Sand dune - Country Report, France
This article on the sand dunes of France, is a revised country report from the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' (Doody ed. 1991) . The 1991 inventory was prepared under the umbrella of the European Union for Dune Conservation [EUDC]. The original inventory was presented to the European Coastal Conservation Conference, held in the Netherlands in November 1991. It attempted to provide a description of the sand dune vegetation, sites and conservation issues throughout Europe including Scandinavia, the Atlantic coast and in the Mediterranean.
An overview article on the distribution of European sand dunes provides links to the other European country reports. These represent chapters from updated individual country reports included in the revised, 2nd Edition of the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' prepared for the International Sand Dune Conference “Changing Perspectives in Coastal Dune Management”, held from the 31st March - 3rd April 2008, in Liverpool, UK (Doody ed. 2008).
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At the time of the original inventory, little information was available about the sand dunes of France and there was no synthesis of the sand dune habitat. Inspection of the vegetation maps of France published by The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique over a period of 15 years, mostly in the 1960s provided the first assessment of the distribution of dunes in France. Prof. Géhu provided more detailed information in general and Brabant (Espace Naturel Régional) for the Pas de Calais region. The current report is augmented with information derived from studies, especially those of the Aquitaine coast.
Distribution and type of dune
France contains some of the most extensive dune landscapes in Europe. The original total area of blown sand was estimated at 250,000ha according to a Council of Europe report in 1984. Dunes or dune remnants occupy long stretches of the coastline. On much of the coast dunes occur behind beaches, and in places have moved in over rocky coasts, as in Cotentin and Brittany. On the Channel (Manche) coast of France, the wide intertidal beach at Bray has much eroded grassy dunes. The coastline has receded, as indicated by the ruins of blockhouses built in 1940 on the dune fringe, which are now on the shore. The bay of Wissant west of Calais is also backed by the dunes of Aval and Chatelet, fronting peaty marshland. Dunes extend across the mouth of the valley of the River Slack, which is constricted by a spit of sand and shingle.
South from Boulogne the coast of Picardie has sandy beaches, wide at low tide, and dunes that extend inland under pine forest behind Hardelot Plage. The sand has come mainly from the extensive Palaeocene and Eocene deposits on the sea floor to the west, rather than from the rivers, which have Chalk catchments and deliver little sand. Similar dunes are seen beside the Canche estuary near Le Touquet and along the coast southward past Berck to the Somme estuary and Cayeux (Briquet 1930).
Dunes occur locally on the Côte Fleurie, notably alongside the Grand Vey, a wide shoaly inlet to the west. On the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula, long gently curved beaches front the dunes of Vauville and Biville, and there are dunes at Cap Carteret. The sand has come mainly from the Eocene sediments extensive on the sea floor around the Channel Islands to the west. In the Baie de Saint Michel, there are dunes behind a beach of shelly sand south of Granville. On the north coast of Brittany, the wider bays generally have almost flat sandy beaches, some backed by dunes often damaged by vehicle traffic and camping. The dunes of Keremma back a bay adjacent to the Greve de Goulven. On the west coast of Brittany the wide Plage des Blancs Sablons, backed by grassy dunes, faces northwest on the northern side of the Kermorvan Peninsula. On the south coast, the rocky Presqu'ile de Quiberon is attached to the mainland by the dune-capped tombola of Penthièvre.
On the Vendée coast, Les Sables de l’Olonne is a seaside resort at the southern end of a lagoon separated from the sea by a forested dune barrier. To the south, the Pointe d’Arcay has multiple dune ridges and ends in eastward recurves. Offshore the Ile de Ré is low-lying with sandy beaches, particularly on the exposed SW shore, which has dunes up to 20m high and the west coast of the Ile d’Oléron has a sandy foreland with dune ridges. There are extensive dunes on the Pointe de la Coubre on the northern side of the Gironde estuary (Facon 1965). South of the Gironde mouth a long sandy coastline borders the Bay of Biscay. The sand has come largely from the Gironde, and drifted southward, but there is also calcareous sand, sometimes shelly, swept in from the sea floor. South of Soulac the Médoc beaches are backed by afforested dunes on a wide barrier that encloses several lakes. The sandy beach ends southward in the recurved spit at Cap Ferret, beside the Bassin d’Arcachon.
