Seated side by side at the front of a long flat-bottomed boat, Mélanie the photographer, telephoto lens in sight, and I, binoculars screwed on the nose, search the vast expanses of wet grass, populated by gorse and of reeds, which open before us. The beautiful European otter, with its silky coat and looking perpetually on the lookout, “princess of the Briéron marshes”, will she show herself on this mild summer morning? Standing behind us, fluidly propelling our barge by means of a long chestnut wood pole, Michel Moyon, a child of this land that his family has lived in since the 17th century, seems to doubt it. Without seeing him, we guess his perplexity from his amused little laugh that bursts into our neck.
However, that morning, the dawn, still drowned in silence, seemed auspicious. Only the rustling of the wind escapes in the reeds, a few chirps of morning birds and the lapping of the water. The lazily rising morning light chases away the layers of mist and gradually iridescent the waves, transforming them into a sparkling mirror.
Slowly, the barge maneuvered by Michel glides over one of the canals lined with fine reeds and silver-leaved willows. Taking a couline to bring us back to earth – a water ditch dug at the end of his garden, which serves as a landing stage – our guide for the day shows us a rock on which a female has come, with her little cubs, to taste carp all last winter. At this memory, suddenly, he no longer seems to laugh at our vain search. “Each encounter with this extraordinary animal is a magical moment,” he concedes. His coming to men remains exceptional. The animal, shy and fearful, with a discreet and nocturnal lifestyle, does not reveal itself easily.
Franck Macé knows this well. The biodiversity and wetlands project manager of the Brière regional natural park criss-crosses the marsh up and down. While a thick squall drowns the sky in dark gray clouds, bends the willows and elms in the canals, softens the earth under our feet and makes the tall grass bead, Franck takes us on a narrow path. He wants to introduce us to the secret and fascinating world of otters. He points with his stick to the clods of peat, the intertwining of roots and earth at the edge of the water channel. “They dig shelters so impenetrable that they bear a specific name, the “catiches”. Sometimes their entrance is in the water and their exit 2.5 m from the edge,” he laughs. Even this specialist does not know how many otters there are in the park. “Probably between ten and a hundred,” he says, with an amused air.
Its cousin, the ermine
It must be said that the otter lives mainly at night, hiding from the eyes of humans. The Briéron marsh, little frequented apart from the inhabitants of the neighboring municipalities who have owned and managed it since 1461, brings it peace and tranquility. Raising only two or three otters in a lifetime, and their emancipation period being long (up to two years), the otter appreciates being able to protect them.
So it leaves only a few traces of its presence, which the specialists have learned to spot: long flows, paths of lying grass, leftover meals, and above all, excrement composed of remains of bones and scales of fish, designated by a specific word: “épreintes”.
Despite its discretion – and no doubt because of it – the otter has always fascinated the Briérons. Its cousinage with the ermine adorned it with a magical image. And for good reason, the latter has been the emblem of the Dukes of Brittany since the 13th century. Its black and white speckles line the coats of arms of towns and noble families throughout the region, such as that of the Duchess Anne of Brittany. Twice queen of France, she had as tutor one of the first owners of the castle of Ranrouët, in Herbignac, north of the marsh. Surrounded by a crown of hundred-year-old oaks in which the wind, finches and thrushes sing, the ruins (some vestiges of the inner courtyard and its impressive gatehouse with its two twin towers) create a setting conducive to tranquillity. In Brière, the otters cultivate their tranquility thanks to a mosaic of canals, mounds and wet meadows which host immense reedbeds in their centre. These areas overgrown with reeds cover almost three quarters of the surface of the nature reserve. Dense and high, nestled in land that is difficult to access, they offer these mustelids hiding places of choice.
