Science Tribune - Article -May 1997
When economy rhymes with ecology : The salt-marshes of the Guérande peninsula (Brittany, France)
Environmental officer at the local council's countryside commission.
SICAPG, B.P. 64, F-44503 La Baule cedex, France
Fax: 33 2 51 75 08 00
A production site
The site of the salt-marshes close to the mediaeval town of Guérande and to the popular seaside resort of La Baule, just north of the Loire estuary, is part of our European heritage. For more than 1,000 years, the salt-farmers (paludiers, from palus = marsh) have built up a strange landscape of clay and water that is one of the most striking 'ecological' creations made by man, as witnessed by the large number of birds that breed, migrate and winter there.
Today, these salt-fields and those, further south, on the islands of Noirmoutier and Ré are the last to produce salt on the French Atlantic coast. This salt is harvested manually in a traditional way and, each year, some 200 salt-farmers produce 10,000 tons of natural, high-quality sea-salt that enjoys a high worldwide reputation among gourmets and restaurateurs (a).
Salt production in this area is far from a dying industry. Since 1980, a new generation of salt-farmers has been trained and the average age of the salt-farmers has now fallen below 40. Newcomers are enrolled on a regular basis for special one-year courses. This rejuvenation explains the recent upswing in salt production and also the success in protecting the area.
A salt-farmer at work in summer
A protected site
The 2,000 hectares of salt-marshes (or salinas) and the surrounding tidal zones (5,000 hectares in all) are a Special Protected Area of the European Union and, in September 1995, became the latest of the 17 French Ramsar sites (the International Convention on the protection of Wetlands). They were placed under national protection in 1996.
The salt-marshes form a large food reserve (algae, shrimps, fish, insects, seeds...) and over 170 different species of birds have been identified in the area. Migrating birds from the north of Europe find these coastal wetlands a good resting-place. Among the wintering birds, one observes large numbers of Pintail, Brent Goose (over 1,000), Avocet (1,200), waders, and grebes. Of the 72 breeding species the most significant are the Little Egret (400 pairs), Grey Heron (200 pairs), Avocet (150 pairs), Black-winged Stilt (100 pairs), Common Tern (180 pairs), Kentish Plover, Bluethroat (white spotted), Marsh Harrier, Short-eared Owl). The plant-life is quite characteristic as the roots are in close contact with salty water. The Glasswort (Salicornia) is a typical plant found here that is often used in cooking.
A visitors' area
It is crucial to inform people regularly about the sensitivity of coastal wetlands and their need of protection.To acquire awareness of these man-made eco-systems and to learn more about them, visitors must be able to watch from close quarters - and sometimes also touch - but always without disturbing the breeding birds and the salt-farmers' work. Visits have therefore to be organized so that these magnificent areas do not suffer from their growing fame.
Some years ago, the salt-farmers' cooperative and the French ornithological society (L.P.O.) got together at the Maison du Sel and organized a permanent exhibition with optional guided walks that attract several thousands of visitors, especially in summer, and parties of school-children in spring. The main theme of the exhibition is "Salt and the environment"; it explains the economy of local salt production and the ecology of the salt-marshes. Keen ornithologists and professional salt-farmers act as guides during the walks which take place several times a day.
A successful area
The success of this traditional mode of salt production is explained by salt-farmers and nature conservationists coming closer together and joining forces to protect the area. Further collaboration is expected on themes linked to the sustainable development and balanced management of the salt-marshes.
(a) Salt from Guérande is always sold in its natural form without any additives. It is screened at the final step and has obtained several French quality 'labels' (Label Rouge, Nature & Progrès). For further information : Cooperative of Salt-Producers (G.P.S.), B.P. 50, F-44350 Guérande, France - tel: (33) 2 40 62 01 25 - fax: (33) 2 40 24 79 84