Our Continent, Europe, is overpopulated. Every corner has plenty of homes, roads, cultivated fields… But there are still some corners that can amaze even the most bored-by-wildlife naturalist. One of this places is the “Peau de Meau” steppe near Saint Martin de Crau, a small town in Provence (Southern France). We’re talking about one of the last steppes in Western Europe, where really unique animals live and breed each year. Peau de Meau is a very large flood plain made by the old course of the Durance river. Here, millions of rounded stones and low vegetation are the main landscape, leaving to the first-time-visitor the idea that nothing else could live in such a dry and inhospitable place. French farmers gave it a name – the coussoul - cause this type of landscape is mainly maintained by thousand sheeps grazing the plain. Once the coussoul covered a total of 40000 hectares, but now it only covers 7000 hectares. The main cause of this big reduction has been the new agricoltural techniques, during the 70′s, with intensive cultivations that erased the coussoul year by year.
We could feel lucky that since 1991 the last piece of coussoul is considered a Special Protecion Zone and since 2001 it has been declared a Natural Reserve.
Birdwatchers will be amazed to find here the last French population of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Pterocles alchata (100 nesting couples), the biggest French population of Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax, as well as the European Roller Coracias garrulus or the Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis among others.
For the Insect lovers, this is a real heaven, with more than 40 species of grasshoppers, including the strictly endemic Prionotropis hystrix rhodanica. And it’s not all, the canal that runs along the plain is almost covered by dragonflies of many species, making it a real hotspot for dragonflies biodiversity in Europe. One of the most common dragonflies to see here is the delicate Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis, that forms large aggregations in the evening on the plants just aside the car park of the reserve.
Among other interesting Arthropods it’s also common to find here some predators like the beautiful Wolf Spider Lycosa narbonensis, and a giant-sized population of Scolopendra cingulata.
Even Amphibians and Reptiles are well represented by the Natterjack toad Bufo calamita, the Parseley frog Pelodytes punctatus and the Mediterranean Tree frog Hyla Meridionalis. But the real “queen of the plain” is the amazing Jewelled Lizard Timon lepidus. With a total length of 60 cm (22 cm bodysize) is one of the biggest lizards of Europe and a real giant among Lacertidae family. Researchers said that in the last years the population of this beautiful lizard is decreasing, so attention must be paid for the conservation of this gentle but fierce giant. The main causes could be the use of pesticides in the neighbouring intensive cultivations or the poaching of specimens for private illegal vivariums.