Regional Natural Park of the Contentin and Bessin marshes

Some notes on various visits made by Ken Hall

This rewarding area (the Parc naturel régional des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin) is easily reached from the UK, with ferries from Portsmouth and Poole crossing to Normandy on a regular basis. The main town of the area, Carentan, can be reached in less than an hour from either Cherbourg (52 km) or Caen (73 km), on fast dual-carriageways/autoroutes. So far I've made three short visits there, a whistle-stop weekend in July 2004 with a group from Bristol, an equally brief visit in September 2012, and a slightly longer one in May 2016. The following are some brief notes on places I managed to get to, which might provide some ideas for other visitors. They are certainly not a full guide to what to expect – for instance a winter or early spring visit would allow you to make contact with more of the wildfowl and migrants that occur than I have managed (so far!).


Carentan is in the eastern part of the park, where the main wetlands are to be found. This is a good spot from which to explore the marshes and damp meadows, as well as venturing out to the coast, in particular the Baie des Veys and the Utah Beach shoreline, famous for being one of the Normandy Landings sites of World War II.

To give a general view of the main places of interest, here is a roadside map I photographed during one of my visits, showing the immediate Carentan area. [Click on all images for larger versions]

Carentan map

This is perhaps the best place to start, as this is where you can find the Maison du Parc, at the Ponts d'Ouve, just to the north of the town. The visitor centre is an excellent source of information about the whole area, and in particular publishes a booklet, in English, entitled 'Where to Watch our Wildlife', listing 20 key spots, mostly protected reserves, with details of how to get to them, where you can walk when you do so, and the main features of interest. The booklet is now downloadable from the website of the Parc. Some sites are more for flora and insects than for birds, but all are worth checking out. It's worth spending a bit of time at the centre to check through the displays, and pick up other leaflets which go into individual sites in more detail, the booklet not covering all the places of interest by any means.

In addition the visitor centre is the starting point for a trail, 5 km in length, that takes you through a protected area of marshes, specially created lagoons overlooked by several hides, and some extensive grazing meadows, well worth a visit at any time of year. In May 2016 I walked the whole trail, the highlights being close views of one of the several pairs of White-spotted Bluethroats that breed here, a summer-plumaged Garganey, and one of the White Storks which breed in several places in the marshes more generally.

The following images show the visitor centre, close to and as viewed from the first part of the trail. The grazing meadows occupy most of the flat land though which the trail passes, with low hills in the middle distance.

Maison du Parc Maison du Parc Grazing marshes

The main hide is a two-storey affair, affording good views over the large lagoon in front. There are at least five hides, although the second one shown here was closed during my visit in May. However, the bushes and trees in the reeds to its left were visible from the main path, and it was here that I saw one of the Bluethroats. As you continue round the trail, you pass several channels of shallow water, particularly favoured by noisy Marsh Frogs.

Lagoon and main hide Lagoon and hide Wet channel in grazing marshes

A male Garganey stayed long enough be photographed. This family of Mute Swans comprised three 'normal' and three 'Polish' cygnets, the latter with all-white plumage as opposed to the usual grey-brown. At least two juvenile White Wagtails were being fed by the adults, this one taking some time to choke down a dragonfly.

Garganey Mute Swan family White Wagtail and recently fledged young

Utah Beach area

North-east of Carentan is the long straight seashore of Utah Beach, famous for the D-Day landings of 1944. The museum and visitor centre here should not be missed by anyone even slightly interested in military history, but the coastal shore to the north, backed by dunes and damp meadows in places, is also worth exploring. Just to the south are the extensive mudflats of the Baie des Veys, where several rivers emerge from the Cotentin and Bessin marshes, with the Domaine de Beaugillot reserve on its northern shore. In my September visit I managed to get to to both areas, although it rained most of the time. (I have to say that it has rained on every one of my visits to the Cotentin!)

