Nature and Wildlife of Cévennes – by Crossbill Guides
A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of the Cévennes and Grands Causses, France. This website accompanies the Crossbill nature travel guide with the same name. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images to prepare you for your visit, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. Enjoy!
The Cévennes in southern France are the highest and southernmost part of the Massif Central. With their feet dipped in the Mediterranean and the slopes rising to cool mountains peaks, the Cévennes has a very diverse landscape, flora and fauna. Famous are its dramatic limestone gorges and the colonies of vultures that build their nests on their ledges. Equally superb are the rivers valleys and the high limestone plateaux. Many of the highlights, such as the Gorge du Tarn, are actually part of the Parc Regionelle de Grands Causses, which seamlessly merges into the Cévennes National Park. Both parks are usually considered a unity and here we cover them both.
Landscape of the Cévennes and Grands Causses
The variation in landscapes of the Cévennes and Grands Causses is in no small part due to the geology. There are three very different types of bedrock: limestone, granite and schist. Each of these zones have a very distinct landscape and wildlife.
Granite boulders – Mont Lozère and Mont Aigoual
Giant round boulders, strewn over heathlands and broom scrub – that is in short the granite biome. You find this landscape on the two highest parts of the Cévennes, the Mont Lozère in the north (1699 metres) and Mont Aigoual in the south (1565 metres). Both these ranges have much in common with extensive highlands than with Alpine peaks. Small streams and peatlands, surrounded by forest, gives the Mont Lozère in particular, a northern feel. The frequent rains and, in winter, snow, add to this sensation of being the Cévennes’ cold and wild rooftop.
The Mont Lozère is the highest mountain of the Cévennes and a great place to watch birds. This is the place to find, for example, Citril Finch and Golden Eagle. Wildflowers and butterflies are plentiful too.
Schist – the ‘true’ Cévennes
The heart of the Cévennes consists of a series of parallel mountain ranges that stretch from the central range in the west, near the town of Florac, to the east, near Alès. The acidic schists are notoriously poor in nutrients and therefore unsuited for agriculture. The steep hills are covered in dense woodlands, alternating with heathland around the rocky outcrops. Wild streams run deep down in the V-shaped valleys.
For most of history, life here was harsh and beset by poverty. Since growing conventional crops was a major challenge, life was sustained by chestnut woodland and mulberries (the latter for the silk industry). Since the hills are so steep, the trees were planted on terraces.
This economy largely collapsed in the late 19th century and the hills were abandoned. Until recently, the Cévennes was one of the French regions with the most rapid depopulation. If you go hiking in the Cévennes, you’ll see abandoned sheds everywhere in the woods. In fact, many woodlands are abandoned chestnut groves that have returned to forest. The picturesque hilltop villages, however, are reviving. The wild landscape and the rich history of the landscape makes the Cévennes a superb place for nature and hiking.
Limestone gorges and plateaux – the Grands Causses
About halfway up the empty ridge of the Cévennes, the schists and granites suddenly give way to softer limestone. Gone are the rolling hills of the Lozere and the zigzag lines of the valleys of the ‘true’ Cévennes. Instead, there are open tablelands of steppe-like, rocky plains – the grands causses. The causses are separated by spectacular gorges, which are up to 500 metres deep in some places.
The landscape of the Grands Causses is quite simply spectacular. The plateaux are so empty that in some places they resemble the great steppes of Asia or Africa. On the edges you tumble down into a deep green gorge with dense forests and dolomite pillars, until you reach the river at its depth. In summer, the rivers are popular among rafting tourists, but due to the steep terrain, the much of the land remains wild and natural. Most people of this sparsely populated region live in the villages and towns in the gorge. On the plateau, there are only a few hamlets.
