Nature and Wildlife of Dordogne – by Crossbill Guides
A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of Dordogne, France. This website accompanies the Crossbill nature travel guide of the same name. This is an online ‘lite’ Crossbill Guide 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 Dordogne is a hilly well-wooded region lying mid-way between the Massif Central and the south-western Atlantic coast of France. The gorgeous verdant landscape is a patchwork mosaic of habitats studded with pretty stone villages and chateaux. Most of them are set high up on cliffs above clean rivers draining westward. The varied geology and a long history of human activity, have created a rich flora and fauna in a relatively small area. Dordogne is often referred to as the “cradle of mankind” in Europe and in pre-history was the home of the Cro-Magnon people. Their cave sites are often important wildlife areas.
Landscape of Dordogne
The relatively young Tertiary limestones of the south-west were created when the Aquitaine Basin lay under a shallow sea. They have a long history of arable farming across low hills and plains. This is one of the warmest and driest areas of Dordogne. Around the same epoch as the limestones, molasse (sandstones, shales and conglomerates) were also deposited here.
Between Faux and Issigeac lies a large stony undulating plain. It’s a dry farming area concentrating on cereal growing, sometimes across huge fields. There is some livestock farming locally with pastures and meadows. A similar area is found in north-west Dordogne north of Riberac, around Verteillac. Both these areas are designated as important for their breeding bird populations as well as other flora and fauna.
Amongst the hills and valleys adjacent to the Dordogne river are found the famous Bordeaux and Bergerac vineyards, some are home to tulip and anemone colonies.
The more recent alluvial and terrace sediments of the wide Dordogne valley are important for arable farming and horticulture but have relatively little wildlife interest. However quarrying has created gravel pits especially near St Foy la Grande and Libourne and these attract wildfowl and waders as well as other migrants. Further west lies a large area of wooded marshes where the Dordogne and Isle rivers meet at Libourne. It is important for waterbirds and some rare plants.
The Double and Landais Forests
The western hills of the Double and Landais Forests are made up of ancient sands, gravels and clay debris and rise to around 150m. Today this area of acid soils is dominated by forests of Maritime Pine, including many plantations as well as other woodlands of Sweet Chestnut, Pedunculate and Pyrenean Oak. After forestry clearance work, heathland patches appear briefly before the canopy closes once more. Meadows are scattered throughout the forest. The impermeable clays form wet meadows, marshes and many hundreds of ponds. There is a dense network of streams criss-crossing this thinly populated area.
Similar landscape and habitats (without the mass of ponds) are found in the Bessède Forest in the south of Dordogne.
A large central area of Dordogne is composed of Cretaceous limestone, much of which is the famous honey coloured stone of which villages and chateaux were built. It is an area of low hills with a network of valleys where arable farming and livestock rearing take place. On the hillslopes there are some wonderful limestone grasslands, harbouring a wide variety of orchids and other wildflowers. Naturally these also attract butterflies and other invertebrates. Many of these are Natura 2000 sites.
Most hilltops and some slopes are covered with Downy Oak or mixed woodland. Much of the woodland is in fact is of quite recent origin resulting from changes in farming which started in the late 19th century and accelerated after the Second World War. Small scale marginal farming and extensive hill grazing was abandoned, allowing the forest to return. Of the open ‘causse habitat’ (limestone plain) only small remnants now remain. Some hilltops are capped with ancient sand, gravel and clay debris which gives rise to woodland similar to the Double and Landais Forests.
The main rivers glide through wide valleys which are mostly intensively farmed and of relatively low wildlife importance. However on tributary streams there are some important fens designated as Natura 2000 sites. Examples are the Beune valley, Vendoire and Grolèjac, as is the river itself with its natural channel rich in fish and other aquatic life. At various points along the main rivers are impressive limestone cliffs which provide wonderful viewpoint panoramas across the idyllic landscape.
Causses – limestone plateaux
The surviving limestone plateaux (called causses in French) are spread out across the older, harder and more massive Jurassic limestones, which are generally of a whitish colour. These are perhaps the jewel in the crown of the Dordogne landscape and form a string of Natura 2000 designations. They are found in a fairly narrow arc immediately east of the Cretaceous limestones.
Forest dominates and is composed of mainly stunted Downy Oak. In amongst the forest are numerous grasslands full of orchids and wildflowers. It’s a wild area with thin, dry stony soils.
The north-east is the highest part of Dordogne rising up to nearly 500m. It lies on the oldest rocks: granites plus metamorphic gneiss, schists and a small area of sandstones. The impermeable rocks favour a network of streams and ponds. The montane feel here is not surprising as these are the first western foothills of the Massif Central with the highest rainfall in Dordogne.