South of Arcachon the Landes of Gascony coast behind the foredune is a fringe of formerly transgressive dune ridges 60-70m high and up to 6km wide. The ridges have been stabilised by pine plantations (introduced from 1801 onwards by Nicolas Brémontier) except for the still-active Dune of Pilat (Pyla), a ridge of bare sand 118m high, with an escarpment spilling on to forested dunes. The coastal dune fringe has a sparse grassy and shrubby cover, but to landward, the dunes are under pine forest. They backed by a hinterland sandy plain that rises gradually inland to more than 40m above sea level, and bears heath and pine plantations. In 1980 comment was made that “…the vast sand covering of the Landes is believed to be an Aeolian deposit laid down during a Quaternary [Pleistocene] cold spell. The material probably came from the continental shelf, where Pliocene sands extensive on the sea floor, were uncovered by the sea during a phase of marine regression”. At Biarritz the dunes come to an end as bluffs and cliffs rise behind the beach.
Vegetation - Atlantic Coast
A number of different dune types occur along the Atlantic coast. These include the narrow shore parallel dunes of Flanders and Picardy. The former protect low-lying land, the latter occur as dunes with slacks between extensive dune ridges. Further south the Normandy coast has a narrow, almost continuous line of vegetated dunes. These extend landward as an extensively cultivated plain (mielles) similar in type to the machair of Ireland and western Scotland. Brittany has a rocky coast interspersed with small and scattered sand dunes. South of Nante dunes occur as a narrow belt with extensive areas of woodland, though not as extensive as along the coast of Aquitaine. Here the system is approximately 124,000ha, up to 8km wide and 30-70m high (Favennec 1998).
The sequence of vegetation on the Atlantic coast of France is similar to that occurring in the rest of North West Europe. This typically involves the progressive stabilisation of dune forms as vegetation helps trap sand blown inland from the beach. Southern floral elements begin to appear the further south the dunes are formed. These may include species more typical of the Mediterranean. The following list provides a summary of the main vegetation types.
The ephemeral beach vegetation has typical nitrophilous and salt tolerant species. These include Cakile maritima, Atriplex arenaria and Salsola kal.
Elytrigia juncea dominates the earliest stages of dune growth.
Ammophila arenaria is the main dune-forming species, occasionally together with Leymus arenarius. In this zone, other important plants typically include Eryngium maritimum, Euphorbia paralias and Calystegia soldanella.
In the northern part of the coast where the dunes rest against chalk cliffs or are derived from calcareous sediment, rich dune grassland occurs.
Dune slack vegetation includes Schoenus nigricans, which can be common. The richer calcareous dunes may include Liparis loeselii, Spiranthes aestivalis and Serpia lingua.
Most of the dune areas are composed of silica sand and where these are not planted with pine forest the vegetation is rich in lichens and bryophytes.
Scrub typically includes Hippophae rhamnoides, Sambucus nigra and Ulex europaeas.
Natural woodland is scarce on the French coast. Primary birch forest does occur in the north and east. Further south on the wider dunes of Les Landes (Aquitaine) oak forest with Quercus ilex is the probable natural climax vegetation.
Afforested areas. Planted maritime pines (Pinus maritima, P. pinaster and P. pinea) cover much of the dune landscape of France, particularly on the large expanses of dune, which face the exposed Atlantic coast. In places, these include underplanting with oak, which on the acid sands of Les Landes includes Quercus ilex and Q. suber.
