LE GÂVRE STATE FOREST
Le Gâvre Forest extends over some 4,500 hectares in the Loire-Atlantique department, in Western France. It is a state forest (a forêt domaniale). As such, it is managed by the ONF (Office National des Forêts – the French Forestry Board).
This forest massif is a remnant of the huge primeval forest that, in ancient times, covered practically all of Gaul and especially Armorica. In these days, old growths extended uninterrupted (except for marshlands along the Vilaine River) between what became famous Broceliande Forest and Le Gâvre Forest.
History and Heritage
In the Roman period, about ten roads went through the vicus of Blain, making it a communication hub. One major Roman way was the Angers-Blain-Rieux-Vannes road, featuring a small military post and balnea for Blain’s Gallo-Romans in Curin, at the southwestern tip of the forest. Another major way was the Nantes-Blain-Rennes road, running alongside the forest to the east. Le Gâvre’s Main Street is a segment of that road.
Le Gâvre Forest belonged to the dukes of Brittany who used it as a hunting forest, with a hunting lodge in the small village which ended up being given the status of a free city by the duke Pierre de Dreux (known as Mauclerc) in 1225 (hence the 800th anniversary in 2025), with the view of developing the place by attracting inhabitants who were granted significant rights regarding the forest. The duke also erected a fortified castle that, later on, was destroyed (in the 14th century) and rebuilt with surrounding ponds (in the 15th century)–this reflecting the vicissitudes of the complex history of Ducal Brittany.
Later on, with Brittany no longer independent, the ducal forest became a royal forest, until the Revolutionary period made it domaniale–a state forest. With the end of privileges on August 4, 1790, the inhabitants finally lost the tax exemptions formerly granted by the duke Pierre de Dreux and which they had managed to preserve on so many occasions before. Only a few limited rights remained.
Under Napoleon I, a star-shaped road network was created, featuring ten long driveways and the central roundabout of La Belle Etoile.
Until the 1930s, traditional woodcutters, clog makers and coalmen were active in the forest. For some decades in the early 20th century, the Blain-Redon secondary railway line crossed the forest, with trains stopping in the small station of La Maillardais (now a parking area in the forest), carrying away clogs (sold, in the heyday, as far as the United States) and, of course, tree logs.
Among the most interesting heritage features to be seen in the Gâvre forest and nearby:
- the old Maison Benoist (built in 1648) in Le Gâvre, turned into a museum with fine collections evoking the trades and lifestyles of the bygone days. It also houses a nature interpretation centre known as La Maison de la Forêt, offering many forest outings and activities.
- the chapel of La Magdeleine, in a charming hamlet on the eastern edge of the forest, a remnant of the time when, in the 12th century, the monks of Blanche Couronne Abbey had set up a leprosarium in the forest; there’s an arboretum nearby.
- the remains of a large WWII ammunition depot set on each side of the road, on entering the forest from Blain, consisting of some twenty reinforced concrete bunkers and (formerly covered) docks that were used to load, unload and store a considerable number of bombs, shells and cartridges; the depot, served by a rail branch line, had been set up in 1940 by the British and, after their precipitous departure, extended by the German who used it until 1944. These remains have become a major hibernation site for many bat species and are protected accordingly.
- the megalithic alignment of Le Pilier, in the northern part of the forest, consisting of a row of (largely buried) standing stones running over 1100 m ; probably the longest such alignment in Europe, it had been left unstudied until recently.
Other noteworthy places of interest in the vicinity include Blain, with its museum (old shops, Christmas cribs and the world’s largest collection of cake charms), its historic castle and its peacedul harbour on the Nantes to Brest canal; the picturesque valley of the Don River in Guéméné-Penfao, north of the forest; and the Clégreuc pond, a good birdwatching spot (northeast of the forest).
Forest Management and Environmental Issues
The Eaux et Forêts administration, dating back to the 13th century, used to be in charge of the royal forests which, after the Revolution of 1789, became state-owned public forests. That administration was subject to many reforms and changes over the centuries, most importantly the in-depth transformation conducted in the 17th century by Louis XIV’s famous minister Colbert.
And finally, on January 1, 1966, it was turned, for the greater part, into the ONF, the French Forestry Board. The ONF still remains under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture (and, since recently, of the Ministry of Ecological Transition). But this new organisation came with a big change: the obligation to be self-sufficient. Self-financing is expected to be achieved, mainly through timber sales and the granting of hunting licences (bidding process), even though, in practice, the ONF needs additional state money to balance its budget.
Therefore, in Le Gâvre Forest as in so many French public forests, you end up with a deeply unsatisfactory situation.
