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From Millstones - La Réserve Naturelle du Pinail

From Millstones - La Réserve Naturelle du Pinail

Chris Luck takes a look at an extraordinary area which since 1980 has been the first, and only, State Nature Reserve in Vienne (86)…

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Located in the commune of Vouneuil-sur-Vienne, 30km north-east of Poitiers and 15km south from Chatellerault, La Réserve Naturelle du Pinail is often overlooked. Set on the high plains between the river valleys of the Vienne and the Clain and north of the state-owned Moulière forest, this area clearly shows the impact that centuries of human activity can have on the environment.

As life returned to the land following the last Ice Age, the Poitou region became covered in oak and beech forests, interspersed with grassland and open moors resulting from natural fires and large herbivores. This landscape remained largely unchanged for thousands of years with only small localised human populations. The Romans brought great changes and, not surprisingly, society developed with housing, agriculture and food production at the forefront. It is thought that the Romans were the first to have started a milling industry, using animals or teams of slaves to drive the wheels to grind the wheat, although grinding grains and roots had been practised by hand long before this time. By the end of the first millennium the development of mills required the extraction of millstones, pierres meulières, hence the name la Forêt de Moulièr. The use of millstone wheels spread throughout the kingdom and, benefiting from easy access to the Vienne river for transport by boat, the quarry at Pinail grew into what is widely thought to be the largest known millstone quarry in the world.

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The maintenance of the heathland at Pinail originates from the Royal Order of 1692, which aimed to restore degraded forests throughout the kingdom and provide wood for the maritime industry (principally to combat the growth of the British fleet). Some lands were then deemed unsuitable for reforestation, and ‘user rights’ were granted to residents – cattle were grazed at Pinail until the Second World War and heather cutting ceased soon after, exploitation of the site for millstones having ceased at the end of the 18th century.

Created in the “Moulières neuves” sector of Pinail, the Reserve occupies 135ha and encloses 3,000 ponds – the result of the millstone extraction which gives a lunar look to this historic landscape. The adjacent forest, planted during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, contained perhaps another 10,000 extraction ponds. The site itself has footpaths which are easy to walk when dry, but not so easy following heavy rainfall, so be warned.

Besides the ponds and pools, the other major feature is a heather Erica scoparia which dominates and provides the backdrop for the site. This can reach 4 metres in height and grows in south-western Europe principally in Spain, Portugal and southern France. It creates a type of heath called ‘brande’ in local dialect, a reference to fire, which is an all-too-common occurrence on dry heathland. Rotational cutting and controlled burning are still used to manage the heath, and the mature heather is still used to make fencing, brushes and other traditional handicrafts. The English name for this species of heather is ‘Besom Heath’, taken from the old English word ‘besom’ for a broom or brush.

The site as a whole supports some 450 plant species, some of which are rare or endangered. The rarest, both in the Vienne region and for Europe, is a little white orchid called the Summer Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes aestivalis). It rubs shoulders with the little Pillwort (Pilularia globulifera), a small fern with grass-like leaves colonizing open habitats. Nearby, on the sunny side of the small stream La Rivau, Hedge Hyssop (Gratiola officinalis) grows in compact clumps. The fourth national protected plant is one growing on sphagnum moss peat - the carnivorous Round-leafed Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), which traps small insects on adhesive drops radiating around its leaves.

Two other carnivorous plants that are easy to spot in the ponds of the reserve with their bright yellow flowers raised above the water, the bladderworts Utricularia minor and U. australis sucking up water fleas with small clamshell traps that are spread all over their submerged parts.

The migratory Grasshopper Warbler and the sedentary Dartford Warbler both nest here on or close to the ground, but can be hard to spot. This can also be a good place in summer to see Short-Toed Eagles, which nest nearby, hunting for the snakes they require in large numbers, and as dark falls Nightjars can be seen and heard ‘churring’ as they hunt for moths and beetles on the wing. Another little bird which, although not rare, can be seen in the pine forest is the Crested Tit. In the heat of high summer the sounds of the New Forest Cicada (Cicadetta montana) and the Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria) can be enjoyed throughout the open landscapes and, of course, with all its pools the reserve is excellent for dragonflies.

The Reserve is managed by GEREPI (Natural Management Organization of the Pinail Reserve) including the structures involved on the site, which are grouped into five colleges: the National Forest Office; trusts for protection, education and study of nature; local community councils; scientists; other organisations and qualified persons.

An excellent book for those with a deeper interest in both the history and the wildlife is ‘Mouliére, la foret des pierres’ by Michel Granger, LPO Vienne. ISBN 2-9521071-0-6.

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© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine in October 2013