Let us observe, for example, to the east, the large reed bed on the edge of the Pont de Gras, which connects Saint-Lyphard and Guérande. Dating from the 1st century, this magnificent ford of flat stones can be crossed on foot. Peaceful and silent, the place, surrounded by pedunculate oaks and chestnut trees, is a paradise for otters…
The Swamp Princesses
The reed prized by the “princesses of the marsh” was used for a long time to cover the roofs of the cottages of Briéron. Those of the village of Kerhinet, with their long traditional roofs and bright colours, have been regularly restored since 1973. A marked circuit allows you to imagine the daily life of the rural populations at the time when they lived there in virtual autarky. A little further, in Saint-Joachim, Maëlenn Mézac lets us into their intimacy. The Bride’s House, which she carefully enriched, is a museum of local memory. There is the largest collection of bridal globes. In 1906, no less than 138 workers made ornaments and crowns. “These objects have retained all their emotion”, testifies this passionate thirty-year-old.
During the Neolithic era, a forest of oaks spread out over vast peat bogs. The trees have sunk into the ground. With this underground wood, the cutler Jean-Henri Pagnon manufactures high-end knife handles. “The forest gave a black material, smooth and hard like stone, in the process of fossilization, which we call ‘morta’”, explains the professional. To exhume these oaks buried in the peat for five thousand years, Jean-Henri Pagnon crosses the marshes every autumn.
The otter never deserted the area, even when it had disappeared from all the other French regions at the height of its hunt, in the 1950s. Its silky and warm fur could then bring back the equivalent of a month of salary. If her way of life cultivates mystery, it also makes her vulnerable. “It needs a large territory to find food. It can travel 10 to 30 kilometers in one night,” says Franck Macé, tireless watcher of the Brière regional natural park. In this quest for food, it sometimes takes roads… Like the departmental 50 which crosses the marsh from north to south, towards Saint-Nazaire. However, many workers join the Atlantic shipyards to work there at night, when the otters are on the move… To fight against this first cause of mortality – the park collects eight to ten corpses a year -, around tunnels were dug under road.
Leaving the Briéron marsh, we better understand Michel Moyon’s remark: the encounter with the otter remains rare and extraordinary. But when summer comes to an end, when the water floods the mounds of the marsh again, when the spoonbills and the great egrets have found their way back to warmer countries, the local child knows that at random one cool morning, he will find them again… these queens of the tranquility of the marshes.
On the Loup
The “Caté ma” is a blin – pronounced here “belin” -, namely a flat-bottomed Briéron boat, 27 feet (9 meters) rebuilt in 2006 by the Association des Mariniers de Brière et du Brivet. It can be seen, sheltered under a canopy, in the port of Rozé, near Saint-Malo-de-Guersac, to the right of the lock.
If today each inhabitant has at least one barge, the only boat authorized in the marsh, the Caté ma belonged to the large commercial models used, until the 19th century, for the transport of materials from the marsh (peat, reeds, sand, manure …) along the Loire, even going to Nantes.
- Bride’s house: a small enchanting museum on the intimacy of the families of briéronnes. Info. : parc-naturel-briere.com Tel. : 02 40 91 68 68.
- Brivet wooden marine museum: managed by volunteers, it is dedicated to the maritime heritage of the marsh. Such. : 02 40 45 58 22.
- Village of Kerhinet. Info. : La Baule-Guérande peninsula tourist office. Such. : 02 40 24 34 44. Themed guided tours, by reservation.
- Ruins of a protected castle by the marsh: the castle of Ranrouët. Such. : 02 40 88 96 17.
- Belvedere of Rozé, on the port of Rozé. 24 meters high and 128 steps, view of the marsh. Free.
- barge ride, Michel Moyon, Fedrun Island. Personalized tours, binoculars included. Tel.: 06 60 12 65 01.
- Morta knives by Jean-Henri Pagnon. Morta handle knives, quite expensive.
Take a walk
- The Pierre-Constant Reserve, trail accessible only with free guided tours. Until September 30: daily from Sunday to Thursday. Registration required on 02 40 91 68 68. 2.5 km of flat trail.
- Great Country Hike at the Brière tower. Get directions: parc-naturel-briere.com
- Review Hulot, whose number 18 is devoted to the otter. Funny, complete and very informative. 6.90. Information: lahulotte.fr Tel.: 0324300130