An optimistic look at future of France’s wildlife
Its unique location means France has the greatest variety of plant and animal life in Europe, noted biologist and film maker Stéphane Durand explains to Jane Hanks
There is positive news about wildlife in France. Species which had almost disappeared are coming back, including seals, vultures and the controversial wolf, some on their own and others helped by man.
Stéphane Durand is a biologist and naturalist and the scientific adviser for a recent series of big nature films in the French cinema, produced by actor-turned-film maker Jacques Perrin.
These include Peuple Migrateur in 2001, which traced the story of migrating birds, Océans in 2009, looking at the marine species of Earth’s five oceans and Saisons in 2015, which traces the history of the European forest from the last Ice Age up to the modern age.
Mr Durand is also editor of the Mondes Sauvages series for publisher Actes Sud and has recently written two books, one of which traces France’s ecological history over the past 20,000 years and the other which looks at the rewilding of France.
How diverse is the wildlife of France?
France has different climatic influences, oceanic to the west and continental to the east as well as Mediterranean to the south; it is exactly half way between the equator and the North Pole with the 45th parallel passing through it, so it is neither too cold, nor too hot.
It has young mountains, like the Alps and older, lower, rounder mountains like the Massif Central and the Vosges.
There are great plains, major rivers, many different soil types, and there are four coastlines, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Channel and a tiny bit of the North Sea.
So there is an incredible range of different influences concentrated in one territory, which intermix and create varied conditions which can support an incredibly rich biodiversity in both fauna and flora.
This means we have the greatest variety of both animal and plant species in the whole of Europe.
You describe the history of France’s wildlife in your book, 20,000 ans, ou la grande histoire de la nature. Can you tell me how the landscape has changed over time?
20,000 BCE was chosen for a purpose. It was the point at which the last 80,000-year-long Ice Age was at its most intense, its driest and its coldest.
There was almost no life at all and the Channel was reduced to a stream and you could have walked from France to the UK.
Not all of it was ice, a great deal was a desert of dust, of ruin. There was just a little corner where life survived.
This was in what is now the Aquitaine with the Dordogne and the Garonne valleys, the Basque country and a small part of the Mediterranean including parts of Spain and Italy where it was a little warmer and a little more humid and where the last plants and animals survived.
These were the only places where there were humans at that period. And it was from here that life gradually spread out as the earth warmed up again.
What did the countryside first look like after the Ice Age?
As the glaciers melted they filled the seas and the rain cycles began again.
It took thousands of years but eventually we had ideal conditions for trees. Around 15,000BCE only the hardiest trees could survive. The first real forests with pine and birch date from 13,000BCE, which began creating soil.
From 10,000BCE we see the start of the great trees which grow slowly, such as oaks, limes, elm and hornbeam.
It was the age of the forest.
The trees grew to tremendous ages, and were far older than we can imagine today, living for many centuries. Recent science has shown that trees, unlike humans, become richer and more productive as they age so they produce more and more fruit and support more and more different life forms.
The trees could not grow near to the great rivers, however, as they flooded extensively every winter and springtime and these became wetlands.
It is difficult to know their extent but it is thought France was two-thirds forest and one third wetland. This period lasted thousands of years.
What changed after that?
The first hunter-gatherers were gradually replaced by Neolithic man, who came from the East and began felling trees to build houses and clear land for permanent agricultural settlements.
In the Parisian Basin, we are talking about 6,000 years ago.
Once it started, deforestation happened relatively quickly. When Julius Caesar and the Romans arrived in France in 52BCE, their progress was not impeded by forest. The Celts and the peoples who preceded them had already cut down a great proportion of the forest.
From the Roman period, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and up to the beginning of the 19th century, the forest and forest life was reduced.
The first animals to disappear were the wild horses during the Celtic period and the aurochs and bison in the Middle Ages. Gradually the bears, wolves, storks and a huge number of other species began to disappear from France.
Yet at the same time the countryside, with its meadows and hedges, began to be favourable to certain species which like living near cornfields, for example quail, pheasants, swallows, butterflies, small rodents, and all the flowers that grew among the crops. We forget that the fields were ablaze with colours in the past, and the different wildflowers attracted huge numbers of insects.
So what is the situation at present?
The lowest point for the forests was in the period of Napoleon I, 200 years ago. At that time, between 2,000 and 4,000 trees trunks were needed just to make one warship.
But now, the forest is nearly twice the size it was then. It is also ageing, so is richer and so we are beginning to see things that were an impossibility 30 or 50 years ago.
It is easier to get sightings of wild boar and deer, and in the mountains we can once again see chamois and ibex.
