Don’t get your feet wet!

World Wetlands Day occurs every year on February 2nd, the anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

The significance of all this for me?  In a magazine published by the Herault Department I noticed a little snippet about a guided visit at Domaine de la Plaine near Nissan-lez-Enserune (yes, there really IS a town called Nissan in southern France!!).  I’m always on the look-out for interesting outings, so I headed to Nissan with a group of friends and we met our guides in front of the Mairie on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.


The Mairie building has an incredible 1900 facade, improbably grand and glamorous, and a real surprise to find in such a small village.  Once everyone had arrived, we set off in a minibus and an assortment of cars, all provided either by the municipality or the Department.  As we got nearer the site I was very glad that they had provided the transport: some of the tracks along the way were incredibly muddy!!  🙂

Once we got to the site, our three guides introduced themselves:  Rodolphe Majourel from the Conseil General de l’Herault, Remi Jullien from the Conservatoire du Littoral, and John Holliday from the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude. It took me a little while to figure out the role of each, but I think I got it right:  The Conseil General owns the land at Domaine de la Plaine, 42 hectare in total; the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude is responsible for the management of the land; and the Conservatoire du Littoral has an advisory capacity.

That out of the way we went for a little walk to an abandoned bergerie or sheepfold on the property.  The bergerie is built on a small, raised part of the land, designed to keep the building (and the sheep) dry when the surrounding lands flooded.  Have a close look at the building; can you see the little niche above the door?  In olden days it would have held the statue of a saint, who would have protected the shepherd and his flock!  The niche is still used today, albeit by birds of prey; our guides told us this with authority – apparently the white traces on the wall are a giveaway.  Our guides were also very excited by stuff they found inside the bergerie:


These pellets are regurgitations from birds of prey, the ones near the fingertips are from an owl species, the larger ones in the palm from a raptor.  I had forgotten to take my note book and they were talking so fast that I cannot tell you the name of the birds, I’m sorry!  The presence of the pellets means that the birds regularly visit and hunt here, adding to the biodiversity of the site.  The bergerie was connected to dry land by a raised path, which is currently mostly overgrown.  Restoration of the path is on the list of things to do, as is the restoration of the building itself.


While we were talking, something was soaring overhead – too high up for my lens to capture it properly, and my knowledge of birds is too sketchy to be able to identify what was gliding up there in the sky.

The land at Domaine de la Plaine is almost at sea level, and the river Aude is only 1.8km away, so it’s easy to see how the land would flood reasonably frequently.  Because of the land lying so low the soil contains salt, which during periods of draught rises to the surface.   The salt presents a very challenging environment to plant life, but there are many plants which are adapted to these conditions.  The lands around Domaine de la Plaine were used in the main for two purposes:  grazing and making hay.  Sheep were very much a part of everyday life in the old days, and the village of Nissan had three herds of around 500 sheep each.  Today, the Conseil General is in partnership with a local shepherd, M. Henriques, who grazes his 900 sheep on land all across the lower plain of the Aude River, including Domaine de la Plaine.  He came to meet us at the bergerie to talk a little about his way of working.


In the main he moves his flock from pasture to pasture on a very regular basis, leaving the sheep on any patch for only a short period, to avoid overgrazing.  He also moves his sheep to the mountains in the summer months, into the high Pyrenees.


And of course he works his flock with the help of several dogs, two of which he had brought along for us to meet.  After all the explanations, we made our way back to where we started, to see some of his flock, waiting in a trailer for us.  On the way back our guides found some partridge droppings!! 🙂


The sheep were pretty excited to see us (who wouldn’t be? :-)) and they had a bit of a gambol around the meadow.  When the sheep and the dog had calmed down a little they even managed to graze a bit.

I learnt a lot during my time with the shepherd!!  Apparently you can tell the age of a sheep from their teeth – they have milk teeth to start with, and then the adult teeth appear in pairs.  From about four years old sheep can start to lose their front teeth, which in turn can lead to problems with feeding.  Sheep only have lower front teeth, and they cut against a bony plate in the upper jaw.  Most shepherds start sending their sheep to the abattoir after they are four years old.  Not M. Henriques, he prefers his sheep to have a long and happy life!


One of our group asked about the purpose of the crook at the end of a shepherd’s stick.


As soon as the question was asked, M. Henriques swung into action to demonstrate just what it was for!!



Look, no hands!!  Apparently this is a very good position for examining the hooves and the teeth!   After the “ladies” were once more safely in their trailer, we made our way back to Nissan for a slide show about the fauna and flora to be found at Domaine de la Plaine.  Winter is, of course, not the best time to visit, but it is such an interesting place that I’m sure I’ll be back!  And no, I didn’t get my feet wet!