The visitor centre is right on the shore, and a good place to scan for waders and gulls, although it is probably less disturbed a bit further north. For instance, when I was there, this chap was taking his horse and carriage for some exercise on the beach. The type of racing where the horse trots rather than gallops, and the 'rider' perches on a lightweight two-wheeled platform behind, is very popular in France, especially in the north, though I don't think I've ever seen it in the UK.

Utah Beach visitor centre Utah Beach shoreline Utah Beach 'trotting'

Domaine de Beaugillot

The Domaine de Beaugillot is a short distance south of Utah Beach, and is a reserve protecting some of the polders reclaimed from the Baie des Veys. It is a refuge for thousands of wintering wildfowl and waders, some of which remain to breed. The access is on foot along a straight path from the parking place at the entrance, out to the seawall with views over the saltmarsh and mudflats in the distance. There are a couple of hides along the way, overlooking various pools and damp grassland.

There is a noticeboard with some background information at the start of the path, and another at the far end, by the seawall. During my visit, a Marsh Harrier was quartering the saltmarsh, there was a mixture of ducks on the pools, plus Cattle and Little Egrets in places.

Domaine de Beaugillot entrance Domaine de Beaugillot, looking back from the seawall Domaine de Beaugillot, view from seawall

Some views taken along the footpath and from the hides.

Domaine de Beaugillot polders Domaine de Beaugillot polders Domaine de Beaugillot polders

As in many reserves in France, there are imaginative displays, some aimed at children. There were a few showing how various parts of a bird's body are adapted to its way of life, while others are more 'interactive', so that you can rotate the cubes to decide what the real bird looks like.

Domaine de Beaugillot display showing beaks Domaine de Beaugillot, display with rotating cubes mixed up Domaine de Beaugillot, display with rotating cubes sorted

Baie des Veys

To get a better view of the Baie des Veys, one can follow the eastern side of the Canal de Carentan out to the Pointe de Brévands. As at Beaugillot, there are extensive reclaimed polders here, and coastal mudflats, but unfortunately this area is shot over, which can be rather offputting during the winter hunting season. I did manage to see a migrating Osprey here in September, and a scattering of waders and egrets.

Some images along the seawall route, drivable out to the Pointe de Brévands, showing the typical habitats here.

Baie des Veys shoreline Baie des Veys polders Baie des Veys coastal saltmarsh and mudflats

Carentan marshes

There are various places where the marshes, particularly south and west of Carentan itself, can viewed, either from the roadside, or by walking along the tracks and embankments by the drainage channels. Anyone familiar with the Somerset Levels will recognise the landscapes here – in fact the Somerset Levels are 'twinned' with the Marais du Cotentin. I have had a look at several of the recommended sites, as well as just scanning from various places that looked promising, such as with standing water or where birds were clearly gathering. The Marais du Rivage, west of Carentan can be viewed from the roadside, and produced plenty of Cattle Egrets with the cows and horses when I was there. The Port des Planques is mentioned in the Parc's booklet but during my July visit in 2004 I found the Maison des Ormes area a short distance to the north (overlooking the Bohons reserve) rather better, though I didn't take any photos on that occasion.

The Marais du Rivage, fairly dry in September, could be viewed from various roadside spots. As the notice says, some of these roads can be flooded at times, particularly in the winter.

Marais du Rivage Marais du Rivage Marais du Rivage

From the Port des Planques it is possible to walk along the banks of the drainage canal, and scan the rough meadows either side. The 'Roselière des Rouges Pièces' reserve is slightly obscure to find, only signposted off the road at the last moment, and then you have to bounce your way along a rough track to get to it. It comprises an area of rough grassland with some reeds as well, plus scattered bushes, trees and willows. Cetti's, Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers were singing there in May, as was more than one Cuckoo, while a Great White Egret was standing around with several Grey Herons in the nearby fields.

Marais du Rivage Port des Planques Roselière des Rouges Pièces

Les Landes de Lessay

I'll use this as a general heading for the south-western side of the Parc, where the habitat is quite different, being much drier overall, with sandy soils dominant in many places. Formerly a desolate area with peat-bogs, heather and rough grassland, a haunt of highwaymen and bandits, only patches of the original habitat now remain, with maritime pines having been planted in several areas, as well as much reclaimed for agriculture. Nevertheless, it is still worth visiting, and I spent several pleasant days working my way round the different reserves in May 2016.

