What is a national nature reserve?

A national nature reserve (NNR) is a means for the long-term protection of rare or characteristic landscapes, species and geological objects, as well as functional natural environments that are representative of France’s biodiversity. Nature reserves are managed by local organizations in consultation with the territory’s interested parties. Artificial interventions likely to degrade them are forbidden, but ecological rehabilitation and management measures can be carried out according to their conservation objectives.

Reference territories for conservation

France’s first national nature reserve (Luitel lake NNR) was established in 1961 in the Rhône-Alpes region. In June 2018, France had 167 national nature reserves that covered a total area of 67,683,816 hectares, of which 178,000 hectares are spread over the entire metropolitan area and 67,500,000 hectares are located overseas.

However, the areas covered by nature reserves are very variable. The smallest one is the Toarcien geological NNR, which preserves two old open quarries on an area of 0.61 hectares (Deux-Sèvres department). In contrast, the French Southern Lands NNR, which was created in 2006 and extended in 2016, covers an area of 67,200,000 hectares.

France’s national nature reserves show the richness and variety of its natural environments. They range from marine areas (Sept-Iles NNR) to high altitudes (Aiguilles Rouges NNR), to wetlands, forests, and even peri-urban areas (Saint-Quentin en Yvelines NNR). Thanks to its presence in all metropolitan and overseas regions, the network of national nature reserves hosts a large part of France’s rare or threatened living environments, animals, plants, fossils and minerals. Thanks to its representativeness, France is able to fully participate in European and international commitments to protect biodiversity.

Unmatched management expertise

National nature reserves are established by ministerial or Council of State decrees. They combine legal protection, and local and collaborative management. Their main objective is to ensure the conservation, maintenance and restoration of natural heritage, in line with the reserve’s management plan and in agreement with its advisory committee. The advisory committee is a local parliament that gathers all the local interested parties involved in the nature reserve (administrations, private owners, local politicians, associations).

Protecting the natural heritage sometimes requires traditional human interventions such as grazing, scything, slash-and-burn practices, and regulating water levels (in wetlands). Managers usually use modern tools but sometimes resort to traditional management methods such as the use of rustic livestock breeds when dealing with the preservation of especially sensitive environments (e.g. prairies, marshes, moors, western capercaillie areas).

Creation and amendment decrees may also provide for the establishment of a buffer zone around the nature reserve. This measure is instituted by the Prefect on the proposal or with the agreement of the concerned municipal councils1.  Actions likely to damage or alter the character of the nature reserve may be prohibited or subject to prescription within the buffer zone. About ten national nature reserves, including the French Southern Lands NNR, currently benefit from this measure.

Depending on the regulations that have been put in place, national nature reserves can be associated with different IUCN categories:

  • category Ia for strict nature reserves, which are generally located in forests and marine environments. In metropolitan France, in 2005, twenty or so strict forest reserves amounting to about 4,000 hectares were located in national nature reserves;
  • category III for sites sheltering remarkable geological, geomorphological or speleological formations whose management is mainly intended to preserve these specific natural elements. The geological NNR of Haute-Provence protects, among other things, several sites with ammonites, fossil plant imprints, and fossil bird tracks dated from the Miocene, all of which show a 300-million-year long history;
  • category IV for sites that require active management to develop research, education and environmental awareness, and conserve their natural heritage. These reserves contribute to the sustainable development of the territories in which they are located.


1– In the case of regional nature reserves, the buffer zone is established by the regional council. In Corsica, the decision lies with the territorial assembly (nature reserve of Corsica).


Legal framework

  • Law on local democracy of February 27, 2002 and application decree n. 2005-491 of May 18, 2005
    • Articles L332-1 and following and R332-1 to R332-29 of the French Environmental Code
    • Ministerial circular of March 13, 2006 on the implementation of decree n. 2005-491 of May 18, 2005 on nature reserves
    • Ordinance n. 2012-9 of January 5, 2012 on nature reserves
    • Circular of September 30, 2010 on the procedures for the classification and management of national nature reserves


Source: http://www.reserves-naturelles.org/fonctionnement/reserves-naturelles-nationales

Photo : © @Thibaut THELLIER
Photo : © A. Dervaux