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La Brenne - Land of a thousand lakes

La Brenne - Land of a thousand lakes

Chris Luck discovers the history behind the Brenne Regional Natural Park and how it became one of France’s most important wildlife habitats…

Internationally famous amongst birders, wildlife-lovers and hunters, the Brenne Regional Natural Park offers an interesting mix of rough scrub, heathland, poor meadows, woodland and lakes. Located in the Indre département on the borders of Poitou, Touraine and Limousin, it was founded in 1989 and is commonly referred to as ‘Le pays des mille étangs’ (land of a thousand lakes), although these days there are nearer four thousand. 

The Regional Park covers 183,000 hectares and has 33,750 inhabitants living in 51 communes. These are bound together by a charter protecting the environment as well as the economic, social and cultural traditions, which includes restrictions on new building. Alongside this, in 1991 a large area of the Regional Park totalling 140,000 hectares became the second registered ‘Ramsar’ site in France after joining (in 1986) the “Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat” now, thankfully, simply called the Ramsar Convention.


It also encompasses 4 additional sites or zones classified under the Natura 2000 network; 3 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the ‘Habitats’ Directive (the valleys of the Creuse and Anglin and Great Brenne) and 1 Special Protection Area (SPA) under the “Birds” Directive (Brenne, which is superimposed on the SAC Grande Brenne).

To appreciate how this area became so important we need to step back about two thousand years to see how this landscape has been shaped by its geology, the climate and the changes brought about from various human activities. According to pollen records it seems certain that the region was more or less dense forest or “wildwood” at this time. As is so often the case, we start with the Romans who made such an impact wherever they set their feet, in this instance by establishing iron and steel production. There is the likely existence of an early steel district connected with the ancient Roman agglomeration of Argentomagus at the strategic point where a Roman bridge once traversed the River Creuse. The Latin name of the city means ‘Silver Market’ and the modern town’s name of Argenton is derived from this. Other than the ore, the most important resource for iron and steel production is a readily available source of large quantities of high temperature fuel, and the oak forest provided charcoal for this.


Localised deforestation commenced towards the end of the Roman period, with most of the vast forested areas surviving until well into the Middle Ages. Iron working thus played a continuing role. Interestingly, dark circles still appear on the bare earth in winter, which bears witness to the past manufacture of steel. Some 75 ancient ironworking sites have been identified in the Grande Brenne, where we find the names of some communes such as Azay-le-Feron and Nuset-le-Feron reflecting the past importance of ironworking.

The first étangs (shallow lakes) are believed to have been built by local abbeys in the 7th century. The traditional way to create an étang involves building an earth bank or causeway to block a small natural valley, thus impeding the drainage of water. The resulting étangs are emptied in series using sluice gates, one into another, towards the same catchment basin. The same methods and techniques are used to the present day at La Brenne and elsewhere.


From the central Middle Ages the landscape of the Brenne gradually takes the form which it now has. During the 14th–16th centuries fish ponds were being built in large numbers and were probably created thanks to the arrival in Western Europe of the Danube carp (Cyprinus carpio carpio), a fish well adapted to the needs of medieval populations. The introduction of this fish, which survives transportation for several days alongside the existing traditional species, created an economic opportunity to specialise in pesiculture (freshwater fish farming), making use of an otherwise poor habitat unsuitable for cereals – or much else, for that matter. The forests were increasingly cleared, leaving large swathes of land on which little will grow, being waterlogged in winter and baked hard in summer.

During the 18th century it had become commonly known as ‘Le mauvais pays de Brenne’ (the bad region of Brenne). In the list of grievances of the parish of Méobecq in 1789 we find dissatisfaction with the poor land: “Our parish is a desert filled with ponds, marshes and foul heaths”. With the Revolution came the promise of change, with laws which attempted to put in place drainage and good hygiene practices, but to little effect. In the middle of the 19th century, with malaria and other water-borne diseases rampant, it entered the period known as ‘L’assainissement de la Brenne’ (the clean-up of La Brenne). Once again this was little more than a wish to transform the ‘Brenne swamp’ with most ponds blacklisted from the time of the French Revolution persisting until the next century. However, by around 1920 less than 200 principle étangs remained. Gradually, with the introduction of new fish farming techniques, nursery-pond management and new types of carp which grew more rapidly, the region gained a new identity and the momentum to carry it forward.

Today the number of étangs has increased to nearer the 4,000 mentioned earlier and, like the forests, many are in private hands providing leisure angling and hunting on a commercial basis. Commercial fish farming produces some 1,200 tonnes of fish per year, more than half being carp, which are sold for the table in France and Germany. Other species of fish are sold to Angling Federations or to private lake owners for restocking.


Although most of the land and lakes do not have open access for the public, there are quite a number of lakes which can be easily seen from the roadside. Both the Maison du Parc and the Maison de la Nature, situated at the heart of La Brenne, have tourist information, including maps showing tracks and footpaths usable by everyone, and the LPO has reserves which have some restricted access.

A bilingual guide is downloadable from