Mercantour National Park, Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France

The Mercantour National Park is one of the eleven national parks in France. It is located in the departments of Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. At the western end of the Alpine arc, the Argentera – Mercantour – Marguareis massif constitutes a set of nearly 120,000 hectares of unspoiled nature. Spectacular link between the Alps and the Mediterranean, it is also a historic space for exchanges between peoples and culture.

With its peaks over 3000 m above sea level, its multiple glacial lakes and valleys with a very strong character, the Mercantour National Park is, one hour from the sea, the jewel of unspoiled nature. Leaning against the border of Italian Piedmont, the Mercantour massif is the last promontory of the Alpine arc to the south, before its brutal plunge into the Mediterranean Sea. At the top of Gélas, the highest peak in Mercantour at an altitude of 3,143 m, you are only 50 km from the sea.

A special location between sea and mountains which gives it a unique and original character. You will discover a wide variety of landscapes, plants and animals that you will not find anywhere else. With a length of 150 km, the territory extends over six valleys in the Southern Alps and covers two departments: the Alpes-Maritimes for about two-thirds of its surface, and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Throughout its valleys, the crystalline Mercantour massif offers scents of the Mediterranean, Provence, the Alps and Italy. Verdon, Var-Cians, Ubaye, Tinée, Vésubie and Roya-Bévéra: each valley has its own distinct character.

It is more particularly known for being one of the wildest in France, and one of the most varied in terms of landscapes, with very marked contrasts: its very particular geographical location, near the Côte d’Azur, brings Mediterranean touches to these alpine mountains. This is where the wolf naturally made its return to France in 1992 from Italy. The exceptional character of the site also justified in 1979 its classification as a National Park, an appellation recognized throughout the world as the highest level of quality and protection of remarkable natural spaces. Its core is classified as a Category II protected area by the World Commission on Protected Areas of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while its optimum area of membership is classified as Category V.

In order to protect wildlife, the central territories of the Mercantour massif were first classified as a Royal Hunting Reserve in 1859 by King Victor-Emmanuel II, then a Hunting Reserve in 1946 by prefectural decree and Reserve in 1953 by ministerial decree. In 1936, the National Society of Acclimatization of France, founded in 1854 and then become the National Society for the Protection of Nature, also established the Lauzanier Nature Reserve, integrated into the Mercantour National Park when it was created.

The national park was established in 1979. Since 1987, it has been twinned with the neighboring regional park Parco naturale Alpi Marittime in Italy (on the Argentera massif), with which it has 33 km of common border and with which a European Park project is also under study.. In 1992, the wolf made a natural comeback from Italy. In 2009, a new decree amended its founding decree (1979), and its charter was approved by the Prime Minister onDecember 28, 2012and subject to the adhesion of its 28 municipalities, after four years of development in consultation with all the partners in the territory. To date, 21 of the 28 municipalities have wished to commit to this charter.

This set is represented by the Mercantour National Park on the French side and by the Alpi Marittime Protected Areas in Italy. Twinned since 1987, the two spaces have the common ambition to promote a territorial continuity that plays with all borders. This very extensive collaboration gives them a privileged place with the status of the first European Park.

In 2013, the site of the Mercantour National Park and the Parco delle Alpi Marittime was inscribed on the tentative lists of UNESCO World Heritage in both countries. From 2013, the Park benefits from a joint management entity with the Maritime Alps Natural Park, on the Italian side, under the name of European Natural Park, prelude to a possible inscription in the World Heritage of Humanity of the UNESCO and laboratory for cross-border cooperation in the management of protected natural areas.

The ten National Parks of France are currently being reinforced by National Parks of France, a public establishment responsible for ensuring the synergy of general resources as well as the national and international image of these nature protection tools.