The northeast an area of mixed farming, combining arable fields and meadows. Mixed woodland is concentrated on the slopes across the metamorphic rocks or scattered around farmland and settlements on the granites where it is dominated by Pedunculate Oak and Sweet Chestnut. Small areas of moorland exist and these harbour some northern species.
The naturalist top 10
Ten highlights of your visit to Dordogne.
Birding on the dry arable Plateau de Faux.
Orchid hunting along the “chemins rurals” in April and May.
Late winter birding for Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and Eagle Owl.
Getting up close with fish species from the bank or by canoe.
Butterfly watching across various habitat.
A vineyard visit for tulips and wine in April.
The rich soundscape on a spring stroll at dusk.
Crane migration, late October and late February.
Exploring the wild stony causse hills.
Prehistoric caves and associated wildlife watching.
Birds, butterflies and wildflowers – The flora and fauna of Dordogne
A flurry of Black-winged Kites, a smorgasbord of orchids and a kaleidoscope of butterflies – all these can be found in Dordogne. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, do I check the kites first or concentrate on identifying those bee orchids or the small fritillaries and blues around my feet. In spring, Dordogne is to a naturalist what a sweet shop is to a child!
Dordogne is blessed with lying at the meeting point of three major ecoregions: the Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean. Surrounding regions tend to concentrate more on one of these ecoregions but Dordogne takes a bit of each, drawing in unexpected riches.
Like in other limestone-rich regions, orchids are perhaps the most sought after flowers. There is an interesting mix of temperate and Mediterranean species. The latter includes Woodcock, Sombre Bee, Yellow Bee, Violet Bird’s-nest and a confusing variety of spider orchids. Temperate species are generally easier to find such as Lady, Man, Tongue, Lizard and Burnt-tip. In fact the limestone areas have a rich diversity of wildflowers with Meadow Clary, Blue Lettuce, Carthusian Pink and Saint Bernard’s Lily some to look out for amongst the wealth of smaller colourful species of the turf.
The botanical diversity is lower on the acidic soils, but there are still some true gems to search for like Heath Lobelia, Kerry Lily and Lesser Butterfly Orchid. The meeting points of limestone and sandy ground on the same hillside can provide fascinating areas for wildflowers.
The wetlands are not to be missed either, with rare species such as Snake’s-head Fritillary, Roman Hyacinth, Estuary Angelica and Robust Marsh Orchid. Some vineyards support tulip and anemone colonies, rather unexpected and exotic treasures in this part of the world.
Dordogne is a rather unknown destination amongst birdwatchers but is much richer in birdlife than might be expected.
The arable plains in the south-west and north-west are probably the top bird sites. Black-winged Kite, Scop’s Owl, Stone Curlew, Quail, Rock Sparrow, Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting, Crested Lark and Tawny Pipit are all typical breeding species, though some are rather scarce.
The forests and heaths are more difficult terrain to spot birds and require more patience but the rewards are there: Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Woodlark, Crested Tit, Bonelli’s and Dartford Warblers, Golden Oriole, Nightjar, Short-toed Treecreeper and Firecrest. Birds of Prey include Short-toed Eagle, Hen Harrier, Goshawk and Honey Buzzard.
Mixed farmland can be surprisingly rich too, with for example Cirl Bunting, Hoopoe, Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Hobby, Melodious Warbler and Nightingale. Serin, Black and Common Redstarts plus Tree Sparrow inhabit many villages and even towns.
The river banks and cliffs support some exciting birds. In summer certain cliffs (and quarries) harbour breeding Eagle Owl, Peregrine, Alpine Swift and Crag Martin. In winter two special birds arrive, the spectacular little Wallcreeper and the pretty Alpine Accentor.
The major breeding populations of Black Kite are found beside the main rivers. Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Cetti’s and Fan-tailed Warblers (Zitting Cisticola) and Kingfisher are also present, the former mainly along smaller streams. On the wooded wetlands towards Bordeaux, White Stork and a range of herons and egrets nest. The Common Crane migration across Dordogne in spring and autumn is a major event of the wildlife year.
Reptiles and Amphibians
There is a good range of reptiles and amphibians in Dordogne. Amphibians include Agile, Green and Parsley Frogs, Common, Midwife and Natterjack Toads, Palmate Newt plus Fire Salamander. Reptiles include European Pond Terrapin, Asp Viper, Grass and Viperine Snakes, Western Whip-snake, Western Green and Common Wall Lizards.
Dordogne also has a range of species near their range limits. Northern species are Common Lizard, Smooth Snake and Common Tree Frog, whilst southern species are Stripeless Tree Frog, Ocellated Lizard, Southern Smooth and Aesculapian Snake.
The rivers, streams, lakes and ponds of Dordogne support very rich and diverse fish populations. The River Dordogne itself has 30 or more species present including Sturgeon at one of its few remaining European sites. Migratory fish such as Salmon, shads and lampreys spawn in the rivers.