Four types of vulture had disappeared from France, but now they are back, all four of them. In 1974, there were just nine pairs of white storks in Alsace; in 2017 there were 2,200 pairs throughout the country.
Just before speaking to you I saw a flock of common crane passing overhead, a short while ago that would have been an extremely rare sighting. The otters are coming back, the beavers are coming back, and this is all extremely positive.
But while these good things are happening in the wildest parts of the country, there is huge destruction around farmlands. When agricultural methods changed in the 20th century and we filled in the ditches, pulled down the hedges, developed monoculture crops and introduced pesticides, we began to destroy life.
So, for example, poppies began to disappear from the fields and with them the insects which lived on them and then the birds. Now we are in a paradoxical situation. Yes, there are terrible things happening but there are positive things too. We need to hold on to those positive things because it shows that if we change our ways nature can come back.
What has made it possible for the bigger animals to come back?
There are three reasons. One is the regrowth of the forests and they offer a new place to live for wildlife.
Secondly, the Protection de la Nature law, passed in 1976, was the first to give protection to animals, plants and whole areas and it meant that many species could no longer be hunted. Nobody realised at the time what a huge impact it would make. Species were left alone and could reproduce and they did. The hunt continues, but it used to be worse and more widespread. The third element is that we have reintroduced some species such as bears in the Pyrenees, lynx in the Jura and vultures, and it has worked.
They are here but in much smaller numbers than other parts of Europe. In your book you say there 1.5 million roe deer in France, 2.5 million in Germany. 2,000 griffon vulture couples in France, 24,000 in Spain. So France has still a long way to go?
It is true but it depends on whether you look at a glass half empty or half full. If you look at it as a glass half full you see that we started from near-zero figures and now we have impressive numbers.
In Brittany there were no more seals, but now there are more than 500 which have come over, without human intervention from the UK.
That might make you laugh, because there are 120,000 in the UK. But it is superb they have come back to France and 0-500 is progress.
What other animals would you like to see in France?
At the end of the 19th century there were a handful of bison left in Poland, and so a reproduction programme was introduced. Now there are 5,000 in Europe and they have been reintroduced in Spain, Germany, Romania, and there is plenty of room in France to have bison living here, in the Jura for example.
We need to accept that they could live here in the wild once again. We could also have elk here – they like humid, marshy forests and we have areas like that.
Is it possible to have so many wild animals living back in France in a country which has a much bigger human population now?
Of course. We have one of the lowest human population densities in Europe. It is not always necessary to divide a territory into human or wildlife areas.
There are many animals which will live happily alongside mankind. In Romania bears live near to villages. But in France wolves and bears are controversial and not everybody wants them nearby.
Those who complain are in the minority, but they make more noise than those who accept them. The wolves came back on their own from Italy because now there are enough wild boar, roe dear, red deer, chamois and ibex for them to eat.
There are 72 wolf packs now in the Alps and they do not survive by eating sheep, these are accidents that happen, just from time to time.
What do you think needs to be done to continue rewilding France?
We need to allow the forest to continue to grow and to leave it alone and not manage it. Fallen trees and old trees make a forest a richer ecosystem. We need to add to the list of protected species and stop barbaric hunting practises.
Are you optimistic?
Yes, because the figures prove we can be optimistic. But also because people are in general increasingly in favour.
Before two female bears were introduced into the Pyrenees in 2018, there was an IFOP opinion poll in France which showed that nearly 84% were in favour of maintaining the bear population, compared to 76% 10 years earlier.
The big challenge now is to ban all use of pesticides, so that the small wildlife of our everyday countryside, the snails, the butterflies, the birds, the frogs, can come back and that would be a really huge turnaround.
Why should we encourage biodiversity?
The politicians always want figures and economic figures. Some answers to satisfy them include the fact that forests beginning to grow near to rivers purify the water through their own filtration system, rather than having to introduce huge artificial systems and factories.
More forests mean better quality of water. Bats which live in forests are the biggest consumers of insects and will get rid of mosquitos and other harmful pests without chemicals.
Vultures will clean up the carcases of farm animals which die of natural causes or illness. Many sheep die in the fields, far more than those eaten by a wolf.
At present the farmer has to ring the authorities and pay to have the body removed. It is far cheaper and ecological to leave that job to the vultures.
People are ready to pay – often huge sums of money – to visit beautiful landscapes and see wild animals and we have a huge potential for eco-tourism.
In Scotland, people pay to go and see the seabirds around the Shetlands and the seals and the ospreys.
Why not in France? So there are thousands of reasons to welcome back our wildlife, but the greatest is the pleasure of living in a world which is rich and varied.