The limestone rim
To the east of the region, the Cévennes give way to the densely populated valley of the river Rhone and to the south Mediterranean plain. The transition zone between the mountains and the lowlands is again a region of limestone, which is in places wild and rocky. The climate is Mediterranean and the porous soil is dry, giving rise to a fully Mediterranean, drought-adapted wildlife. In summer, this region is awfully hot and exposed, but in spring it is flowery and there are many butterflies – all belonging to different species than you find higher up in the Cévennes.
The naturalist top 10
Ten highlights of your visit to the Cévennes
The Gorge du Tarn, Gorge de la Jonte and many other steep gorges form one of the most dramatic landscapes in all of France. They boast a superb flora and fauna.
The Causse Méjean is a large, wide high-altitude plateau. It exudes the atmosphere of a deserted steppe, full of orchids in spring and butterflies in summer. The feather grass ‘bloom’ is spectacular – see species below.
Eroded by thousands of years of rainfall, some of the bare limestone plateaux eroded into a maze of gullies that carved deep into the bedrock. They form the allies amidst a natural petrified highrise and carry the names of nearby cities: Nîmes-le-Vieux, Montpellier-le-Vieux.
Likewise, the water has eaten its way into the brittle limestone, dissolving the softest parts and leaving massive chambers with stalactites and stalacmites. Some of the finest caves of France are found in the limestone part of the Cévennes.
The large and dense forest that cover steep hills of the eastern Cévennes hide the relicts of an ancient culture of chestnut growing. Now mostly untended, the old groves are left to themselves. The trees grew to forest giants.
Exploring the Cévennes along the narrow, winding roads or half overgrown footpaths will bring you to unexpected hilltop villages.
The Lozère is a gently rounded massif, peppered with giant granite boulders and covered in thickets of broom that smell wonderfully in spring and summer. Combine this with a large network of trails, many butterflies and other flora and fauna, and you have the perfect habitat for the naturalist-rambler.
The Cévennes consists of granites, schists and limestone – three different bedrock types which boast three equally different biological worlds. It is very rewarding and insightful to compare these three and understand how the minerals and water in the ground have created the natural variety you see today.
From late spring to early autumn, both the number and diversity of butterflies is amazing. There are huge numbers of blues, fritillaries and ringlets plus many more species – a diversity that is only surpassed in France by the best sites of the Provence, Pyrenees and Alps.
After the Provence, the Cévennes and Grands Causses are the richest region for orchids in France. Visit the region in the second half of May and you are treated to large numbers belonging to a wide variety of species.
Birds, butterflies and wildflowers – The flora and fauna of the Cévennes and Grands Causses
A massive shadow glides over a drift of pasque-flowers and orchids. Not a cloud but a vulture that circles along the edge of the plateau. The fritillaries that fly by are probably Glanville’s but a Short-toed Eagle in the distance draws the attention before a positive ID can be made. This is the Cévennes in spring – an abundance of species and a shortage of eyes to take it all in.
The richness of this region is due to a fortunate confluence of circumstances. First the variation in soil types boast a variety of landscapes and niches. Then there is the location at a cross-roads of Mediterranean and temperate biomes. The relative proximity of the temperate Atlantic contrasts with the continental conditions of the high altitude plateaux. And then there is the Mont Lozère – just high enough to throw in some Alpine features.
All of these elements are relatively unscathed by the changes in land use and agricultural practices that have changed so many regions in lowland France.
The orchids are the most eye-catching elements of the Cévennes flora. The limestone regions are the richest, with large numbers of ‘temperate’ species like Military, Burnt-tip, Monkey, Man, Lady, Green-winged, Lizard, Fly, Bee and Pyramidal Orchids mixing with Mediterranean ones like Early Spider, Black Spider, Woodcock, Dull Bee Orchids and Violet Bird’s Nest. And this is obviously just the tip of the iceberg. There are even two orchid species endemic to Cevennes and surrounding region.
The limestone furthermore supports a huge variety of other, often very showy wildflowers, including two species of Pasqueflowers, Martagon Lilies, Blue Aphyllanthes, etc.
