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Aujourd’hui, c’est la Fête Nationale en France: today is Bastille Day in France.  It seemed to be a perfect occasion to celebrate France and its wonderful trees and forests.

Le peuple français et ses forêts

The trees and forests of France are deeply engrained in the French people’s psyche.  As a fellow tree blogger recently wrote:

“French schoolchildren are being bussed out to Forests to ensure the next generation will experience and connect with trees and introduced to the fact that forests are as vital to health and life as the blood within them or food at their table.”  read more …

Les forêts de la France

France forest cover by department
Reproduced from the IFN. Click image for an excellent guide to French forests (in English)

The country has three times the proportion of forested land than the UK (read more).  The French National Forest Inventory (IFN) estimates that there are 1,380,000 km² (53,000 sq mi) of forested land in mainland France; 63% is broadleaved forest.  Public ownership of forests is about 26%, compared to 18% in the UK (read more).

France is blessed with so many large forests, with six departments having more than half their territory covered by forest.  Here’s a list of France’s largest forests, over 100 km² (1,000 hectares) in area (compare to the UK’s largest forests):

  • Forêt des Landes (12,650 km²) – Aquitane
  • Forêt d’Arc (11,225 km²) – Rhône-Alpes
  • Forêt du Mont-Ventoux (800 km²) – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
  • Forêt d’Orléans (340 km²) – Centre
  • Forest of Fontainebleau (250 km²) – Île-de-France
  • Forest of Rambouillet (220 km²) – Île-de-France
  • Forêt de la Montagne de Reims (190 km²) – Champagne-Ardenne
  • Forêt d’Iraty (173 km²) – Aquitane
  • Forêt d’Othe (155 km²)- Champagne-Ardenne
  • Forêt du Mont-Aigoual (150 km²) – Languedoc-Roussillon
  • Forêt de Compiègne (145 km²) – Picardy
  • Forêt de Haguenau (137 km²) – Alsace
  • Forêt de la Hardt (or de la Harth) (130 km²) – Alsace
  • Forêt d’Orient (130 km²) – Champagne-Ardenne
  • Forêt de Retz (130 km²) – Champagne-Ardenne
  • Forest of Chaux (130 km²) – Franche-Comté
  • Forêt d’Arc-en-Barrois (100 km²) – Champagne-Ardenne
  • Forêt du Haut-Vallespir (100 km²) – Languedoc-Roussillon

The IFN produce a very clear guide to French forests that is free to download.  It includes various maps of forest cover, type and distribution, plus individual guides for the main forest species.

Chene d'Ecole, Belleme Forest
Chene d'Ecole, Belleme Forest, is over 300 years old and stands 40 metres tall

La gestion des forêts

Forest management in France is typically of a very high standard; in both public and private hands.  Having retained a high forest cover, the French have kept intact a close relationship with their forests, or a strong ‘wood culture’.  This is typified in broadleaved forests where trees are managed on 200 year cycles to produce some of the finest oak in the world, such as at Bellême in the Orne department. Here the fantastically tall and straight tall oaks are retained until they produce a good crop of seeds (mast).  Then, and only then, they are felled.  A year later the open ground is carpeted with a tiny forest of naturally regenerated oak seedlings, which are then nursed progressively to produce the next generation of oak standards.

Les arbres en France

France, like the UK, has many wonderful ancient or veteran trees.  The oldest tree in France is reputed to be a hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) dating from the 3rd Century at Saint Mars-sur-la-Futaie.  If you have an interest in ancient trees this excellent Veteran trees in France blog is highly recommended.

In some areas of France, especially for example in Normandy, trees and hedgerows form a unique patchwork landscape with pasture: the Bocage.  The landscape is similar to that found in parts of the English counties of Cornwall and Devon.

It would be impossible to write about France and trees without mentioning the tree-lined avenues that line canals, rivers and roads.  These are iconic for many visitors to France, probably more so than for residents.  Most people love them but for some, they represent a health and safety nightmare and are thought to be claustrophobic.  I am most definitely a fan though.

And finally …

For a Francophile writing about France I can’t sign off without mentioning the French term for charcoal, le charbon de bois: this is one of the most beautiful and poetic-sounding French terms.

Gabriel Hemery


  1. The Forests in the Loire valley (and possibly others too) were laid out with a network of long straight rides (Allees in French) and where they intersect there are circular areas (Rond points). These rides were laid out for hunting and I am wondering when they were laid out – do you know, or can suggest how I can find out? There are at least a couple of examples in England and I am trying to work out the connection!

  2. How great it is to have such erudite and interesting communications about French / UK / European forestry issues going on via the internet! Such a refreshing change from the inane ‘white noise’ that is Twitter, Facebook and, sadly, other commercial fora (plural of Forum) on the supposed subject of Forestry. Thanks Gabriel for providing such a great service.