The Alpi Marittime Protected Areas bring together the Alpi Marittime and Marguareis parks. In 2016, the Piedmont Region united these two distinct structures into a single entity, to which were also entrusted seven nature reserves (Rocca San Giovanni Saben; Grotte del Bandito; Ciciu del Villar; Crava Morozzo; Benevagienna; Sorgenti del Belbo; Grotte di Bossea) already linked to the two Parks.

The Protected Areas Alpi Marittime therefore offer a large mosaic of natural areas, very different from each other, ranging from the Alpine arc to the Langhe, passing through the Padane plain. In total, the protected territory covers 38,290 hectares and includes sixteen municipalities. The parks of Marittime and Marguareis, as well as the reserves, have however kept their borders and their territorial specificities.

The territory of the Mercantour National Park extends over two departments, twenty-one communes, 68,500 hectares in the central zone and 136,500 hectares in the peripheral zone. Its highest point is the summit of Gélas at 3,143 meters.

Six main valleys and two “secondary” make up the park:
the Roya and Bévéra valley
the valley of Vésubie
the Tinée valley
the Haut-Var and Cians valley
the Ubaye valley
the Verdon valley

French part of the former hunting reserve of the kings of Italy which occupied both sides of the Alps before 1861, the Parc du Mercantour has been twinned since 1987 with the Italian natural park delle Alpi Marittime (formerly de l’Argentera). These two organizations jointly manage the monitoring of animal species that roam this entire protected area. The ibex thus gain their summer quarters in the Mercantour after having wintered in the Argentera, while the mouflons make the opposite route.

The central core of the Mercantour massif, in the northeast, along the border axis, is made up of crystalline rocks. It is surrounded by sedimentary rocks.

Many glaciers (including the summit of Gélas at Mount Clapier at Lake Allos) covered the mountains of heights until the beginning of XX century. With the sustained action of rivers, they have deeply marked the morphology of the reliefs and valleys.

Valley of marvels
In the heart of this setting of vertiginous summits (including Cime du Gélas, the third highest mountain in the Maritime Alps at 3,143 m), lies a gem listed as a Historical Monument, the famous Vallée des Merveilles, the aptly named “valley of marvels”. At the foot of Mont Bégo, climbers can admire some 37,000 petroglyphs dating back to the Bronze Age, representing weapons, cattle and human figures that are sometimes very mysterious. A less challenging destination is the Musée des Merveilles at Tende.

Roya Valley
Roya Valley is a natural region of France and Italy located to the east of the department of Maritime Alps and to the west of the province of Imperia. The country stretches along the Roya valley from the Col de Tende to the Italian border a little after Sospel. It also includes the Bévéra, Caïros and Refréi valley. To the west, the peaks of Mercantour and the Massif de l’Authion dominate the valley: Cime de l’Agnel (2,927 m), Cime du Diable (2,685 m), Pointe des Trois Communes (2,080 m)… the east, the border is materialized by the Ligurian Alps: Mont Saccarel(2,200 m), Cime de Marte (2,136 m), Mont Peyrevieille (2,038 m)… The valley is bordered to the west by the country of the Vésubie valley and to the south-west by the country of Nice.

Vesubia Valley
Formerly known as the valley of Lantosque is a river of France, all in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, in region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and a tributary left the Var river. The valley is beautiful along its entire length and particularly picturesque in its last portion, the “gorges”, going from Saint-Jean-la-Rivière (commune of Utelle) to Plan-du-Var and also visible from the Saut des Belvedere. French in Duranus. In its lower course, from Plan-du-Var, the torrent has cut gorges with vertical walls to join the Var. The landscape is still Mediterranean between Saint-Jean-la-Rivière and Lantosque: the less steep and best exposed slopes of the middle valley are covered with terraced crops, vines and olive trees. The upper valley, resolutely alpine, alternates green pastures, forests and firs, waterfalls and high peaks. In summer, the rise of the Vésubie valley offers a striking contrast, passing in a few minutes from the lower valley of the Var, crushed by the sun, to an alpine landscape of green meadows.

