The Cévennes is a spectacular mountainous area on the south-eastern edge of the Massif Central. Delightfully unspoilt, its wonderful variety of scenery and habitats provide a special combination for the naturalist and walker. From our base for this holiday — a small and friendly hotel in the attractive little village of Cocurès, close to Florac, the administrative centre of the Cévennes National Park — we will make full use of the region’s excellent trails as we search for the wealth of natural history and, in particular on this holiday, the wealth of butterflies to be found here. Fuelled by the delicious meals served at our hotel, and our famous French picnic lunches, we (as always!) intend to enjoy ourselves.
The high granite peaks of Mont Lozère (1,699 metres) and Mont Aigoual (1,567 metres) contrast with the surrounding limestone and schist areas, all providing a rich diversity of habitat within a relatively small area. Pine and deciduous forests, upland pasture, marshy wetlands, dry limestone plateaux with grassland and rocks, flower-filled meadows, and deep gorges with cliffs and fast-flowing rivers, will all be explored during our stay. Further diversity, created by the variety of climate, aspect, rainfall, soil and altitude, encourages an extremely rich flora, especially of orchids, which attracts an abundance of insects. In particular, there is a very good variety of butterflies, and up to 70 or 80 species are possible during our week’s stay.
In the heart of the region lies the Corniche des Cévennes, a 50-kilometre ridge with a road along it that gives wide views over the national park and the Causses. On our walks here we should find a wealth of butterfly species, among them Purple-shot Copper, Scarce and Common Swallowtails, Berger’s Clouded Yellow, Large Wall Brown, numerous fritillaries, and Blues such as Escher’s, Adonis and Baton. We may also find Green-winged, Burnt-tip, Elder-flowered, Lady, Military, Monkey and Frog Orchids, and birds such as Golden, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Red Kite, Woodlark and Tree Pipit.
Just to the west of Florac, the River Tarn has carved a deep and spectacular gorge through the limestone, the cliffs being a haven for Eagle Owl, Peregrine, Chough, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin and Blue Rock Thrush. Butterflies are particularly numerous here, with Cleopatra, Blue-spot, Sloe, Ilex and Green Hairstreaks, Provençal, Twin-spot and Marbled Fritillaries, and Chequered and Osiris Blue all likely, while on the nearby Causse Méjean we’ll look for the extremely localised Esper’s Marbled White. These limestone rocks are also home to many interesting plants, among them Rock Soapwort, St. Bernard’s Lily, the endemic Cévennes Saxifrage and Malling Toadflax, and a colony of Lady’s Slipper Orchid.
On the underlying granite of Mont Lozère we find a good acid flora, including the striking yellow of Piorno Broom, abundant blue Mountain Pansy, Alpine Clover and Spring Pasque Flower. The damp flushes beneath the summit are excellent for butterflies, with Large Tortoiseshell, Camberwell Beauty, Purple-edged and Sooty Coppers, Chestnut Heath, and Pearl-bordered, High Brown and Weaver’s Fritillaries often seen. This area is also favoured by birds of prey, and these may include Montagu’s and Hen Harrier, Merlin and Goshawk, with Rock Bunting, Water Pipit, Black Redstart, Crossbill and Crested Tit also present.
We will visit the extensive limestone plateaux, with the Causse Noir, a superb patchwork of pine woods, grasslands and small arable fields, a good example. Butterflies are numerous here with Rock, Woodland and Great-banded Graylings, Black-veined White, White and Southern White Admirals, fritillaries, skippers and scarce Blues such as Chapman’s and Mountain Alcon, just some of the species expected! Colourful plants, too, are everywhere, with Aphyllanthes, Globularia, orchids, rockroses, and Yellow, Blue and White Flax creating a wonderful tapestry. Overlooking the Gorge de la Jonte, this is also a good place to see magnificent Griffon Vultures at close quarters as they glide along the cliff-top — evidence of a highly successful re-introduction programme in the early 1990s.
Finally, we’ll drive to the pastures at the top of the forested Mont Aigoual. Here we should find such alpine butterflies as Mountain, Bright-eyed, Piedmont and Ottoman Brassy Ringlet, as well as such other species as Dusky Heath and Niobe, High Brown and Glanville Fritillaries in the vicinity. Sheets of yellow tulips, Large Yellow Gentian, Aconite-leaved Buttercup and Martagon Lily all provide botanical interest, while Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes, Rock and Ortolan Buntings are among the avian highlights. Like all the sites in the Cévennes, this isn’t a place where the naturalist may easily become bored!