The Forestry Board cannot do without the revenues derived from the selling of wood and from hunting proceeds. As a consequence, it is actively engaged in the wood supply business and must be in tune with the demands of the market and of its business partners (trees are felled by the ONF or by logging companies, to be finally processed as construction timber, barrels, chips, pellets…). This means applying conventional intensive forest management techniques involving even-aged stands, reduced rotation ages, clear-cutting and reliance on hunting for young plantations to be viable.
Concurrently, a trend is visible in this hardwood forest, consisting (at least until very recently) in substantially increasing surface areas with fast-growing coniferous trees (mainly maritime pine) to the detriment of deciduous trees (mainly oaks), by not limiting (as in the past) pine planting to those sectors having historically poorer soils on account of the formerly allowed practice of extensive cattle grazing in the forest by the locals.
Yet, at one and the same time, the ONF is under the obligation to deliver on a whole series of other public missions and demands, in accordance with the concept of multifunctionality: biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, fire prevention, accommodation of all users, including the general public, adaptation to climate change, fight against pests in decaying forests, carbon sequestration, etc.
It is, of course, virtually impossible to deliver on all these demands, all the less so as, over the years, the ONF has been subject to severe staff cuts, generating deep personnel dissatisfaction (including demonstrations and even suicides), since current management methods, as applied to men and trees, are a far cry from the Eaux et Forêts period.
However, public forests and especially state-owned forests should be exemplary in terms of sustainable forestry, with uneven-aged stands, as provided by continuous cover forestry, rather than the even-aged stands inherent to the current productivist approach. They should offer multi-storeyed, species-rich high forests to their visitors. And, in the first place, wood production should no longer be the top priority in state forests (which make up only 9% of all French forests!), as is still the case, obviously all too often. This means resolutely maintaining the definitely deciduous nature of this forest, instead of turning it into a “wood factory” by favouring the planting of fast-growing pine trees. The top priorities lie with the preservation of biodiversity and accommodation of the public, with a view to ensuring a much more satisfactory balance between environmental, social and economic objectives. As for climate change adaptation, it should not be carte blanche for misguided approaches showing little consideration for the underestimated survival capacities of native forests.
This is the agenda defended by our association, Les Amis de la Forêt du Gâvre (AFG). All forest visitors are entitled to a peaceful and fulfilling stay in a real forest, not in a trompe l’oeil forest which, in many respects, looks more like a mere green space or a savannah than a mature deciduous forest, as it tends to offer to the eye too many treeless stretches, sometimes simply hidden by curtains of trees.
In a real forest, not in a forest where visitor security and serenity are not assured because of the quite excessive hunting pressure, stressing animals and humans alike. Hunting is practised almost daily during the extensive season, whereas it should not exceed two days a week. Furthermore, hunting to hounds is still practised, even though it is a widely decried and unpopular hunt, abandoned in almost all countries. There should be no room for such cruel practices in public forests which, on the contrary, should lead the way by following high standards of governance and values in every respect.
Local government and the ONF have undertaken to set up a comprehensive public accommodation plan, with the intent of preventing competition between the various public segments and of soothing relations between, for instance, mushroom gatherers and hunters, while delivering an improved accommodation experience to the visitor and better preserving forest biodiversity. Should this plan narrowly focus on visitor flow management (especially in the autumn) and rules enforcement, while considering forestry and hunting as largely off limits in its drafting process, it would end up being a rather futile exercise.
Les Amis de la Forêt du Gâvre (AFG) consider that the only viable approach for this forest to be up to the challenges of the times is in rapidly enforcing forestry methods that will deliver a continuous cover forest with uneven-aged high stands.
This means considering, once and for all, that Le Gâvre Forest IS, in every respect and in its own right, a suburban forest. It lies just thirty kilometres or so from one of France’s largest metropolises (Nantes) and from one of its largest metropolitan centres (Nantes–Saint-Nazaire), a mere 30-45 min drive from the major urban centre of a populous department counting nearly 1.5 million inhabitants, but only one state forest: Le Gâvre Forest. In this respect, it merely deserves the same treatment as, for instance, the fifty state forests of Ile-de-France, around Paris, where forest landscape quality has become a major consideration and where the public is extremely sensitive to its preservation.
A new forest management planning document is scheduled for 2027, to be applied, after approval by the agriculture minister, over the next twenty-year period. It should decisively reflect this new order of priorities, a renewed understanding of what a public forest should stand for.
Appreciation of nature is what the populations of Loire-Atlantique and elsewhere are after. This certainly is a legitimate craving. Fulfilling it especially requires that excessive hunting (primarily of cervids) and logging of the oldest trees should be discontinued. For the sake of a truly multifunctional and sustainable suburban hardwood forest that really favours biodiversity, accommodation of the general public and carbon retention in soils and trees.