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Land and Resources, Plant and Animal Life

Aleppo pine, roe deer, marmots, coniferous forest, cork oak

France’s generally mild climate, ample rainfall, variety of elevations, and long growing season, offer habitat for many species of plants and animals. Centuries of human settlement have profoundly altered the land and greatly reduced the number and diversity of indigenous species. Conservation efforts in recent decades have helped protect important undeveloped areas that remain.

The natural vegetation of France is closely related to climatic conditions. In the mountains, the highest elevations near the snow line consist of expanses of bare rock with only a few mosses and lichens growing in sheltered areas. Farther down the mountainside, but still above the timberline, alpine pastures provide good grazing for sheep and cattle during the summer months. Below the tree line the higher forests are composed of coniferous species such as pine, larch, fir, and spruce.

Below the coniferous forest is a deciduous forest of oak, beech, and chestnut. Only tiny remnants of the great forest that once covered the plains and lower mountain slopes of France remain. Most of the lowlands of France are now in farmland, and forests are restricted to areas of poorer soil. Yet the lowlands of France are not treeless; lines of stately trees border many highways and canals, and in the hedgerow country of Normandy and Brittany virtually every tiny plot of ground is enclosed by an embankment planted with bushes or trees.

Expanses of an evergreen shrub, called maquis, prevail along much of the Mediterranean coast, where summers are generally long, hot, and dry. The Mediterranean region once supported open forests of live oaks and grasses. This native vegetation was destroyed by centuries of overgrazing, burning, and woodcutting. Many areas have been reduced to expanses of bare ground. The most common trees found in the Mediterranean region are the olive, the cork oak, and the Aleppo pine.

The destruction of France’s native woodlands led to a sharp decline of native animals, a process that continues to the present day. Few specimens of the larger mammals remain in France; the most common of these include species of deer and fox. Red deer and roe deer are still hunted, as are wild boar, which survive in remote forest areas. The rare chamois, a type of goat, is found in the Alps and in the Pyrenees. Among the smaller animals found in the region are porcupines, skunks, marmots, and martens. Endangered species include beavers, otters, and badgers. A small population of brown bears and lynx survive high in the Pyrenees.

France has an abundance of bird life. Many species of migrating birds, including ducks, geese, and thrushes, spend their winters in France. The Mediterranean region is home to various exotic bird species, including flamingos, bee-eaters, egrets, herons, and black-winged stilts. Reptiles are rare, and the only venomous reptile in France is the adder.

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