Tinée Valley
The Tinée is a river in France which flows entirely in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, in region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. It is the main tributary of the Var river on the left bank.

Cians Valley
The Cians is a tributary of the left of the river the Var, and a first class rivers in the department of Alpes-Maritimes.

Ubaye Valley
The Ubaye valley is in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and has about 7700 inhabitants. The main town in the valley is the sub-prefecture of Barcelonnette. The Ubaye valley is a valley of glacial origin; the right bank of the Ubaye is sunny and cultivated (adret), the left bank is shaded and forest (ubac). Its altitude ranges from 771 meters at the lowest point: the artificial lake of Serre-Ponçon, up to 2,655 meters at the source of Ubaye (Lac de Longet). Its highest point is the Aiguille de Chambeyron with an altitude of 3,412 meters. The Ubaye valley and its outbuildings have a total area of 93,962 hectares.

Verdon Valley
The Verdon is a French river which rises at the foot of the Tête de la Sestrière, between the Col d’Allos and the Pic des Trois-Évêchés, and flows into the Durance, near de Vinon-sur-Verdon, after having covered 165.7 kilometers. In its upper course, the Verdon looks like a torrent and has a significant slope: in Saint-André-les-Alpes, 45 kilometers from its source, the river is already 900 meters above sea level. Downstream from this point, gradually swelled by its tributaries, the Verdon crosses several mountain ranges through imposing gorges, the Verdon gorges, several of which have been equipped with hydroelectric dams.

Several lakes can be visited, for example the lake of Allos, the lake of the Lauzanier, the lakes of Vens, the lakes of Morgon, and the lakes of the valley of marvels.

The Mercantour National Park provides you with all the wild species observed by its agents since its creation in 1979. Each new observation feeds in real time the files of each species that you consult, in a desire to share and enrich knowledge of alpine biodiversity. The National Park has been collecting flora and fauna data on its territory for more than 40 years. These are used to gain a better understanding of biodiversity, to follow the evolution of certain fragile or heritage species… because acting intelligently to safeguard this natural heritage requires knowing and understanding it. Every day, its agents make observations in the context of their missions with a genuine concern for enriching knowledge about Alpine biodiversity.

In 2007, estimates referred to 3,200 plant and animal species. After carrying out a biodiversity inventory with the Maritime Alps Natural Park (in Italian: Parco naturale delle Alpi Marittime), the Mercantour reports more than 8,000 different animal and plant species.

Due to the variety of the terrain and the climate (influenced by the junction of the Alps and the Mediterranean), the park has more than 2,000 species of plants, including more than 40 endemic, such as saxifrage and orchids. Vascular flora (flowering plants, ferns, horsetails… This remarkable specific richness represents more than half of the flora of PACA, nearly 42% of the native flora. of France, and more than half of the flora of the Alps. Several endemic species of the siliceous massif of Argentera-Mercantour, including Saxifrage florulenta. The inventory is considered finished (except for certain difficult taxonomic groups: Hieracium, Taraxacum), on the other hand it continues for other groups much less known such as mosses, liverworts, or even lichens…

This atlas presents of species, some of Mediterranean affinity, then depending on the altitudes, all the floristic diversity is revealed up to the highest summits, with a typically alpine flora. Populating the slopes, deciduous (downy oak, Scots pine, holm oak) and coniferous (fir, spruce, then larch and Swiss pine) follow one another over the altitude up to 2,200 meters. At the same time, the National Park collaborates in the monitoring of several heritage species (Queen of the Alps, Dracocephalus of Austria…), and specific habitats of altitude, witnesses of global changes.

Coltsfoot, solitary yellow flowers appearing before the leaves. The growing season, and therefore flowering, is closely linked to temperature, and therefore to altitude. Given its ecology and its wide distribution, it can be observed by the greatest number of visitors. Knowing the flowering dates at altitude could ultimately help assess the impact of ongoing climate change. In the Northern Alps, analysis of data between 1950-2000 of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara L.) shows a modification of the flowering date of around 8 days every 10 years (Phenoclim Network). This common and precocious species has an important altitudinal amplitude.

