Responsible walking in France

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, if to the human mind's imaginings, Silence and solitude were vacancy?
- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) from his poem Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni
As you walk through the Verdon Gorge, around the Luberon or indeed in the shadow of Mont Blanc, it is hard to get your head around the fact that France has issues when it comes to offering responsible walking holidays. We, as visitors, have huge responsibilities to respect and maintain the plethora of natural resources that they have on offer, as well as the French culture they rightly value, and which we all adore when holidaying there.

From the controversy over empty second homes, the conservationists’ battle to make Mont Blanc a more protected site, the overuse of pesticides in French agriculture and the sustaining of small artisanal food producers, there are many topics to discuss on your walks. Because, although stunning and special, responsible tourism in France is far from being a fait accompli.

Wildlife & environment

Mont Blanc – Where silence is golden

The Mont Blanc massif is one of the most popular regions for hiking holidays in France, and so it is hard to believe that it is not actually a highly protected landscape. It doesn’t have national park status, for example. In France, it was designated a ‘site classé’ in 1951, which prevents development, camping and supervises amenities, but it does not have a conservation strategy that is co-managed by the three countries, something that would exist with a higher form of protected landscape designation. What it does have, however, is a strong group of mountaineering, environmental and conservation experts from three countries, who came together in 1991 to form Espace Mont Blanc. Two of its priorities of late are to seek international protective status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to perfect a management plan for the massif which will be controlled by European judicial statute. Indeed the former won’t be achieved until the latter is put into practice.

It is not just the slopes, forests and precious alpine tundra that needs protecting around Mont Blanc, it is also the air. And the ambience. Mountain Wilderness, a mountain conservation organisation created in Biella, Italy, in 1987, leads important campaigns to protect wild mountain places. They define these as “any untouched mountain environment where anyone who so wishes may come into direct contact with the wide-open spaces, experience solitude, silence, rhythms, natural dimensions, laws and dangers.”

A recent campaign is ‘Silence’, lobbying to stop the growing number of privately chartered tourists planes and helicopters which are currently destroying this rare natural gift of silence on Europe’s highest mountain. There is now rarely a moment of total silence, without hearing tourist propellers, echoes and engines overhead.

The conglomerate Espace Mont Blanc recently developed the first ever ‘Strategy for the Future’ management plan for this multinational mountain, including a campaign seeking to ensure that an air space without aviation is prioritised as the world looks forward to a cleaner future. To date, flights are not limited unlike, for example, the silent paragliders, and drones, which are not allowed over the Mont Blanc range in July and August. It is also thought that the increasing number of ‘flyovers’ is becoming a safety risk. In French national parks flights for leisure purposes are only allowed at a minimum of 1,000m above the ground, but there are no such restrictions over Mont Blanc, as it does not have protected status. Watch the video below which captures the heart of this campaign, as well as the hearts of the campaigners, which beat strongly to protect this unique mountain territory.
Frédi Meignan, President Mountain Wilderness France:
"Silence has become such a rare commodity, because wherever we live today there is always noise. And here we are in one of the few territories where there is no noise at all. Not one noise. It is so quiet you can even here the silence. I believe that such a rare and beautiful territory deserves a minimum of respect, and respecting Mont Blanc is respecting its silence."

What you can do
Support the invaluable work of Pro Mont Blanc, the umbrella organisation of various charities and conservationists working to protect Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland and Italy. French speakers might also like to seek out Pro Mont Blanc’s book, published in 2002, Le versant noir du Mont Blanc (The black hillside of Mont Blanc), which highlights many of its conservation issues. Follow their many projects and share on social media outlets. Hikers are often aware of the issues, but many skiers aren’t.

Hunting & hiking – never a happy marriage

If you have ever camped in France towards the end of August, you will know that dawn rude awakening well. Packs of barking dogs revving up for the annual hunting season, which usually continues until the end of September, but varies per region. So, if you see signage saying ‘chasseurs’, or chasse gardee’, wander right back to where you came from – this indicates a hunting area and these guys mean business. Indeed, 25 French hunters die each year after being shot by other hunters.

A more controversial area with regards to hunting is regarding the rare wolf and bear populations. The French hunted wolves to extinction back in the 1930s, but in 1992 a sneaky alpha mating pair crossed the border from Italy and since then wolves have got their own back. Today there are a minimum of 300 individual wolves in around 25 packs spread throughout the French Alps, across the Rhone Valley into Massif Central and up the country’s eastern border, and under the Berne Convention and European Law, the wolf is a protected species and can no longer be hunted or poisoned.