Vegetation of the Mediterranean coast
The typical sequence of zonation shown on the Atlantic coast is less obvious here. However, mobile dunes still have Ammophila arenaria and Elytricia juncea (sand couch), which includes abundant Medicago maritima. The more open natural dune is rich in species with Pancratium maritimum. Stands of stone pine (Pinus pinea) occur and in the Camargue have an undergrowth of species such as Daphne gnidium, Cistus solvifolius and Rosmarinus officinalis. Additional information Corre (1991).
The original list of sand dunes in France is shown in the table opposite. These were mainly derived from an Atlas published by des Espaces Naturels du Littoral in 1991.
Dune areas derived from figures given in the atlas, which represent the area purchased by the Conservatoire de L’Espace Littoral. Figures in brackets give an indication, for some sites where the information is available, of the total area of dune. SC = Site Classé; SI = Site Inscrit; NP, National Park; RN, Reserve Naturelle.
The Dune of Pilat, situated at the entrance of the Bay of Arcachon, opposite the Point of Cap Ferret, is the biggest sand formation of Europe, measuring 105m high, 2700m long, 500m wide and with a volume of 20 million cubic meters of sand. It has well over 1 million visitors per year. It was declared an “important national site” in 1978.
The Camargue is one of six case study sites for the EURosion project. Access to the individual reports is via a table @ http://www.eurosion.org/shoreline/table.htm
As with many other areas in Europe, in historical times particularly in western France, the dunes were grazed extensively. The pasture type land, which developed, was known as “mielles”. Deforestation of the natural woodland accompanied this use, which in the west almost totally disappeared. Today large expanses of dune have with various species of planted pine, eliminating the open dune landscape, together with its associated flora and fauna. As with the rest of Europe development for housing, agriculture and recreation have further depleted the dune areas. This has been particularly damaging in the Mediterranean areas where tourist development has destroyed many important sites.
The dunes of France, especially along the Atlantic coast, have been subject to intensive and extensive stabilisation over many years. Two LIFE projects have helped unravel some of the management issues:
Biodiversity and dune protection LIFE92 ENV/F/000024, 1992-1996. Seven pilot sites were selected within the Atlantic coastal environments (dunes and forests), presenting specific conditions and problems illustrating the main management issues for these areas. Further information about individual sites can be found on the Office National des Forêts web site @ http://www.onf.fr/foret/dossier/littoral/li05.htm in French.
The Rehabilitation and Sustainable Management of Four French Dunes LIFE95 ENV/F/000676, 1996-2001. This EU LIFE Environment project sought to provide management solutions for the sites, which had been incorporated into the Natura 2000 network. It was anticipated these would also have relevance for other ‘mobile’ coastal features in Europe. The final report concluded that: “Beach and dune coasts are mobile by nature. To continue to benefit from the services they provide, we must accept fluctuations, all too often considered as threats. This option does not exclude rational economic use.”
It went on to give a number of general recommendations:
~Local management must be placed in a wider context (space and time);
~Need for multi-disciplinary networks commensurate with the complexity of the systems;
~Use flexible techniques, interfering a little as possible with natural processes;
~Management should be cost effective;
~Leave space so dunes can provide “complimentary functions”;
~Have cross-border cooperation (Favennec 2002).
Project Manager for both studies: Jean FAVENNEC, Office National des Forêts, 2, Av. de Saint-Mandé, 75570 Paris Cedex 12, France. Summaries of these and other projects are found by searching the European Commission Web Site @ http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/life/project/Projects/index.cfm?
Aquitaine is also one of six case study sites for the EURosion project. Access to the individual reports is via a table @ http://www.eurosion.org/shoreline/table.htm.
An examination of the sand dune management policies of France (Meur et al. 1992) includes a more detailed map of the distribution of sand dunes in Brittany, than is shown above.