Moggridge’s Fritillary
Moggridge’s Fritillary, spectacular fritillary nestles, so recognizable with its solitary and hanging flower with 6 tepals with a clear yellow checkerboard. This is particularly the case of the Moggridge’s fritillary (Fritillaria moggridgei Baker), a species endemic to the Maritime Alps and Ligurians. This species is only present in France in the Alpes-Maritimes department and even more rarely in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Biodiversity and alpine ecosystems are subject to numerous disturbances: climate change, human activities, erosion of biodiversity. The Botanical Conservatories (Alpine and Mediterranean) have selected several species to monitor in particular, because of their rarity and the conservation issues associated with them.

From Wild fauna like ibex, golden eagle, wolf, bearded vulture, etc. to the discreet world of insects, the fauna of Mercantour is of rare diversity in Europe. Relative to its varied geology, its strong altitudinal gradient and its position at the crossroads of climatic conditions, this massif has a great diversity of habitats. These characteristics and its role as a refuge during the ice ages allowed it to shelter a highly heritage fauna, where boreal and Mediterranean species coexist.

Several hundred species have been counted there (some have been present since the end of the glaciations), including 197 species of vertebrates on the territory, 53 of which are threatened. Thanks to the action of the National Park, these animals which, for some, have almost disappeared, once again frequent the mountains of Mercantour. Protected by the statutes of the Park, deer, wild boar, roe deer, chamois (over 8,000 individuals), ibex (1,100 individuals), mouflons thrive.

On this same territory, 153 species of birds allow unexpected encounters: the Tengmalm owl, accustomed to low temperatures, rubs shoulders with the screech owl of North Africa. In the air or on land, it is also possible to observe the bearded vulture (reintroduced in the park since 1993), the golden eagle, the black grouse, the ptarmigan, but also the yellow-billed chough or the red-billed chough in altitude.

The invertebrate fauna is also exceptional. Thousands of species have been identified in our territory, in particular thanks to the Generalized Biological Inventory Mercantour / Alpi Marittime, some of which only exist in our Franco-Italian massif, such as the Lycose de Vésubie.

Horned beasts
These impressive insects are present in our valleys but we do not have much information about them. However, it is difficult to miss them without noticing them, especially the males who proudly display their horns which they use during fights to gain the right to mate with the females. Generally speaking, these insects tend to become scarce in France, probably because the old trees in which their larvae feed are eliminated during logging. In the Mercantour we still find the stag beetle quite commonly, on the other hand the Rhinoceros is only rarely observed. In any case, your data is interesting for expanding our knowledge of these two species and confirming that they are still present in the valleys of the Park.

Migrating birds
Migratory birds colonizing grasslands like Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike and Meadowsweet… These are Long-distance migrants in the meadows of Mercantour winter south of the Sahara. Their favorite food source is indeed too rare among us in winter, most of them being insectivorous species. The Hoopoe: With its spectacular profile, often close to our cultivated countryside and grazed meadows, from sea level up to 1700 m. The Red-backed Shrike: looks like the male’s carnival outfit with his black mask, a typical species of semi-open hay meadows crossed by hedges or dotted with thorny shrubs, it is one of our smallest passerines. The Tarier des meadows: “Vulnerable” species confined to the alpine zone where it also appreciates areas of marshes, groves and mountain pastures.

Mercantour salamanders
Two species of the group of salamanders and newts (Urodeles) are known with certainty in the Mercantour: the famous spotted salamander and the very discreet Strinati spélerpes which is confined to the Alpes-Maritimes. The species is very discreet and only comes out in wet weather and often at night. Another species could be present in the north of the Park: the Lanza salamander. The latter is an endemic species located around Mount Viso, but we suspect the persistence of small residual populations in the Ubaye valley, in the border area.

