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les landes—
its forestry industry
life before the forest

Map of France showing Department 40, Les Landes
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Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
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Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago, Rochefort-Martrou
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France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
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the French umbrella & Aurillac

50 years old: Citroën DS
the Citroën 2CV: a French motoring icon

the forest as seen by Francois Mauriac, and today
Les Landes, places and playtime
roundabout art of Les Landes

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New translation, the Magna Carta

marker at the department and forest of landes

other documents on Les Landes

marker at life before the forest
marker at   the airial
marker at marqueze - airial and eco-museum
marker at   sheep
marker at   stilts
marker at end notes

the department and forest of landes

The lowly-populated and highly forested French Département of “Les Landes”, Dept. 40, is part of the region of Aquitaine. You can see some factlets on the roundabout art of les landes page.

Map of Aquitaine and the Gascogne Forest

The Département [1] of Les Landes, the second largest department in France, with an area of about a million hectares, was created in 1790 by uniting administratively a mosaic of fourteen small local pays - ‘countries’: Grande Lande, Petite Lande, Marsan, Bas-Armagnac, Gabardan, Tursan, Albert, Born, Marensin, Maremne, Chalosse, Seignaux, Gosse and Orthe [2].

The River Adour is the dividing line between the two very different landscapes that make up Les Landes - moors and forest to its north and hilly farming land to its south. To the north, on a base of consolidated limestone sediment (alios), covered by sand, grows the forest in Born, Marensin, Maremne, Grande Lande and Marsan. To the east, this area is bordered by Bas-Armagnac. To the south, where the land is fertile and hilly, with neither alios nor sand, the local regions are Gosse, Seignaux, Chalosse and Tursan.

On the following map, ‘hover and click’ for more
information about the pays of Les Landes.
Departement of Les Landes, showing its component regions (pays). Original image: EDF
Departement of Les Landes, showing its component regions (pays)

The low population in Les Landes, about 300,000 people, has not changed much for the last 150 years, the larger portion being in the regions south of the River Adour, the pays of Chalosse and Tursan.

Before becoming the greatest extent of forest in France during the nineteenth century, this unfertile land of moving sandy ground truly merited the name of moor - la lande in French. It was known as the French Sahara. It attracted neither immigration, nor commercial traffic.

“Crossing the moor was dreaded by pilgrims going to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle; they reported that they could find no bread, no meat, no fountains. It was a flat ground of marshes.... with practically no paths, the pilgrims were often up to the knees in the invading sea sand.”

It was a vast, fairly flat landscape of barren moors, becoming marshland in winter when the rivers swelled and flooded.

“Formerly, stagnant waters and marshes located on the greatest part of the departement, made sickly the unfortunate classes who vegetated there and of whom most died of fevers; while the resin workers, thin and doomed to an early death, lived in inadequate cabins in the damp forests.”

There were various experiments to control the sogginess and unsalubriousness of the region, together with agricultural experiments - rice, mulberry trees, tobacco, peanuts - which all failed. [3]

Another description comes from Cloisters and cathedrals of the south of France by Elise Whitlock Rose.

“Lying inland from the Gulf of Gascony is a stretch of territory called "the Landes." Formerly it was bordered by great, lonely sand dunes which protected it from the sea. Behind them lay the "bad lands" which were, at times, torrid Saharas, where strange hot springs, eerie bogs, and marshes, stretches of vast pine forests, and plains that extended to a dreary, sealike immensity, made up the landscape. Sands, blown by harsh sea winds, covered pools of stagnant water and concealed them from the eye of the unfortunate pedestrian; and, sweeping onward, these same winds often covered entire villages with the sand, and compelled the poor inhabitants to retreat and re-build elsewhere. These encroachments, which the ignorant were powerless to check, made the district one of waste and awesome terror, a desert whose monotony was broken only by the terrifying phenomena of sand-storm, and waters bubbling in inexplicable heat. Through industry and science the human misery of these little steppes has been decreased; and before this "progress of cultivation" the whole physiognomy of the country has changed. Forests break the long lines of the plains, dunes are becoming little, rounded, wooded hills; and if the new growth seems somewhat meagre and the land still barren, its desert-like appearance is disappearing and it is gradually losing its mournful distinctiveness and curious industries.” [p.191]

The original forest grew naturally along the rivers and on the coastline. In 1800, it covered 250,000 hectares. The rest of the department’s countryside consisted of moorland, more or less marshy, the uncontested domain of the shepherd. To move around this unhappy landscape, the shepherds had to use stilts.

At the sea edge, the moving dunes, eroded by the sea breeze and the ‘currents’ [4], invaded, suffocated and buried villages and the forest. It was in order to protect themselves from the steadily encroaching sand, that the locals stabilised the sand and channeled the ‘currents’ - the little streams that run down to the Atlantic Ocean.

Here and there, fixing the dunes was done from the eighteenth century, but it was only with the creation by the State of a Commission of Dunes that the works, inspired by those of local Landais proprietors, advanced seriously. In 1817, 4,000 hectares of sand were fixed and in 1825, all the coastline was stabilised. From 1862, the Waters and Forests Service successfully maintained the coastal dune line. (The events of 1914-18 and 1939-45 damaged the dunes, and it was only in 1950 that the dunes’ ideal profile was returned with the work of bulldozers.) Note that this history is somewhat different from what happened further north in Les Landes, near the metropolis of Bordeaux and the Archachon Bassin.

