Teaching Nature amid the French Mountains

Article excerpt

THE Cevennes region of France lies at the southern end of the Massif Central only a few hours drive from Nimes and the Mediterranean coast. it is a region of steep slopes clothed in oak and beech, the rounded summits of the mountains stretching away from you in hazy blue waves like combers coming in to a shore. Great plateaux rise up from the rugged hills and are in turn bisected by deep gorges and pocked with caves and swallow holes. The varied landscape is a product of the complex geology of the area. The high plateaux are formed of soft limestone through which rivers such as the Tarn and Lot have cut their dramatic gorges. These rivers are born, not on limestone, but high on the granite and schist mountains that rose during a period of uplift three hundred million years ago.

Mont Lozere is one of these granite massifs. The Lozere has been described as |. . . the Cevennes of the Cevennes' so typical is it of the region. It is the land of the Camisards, the Protestant rebels (named after the peasant smock or camise) who rose against Louis XIV in 1702 after the persecutions that followed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The local Camisard brigade had a station on Mont Lozere led by the boy-general Cavalier, who later became governor of the island of Jersey. The initial revolt, however, was led by a visionary and religious fanatic called Pierre |Spirit' Seguier, a wool carder, whose short-lived insurrection ended when the dragoons of Captain Poul caught him, cut off his right hand and burned him alive in Le Pont de Montvert. Those turbulent times of religious persecution are long gone from the region, but memorials to the freedom fighters of 1939-1945 are still to be found in every town and hamlet.

Le Pont de Montvert is situated at the foot of Mont Lozere and this small village is the capital of the Department. The mountains tower around the houses, their slopes ridged with terraces where once chestnut groves were planted. The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was at one time an important crop in the Lozere. The nuts were ground for flour, the wood was used for construction and fencing and the foliage was collected as winter fodder for the cattle. Even the dried husks were used as fuel for heating and cooking. However, this staple activity came to an end in the 1890s when the root disease Endathia parasitica almost wiped out the chestnut in the area.

Nowadays most chestnut trees are seen on the roadsides and in the woods. A few of the old orchards can still be seen, the trees' massive boles a testimony to hundreds of fruitful years. Above the terraces are vast tracts of broom scrub. The yellow flowering broom has virtually taken over the Lozere as agricultural activity has declined and where there was once pasture or fields of rye, the broom scrub has taken over. Now these wide acres provide a home for birds such as the black redstart and hunting grounds for honey buzzard and red-backed shrike. Still higher and the vegetation changes again. The broom gives way to open grassland dotted with pines, the mountainside patched here and there with the green geometric shapes of fields where the farmers have managed to improve the pasture. It is up on these high slopes that the native Aubrac cattle spend the spring and summer months, their iron bells chiming mellifluously across the landscape, before returning to the byres where they will see out the harsh winter. Occassional spinneys of ancient beech trees cling to the spare soil. Much of the original tree cover has been felled, but in some places it has regenerated and forms large woods that provide shelter for the livestock during the heavy summer storms. Over the wide summits a short sub-alpine sward predominates, the purple hue of gentians marking the dry stony areas while vividly green Sphagnum moss illuminates the hollows and creeks where pockets of raised peat bog have developed.

It is to the Lozere that British schoolchildren and students come, over one thousand two hundred every year, to study natural sciences at a field study centre near the hamlet of Finiels on the southern slopes of Mont Lozere. …