Lessay makes a good base, and the map I photographed there shows the main areas of interest, along and around the valley of the River Ay. The brown patches are the remnants of heathland, most of which are protected in one way or another (I'm sorry that the image is not as clear as I would have liked, but it gives the general idea).

Map of area around Lessay

La Lande du Camp

One of the better-preserved heathland reserves is the Lande du Camp, south-east of Lessay, on the way to La Feuille. There is a small carpark, and a waymarked trail, although rather obscurely indicated, and wet underfoot in places. The habitat is rather reminscent of the New Forest, as were the birds – with Cuckoo, Stonechat, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, several Tree Pipits, Buzzard and Kestrel all on show – although the Melodious Warbler would have been an unusual bird to find in the UK. There was plenty of open grass and heath, many patches of gorse and similar bushes, plus woodland around the edges. It certainly looked suitable for both Nightjar and Dartford Warbler, featured in the booklet, but neither showed for me.

Some views of the Lande du Camp, showing a variety of habitats.

Lande du Camp Lande du Camp Lande du Camp

Other heathland sites

I also visited reserve of Le Buisson, a short distance to the west of here, where there was another waymarked trail through a varied mix of heathland, forest and even some farmland, which produced yet more Tree Pipits, Short-toed Treecreeper and Firecrest, among others. Along the route there are plenty of small panels explaining what to look out for. South again, the Mare de Sursat (Sursat pond) is a shallow pool occupying part of a large damp clearing in some afforested heathland. It is known for the rare Alcon Blue butterfly (as is the Lande du Camp) and various dragonflies, but apart from more Tree Pipits and a Great Spotted Woodpecker, I didn't see a lot here. The Saint-Patrice-de-Claids heathland, about 7 km east of Lessay, also has a waymarked trail, but at the moment seems to be dominated by maritime pines, with the usual mix of woodland species present. One site that is frequently highlighted is the Toubière de Mathon, one of the earliest and also one of the smallest National Nature Reserves of France. It protects some fragile peat-bog habitat, with a varied list of species to be found, but it took it me some time to locate it, unsignposted in the eastern outskirts of Lessay, and when I got there it appears that only guided visits are permitted, although you can scan the edges from its small carpark.

Lac des Bruyères

This lies about 5 km east of Lessay, and is well signposted off the D431. It is an old gravel working, now converted into a protected area, but with open access along surfaced paths, many suitable for disabled access, and clearly a popular spot with the public. There are two deep pools, one much bigger than the other, created when the workings were active, but now surrounded with natural vegetation, including reeds and dense bushes. But the site also includes a large stretch of open heathland, where Tree Pipit, Yellowhammer and Stonechat were in evidence, but the 'advertised' Dartford Warblers and Nightjars were not! But I can imagine that either or both could well be present, although I do wonder if the former are currently at a low ebb, due to some cold winters, as has happened in the UK. That's my excuse, anyway! Several shallow pools have been created, with noisy Marsh Frogs easily visible while I was there, while birds included a displaying Turtle Dove, some calling Cuckoos and singing Cetti's and Garden Warblers. Various panels along the way explain the history of the site, and the varied fauna and flora to look out for. It's somewhere I'd like to have a more extensive look at on another occasion, particularly the heathland to the south.

The route was well supplied with information, and the lakes were easy to view from the footpaths.

Lac des Bruyères map Lac des Bruyères

Valley of the River Ay

About 2 km east of Lessay are two linked 'sentiers de découverte', waymarked footpaths with information panels, which can be approached from the west at a spot called 'La Montagne' or from the east from a minor lane, partially unsurfaced, off the D900 east of Lessay. One makes a circuit through woodland, dominated by conifers, on the slope just north of the River Ay. I saw Short-toed Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Firecrest here, and a pair of Crested Tits, the latter by a panel telling you to look out for them! The other trail runs along the side of the river itself, with nice views across the lush meadows, with the Abbaye de Lessay visible in the distance. Cuckoo, Buzzard and Sedge Warbler were typical birds of this habitat while I was there.

