Parc Naturel des Caps et Marais d’Opale
The Park is a great place for those who love the outdoors with a wide variety of nature trails to explore on foot, by bike or on horseback. Take the ‘Sentier de Ballon’ 3km walk through the Guines Forest or cycle 9km from Audrehem along the ‘Sentier de la Ligne d’Anvin’. Horse riding trails start at Ardres, Wissant and Audruicq and there are also guided walks.
The park covers a varied landscape from the Audomarois marshes, forests and chalk downs around the densely populated area of St Omer to the cliffs between Calais and Boulogne which border one of the busiest stretches of water in the world - the English Channel. Find more information at the park information centres including hire of bikes, boats and horses.
Since 1997, there have been links with the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to learn from each other about conservation, and at present the 2 organisations are working together on the Transmanche Integrated Protected Landscape Management Project.
Parc Naturel Regional de l’Avesnois covering 125,000 hectares of Nord was created in 1998 to safeguard historic forest and bocage landscapes along with 40 hectares of the last geologically important limestone pavements in the department around les Monts de Baives.
Broadleaved forests of oak along with ash, wild cherry and beech once covered most of the territory and were home to charcoal burners. Now the remaining Avesnois woodland is left to wild boar, fox, stag and perhaps wild cats. Bluebells, orchids and mushrooms dress the forest floor.
Hedgerows were planted in medieval times when orchards here supplied apples to Paris. The Avesnes hedgerows are lower and more delicate than those associated with Flemish, Norman or Breton bocage. This is still a wonderful area for fruit production, cattle graze the fields supplying good beef and tasty dairy produce and endangered species such as the little owl, crested newt and bats are given protection.
Visitors are welcome to walk, cycle and horse ride through the park where people still live, work and farm in harmony with nature. Look for ancient watermills along the Rivers Sambre, Escaut and Oise, bluestone oratories at crossroads and in niches of house walls, old churches, chapels, abbey ruins and military remains. Pick up leaflets about park activities and marked trails in Tourist Offices like Maubeuge or the Regional Tourist Office, place Mendes in Lille. The Park Information Centre at Maroilles (open every day) has exhibits and animations. Find more on www.parc-naturel-avesnois.fr
The first of France’s Regional Natural Parks, created in 1968, Scarpe-Escaut may seem an unlikely landscape for preservation. It covers an area of 43,000 hectares bordered by Lille, Douai and Valenciennes, is the most highly populated and urbanized of such parks and includes part of a historic coal mining area.
In the seventh century, this wooded wetland plain on the Belgian border was colonized by monks led by Belgian missionary St Amand. The remains of the habitat they created clearing forest to make fields for livestock and fish ponds is an important element of Scarpe-Escault Regional Natural Park today. Cattle graze water-meadows lush with yellow marsh rue, forget-me-nots and crimson orchids where thrushes, snipe and lapwing pipe their songs. Pollarded willows give home to dormice, bluetits and burrowing owls, and peat bogs are alive with frogs and dragonflies. Little remains of the monk’s 20 monasteries apart from the gatehouse of Marchiennes Abbey, now a maison du parc, and the abbey tower in the spa centre of St Amand-les-Eaux.
Later, 2 centuries of mining brought wealth to the territory but coal barges polluted the Rivers Scarpe and Escaut, slag heaps formed a chain of artificial hills in the south and the remaining woodland was cut by troops in WWI.
Importantly, a large part of the park’s programme is to preserve the region’s industrial heritage alongside reclaiming a land laid waste. Forests have been replanted and oak, beech and ash as well as sycamore, birch and scots pine now cover 24% of the park. Learn more at the Forest Centre at Raismes and admire a view of the newly protected environment from its remaining 103m high slag-heap. Maison du Terril, Rieulay, has information on geology and mining history. Go down a mine at Lewarde (see Activities). Follow marked footpaths through Raismes, Saint-Amand and Wallers Forest. In all there are 450km of trails for hiking, cycling and horse riding – some with themed routes. Go boating on rivers and canals. Lake reed beds are a bird-watcher’s paradise of warblers, marsh harriers, teal and many more. Huge Goriaux pond, created by mining subsidence, has exceptional fauna and flora and is resting place for thousands of migrating ducks.