    My question is concerned with French Forestry Law – specifically related to felling practice and whether some kind of felling licence is required? (as is the case in the UK if more than 5 cubic metres is felled per calendar quarter).

    Furthermore is there an equivalent to the UK Forestry Commission in France? And is this body resourced to give grant for management / planting / access etc

    1. Many thanks Gabriel, Very helpful. This will give me something to get my teeth into! I’ll dust off my French-English dictionary and see if I can penetrate the ONF and CRPF websites!

  3. Hi Gabriel,

    As one francophile to another – you’ve missed out France’s (and the European Union’s) bigest and most important forest….?

    8 million hectares of tropical rainforest…

  4. Whilst the term Ancient Woodland is particularly British, Old Growth / Primeval forests enjoy the same protection under the European Habitats Directive, as they do in the UK (arguably more so) under PPS9 (which is subject to consultation at the moment).

    The fact is that there is an ongoing love of designating tracts of landscape in the UK well beyond the internationally recognisable clearly defined and regulated designations. The recent PFE disposal consultation document was a clear example of abusing designations with the hastily termed ‘heritage woodland’. My experience and work in France has clearly shown that a designation can be a real danger to an existing landscape or terroir, this is due to the fact that a French landscape is governed through taste, the food that can be obtained within it and as such it is much more ‘a peoples’ landscape, any possible attempt to further governance by designation could lead to restrictive laws which at present allow the public to benefit from their landscape as they have since before the revolution.

    Hunting ‘La Chasse’ is a very important element of French forest management and whilst some french hunting practices are simply barbaric in comparison to fox hunting and other now outlawed UK practices, it cannot be argued against that the French landscape and in particular its forests and all values contained do not benefit from the conservation and policing (and vast income) as a result of a this leisure activity, which in France transcends all class.

    Whilst the ASNW definition and classification still has grey boundaries and is subject to ongoing research it is still provides for a useful platform for foresters to work from – my fear is that it can also thus be abused a little, either by diminishing other highly valuable woodland and forest, including plantations or by possibly adding supplementary value without scientific base as progression towards valuing nature gains momentum.

    If the UK can embrace the European Landscape Convention which it has ratified and begin to use ‘landscape’ in its now clear and definitive sense, we will perhaps see elements of the best practice seen in Europe spreading into the UK. This is hardly radical but effects many so called stakeholders involved in forestry who will need to get to grips with a diminished responsibility and thus loss of power as the landscape is given back to those to whom it belongs as it does in France and elsewhere.

    1. Author

      A fascinating response thank you. I am particularly interested in your final paragraph. It seems to me that you should write a post on your own blog about this….! How can the UK embrace the ELC better, what will be the effect on stakeholders involved in forestry (can they ‘let go’!), to whom does the landscape really belong …?

  5. i never heard of such a distinction in France . But I know until the Renaissance, and somehow until the XIXth century France was like Gaul : a huge forest, which existed since Cro-Magnon time . French poor people had to struggle against the forest to gain land for cultures . I was a kid in the 60s, and still then children were afraid of the wolf . This ancient threat had persisted in mothers’ stories . I was afraid of the wolf in night time .
    The red riding hood is a French tale . Forests, wolves and highwaymen were an everyday’s threat along all French history . And now I live in the widest forest of Europe, except Russia .

  6. Hello, I’m French and a forest lover too . I live in the forêt des Landes, surrounded by trees . I wrote for a light correction : we say ” charbon de bois”, not du bois .
    You’re right , France wouldn’t be France without its forests .

    1. Author

      Hello and thank you so much for your gentle correction of my French! I will correct it now!

      As a French native speaker, can you answer an earlier question from someone who asked whether in France there is a term for “Ancient semi-natural woodlands”. The definition, according to Wikipedia is:

      Ancient woodland is a term used in the United Kingdom to refer specifically to woodland that has existed continuously since 1600 or before in England and Wales (or 1750 in Scotland). Before those dates, planting of new woodland was uncommon, so a wood present in 1600 was likely to have developed naturally.


  7. Hi Gabriel
    Do the french have a designation equivalent to our Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland? And if so, do they treat this as a conservation priority?
    And do they make a distinction between native and non-native trees? In a continental context I doubt the native debate makes sense.

    1. Author

      Hi Robin and thanks for your questions.

      I am not sure about the Ancient semi-natural woodland question so will find out – unless one of our French readers could help out?

      In terms of native labelling – yes it is still relevant across all the European continent, driven by the environmental NGOs. Defining the date at which trees become non-native is different of course as they cannot use the flooding of the La Manche (English Channel) as a milestone as we do in Britain.


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