Until now… due to a rise in wolf attacks on farm animals and much protest from farmers across France, the government has passed a ‘wolf plan’ under which 24 wolves can be legally ‘removed’ annually. The role that began as an official culling job for states marksmen however has now been extended to ‘wolf lieutenants’ too and today wolves can be shot in ordinary hunts, or in areas where they can be ‘seen to pose a problem’ – a subjective opinion and one that has conservation groups who view a return to wolf hunts as archaic and scandalous up in arms.
Controversial further still is the smoke screen that conveniently blurs the facts on bear hunting in France. In 2004, hunters shot dead the last brown bear native to the Pyrenees, condemning the species to extinction and causing what the French government called ‘an environmental catastrophe’. Since then, 22 brown bears from Slovenia have been reintroduced to the Pyrenees as part of an official programme in a move that also ups the status of the mountain range as one of the last great strongholds of the European brown bear in southern Europe. Because, as a signatory to the European Union “Natura 2000" initiative to preserve biodiversity, France is legally bound to bear restoration. Farmers have long countered that the bears are unwelcome and kill their livestock and hunters have shot several brown bears, allegedly by mistake, though if a practiced hunter accidentally shoots an enormous endangered brown bear perhaps said hunter shouldn’t be handling a gun.
Throughout history wolves have had a reputation for killing on an almost mythical level, but French public opinion is very much on the wolf’s side with a 2014 poll concluding that 80 percent of French people wanted wolves to be protected from farmers, rather than sheep from wolves. France should also be given credit for trying to act with ethical guidelines to address the problem – even if you agree with the practice of culling as a whole – and the implementation of special fencing, similar to electric fencing, that has proved effective in reducing both livestock predation and reducing angry retaliation from farmers.
What can you do?
Don’t hunt, and definitely don’t tell a hunter if you see a brown bear. Apart from that, your best bet is to support any tourist initiatives that centre on either seeing wild animals in their natural environments, or keeping them happy there. Such as WWF, or locally Ferus, which strives to protect bear, wolf and lynx populations in France.

People & culture

The culture of mountain safety

Mountain safety is like a religion for people who live in and love the mountains. Especially on Mont Blanc which has seen tragedies and fatalities. Tourists can be guilty of turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of walking and climbing in the mountains, be it the Alps or the Pyrenees, because they are so accessible, by cable car or train, they are packed with pretty ski villages and state of the art mountain refuges, they somehow seems ‘safer’ or that a Panama hat and a bottle of red is all you need to enjoy the exquisite excursions. Talk to the experts, your hosts and guides – they will be switched on to the unpredictability of French mountain landscapes.

If possible, always go trekking with an International Mountain Leader or IML. These are highly qualified people, who know exactly how and when to tackle different aspects of the mountains, depending on weather, the time of year, avalanche risks and so on. They are also fully trained in emergency procedures and will warn the walking group about dangers and how to prevent accidents. You might fall into the trap of thinking that you do not need a guide or leader in summer but this is not true. Conditions can still be extreme in summer, so don’t take any risks. Or, in early summer, the temperatures might soar early morning, causing ice melt and avalanche at higher levels. 80 percent of rescue operations are due to exhaustion, and are usually preventable with better preparation.

What you can do
Make sure you are fit and well prepared before your trip. Safe walking boots, the right amount of layers, waterproofs, water and an emergency kit are key. Ensure that you are walking with an internationally qualified mountain leader, particularly when hiking at higher levels. The UIMLA International Mountain Leader and the IFMGA Mountain Guide are the only internationally recognised qualifications in the mountains world-wide.

Second homes: The British invasion

France is still an enduringly popular destination for British people, in particular, seeking to buy property overseas. Something that is a persistent bone of contention in France. On the one hand, the invasion of holiday home seekers in France has been blamed for making some of its most quaint villages ‘seasonal’ and half-empty for much of the year, as well as forcing prices too high for the pockets of French locals. On the other, second-home owners have been lauded for contributing to activity in rural districts with lower populations where agriculture had been previously in decline, as well as preventing rural-urban migration among young French employed to work at rehabilitated B&Bs.
What can you do?
Luckily, our walking holidays are run by travel companies that support locally owned accommodations, guides and restaurants. And also, they operate for many months of the year, and so you are supporting a whole other side of the economy than you would be staying in a second home rented out on an accommodation booking website and heading off on random hikes on your own.

