Located in central France, La Brenne is a vast, yet intimate, low-lying landscape of fish ponds, marshes, flowery meadows, slow-flowing streams, small arable fields, rambling hedgerows, heaths, scrubland and deciduous forests. Indeed, it offers a medieval landscape that remains remarkably intact — still predominantly used to this day by fish farmers and smallholders who have favoured traditional rather than modern methods on account of the region’s boggy terrain, poor soils and complex pattern of land ownership. As such, it remains a haven for wildlife and a wonderful place in which visiting naturalists may enjoy a wealth of natural history amongst tranquil surroundings.
With over 2,000 lakes, the 160,000-hectare Regional Nature Park of La Brenne is both internationally important and famed for its wetland birds. What is less well known is that it is also a magnificent place for butterflies due to its rich tapestry of habitats and the continued employment of traditional farming and forestry practices. To date, 97 butterfly species have been recorded in La Brenne (nearly twice the number occurring in the whole of Britain!), including a number of special species which are rare or rapidly declining in other parts of Europe.
Our aim on this tour will be to fully explore the butterfly fauna of La Brenne through visits to some exceptional meadow and forest habitats that have rarely, if ever, been visited by Britsh entomologists before. Amongst the species we will hope to encounter are a number of rare or threatened European species, including Camberwell Beauty, Large Copper and Large Blue, whilst amongst the common species found in La Brenne at this time of year, yet absent from the British Isles, are Large Chequered Skipper, Lesser Purple Emperor, Large Tortoiseshell, Southern White Admiral, Map, Pearly Heath, Sooty Copper, Alcon Blue, Provencal Short-tailed Blue, Great Banded Grayling, Ilex Hairstreak, Scarce Swallowtail and many species of fritillary, amongst them Spotted, Knapweed, Marbled and Lesser Marbled. We will also hope to see a number of butterflies that are rare in England but common in La Brenne, including Lulworth Skipper, Berger’s Clouded Yellow, Shorttailed Blue, Heath Fritillary, Glanville Fritillary, Swallowtail, Wood White and Black Hairstreak. Weather permitting, we hope to see up to 50 species during the holiday, a variety which you would be hard pressed to see during an entire year of extensive travelling within the UK! In addition, we expect to encounter a wealth of other wildlife, in particular birds, dragonflies and orchids.
To find these species we will be in the highly capable hands of renowned local naturalist Tony Williams, who has worked in nature conservation in La Brenne for over 25 years. Needless to say, Tony’s knowledge of this area and its many bird, plant and insect species is unsurpassed, and this, together with the access he has to private estates, makes our tour to the region very special. Our base will be a small and traditional hotel in Mezieres-en- Brenne, which has an excellent reputation locally for fine cuisine. Mezieres-en-Brenne is a charming small country town located in the north of la Brenne and at the heart of the butterfly action. All of our excursions are within a short drive of here, enabling us to maximise time spent watching butterflies in the field. The pace will be gentle, to allow time for photography and to marvel at the fabulous diversity of butterflies present. Each day we will focus on a different habitat type, to ensure that we are able to enjoy a varied range of butterfly species and experiences over the course of the holiday. As time and conditions allow, we will also run a moth-trapping session or two in the evening. This should attract a wealth of wetland species such as Gold Spot, Reed Dagger, Water Ermine, Reed Leopard, Pinion-streaked Snout, Reed Tussock, Brown-veined Wainscot, Blair’s Wainscot, Bulrush Wainscot, Fisher’s Estuarine Moth and Flame Wainscot, and some spectacular species such as Willowherb Hawk-moth, Clifden and other nonpareils, as well as the Great Peacock, Europe’s largest moth. This will be a pioneering investigation, as very little is known about the moths of La Brenne!
To reach La Brenne in as environmentally sound a manner as possible we will travel by train from London to Poitiers, then take an hour-long minibus ride to our hotel. We will return home at the end of our holiday in the same manner, concluding a remarkably varied six days in a corner of France famed for its birdlife, but equally important for butterflies which, in a small way, this tour and its participants will help to promote.