The diversity is lower on the Mont Lozère, but here too, there is much to enjoy. Meadows full of Wild and Pheasant’s-eye Daffodils, Yellow Gentians and various brooms easily distract you from a more subtle flora which has a peculiar mix of Atlantic and Subalpine species. In the schist Cévennes it is mostly the heathlands where the wildflowers are. Between the dominant Bell Heather and Heather bushes there are many local rarities, especially on the rocky parts of the slopes.
Although the Cévennes is not a popular destination among birdwatchers, the region actually has a lot to offer. Many species are not easy to track down, though.
The great attraction are of course the vultures – Griffon (common), Black (scarce) and Egyptian Vultures (rare) all occur. The first two species were reintroduced and are fairly easy to find. They breed in the gorges and hunt over the plateau, which are in general the richest areas in birds. Tawny Pipit, Rock Thrush, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Hoopoe, Stone Curlew, Red-billed Chough, Red-backed and (less common), Woodchat Shrike, Rock Sparrow, Ortolan and Cirl Buntings are typical birds of the Causses, although not always common.
The cliffs and dry scrublands have breeding Rock and, more rarely, Blue Rock Thrush, Eagle Owl, Crag Martin, Alpine Swift, Orphean, Subalpine and, less common, Dartford and Sardinian Warblers.
The second great bird habitat is found on the Mont Lozère. Here you’ll find a mix of Alpine and plateau birds: Ring Ouzel, Water Pipit, Whinchat, Dipper, Golden Eagle, Raven and Hen Harrier are the birds here, plus one of the greatest avian attractions: the Citril Finch. This green, canary-like bird occurs only in some of the mountain ranges of western Europe.
Reptiles and amphibians
The Cevennes form the southern limit for many north European reptiles and amphibians, while many Mediterranean species reach the northern edge of their range here too. “Northeners’ like Adder and Sand Lizard are restricted to the Mont Lozère, while the heath-loving Ocellated Lizard and Montpellier Snake are found in the hot calcareous lowlands in the south. Wall and Green Lizards, Asp Viper, Viperine Snake and Western Whip Snake are very numerous, although the snakes are not easy to find.
The Cévennes are a hotspot for butterflies. Again, the limestone Causses and warm south-facing valleys and gorges are the prime sites, with the Mont Lozère boasting the diversity with Alpine species. Butterfly lovers could spend days searching for southern species of blues, hairstreaks and fritillaries. Some sought-after species are Hermit (typical of the dry causse), Esper’s Marbled White, Western Furry Blue (with a for the Cévennes endemic subspecies), Two-tailed Pasha, Nettle-Tree Butterfly, Provencal Fritillary and Autumn Ringlet.
Top 10 species
Ten superb plant and animal species of the Cévennes and Grands Causses
With a wingspan of 2.50 metres the Griffon Vultures that soar by the steep cliffs are an unforgettable sight. Thanks to their reintroduction, there are again many Griffon Vulture colonies in the Grands Causses region.
The Black Vulture is even larger than the Griffon. In fact, after the condors, it is the world’s largest bird of prey. This bird is rare world wide as it in the Cévennes (where it too has been reintroduced). It is much less common than the Griffon but there are still quite a few pairs in the remote mountain valleys.
The Cévennes abounds in wild orchids. Being on the edge of the Mediterranean and temperate regions, there are species from both of these realms. But there are two that evolved into unique species that are restricted to this region, and one of them is the Aimonin’s Fly Orchid – Ophrys Aymoninii.
Like the Aimonin’s Fly Orchid, the Aveyron’s Orchid (Ophrys aveyronensis), is endemic to this region. In other words, it is found nowhere else in the world.
It is not often that a grass is a candidate for the most beautiful species, but the feather grass or Angel’s hair (Stipa pennata) is definitely in the race. The seed fluff lights up on summer evenings.
