Lozere, the French country of wildlife lovers – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Thinking about French landscapes you may imagine pretty villages, farmlands criss-crossed by hedges and trees, groves, sites carefully designed by men over the centuries. But there still are barely touched and wild areas where both men and wild animals have been fighting against harsh conditions to survive. Lozere in southern France is one of these few regions where after a big rural depopulation between 1850 and 1910 vast expanses of land returned to the wild.
Today Lozere is the least populated of the French departments, but lately thanks to a very good life quality, beautiful landscapes and warm summers the trend is reversing and new inhabitants settle down to enjoy this close to nature region. Among these newcomers some of them are back after decades or even centuries: wolves, European bison and vultures have been reintroduced in areas that used to be their natural habitat. Three different animal sanctuaries are established in Lozere and visitors are more than welcomed to discover these fascinating animals living in semi-liberty.
“Les Loups du Gevaudan” is a wildlife park created 30 years ago by a wolves’ lover, Gérard Menatory, who took in his first two Polish wolves in 1961. Located on a 20-hectare wooded piece of land stretching on a hillside where long snowy winters and mild summers create perfect environment for the wolves. Along the years more and more wolves came to the park as in 1991 when no less than 80 wolves were entrusted to him by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. Today over 120 wolves of 5 different species live in the park, there are Polish, Arctic, Siberian, Mongolian and Canadian wolves. Each species lives as a pack in a different enclosure big enough for them to run, bath, play, eat and reproduce. There are guided tours but you might as well follow the path on your own watching the wolves through high windows. They are fed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and of course this is the best time to see them all.
Although there used to be bison all over Europe for ages, by the end of the 18th century they only survived in the deep Bialowieza forest in Poland. This sad story could have turned real bad for the bison after the awful battles that took place in those woods during World War I when wildlife was decimated. Poaching destroyed the last few remaining wild specimens. In 1923 a Polish zoologist, Yan Sztolcman, decided to save the European bison with the help of 16 European countries where 29 males and 25 females still lived in zoos. A first wildlife park was created in 1952 in the Bialowieza forest soon followed by others in Russia, Romania, Germany and finally in France in 1991. Six males and three females were reintroduced in their former habitat in Lozere where vast depopulated areas with large forests and harsh winters were waiting for them. These first “pioneers” were joined by younger bison in 1992 and little by little the herd is growing.
Due to the consanguinity the species is not saved yet but being able to have a close look at these beautiful animals is a true privilege. On a horse-drawn sleigh sliding on the snow in the winter or on a traditional cart when there is no more snow, you will follow a path going through the bison’s territory. Being used to these horse-drawn carts they are very quiet and you will get very close to them. For 50 min you will see female and their suckling calves as well as the bigger males that can reach up to a ton in weight. To make your tour complete you will see American buffalo and be able to make a comparison between the two species, the buffalos are much bigger and aggressive than the bison.
Vultures have a bad reputation that they really don’t deserve and the “Maison des Vautours” will make you change your mind if you have preconceived ideas about these fierce looking birds. Vultures have been living in the spectacular Tarn and Jonte gorges for more than 70.000 years and for centuries they lived in perfect harmony with the local sheep farmers relieving them of the dead sheep’s carcass. Things started to get wrong by late 19th century when poaching and poisoning killed many of them while farmers were required to bring their dead animals’ carcasses to a knackery area depriving the birds of their main food source. By 1950 there were no more vultures in Lozere and in the rest of France.
Since the 1970’s there have been several attempts to reintroduce vultures in the rivers’ gorges and they finally succeeded with the help of the local farmers that are now allowed again to leave dead animals’ carcasses in specific feeding areas. From the terraces of the “Maison des Vautours”, an observatory site clinging halfway up to the cliffside of the Jonte Valley, you will be able to see the four different species that now live in the region with powerful binoculars. There always is an ornithologist to help you spot a nest, feeding birds or flying ones. You will learn to identify the different species: the tawny vultures with their white head and a wingspan of 2.40 meters that nest on the cliffs, the black vulture even bigger, nesting in the trees, the smaller Egyptian vulture that came back to Lozere on its own will and the bearded vulture reintroduced in 2012 that feeds on the bones left by the others.
Watching these majestic birds silently gliding in a magnificent scenery, admiring the wolves taking care of their cubs or being impressed by the big bison quietly grazing under the pine trees, you will feel glad to be part of their protection by paying your admission ticket to one of those wonderful and useful places.
To learn more about Lozere: www.lozere-tourisme.com
More about the wolves’ park: www.loupsdugevaudan.com
More about the bison’s park: www.bisoneurope.com
More about the vulture’s park: www.vautours-lozere.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny