Ramsar visit to the Armagnac region of France


A new type of Ramsar site in the making

What comes to your mind when reading the word "Armagnac"? A world famous brandy? Gentle slopes with varied cultures in a rural area of southwestern France, famous for its culinary traditions? Or an agricultural landscape embedded in a web of heaths, woodlots and fish ponds? Perhaps you should focus on the latter as key for sustainable development in this area. The Armagnac Ponds retain freshwater for irrigation and to water the cattle. The ponds absorb excessive floods, capture sediment and nutrient flows. The ponds provide abundant fish resources. And the regional biodiversity hotspots are linked to the ponds, especially where surrounded by shallow riparian zones, flood prone meadows, and wet forest parts.

These are, in a nutshell, the criteria presented to the Ramsar Secretariat during an on-site visit by the wetland specialists Sophie Hurtes and Esther Farges of ADASEA, the professional organisation supporting the adaptation of agricultural structures in the Gers province of France. The numerous fish ponds in the area, many of them dating back to original dike constructions by medieval monks, besides their value for fish production, also provide a population stronghold for the European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis), a vulnerable species listed by the European Union Flora Fauna and Habitats Directive and the Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. And much more biodiversity is associated to these wetland ecosystems.

Philippe Dudez, the manager of the European LEADER+ project to support sustainable development in the rural area, is working for the Pays d’Armagnac, an association of 104 communes in this exceptional area (www.paysdarmagnac.org). He convened the mayors of these communes for an extraordinary assembly on 26 June 2008, to explain to them why the mosaic of human-shaped wetlands, hedgerows, woodlots and cultivated areas in a landscape with a unique agricultural production (wine, brandy, cereals, poultry, cattle, vegetables and many local delicatessen) should become recognized as a Wetland of International Importance through its designation for the Ramsar List. From the specialist presentations during the afternoon, it became clear that the site fulfills most of the Ramsar designation criteria. Restored fishponds, their historical heritage (e.g., water mills), and the associated natural habitats with their rich biodiversity are also increasingly becoming a tourist attraction. A first wine producer is already using the pond terrapin in his valley pond as a selling argument. He would be delighted to be given the opportunity to use the Ramsar logo on his bottles, as a quality label for environmental concern on his family farm.

Probably the Ramsar Convention is the perfect tool for the Pays d’Armagnac to be recognized for the international importance of its integrated approach to the management of water, wetlands, agriculture, cultural heritage and quality socio-economic development. The regional office of the French Ministry of Ecology (DIREN Midi-Pyrénées) promised to look favourably into the proposed Ramsar Information Sheet and Map and to confirm its compatibility with French and EU regulations prior to its submission to the Ramsar Secretariat, should the 104 mayors vote for Ramsar designation of their homeland during the next general assembly in September 2008. Philippe Dudez is already nurturing his vision of cooperation with a comparable Ramsar site, such as lake Neusiedl/Fertö, shared between Austria and Hungary, with its large surrounding wineyards, or the Waldviertel ponds, peatbogs and floodplains in Austria and the nearby Trebon fishponds and peatlands in the Czech Republic. Definitely a great step forward to integrate wetland conservation with sustainable water management, agricultural practices and the maintenance of cultural heritage.

-- Tobias Salathé, Ramsar Senior Advisor for Europe

Fltr: Sophie Hurtes, Aimé Faget (pond owner), Claude Sainrapt (President of Pays d’Armagnac), Esther Farges and Philippe Dudez looking at the fishing gear on the dike outlet downstream of Escoubillon pond, pictured upstream in the second photo.

Renovated fishing trial basins for the annual winter fishing at the Pouy cascade of fish ponds.

The historical water mill of Moura pond waiting for an investor to turn it into an interpretation and visitor centre

Uby pond provides water for wheat and wine and habitat for the pond terrapin, also proudly figuring on the wine bottles. Closer to the Uby manor of François Morel remains a smaller pond, traditionally used to provide clay for building purposes, and now a biodiversity haven.

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