La Brenne and Vienne are situated in an area of central France, south of the Loire, and the capital of the Vienne département is Poitiers, which lies 80 kilometres to the west of La Brenne. The latter is known locally as ‘The Land of a Thousand Lakes’ because of the numerous pools, known locally as ‘Etangs’, which dot its landscapes. Mostly man-made, these have been managed over the centuries for fishing and a rich tapestry of habitats has developed including marshes, deciduous woods, dry heathland and farmland.
In the quiet, gently rolling mixed farmland of Vienne there are many small étangs, much marginal land, unimproved meadows and pasture, and extensive woodland. The older, more established étangs are prime habitat for dragonflies and damselflies of which numerous species can be found within a few kilometres of our first base at Moulismes. Indeed, up to 20 species can be seen at a single étang in June including such non-British species as Orange Featherleg, Dainty Bluet, Blue-eye, Common Winter Damsel, Western Willow Spreadwing, Orange-spotted Emerald, White-tailed Skimmer, Scarlet Darter, Yellow and Western Clubtails and Small Pincertail. Even for a non-specialist, the variety of form and colour provided by these falcons of the insect world is an absorbing diversion from the soporific warmth of a summer afternoon in central France.
Our search for dragonflies will naturally lead us to find interesting butterflies, orchids and birds. Around Moulismes, butterflies such as Red-underwing and Mallow Skippers, Scarce Swallowtail, Black-veined White, Southern White Admiral, Map Butterfly, Marbled, Weaver’s, Knapweed, Spotted, Heath and Meadow Fritillaries, Great Banded Grayling, Black Hairstreak, Sooty Copper and Short-tailed Provencal and Mazarine Blues may all be seen. Orchids in the area include Pyramidal, Bee and Lizard, each adding their delicate colours to enrich the summer flora and, not to be outdone, the avian world is represented by arguably the most beautiful of all European birds — the Bee-eater, which can be observed in all its gorgeous splendour at a colony close to Moulismes.
Pinail reserve, lying 20 kilometres northeast of Poitiers, is a peat-bog where old millstone quarries have left more than 3,000 small, deep, water-filled holes scattered among the heathland. Many dragonflies have been recorded here, but three rare species we will be looking for in particular are Robust Spreadwing, and Lilypad and Yellow-spotted Whitefaces.
With over 2,000 lakes, the 160,000-hectare Regional Nature Park of La Brenne is famed for its wetland birds, but what is less well known is that it is also a magnificent place for dragonflies and butterflies. Among the many dragonflies to be seen in La Brenne we should be able to add Variable Bluet, Small Bluetail, Migrant Spreadwing, Small Redeye, Green-eyed and Hairy Hawkers, and Common Clubtail to our growing holiday list.
To date, 97 butterfly species have been recorded in La Brenne, nearly twice the number occurring in the whole of Britain! These include several species which are rare or rapidly declining in other parts of Europe. Examples should include Large Chequered Skipper, Ilex Hairstreak, Camberwell Beauty, Marsh Fritillary, Woodland Grayling and Pearly Heath. In addition, no fewer than 36 species of orchid occur in the park. Species that should be in flower at the time of our visit include: Brenne, Fragrant, Looseflowered, Bee, Pyramidal, Lesser Butterfly, Greater Butterfly, Lizard, Lady, Man and Tongue Orchids, as well as Red, Broadleaved, Mueller’s and Small-leaved Helleborines, and Violet Limodore. This superb proliferation of orchids is one of the botanical highlights of the summer months and it is an interesting exercise of imagination to match the various bizarre flower shapes with the names borne by the plants!
Among the breeding birds we should see in both the Vienne and La Brenne are Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Night Heron, Black-necked Grebe, Garganey and Whiskered Tern — the last more numerous here than anywhere else in France. Warblers to be found include Fan-tailed, Melodious and Bonelli’s, while other species include Black Kite, Shorttoed Eagle, Honey Buzzard, harriers, Hobby, Red-backed Shrike, Black Redstart, Short-toed Treecreeper, Serin and Cirl Bunting. The calls of Hoopoes and Golden Orioles and the powerful songs of Nightingales complete this classic collection of European birds.
We will use two hotel bases in order to reduce daily travel and to maximise our time spent in the field. This will be an ideal holiday for those with a particular interest in dragonflies or the all-round naturalist who prefers unhurried outings. There will be opportunities to linger and take photographs, or to simply become immersed in the sights and sounds of mid-summer in this very special, yet rarely publicised, region of France.