, www.naturalist.co.uk) organises trips on set dates including four days winter birdwatching in the Champagne region, seven days in La Brenne in central France, south of the Loire, 10 days in the Camargue and Vercours, on the edge of the French Alps and seven days in the Pyrenees. Their final trip this year departs 15 September for 10 days in the Camargue and the Pyrenees. The price is £1,295 per person and includes return flights, accommodation, all meals, minibus transfers and the services of a guide.

Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158, www.wildlifeworldwide.com) organises four-day shortbreaks to the French Pyrenees from April to October staying in a hotel situated where three valleys famous for their wildlife meet. The Parc National des Pyrénées has well marked trails, meadows full of flowers and butterflies and its peaks are home to the Griffon vulture and Golden and Short-toed eagles.

The four-day break costs £545 per person including flights, car hire and half-board accommodation. Naturetrek (01962 733051, www.naturetrek.co.uk) also organises an eight-day trip to La Brenne costing from £795 per person and focusing on birds, plant life and butterflies. In this lesser-known area of France butterflies that are rare in Britain are relatively common including the Large Tortoiseshell, Swallowtail, Scarce Swallowtail, White Admiral and Purple Emperor. The next trip departs 25 May 2002. The price includes transport by ferry and minibus from Dover, full-board accommodation and guide.

Alternatively there are companies that offer walking holidays such as Ramblers (01707 331133) which organises a walk in the Ardèche following old paths and mule tracks through this unspoilt and largely uncrowded area. The price for one week is £465 for the trip departing 9 September including flights, half-board accommodation and the services of a guide. ATG's Journeys (01865 315678, www.atg-oxford.co.uk) offers escorted walking holidays through some of the most picturesque terrain in France including an eight-day trip to the Cévennes with four days of walking and three optional walks. The price is £1,275 excluding flights, but including full-board accommodation and guide. The next trip departs 1 September.

Where can I find out more?

The French Travel Centre, (178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL; 09068 244 123; www.franceguide.com) can provide more information.

Brittany's main natural attraction is without doubt it's varied, often wild and rugged coastline. The star stretch is the northern Côte de Granit Rose which runs from Bréhat to Trégastel, and takes its name from the pink granite rock formations that have been eroded and sculpted by the sea into weird and wonderful shapes. They're at their most photogenic near the town of Perros-Guirec which is a short boat-ride from the Sept-Iles nature reserve. Among the 20,000 sea-birds that breed here are puffins, gannets and the incredibly acrobatic fulmars and kittiwakes. In fact there are a number of nature reserves worth visiting. One has been created on the island of St Nicholas in the Glenan archipelago,(off the coast near Fouesnant) to protect the unique glenan narcissus which in spring covers the dunes with a soft white carpet of flowers, while at the other end of the charm spectrum, carnivorous plants are to be found in the Kerfontine bog at Serent in the département of Morbihan. On the very edge of Brittany, Mont Saint Michel's Bay, as well as hosting one of France's favourite tourist attractions, is itself of great ecological importance, due to its exceptional tidal range and diversity of habitats. Ecologists study its unique grasses, twitchers train their binoculars on the over-wintering waders, while those with less specialist knowledge are content with a brief sighting of the seals and dolphins that sometimes pay a visit.

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