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One in four French species dying out

More than a quarter of all native species in France are extinct or in danger of vanishing – and human activity has been blamed.

There is less birdsong, fewer animals and small mammals are seen, and there are real fears for the future of common species.

European mink, the goldfinch, common frog, European polecat, Eurasian lynx, northern snipe, Iberian ibex, bearded vulture, sperm whale and corals are all in danger, the Agence Française pour la Biodiversité says in its Chiffres-clés de la bio-diversité 2018 (Key Figures on Biodiversity) report.

A third of land and sea mammals, such as the polecat and the common seal, could also vanish, up from a quarter under threat in 2009.

Naturalist Antoine Lév­êque heads the ecology ministry’s biodiversity service. He said: “A quarter of our species are in danger and 3% are already gone.

“France has an exceptional heritage with 10% of world biodiversity in its mainland and overseas territories but it has 19,000 endemic species found nowhere else. These are all in danger.”

Already the losses are being felt, with less birdsong in the country as nearly a quarter of common specialist birds (those with specific diets) have vanished since 1989. It is no comfort that the bird-eating greater noctule bat is also under threat – because 38% of all bats have gone in 10 years.

Human activity is being blamed, with urbanisation, monoculture farming, climate change, the arrival of exotic species and pollution. 

New roads, shopping malls and car parks are destroying vital habitats such as wetlands. An example is the European mink, or vison d’Europe, with just 250 left, all in southwest France. It prefers wetlands but is being wiped out by land reclamation, bigger American mink and accidental trapping.

Now 65,000 hectares of wild land is concreted over each year – and today covers nearly five million hectares, or 10% of the mainland territory.

Meadows, marshes, cliffs, dunes or oak forests should be maintained but are being lost, as is permanent grassland which, being insect-rich, would maintain a strong ground fauna.

There is hope of revival, driven by the success in rebuilding populations of species such as beaver, otters and Alpine ibex. Beavers had all but disappeared 100 years ago but are back in the Loire and Ile-de-France.

The Observatoire National de la Biodiversité says the crisis has grown despite warnings. Groups such as the WWF has reported that 60% of wildlife has vanished worlwide since 1970.

Mr Lévêque said 24% of people cite loss of biodiversity as a key environmental issue and want to do something. Participative science projects have seen numbers grow from 21,000 in 2011 to 54,000 today.

The ecology ministry has moved to help biodiversity by stiffening light pollution laws and ordering parks to turn off lights, as well as creating 10km ‘dark’ zones around certain sites.


But Oscar heads for pasture after leading a revival

Workhorse Oscar, a Cheval Breton, is heading for retirement 10 years after pioneering a revival in working horses in Brittany communes to save the breed.

La Bouëxière in Ille-et-Vilaine was among the first to use horses this way and Oscar is a “community horse”, working with council staff, children and local groups in place of a car, van, tractor or bus.

Similar medium-size draught horses were once seen all over Brittany before tractors took their place. Assistant mayor Gérard Becel said: “We decided to test a communal horse and the experiment worked far better than we could have imagined.

“His main jobs have been to water flowers in summer and to take the children from school to the canteen, about 1km.

“But he has been used to weed the sports ground and especially around a small lake, where a tractor risks damaging the banks, while Oscar does it without problem.”

Now 18 years old, Oscar is finding it more difficult to do heavy work and his success has led La Bouëxière to buy a second horse.

Other communes have followed suit and the region offers grants for projects using a Cheval Breton, of which there are just 1,700 in France.

In all, France has 7,000 draught horses, down from around 14,000 in 1990.

Mr Becel said Oscar had been universally welcomed. “People recognise it is a way of reducing carbon emissions – but more than that, bringing a bit more life and interest.”

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