In France's La Brenne regional park, the opportunities for wildlife-watching are like nowhere else, says James Parry, who encounters rare birds, butterflies, terrapins and much more.
Photography by Tim White
Go on, get closer, it has an incredible scent!” Down on all fours, I do as I’m told and get up close and personal with a bright pink bloom. I’m looking at a fragrant orchid so closely that I’m virtually inhaling it. Local guide Tony Williams is leading me on a wildlife safari and there’s no escaping the hands-on element. It’s 6.30am and the best time of day to be out, according to nature-lovers (hmm). After an hour in the field my bleary eyes are finally starting to open up to what’s going on around me. And it’s all pretty amazing.
Picture the scene: rolling countryside, threaded by lush hedgerows and quiet country lanes. Studded with flower-filled meadows, copses, orchards, picturesque stone-built farmsteads and even the occasional castle, fleetingly glimpsed through a screen of trees. Plus there are lakes. Lots of lakes, of every conceivable shape and size, some fringed by golden reeds, others by swaying willows, with yet more covered by a blanket of waterlilies, Monet-style.
I’m in La Brenne, since 1989 a part of France’s impressive network of regional natural parks. Tucked away in the middle of the country just south of the famous chateaux and vineyards of the Loire Valley, this area is largely off the radar to all but those in the know. La Brenne is a timeless place, as befits its location deep in the ancient royal province of Berry. I feel as though I’ve slipped back two centuries or more, to a rural idyll where Marie Antoinette might appear in her shepherdess costume and tend a few sheep in a meadow full of daisies.
French queens hunted stags and wild boar here in the past, but today La Brenne is a wildlife paradise and the emphasis is on conservation. A biodiversity hotspot, the lakes, woods and meadows support a bewildering array of plants, animals and birds. We’re not in with much of a chance of seeing really big game on my safari, but I’m working on my own “Small Five”.
First up for me are more orchids. After a few tasters growing next to the road, Tony takes me to a meadow where he promises “more than a fistful of them”. We walk to the top of a small hill and are confronted with an incredible sight on the other side: tens of thousands of orchids of several different species, in a swathe of pink and purple extending over an area the size of several football pitches. Tick number one!
Tony works for the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, France’s main bird conservation organisation, and is based at the Maison de la Nature. This wildlife information centre is also a good place to see the European Pond Terrapin, the second target on my safari list. We walk along a boardwalk to an observation hide and I peer out through the wooden slats. There are birds galore – egrets, herons and grebes, all busy preening, feeding and squabbling among each other. Tony points, and then I see them – two terrapins, one little, one large, are sunbathing side by side on the waterside mud. Heads on periscope-like necks peer round at us, before they slither off in tandem into the water. So that’s an enchanting wildlife-spotting number two in the bag.
Although La Brenne covers 1,600km2, it has a population of only 30,000 people. There are over 3,000 lakes here, which I reckon works out at more than one lake for every 10 Brennous, as the locals are called. The inhabitants of this remote watery wilderness have always had a reputation for gritty independence. Historically, they have been much admired for having an ability to navigate their aquatic world in a way that defeated outsiders.
Visitors are encouraged to try hiking, horseriding and canoeing, as I learn from Géraldine Chancel, who is responsible for tourism in the park. We meet at the Maison du Parc, a visitor centre with an excellent restaurant specialising in local produce, such as Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, a spectacular pyramidal goats’ cheese. “The emphasis here is on slow tourism,” says Chancel. “We want people to take their time, adjust to the pace of La Brenne and explore by means other than their cars.”
Inspired, I set off that afternoon on a cycle ride with Gilles Dézécot, a guide for local environment group Indre Nature. We pedal along leafy waterside tracks, spotting rare plants and listening to nightingales. I get back into safari mode and my quest for number three on my list: the Whiskered Tern.
This dapper bird is mainly a Mediterannean species but breeds here on the Chérine Nature Reserve, one of the jewels in La Brenne’s glittering crown. I find a noisy colony, very smart in their black, grey and white livery, building their nests on the floating lily pads. Suddenly there’s a great commotion as a dark shape looms overhead. Panicking ducks rocket off in all directions as a Black Kite, one of La Brenne’s many species of birds of prey, swoops down, grabs a baby coot in its talons and carries it off. A reminder that we’re all potentially food for someone.
