On one side, a desert of pebbles, where thousands of sheep graze. On the other, irrigated land, which produces fruit and the country’s most sought-after hay.
Here is in two pictures what it is Crau, a Mediterranean steppe unique in Europe, a former drained delta of the Durance.
For the record (geological), the river was deviated from its course 18,000 years ago by tectonic movements.
They left free an immense alluvial triangle of 60,000 ha, between the Alpilles and the Mediterranean.
Sheep graze the arid part of this steppe, called “Dry crau” (13,000 ha). Farmers cultivate the irrigated part, transformed in the 16th century thanks to an ingenious system of canals.
It is 4.30 a.m. on this June day and we are at the sheepfold of the Grand Carton.
In the sleeping steppe, two cattle trucks are already stationed in front of the stables, all fires on.
In the east, the sky is barely bluish, revealing in Chinese shadows the ridge lines of Sainte-Victoire and Alpilles. The loading of the sheep will be able to begin.
This ritual, it’s transhumance. After having spent the end of winter and spring grazing on the grasses of the Crau, the time for migration has arrived: the herds rise to alpine pastures, with more generous grass.
Trucks in the dawn …
Time to grab a cowbell’s leg and the others follow suit, pounding loudly on the loading bridge.
Click, click, the truck deck latches close as the “lockers” fill up. It smells like hot sheep, it bleats and chimes at all times.
In less than 20 minutes, the 580 ewes are put in a basket. 4 hours later, they will be at La Foux d´Allos, on the Haut-Vercors mountain pastures.
When the trucks slip away in the dawn, they let the Grand Carton sheepfold fall silent, until the year after …
Coussoul interpretation tour
Sheep pastoral activity, practiced for meat, is the weapon of the Crau.
But 7,400 ha are also protected there by the Coussouls de Crau Nature Reserve. This is where the head of the Ecomusée de la Crau, place of reception attached to the Conservatory of Natural Areas PACA, in Saint-Martin-de-Crau.
focus on the Peau de Meau coussoul interpretation circuit, a 5 km loop that reveals the secrets of the dry meadow to walkers.
Pastoralism for 6,000 years
What surprises most in broad daylight is the flatness. The highest mounds are piles of pebbles that the Germans erected during the war to prevent Allied planes from landing on this natural runway …
Pastoralism here has been around for at least 6,000 years. The remains of around fifteen sheepfolds from the beginning of the Christian era have been found there. One of them appears under our feet, drawing the shape of a boat.
The flora has adapted to this water-tight land: asphodels, branchy brachypods, spurges, thistles, thyme…
The rare plants grow between rolled pebbles, some of which are welded by limestone, forming blocks of pudding.
It is in the spring that you have to come and walk on the interpretive circuit, when the flowering bursts. Summer is to be excluded, as the heat is extreme.
Rare ganga cata
The fauna is thin but unique. The birds nest on the ground, like the discreet ganga cata, a rare species found only in the Maghreb and Andalusia.
The population is estimated at 400 individuals.
Also on the ground, we can observe the ocellated lizard (very threatened), the Montpellier snake, the crau locust, the bupreste…
Heaven is more generous: the great little bustard rubs shoulders with the calendered lark, European rollier, little owl, Bonelli’s eagle, red pipit, kestrel …
Biggest herds in France
The sheep is of course the flagship animal of La Crau. About thirty breeders graze their animals in dry Crau, from February to June.
The majority is made up of Arles merino sheep, a lactating sheep breed.
The collapse of wool prices in the 1930s steered breeders towards meat, although there is now a revival of the wool industry.
The largest sheep herds in France are here. The average is 700 heads but some breeders have 8,000 to 9,000!
In June, up to 120,000 ewes leave La Crau by truck to go up to the mountain pastures.
Crau Verte PDO hay
The challenge for the Reserve is to protect the dry Crau, by securing the 6,000 ha still in the hands of private owners.
The steppe covered 40,000 ha in the 18C. but irrigation, urbanization and industrialization have largely eroded it.
So much so that we are talking about ” Green crau »To describe these immense irrigated spaces, kingdom of hay of Crau and tree orchards.
Other riches! Hay from Crau has a PDO and is sold in particular to the largest horse stables, in France, the United Kingdom and to the Emirates …
This green Provence bursts into the plain of Eyguières and Aureille, chessboard of huge plots protected from the mistral by tree hedges.
It is the cultivated side of a territory where agriculture dominates, it is up to the public authorities to continue to protect its unique ecosystem.
Family activities, ornithological observations, treasure hunts, permanent and temporary exhibitions …
House of Nature and Hunting
Mas de la Samatane, RN 113, Saint-Martin-de-Crau
04 86 52 03 43/04 90 55 12 56.
This municipal house is a cultural and educational place. Nature outings and guided hikes for the day.
• Ô Fil de l’Eau, Saint-Martin-de-Crau. ofildeleau.com
In the heart of town, this restaurant has built a good image around fish and shellfish specialties. Also organic bull and lamb meats. Formula at € 17 for lunch. 27 to 33 € in the evening.