The Apollo with its semi-transparant wings is one of Europe’s most impressive butterflies. It flies on the Causse Méjean and Mont Lozère, and is symbol for the Cévennes’ rich butterfly fauna, that consists of almost 150 species.
One of the few European endemics, the Citril Finch occurs only in the mountains of Western Europe. You’ll find it on the Mont Lozère.
Easily the most folkloric plant of the region. This giant, ground-hugging thistle grows on the limestone steppes of the causse and is pinned on doors of sheds and barns to ward off evil.
Very noisy and bright green, this big lizard is hard to miss in the warm oak forests of the Cévennes. They are shy and rush off quickly but if you get a good look, you’ll see how beautiful they are. The males have a bright blue throat in spring.
If you’re unfamiliar with ascalaphids (also called owl-flies) you are bound to wonder what these fast-flying yellow-winged insects that flash by fast over the limestone grasslands are.
Ascalaphids have a passing resemblance to both dragonflies and butterflies, but are neither. Instead, they are related to ant-lions – fierce and fast predatory insects. There are several species in the Cevennes, none of them harmful to people.
Routes and practicalities
What makes the Cévennes such a great region to visit is its easy access. There are probably thousands of kilometres of trails, thus countless routes to create. Walking is the best way to explore the region, although the large number of narrow, quiet country roads makes car trips also enjoyable.
If you plan on doing some routes by car, note that the small roads are very winding and steep. This is not a place to drive if you suffer from vertigo. It is also better not navigated with a large car, campervan or with a caravan. Also note that while you (now) know this, many other visitors don’t – In July and August the joy of a drive over the backroads of the Cevennes may be lessened by a ‘fridge-on-wheels’ stuck halfway on a cliff top road.
The best routes, both by car and on foot, are described in our Crossbill guidebook on the Cévennes and Grands Causses.
Tourism in the Cévennes supports nature conservation. Due to the wild and partly inaccessible landscape, the negative impact of tourism on the ecosystem is fortunately limited. Yet there are several do’s and also a couple of dont’s.
- Buy shepherds’ products on the causse. The causses are grazed lands, but many shepherds are quitting, and shrubs are invading the formerly open land. Make their work economically viable by buying sheep and goat cheeses and other products.
- Buy sheep and goat cheeses and other products on the causse. They remain grazed lands, but shrubs are invading the formerly open land.as many shepherds are leaving the land. Buying their products make their work economically viable.
- Visit the local supermarkets, bakeries, butchers, etc. as much as you can, especially in the smaller, less touristy villages. The big supermarkets are drawing the life out of the smaller places.
- When in (larger) supermarkets, buy locally produced food.
- Visit information centres, book guided nature trips, buy nature guidebooks, etc. and show that nature is not only beautiful and valuable for its own sake, but show the local communities that it literally pays off to invest in nature conservation.
- Learn what does and doesn’t disturb wildlife. Ground-breeding birds with a nest are much more vulnerable to disturbance than a butterfly that happens to visit a flower next to where you are sitting.
- Don’t pick flowers or disturb wildlife. Not even for that great picture.
- Respect property rights.
- Do not disturb herds or the shepherds in their work.
- If you bring a dog, make sure it’s on a leash when walking in the field. This avoids disturbing wildlife and livestock. It’s also better for the dog, as there is a risk of snake bites and unfriendly guard dogs near farms.
Crossbill Guide Cévennes
The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers the areas described in depth with notes on the landscape, habitats, geology and all the species groups plus links to routes where they can be seen.
These routes are typically a mixture of walking and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the sites for birdwatching, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, mammals and reptiles. They are also set out to give you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.
The Crossbill Guide covers the Cévennes and Grands Causses from Alès to Millau and from the Mont Lozère to the Mediterranean foothills. In short, it contains:
- 256 pages
- 19 detailed routes
- detailed information on landscape, ecology, geology, landscape history, flora and fauna.
- Where to watch birds information
- Tips for wildlife watching and finding orchids
Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.