The Camargue

The Camargue extends over an area of 145,300 hectares, between the two gulfs of Aigues-Mortes and Fos, in the form of a triangular delta whose base is formed by 80km of sandy sea coast running east-west. Its central artery, the Rhône, divides into two branches: the Grand Rhône, which drains 85% of the land, and the Petit Rhône, which only drains 15% and which tends to silt up at its mouth, close to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. These two arms divide the Camargue into three sectors:
  • The western sector or "Petite Camargue".
  • The central sector or "Grande Camargue", also known as the "Île de la Camargue".
  • The plain of the Camargue is of recent alluvial origin, sloping gently from north to south. This aspect allows three elements to be distinguished :
  • The upper Camargue, north of the Étang du Vaccarès, of riverine origin and taking the form of a series of alluvial ridges with freshwater marshes in the depressions in between.
  • The middle Camargue, formed from processes involving lakes and rivers and under the influence of salt water; the range of salinity here is very wide.
  • The lower Camargue, of lagoon-marine origin, is a zone of saline lagoons and of periodically flooded areas which are very strongly holomorphic , the "sansouires".

The vegetation of the delta is determined by the hydrological regime and by salinity. Depending on the level of salinity and the degree of flooding, the following may be distinguished:

  • Freshwater habitats, with wet riparian woodlands along the Rhône and relict riverine dunes with permanent grasslands.
  • Brackish habitats with open ground, which may be dry (Salicornia beds) wet (sansouires) or submerged (oligohaline and brackish marshes).
  • Hypersaline flooded habitats of the salinas and low-lying lagoons.
  • Maritime dry and flooded habitats with extant and relict dunes.

An indigenous wild fauna persists in the Camargue, despite intensive agriculture. Vertebrates include about 75species of fish, 10 amphibians, 15 reptiles (excepted turtle) and 398 birds, of which 111 regularly breed here.
Of the 4700 species of flowering plants recorded in France, over 1000 are found in the Camargue. Some species have arisen here through the evolution of special adaptations to their environment. Others are very rare throughout the whole of France or even Europe. Large populations of plants which are rare elsewhere, due to their isolation or to the limited extent of their habitats, persist over vast areas of the Camargue. This is the region of France with the largest populations of Cressa cretica , a plant of temporary ponds, and Bassia hirsuta , which grows along the edges of brackish lagoons.
At first restricted by natural conditions unfavourable to any permanent human settlement, the development of the delta was begun in the Middle Ages when the first clearing and deforestation work was undertaken by members of religious orders. The first of the dykes to keep out the sea and the Rhône were built in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Up to the 19th Century, development was basically agricultural (particularly involving sheep farming), and was confined to the highest parts of the fluvio-paludal Camargue. The large-scale exploitation of the salinas began in 1856. The development of rice growing after the Second World War led to the creation of a massive hydraulic infrastructure.
These days the service sector (tourism, farming for the tourism industry) is becoming increasingly important. Agriculture is becoming more intensive (irrigation, pesticides, overgrazing, hunting pressure). Urban areas are spreading and more land is becoming accessible to the public.