Ecosystems of the World 2A Dry Coastal Ecosystems, Polar regions and Europe (Géhu & Géhu-Franck 1993) 
The Conservatoire du littoral has a useful web site describing the sites along the coast of France see http://www.conservatoire-du-littoral.fr/front/process/Rubrique.asp?rub=8&rubec=8# (a screen shot). There is detailed information for some sites, which makes it possible to obtain more information on the sites in the list and identify additional sand dune areas. Conservatoire de L’Espace Littoral, Corderie Royal BP 137, 17306 Rochefort-sur FRANCE.
- Doody, J.P., ed., 1991. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee/European Union for Coastal Conservation.
- Doody, J.P., ed. 2008. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe, 2nd Edition. National Coastal Consultants and EUCC - The Coastal Union, in association with the IGU Coastal Commission.
- Briquet, A., 1930. Le littoral du Nord de la France et son évolution morphologique. Libraire A. Colin, Paris.
- Favennec, J., 1998. The dunes of the Atlantic coast of France, typology and management. EUCC Magazine, Coastline, 1, 14-16.
- Corre, J-J. 1991. The sand dunes and their vegetation along the Mediterranean coast of France. Their likely response to climatic change. Landscape Ecology, 6/112, 65-75.
- Favennec, J., 2002. Towards a Conservation and a Sustainable Management of Atlantic Coastal Forest and Dune Ecosystems. Office National des Forêts, 394pp.
- Meur, C., Hallégouët, B. & Bodéré, J-C., 1992. Coastal dune management policies in France: the example of Brittany. In: Coastal Dunes: Geomorphology, Ecology and Management for Conservation, eds., R.W.G. Carter, T.G.F. Curtis, & M.J. Sheehy-Skeffington, Proceedings of the Third European Dune Congress, Galway, Ireland, 17-21 June 1992, A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, 419-427.
- Géhu J-M. & Géhu-Franck, J., 1993. Dry coastal ecosystems of Belgium and the Atlantic coasts of France. In: Ecosystems of the World 2A Dry Coastal Ecosystems, Polar regions and Europe, ed., van der Maarel, Elsivier, 307-321.
Other sources of published information
Anon, 1985. Inventaire Régionalisé des zones naturelles d’interêt écologique et floristique du littoral Atlantique de France, (Dunes, Prés salé, Falaises). CREPIS et Station de Phytosociologie Bailleul.
Arnaud, D., no date. Shores and Strands, The Côte d’Opale, from the Flemish Dunes to the bay of the Somme. Translated by E. Chapman. Punch Editions, L’Ermitage, 62126 Wimille. A general account of this stretch of coast.
Barráre, P., 1992. Dynamics and management of the coastal dunes of Landes, Gascony, France. In: Coastal Dunes: Geomorphology, Ecology and Management, eds., R.W.G. Carter, T.G.F. Curtis & M.J. Sheehy-Skeffington, Proceedings of the Third European Dune Congress, Galway, Ireland, 17-21 June 1992, A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, 25-32.
Conservatoire de L’Espace Littoral et des Rivages Lacustres, 1991. Atlas des Espaces Naturels du Littoral.
Facon, R., 1965. La pointe de la Coubre, étude morphologique. Norois, 12, 165-180.
Favennec, J., (under the direction of) 1998. Guide de la Flore des Dunes Littorales, de la Bretagne au Sud des Landes. Editions sud Quest, Office National des Forêts. Illustrates some of the common dune plants.
Guilcher, A. & Moign, A., 1977. Coastal conservation and coastal studies in France. Geographical Journal, 143, 378-392.
Paskoff, P., 1998, Dune management on the Atlantic coast of France: a case study. In: J.A. Houston, S.E. Edmondson & P.J. Rooney, eds., Coastal Dune Management, Shared Experience of European Conservation Practice, 34-40.
Weber, K & Hoffmann, L., 1970. Camargue, the Soul of a Wilderness.George G Harrap & Co Ltd, London. A general description of the site with many excellent photographs.
- Sand Dunes in Europe
- Articles on sand dunes on Wikpedia
- European Sand Dune Distribution
- Sand dune types - Europe
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