Which brings me to frogs, and particularly the edible variety. With so much water around it’s no surprise that La Brenne is frog heaven. So I’m thinking that Edible Frog should be an easy number four on my safari list. But frogs are complicated here and there are several very similar species, some of which interbreed. “Edible” frogs are apparently the offspring of Pool Frogs and Marsh Frogs, and impossible to tell apart without the sort of anatomical examination I’m not really prepared for. But there are hundreds of frogs all around me, croaking, chirruping and mating, so for my number four I simply tick “Frog” and pedal off.
Now for the last of my “Small Five” targets, a butterfly. An incredible 99 species have been recorded in La Brenne and, drunk on safari fever, I rather fancy my chances of helping Tony discover the 100th. He tactfully points out how unlikely that is, but within half an hour we see 20 or more different types, from majestic Swallowtails to the unfortunately named Dingy Skipper. But we’re looking for something special: the Large Copper, very rare, notoriously fussy and not likely to be hanging about on any roadside verge. We’ve already been knee-deep in a swamp looking for it, in vain.
“There she goes!” shouts Tony suddenly, as he sets off at high speed, swinging his butterfly net like a man possessed. One deft swoop and our quarry is in the net and ready for inspection. It’s a beautiful female Copper, freshly emerged from her chrysalis and possibly on her maiden flight. I admire her gleaming orange wings and snap a pic of my number five, then Tony lets her go. She flutters off over the marshes, a dazzling ambassador for the natural wonders of France’s water wilderness.
Some of La Brenne’s lakes date back to the 12th century, when they were first dug to drain the extensive marshes and for the rearing of fish. Many of the lakes and ponds still fulfill their original function. They are emptied every autumn via an intricate network of sluice gates. It can take a team of several people using nets and muscle power up to three days to clear the largest lakes of all their fish.
Plenty of tench, zander, perch and pike are there for the taking, but carp are the main prize. The majority of these are sold in Germany, where they command a high price. La Brenne’s fish lakes are now a commercial enterprise worth millions of euros to what has not, traditionally, been an affluent part of the country.
Life in the slow lane
La Brenne is one of the best places in Europe to catch up with Emys orbicularis, the European Pond Terrapin. This remarkable beast spends the winter hibernating in mud and rotting vegetation at the bottom of ponds, emerging in spring to kickstart its cold- blooded limbs in the warming sun.
Terrapins are best looked for basking on waterside stones and partially submerged logs, but occasionally they will be seen exploring on ground, too. The females leave the water temporarily each May, crawling up to a kilometre to lay their eggs in areas of sandy soil and sometimes crossing roads in the process. Summer heat incubates the eggs, and the baby hatchlings must then find their way, solo and unguided, to the ponds. The terrapins are a symbol of La Brenne and the locals used to keep them as lucky charms.
La Brenne lies within an easy driving distance of Limoges, Poitiers and Tours airports. For more details, visit www.ryanair.com. Hertz (www.hertz.com) provides special rates for Ryanair passengers.
To find out more about wildlife, walking and bike hire in La Brenne, visit www.parc-naturel-brenne. fr. Maison du Parc (tel: +33 (0)2 5428 1213) in Le Bouchet has information and a shop selling local produce, as well as an excellent restaurant. For wildlife fans, the Maison de la Nature (tel: +33
(0)2 5428 1100) and its observatory near Saint- Michel-en-Brenne are a must.
For more on where to stay, from campsites to cottages and B&Bs, call +33 (0)2 5407 3636 or visit www.berryprovince.com. One of the most stylish places to bed down is Domaine de la Crapaudine (tel: +33 (0)2 5437 7712, www.domaine-de-la-crapaudine.fr), a B&B in a beautifully renovated 17th-century house near Rosnay. Owner Max will cook you a superb dinner with advance notice. Another top place to eat is l’Auberge de la Gabrière (tel: +33 (0)2 5437 8097, www.auberge-36-gabriere.com) near Le Temple, where you can enjoy local fish dishes overlooking the Gabrière lake.