The Brenne Natural Park lies just west of the centre of France with the large town of Chateauroux just outside the north-eastern corner.
It is an internationally important wetland, with birds, dragonflies, aquatic life, plants, invertebrates, etc etc.
It is truly a naturalist’s paradise, and one worth visiting time and time again.
About la Brenne
The Brenne Natural Regional Park was declared in 1989, covering 166,000 hectares. A large part of the site is a Ramsar site (ie internationally important wetland), and about 48,000ha are defined as an Important Bird Area. However, none of these designations provide any degree of protection of the area.
Only 145ha of the area is designated as a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive.
The area is a cultural landscape, with a multitude of fishponds created in Medieval times and still managed by traditional methods. The lakes are all privately owned, making protection more difficult.
Probably the best way to appreciate the Brenne is by bicycle – it’s fairly flat and easy-going. In spring and summer this allows you to appreciate the birdsong (I vividly remember blackcaps in the scrub on one side of the road, and nightingales on the other, blasting their songs into my ears), while keeping an eye out for butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, and everything else.
Nearly 100 species of butterfly have been recorded in the Brenne area, so there is plenty of scope for the enthusiast. Unlike the Alps, where the number of species is enhanced by altitudinal differences, this is a flat site, and the butterflies are fairly typical of central Europe. The number of species isn’t overwhelming, and a few days there in May gave me thirty species over two trips, June should produce around 45-50 of them. June is the peak season, however butterfly-watching here is good until August at least – although the summer heat and lots of human visitors in August mean I would avoid it then. However, a few species, such as the great banded grayling and the dryad, only fly in late August-September.
Most organised tours are based around birds, orchids, or general natural history – and it is hard to be single-minded about what you are looking for!
So, an introduction to European Butterflies!
Some of the large colourful ones are reasonably easy to identify:
Swallowtail Papilio machaon is widespread across mainland Europe and found mostly in wetland areas, though also on drier ground in the Mediterranean.
The Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius is more associated with trees – particularly Prunus species – on which the caterpillars feed.
All four common species of ‘white’ butterfly are present, the Large White Pieris brassicae being easy to ID because of the extensive amount of black on the wing tips. The less common species include the Wood White Leptidea sinapis which is small with often indistinct markings.
The Brimstone Gonopteris rhamni (which is actually classified as a ‘white’ is distinguished from the other yellow butterflies by having a brown circle on the underwing instead of the prominent white-centred one of the clouded yellow, and by the lack of black margins and spots on the upperwings.
There are a number of small jewel-like butterflies that you really need to see both upper and undersides of to ID. Although they all belong to the ‘blue’ family, they come in a range of colours.
Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi
This small green butterfly almost always settles with its wings closed, showing off the iridescent green underside. The upperside is plain brown.
Brown Argus Aricia agestis
Both male and female brown argus can look like female common blues, but they do not have any trace of blue on either the under- or upper-sides. There is also a slight difference in the underwing pattern.
Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus
In most copper species, the male is more colourful than the female. However, in the sooty copper it is the male that is duller (in our eyes at least), almost black in fresh individuals, but fading to brown later. The male also has very little orange on the underside of the forewing, in comparison with the female.
Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus female is distinguished from the male by her brighter colours, and from the more common small copper by being not so bright on the upperside and having larger spots on the underside.
Short-tailed Blue Everes argiades
There are few blue butterfly species with tails, and those tails are often inconspicuous. Again it helps to see both the upper and undersides. The underside is distinctive, having two orange and black spots by the tail. This is a male, the females having more black on the upperwings, and often an orange spot by the tails.
Small Blue Cupido minimus
The smallest of blue butterflies in Europe is hardly blue at all on the upperside, though there is a dusting of blue on the underside near the body. Females easily mistaken for other small species particularly in southern Europe. They fly close to the ground, and are seldom far from kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, the caterpillar food plant.
Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta
The purple emperor and white admiral groups look very similar at first glance. The southern white admiral is one of the smallest of the group, is blue-black on the upperside, and that clear white spot on the inner part of the forewing is distinctive.
The name fritillary refers to the chequered pattern of the butterfly’s wings. There are also plants called fritillaries, again because of the chequered pattern on their petals. For the butterflies, you need to look closely at both the upper and underwing patterns, and to use a good book (or a local expert) that shows the points you need to look at. These were cautiously identified in the field, and again later from the photos. They certainly present a challenge. Even looking at the photos now, I’m trying to resist the temptation to check them against the field guide yet again. Having a species list for the region means you can narrow the options – in this case from about 45 species across Europe down to twelve in la Brenne.
This ‘wings half open’ stance is typical of the Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina as it stands ready to defend its territory. It isn’t closely related to the fritillaries, which is superficially resembles, but is the only European member of the Metalmark (Rhiodinidae) family which occurs mostly in central America.
Glanville Fritillary Melitaea cinxia
This species is often found nectaring on Birds-foot trefoil and other Lotus species, but the caterpillar food plant is plantain, hence an older English name for it was the Plantain Fritillary
Knapweed Fritillary Melitaea phoebe
It is often more difficult to photograph the underside of a butterfly, but worth it for help with identification. This general patterning puts it in the Meliteae genus, and careful comparison with a good field guide showed it to be the knapweed fritillary.
Spotted Fritillary Melitaea didyma
This isn’t the only fritillary with spots rather than the chequer pattern, so again a view of the underside and a species list for the site is helpful.
There is a variety of ‘brown butterflies’ – and not all of them are obviously brown. They range in size from the tiny small heath, to the almost giant Great Banded Grayling and Dryad – which fly later in the season, so I couldn’t photograph them. Most are medium-sized, such as the Wall Brown
The Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus rarely shows its upper-wings – a characteristic shared with other members of the family. However, its only cousin in the Brenne is the Pearly Heath Coenonympha arcania which has a white patch on clear eye-spots on the underside of the hind wing.
Wall Brown Lasiomata megera
Could be confused with a fritillary at first glance, but the pattern of lines and eye-spots is quite different, as is the underside.
The skippers are an odd family, not quite falling into either the butterfly or the moth category. Some are mostly orange, some are mostly brown with white or cream spots, and these are the most confusing and difficult to ID.
Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae is the smallest and most distinctly chequered member of a confusing group of species. Photographing the upperside for later ID is relatively easy, getting the underside is not. Fortunately, in this case, the distinct markings on the hindwing indicate the species pictured.
Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
A fairly distinctive skipper butterfly and the only brown and yellow skipper one in the area. On the wing in May and June.
I could bore you with more photos of butterflies, and day-flying moths, and other insects from la Brenne, but they are far more enjoyable if you go to see them yourself.
Useful booklet about where to find nature in the park (recommended sites and routes) – download pdf
Tourist information for the Loire Valley as a whole
A checklist of butterflies for a specific area is more helpful than the maps in a field-guide. Butterflies are colonising new areas, particularly as the climate changes.
Click on the covers for more information about each title.
Note that buying through these links provides a small commission (at no extra cost to yourself) that helps with the maintenance of this website.
Several books, such as the Crossbill guide, about la Brenne are now out of print.
However, there were several books such as these two – (and perhaps only in French) available at the Maison du Parc and/or the Maison du Nature which I haven’t seen on sale elsewhere – so clicking on these covers doesn’t get you anywhere.
Note that the flower book does not cover all species in the area.
A good old-fashioned folding paper map may not be the easiest thing to use in the field, but it does make it easier to work out where the various ponds are in relation to each other for route-planning.
More ideas for nature-watching in France
A round-up of some of the best places for nature-watching in Europe in March.
Queyras Natural Park in the French Pyrenees boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. We managed to be there on one of the other 65! But there was still lots to see.
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in February
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in January
A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.
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