The riverside meadows were very lush in May, and parts were grazed by livestock.

Valley of River Ay near Lessay Valley of River Ay near Lessay Valley of River Ay near Lessay

By the parking spot and small footbridge at the eastern end of the trails was a monument to American soldiers who passed this way after D-Day, one of several such that are dotted about the whole area. Incidentally, the abbey at Lessay was almost completely destroyed during WWII, but has been rebuilt in its original romanesque style, and is very well worth a visit.

Bridge and WWII monument on the river trail Abbaye de Lessay Abbaye de Lessay

The west coast

Along the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, there are eight 'havres' (havens), basically estuaries each with a south-pointing sandy spit at its entrance. They are all noted as good for birds, particularly for waders and wildfowl in the winter and at passage times. Although in May I was too late for most species, I still had a look at a couple of them. The closest to Lessay is the Havre de Saint-Germain-sur-Ay, where the River Ay emerges into the sea. There are extensive areas of sheep-grazed saltmarsh, mud and sand flats as you get nearer the sea, sand dunes at the river mouth, and then vast beaches stretching off into the distance. It can be viewed from both sides in several places, but I followed the sentier de découverte des dunes de Créances which starts close to some the the saltmarsh on the south side of the estuary, then works its way through the adjacent dunes, overlooks the actual mouth of the river and the beaches to the south, and returns through the small arable fields behind the dunes themselves. The carrots grown here are a local speciality. A Marsh Harrier over the saltmarsh was the best bird, with Stonechat, Whitethroat and Skylark all evidently setting up their territories in the dune area.

I took a photo of the very faded notice which indicates the estuary and the footpath on the south side. The route through the dunes is well flagged, although starting to collapse in places. The fact that the tide was well out at the time didn't help with seeing waders and/or wildfowl – a high-tide visit might have been more productive.

Trail notice Dunes de Créances Coast south of the river mouth

The other site, the Havre de Geffossses, is about 8 km further south, accessed along the D650 coast road. The 'estuary' here has in fact been entirely enclosed to form a saltmarsh, the connection to the sea being through a culvert under the road. It is protected as a 'reserve de chasse' (i.e. no hunting is allowed) and again its main interest is from autumn through to the spring, although it does have a selection of breeding species which apparently include Kentish Plover. While I was there a Fan-tailed Warbler was singing, this being another breeding species at the reserve. There is a car park at the northern end, from which a short walk takes you to a couple of hides overlooking the saltmarsh. There is another carpark further south, on the main road, from where the outlet and the far end of the reserve can be scanned.

Another rather faded map, but at least it tells you the route to the hides, from which the other two pictures were taken.

Map with showing access route Havre de Geffosses saltmarsh as seen from the hides Havre de Geffosses saltmarsh as seen from the hides

Mont de Doville

This is another heathland site, on high ground in the north-west of the Parc, between La Haye-du-Puits and St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte. I only stopped here briefly on my way back to Cherbourg, but had time to make a quick circuit of what is an area of heather, gorse and some open ground, with good views to the west as far as the coast and the the Channel Islands (Jersey notably). Again, Dartford Warbler is featured on the information panels, but I could only find Melodious Warbler, Whitethroat and Chiffchaff, although the habitat certainly looked suitable. Turtle Dove, Skylark, Yellowhammer and Tree Pipit were all easy to find, and again it would be worth another, longer, visit.

An old windmill and a ruined lookout added interest to the landscape.

Old windmill Ruined lookout

As I mentioned earlier, information on all the places listed above is available from the Parc's centre in Carentan. They are just a sample of the protected sites – for instance I never managed to get as far as the Bessin marshes which are on the way east to Bayeux, and which would be an obvious first stop if you were approaching from Caen.

PS. For more information about birds and bird conservation in France, take a look at my LPO News site .