Gazeteer of France’s great oak woods – Vibraye, an oak wood of constancy3 December 2019
Published in October 2018, the book The oak in majesty, from forest to wine highlights the concept of forest terroir: a specific soil, aspect, and rainfall, as well as a particular exposure to sunlight, to which should be added the species or variety of tree, the density of plantation, as well as average age, all of which will influence the grain and quality of the wood. The value of a mature high forest will thus depend on both the terroir and in the way in which it has been “led,” as French winegrowers say, or managed, in the words of the forester.
The book, fully illustrated with photographies, compile, through a gazeteer with a lot of details about geography, mesoclimate and history, a list of twenty-six beautiful oak wood forests, as the forest of Vibraye.
“My ancestors settled here in 1510,” Philippe d’Harcourt confided in the course of our conversation. So his family has deeper roots in French history than even the oaks in the forests of the Sarthe! “The whole extends over 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres), distributed between four owners. We are in the north on 2,300 hectares (4,580 acres),” he adds with the modesty that comes with great responsibility. For a long time, the many small forges and craft glassmakers took wood from the forest to the point of almost exhausting it.
Sequestered during the Revolution, before being restored to the family under the Empire, the forest had its fair share of trials and tribulations. The d’Harcourts have always harbored an even greater admiration for “Colbert’s great oak groves” than for any crown, royal or imperial. After the forges closed down in 1913, the present Count d’Harcourt’s grandfather decided to convert the coppice into mature standing timber. “A century later and oak is in the majority,” the Count adds, “and in the great woods the oaks, sessile for the majority, grow to more than 50 cm (16 in.) in diameter. We maintain a mix of sizes and in height, as well as varieties, incorporating hornbeam and beech in order to maintain a natural forest environment.”
Philippe d’Harcourt is one of the founder members of Pro Silva, “silviculture close to nature that eschews clearcutting, preferring on the contrary light but more frequent thinning about every five to ten years. “I refuse to be constrained by the even-aged system favored by the ONF,” he declares, proposing that we go and see an enclosure of 80 hectares (200 acres) that he has had fenced off to protect it from roe and red deer. Not long ago he would have made the visit on horseback, but at the age of eighty-eight a Citroen C5 seems wiser. “Ten or so hunts are organized a year to limit big game to two or three head a hectare.”
Though the forest is private it is open to walkers, riders, and mushroom pickers, but closed to all motor traffic. An ecologist before his time, he has long allowed the trees free rein, even holding that “the bramble is the cradle of the oak.” None of this excludes a thirty-year stewardship plan put together in concertation with the Regional Center for Forest Property, which one day will be continued by his son Bernard.
His neighbor in the Sarthe, Antoine d’Amécourt, chairman of the Private Foresters of France Association, reminds us that for surfaces over 25 ha (61 a.) a management plan is obligatory. Regular sales take place of trees that have been felled and hauled out. Prior to removal, their crowns are carefully cut off to avoid the branches damaging their fellows on falling. The result can be readily appreciated in the clearing of Châteauvert, a large meadow in the middle of the forest, where felled trunks are aligned and already stamped with the initials of the buyer, MDL, the Merranderie du Limousin.
Further on, on the right bank of the brook of the Fenderie (“splitting mill”), “to the north, the oaks are of better quality than on the other side,” the old forester confides, his whole art consisting in ensuring his centuries-old oaks get just the right amount of sunlight. Though falling short of using the term terroir, he fully subscribes to the idea.
Find out the entire gazeteer of France’s great oak woods, and much more, in The oak in majesty, from forest to wine written by Sylvain Charlois and Thierry Dussard.