Responsible tourism tips

Wild camping is not permitted at high altitude, and you aren’t allowed to build fires either. You can camp bivouac style everywhere, however, but under the condition that you put up your tent at nightfall and have taken it down by sunrise. The use of pesticides in French agriculture is very high. In fact it is the third-largest consumer of pesticides in the world, after the United States and Japan. Apples grown in southern France, for example, are subjected to nearly 40 pesticides*. Support the rapidly growing organic or ‘bio’ movement on your travels and, if that is not possible, at least endeavour to support small producers and artisanal food outlets such as bakeries. Because the mass usage of fertilizers is more often than not to cater for the mass consumerism driven by super and hypermarkets.
Peter Roche, co-founder of our walking holidays supplier, Le Moulin du Chemin:
“These days, wild flowers and insects such as bees, butterflies, damsel and dragon flies fare better on relatively steeply undulating countryside. A possible reason for this incidence is that steeply undulating countryside does not lend itself to the large-scales favoured by industrial agriculture. Since much industrial agriculture leans towards liberal use of herbicides, wild flower diversity is seen to suffer on plains favoured by industrial agriculture. Steeply undulating countryside can be found in the famous mountainous parts of France – the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massive Central. Not so well-known is the bocage in the Pay de Gâtine in the region of Poitou-Charentes.”
The train network in France is superb and many walking holiday companies will organise transfers for you from train stations, whether you are coming for summer or winter walking. So avoid the carbon footprint of flying or bringing your car (unless there are lots of you in it) and consider travelling by train.
Bernard Marclay, Mountain Wilderness France
“When air pollution hits certain levels, then the heavy good vehicles are stopped entering the Mont Blanc tunnel and driving speeds for all drivers are limited too. But in general, the pollution levels are far too high, and we encourage tourists to leave their cars behind.”
There are now police at certain stages of the Mont Blanc ascent, due to irresponsible and ill prepared climbing practices on some people’s parts. This is always a divisive issue – how much do we police the mountains in order to stop the one or two idiots? When actually, the mountains should be about freedom and tranquility, not over-regulation. The fact is that if every climber, hiker and mountaineer acted responsibility, there wouldn’t be such a need for reigning in.
Bernard Marclay: “There is always a problem of ‘surfrequentation’ or overcrowding on the ascent as well as the Tour de Mont Blanc. But we believe that access should be free here on Mont Blanc. People just need to be respectful of the environment when they hike there, and the minimum they can do is to take away all of their waste. Most people are respectful, but some are not so careful."
It is very important to stay on the allocated paths. When trekking, you can lessen your environmental footprint on habitats and ecosystems and walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. Sadly mountain bikers are often guilty of going off piste during the hiking seasons, so be wary. Waste is always an issue in trekking regions, so it is always worth reminding yourself of the Leave No Trace principles before you go. This organisation is the font of all knowledge and training when it comes to environmental protection and outdoor activities. It all seems like common sense and, in general, walkers love the environment and are extremely protective of it. However, this doesn’t explain the wasters who leave things behind like disposable barbeques, cigarette butts, banana skins, chewing gum, drinks bottles and even pop up tents. Leave no trace also means leaving nature as you find it, so don’t pick wildflowers please.
Liz Lord founder of our supplier Space Between:
“If you are in national parks, respect the rules – you can bivvy out BUT fires are strictly forbidden.”
Let’s not beat about the bush, the waste issue also relates to human waste. Bring bags with you, and take your faeces away. The two highest toilets in Europe are to be found on Mont Blanc. They are serviced by helicopter in order to deal with the amount of human waste which spreads down the mountain, calling it a ‘Mont Noir’ when the snow melts. Often local people have to clear it up along with all the other trash left behind. Shit happens. Shovel it and shift it. A responsible walker is an insured walker. Accidents do happen, even if it’s just a badly sprained ankle, and you might need to be rescued. So make sure you are properly insured, even though you might feel more ‘covered’ because you are in Europe. *Source: New York Times
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nicolas Cool] [Top box (verdon Gorge): Shadowgate] [Wolf: GIPE25] [Empty cottage: Adam]