Butterflies are one of the wonders of Dordogne. There are nearly 120 species recorded – it exceptional for a lowland region. Butterfly lovers from further north will find the variety of fritillaries and blues initially mind-boggling. The scrubby causses are real hotspots and the places to go for southern species like Cleopatra, Great Sooty Satyr, Turquoise Blue, Blue-spot Hairstreak and Southern Small White. Dordogne’s forest harbours such species as Lesser Purple Emperor, High Brown Fritillary, Large Tortoiseshell and more rarely False Ringlet as well as more northern or continental species like Black Hairstreak, Woodland Brown and Chequered Skipper. Amongst the limestone woods and meadows Dryad, Black-veined White, Large Blue and Woodland Grayling can be common amongst many other species. Marshland is home to Large Copper and a few small populations of Scarce Large and Alcon Blues. In mature gardens Southern White Admiral, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Geranium Bronze and the “wow factor” swallowtails add further excitement.
Other insect groups are equally diverse. Moths include such beauties as Giant Peacock (a giant emperor moth), Tau Emperor usually seen careering about in spring woods, various hawkmoths.
Dragonflies and other insects
Dragonflies and damselflies animate the banks of most water bodies in summer. There is a good range of temperate species and more and more southern species like Violet Dropwing and Lesser Emperor are colonising the area. Western Spectre, Yellow Clubtail, Orange Spotted Emerald, Broad Scarlet, Copper Demoiselle, pincertails, and the three featherleg damselflies are others to look out for.
There are a myriad of other invertebrates to be found include both the bizarre and the beautiful. Easily seen species include Praying Mantis, Yellow and Black-winged Owlflies, Grey Cicada and Red-winged and Blue-winged grasshopper.
Top 10 species
Ten superb plant and animal species of Dordogne.
Dordogne holds the highest numbers of this spectacular raptor in France.
Also called Long-lipped Tongue-orchis. This is one of the Mediterranean orchid species that reaches its northern limit in Dordogne.
A typical spring butterfly in the woodlands of Dordogne; the males have spectacular orange wing patches.
The owlflies form a small group of Mediterranean insects and are very conspicuous on the hot causse grasslands.
This bright purple (males) dragonfly.
Like the Ploughshare orchid One of the Mediterranean orchid species that reaches its northern limit in Dordogne.
Probably the most impressive moth of the continent, and not uncommon in Dordogne.
France has several populations of the European Pond Terrapin, and one of them is in Dordogne. You’ll find it in lakes and ponds in the southwest of the region.
This large and impressively marked snake ismost at home in warm, sub-mediterranean habitats, such as downy oak forests. It is pretty much confined to the southern half of France and Italy.
Very hard to see in its breeding quarters (steep cliffs in the high mountains), this handsome bird is actually quite easy to see in Dordogne in winter, where it prefers castle walls.
Routes and practicalities
Dordogne is easily accessible. There is a good road network, from the central east-west motorway down to small country roads. In addition an extensive network of tracks and footpaths run off these roads into the countryside, some of which are way-marked for the public. Walking is the best way to explore the region, although the large number of narrow, quiet country lanes makes bike trips or car trips also enjoyable. Boats trips and canoes are available on the main rivers.
The best routes, by car, bike or on foot, are described in our Crossbill guidebook to Dordogne.
Tourism impact in Dordogne is mainly concentrated on hotspots such as chateaux, gardens, towns and villages and so the negative impact of tourism on the ecosystem is fortunately limited. However there are several do’s and also a couple of dont’s.
Do’s & Don’ts
- 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 supermarkets, buy locally produced food.
- Visit information centres including at historical sites mentioned in the ‘routes’ section of our guide, book guided nature trips including river boat trips, buy nature guidebooks and where possible patronise smaller restaurants local to nature sites and show that nature is not only beautiful and valuable for its own sake, but that for local communities 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 and keep to public roads, tracks and footpaths.
- If you bring a dog, make sure it’s on a lead 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.
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 these species can be seen.
The routes are typically a mixture of walking, bike routes and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover 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 Dordogne region from Libourne in the west to Sarlat in the east and from Bergerac in the south to Nontron in the north. In short, it contains:
- 255 pages
- 21 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
Frank Jouandoudet (France, 1965) is a teacher, naturalist and photographer, currently living on the Gironde coast, after a spell in Dordogne. Frank has written several books on orchids and other wildlife in his home region of Aquitaine in south-west France.
David Simpson (UK, 1958) is a wildlife guide living and working in Dordogne. Before he moved to the region in 2002, he worked as a warden at various UK nature reserves including Ravenglass and Ainsdale Sand Dunes in north-west England. David is an all-round naturalist with a special interest in butterflies and birds.