Marmot’s way of life is in fact strongly linked to the characteristics of the snowpack, in particular its thickness. Snow acts as a protective layer that maintains a temperature in the burrow during hibernation. Climate change risks impacting this species, which is now very present in the Park.

The Hedgehog has gradually disappeared from our valleys and the last records go back a long way. The use of pesticides (in particular the anti-slug) is very probably the main cause of this disappearance.

Wolves in the park
The administration of the park also had the task of managing the return of wolves (between thirty and forty individuals in 2010) which came naturally from Abruzzo in Italy. Residents of mountain villages saw the first wolves in the park around Lake Allos in the spring of 1989; the first official sighting reported two wolves sighted by park rangers onNovember 5, 1992. It has led an active policy of support for the shepherds, whose animals are directly exposed to the new problem of cohabitation. Measures have been taken: herding herds at night and the introduction of a shepherd dog (the Pyrenean patou) supposed to protect against wolf attacks. These elements are sometimes insufficient in certain contexts, also the moral support of the breeders and shepherds remains a priority in many cases, which the national park cannot manage alone, being moreover sometimes badly placed to do it because too assimilated to a protector. of this species.

In addition, wolves have widely swarmed in various other French Alpine massifs: the northern Alps (Vercors, Hautes-Alpes, Isère, Drôme, Savoie…), but also the Eastern Pyrenees and the Massif Central.

Local breeders have promoted sheep farming for several generations. Cattle, goat and sheep farms, in particular Brigasque, a local breed of sheep threatened with extinction, are in the minority: in 2002, the park had 85,000 sheep, including 500 brigasques, and 670 cows. Note that a large part of the sheep are only present during the summer pastures, due to the transhumance of herds coming mainly from Provence for the sheep and from Italy for the cattle.

Inventory of living things
In association with the Italian park, an unprecedented living inventory in Europe has been underway since 2007 on the territory of the two parks. Over a period of ten years, researchers will draw up an inventory of the biodiversity of this natural area. The main species concerned by this work are small invertebrates. In 2008, only the American National Park of the Great Smoky Mountains had already launched a program, since 1998, of such a large-scale census of living organisms in a delimited area.

Environmental protection
Due to its position at the crossroads of the Alpine and Mediterranean worlds, this territory has unique ecological characteristics which result in significant endemism. The many-flowered Saxifrage is one of its most beautiful emblems. Since the creation of the Park in 1979, species such as ibex, chamois and golden eagles have reclaimed the territory and have prospered. The bearded vulture has taken root for a long time following reintroduction operations. To preserve this exceptional natural heritage, at the origin of the creation of the National Park, it is necessary to know it well. The various inventory, monitoring or study programs undertaken in the territory all pursue this objective.

Tourist attractions
The park is increasingly popular and is visited annually by more than 800,000 visitors for hiking, mountaineering, ski touring…

Among the most visited sites:
the Vallée des Merveilles with its 40,000 prehistoric engravings;
the Allos Lake, the largest natural lake in altitude of Europe;
the Boréon – the Gordolasque and the Madone de Fenestre for their subalpine (larch forest) and alpine atmosphere.

The park has 600 km of maintained and marked trails, including the GR 5, the GR 52A which constitutes the panoramic Mercantour trail and crosses the Vallée des Merveilles, the GR 56.

Witnesses clashes of XVIII century, the XIX century and the Second World War many military relics remain on the territory of the park, particularly around the Authion and Upper Tinée (Isola). Military debris and barbed wire are the subject of regular clean-up campaigns.

The Mercantour Ecotourism association is a network of local actors in the Mercantour territory: farmers, artisans, mountain guides, accommodation providers, artists… Strongly attached to the territory, it works together to network the various actors of the territory, to enhancement and promotion of this nature and mountain territory.