It took many decades before the work to dry the Landais marshes and plant them with forests was finished. An unhealthy place, the marshes were the seat of sicknesses such as malaria, which in 48 hours took the mayor of Lit-et-Mixe and his son. These two were the brother-in-law and nephew of Henri Crouzet, whom Emperor Napoleon III had appointed to clean up Les Landes. As part of his love for the department of Les Landes, Napoleon III bought a 8,000 hectare area of uncultivated land in the “Grande Lande” that he baptised Solférino, and at its head he put Henri Crouzet.

This man, who had an excellent knowledge of the land and the drainage done by the Landais inhabitants, is considered to be the inspiration for the 1857 law. At Solférino, he succeeded so well in his land clean-up that the imperial domain became a first order experimental zone. Crouzet created numerous agricultural roads, established new cultivation and dried the Orx Marsh, to the south of Les Landes. Crouzet had the benefit of marrying a descendant of L.M. Desbiey who did the first works to fix dunes in the 18th century.

The law imposed by Emperor Napoleon III in 1857, ordered all the communes [5] of Gascogne Landes, not just the coastline, be drained and then planted with maritime pines, making the land useable and rich. Bit by bit, pines covered Les Landes, changing the landscape and reducing the expanse of more than 100,000 hectares of moors. This made room for the young forest that would become one of the largest industrial forests in Europe.





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Les Landes - the Moor; before the industrial pine forest was planted systematically from the mid-19th century.
Les Landes - the Moor; before the industrial pine forest was planted systematically from the mid-19th century

life before the forest

Before the forest, there were isolated villages and homestead groupings, with few trees, dotted about the bleak, marshy expanses. The Landes - the marshes - were wet, unhealthy and practically barren of nutriments for plants or animals. Villages developed near rivers where the soil was slightly better and where communication with others was more likely. The inhabitants eaked their living from keeping sheep. Later, the isolated villages on huge stretches of flat moors would change to being isolated open areas enclosed in hectare upon hectare of pine forest.

The amount of space available for organizing the villages and its homesteads determined community relationships. In the Grande Lande, the farm was arranged on an “airial”, an extensive, unenclosed and grassed area centred on a farmhouse, scattered with trees. Each airial could be considerably far away from the next, the population density being very low in this part of the department.

In Chalosse, property organisation was different, as was the architecture and house interiors. Relationships with the ‘Other’ - people not from near by - whoever that might be, were also determined by these factors.

the airial

Plan of a Landais airial
Plan of a Landais airial

Airials in the Grande Lande followed a plan that included, as well as the main farmhouse and other dwellings for other families and workers, a stable and barn for tools, other outhouses, such as a bread oven, workshops and various further storage buildings. The airial would be a fairly self-contained community, supporting the extended family and other inhabitants by trading labour and produce that they grew or harvested.

Amongst the cash crops and industries were wool, beehive products - honey and beeswax, food products and fertiliser (from the sheep), and above all pine resin. The main food crops were grown on fields extending 3 to 5 hectares, with two different crops grown on the same land by staggering sowing times and using the furrows as well as the ploughed ridges. In autumn, having spread manure collected from the sheep during the summer, the fields were broadcast sown with rye, then ploughed into ridges. In spring, a second crop, such as millet or panis (panic grass, similar to millet) was sown. The crops were harvested in summer, and in autumn the cycle began again - leaving land to rest and lie fallow was not known.

The rye and other harvested cereal was ground into flour and baked into bread using a large communal oven in a separate building.

As well as the many maritme pines for resin and lumber, each airial would have at least one parasol pine [also known as the umbrella pine], a different pine species from the maritime pine, from which pignons, pine seeds are harvested. In the photograph below, the spreading parasol pine in the foreground contrasts with the much narrower maritime pines in the distance.

A parasol pine in an airial, with maritime pines behind.   

Cattle were regarded as valuable, and even noble, animals and so were treated with greater respect than the multitudes of sheep. For instance during the winter, the animals were fed through a special opening from the living room to the beasts’s quarters - the estoulis - and everyone benefited from the warmth of the fire.

Interior of a Landais dwelling, with cattle.

marqueze - airial and eco-museum

Plan of the Marqueze Eco-Museum, near SabresAt Marqueze, close to Sabres in the heart of the Grande Lande, is one of three parts of the Eco-Museum - the Museum for the history of the local Landes economy. The Marqueze site focuses on living in Les Landes both before and after the coming of the forest. It is a large functioning airial, accessible only by a short train ride, on a train and line classed as a historic monument, through the surrounding pine forest. The airial is a living model of rural society in the Grande Lande during the 19th century. Here, you can visit houses, shepherds’ homes and kitchen gardens. There are people plying their trade: the baker, the weaver, the oxen-wrangler and the resineur, who are guardians of the traditions and the skills, the savoir-faire.

The other two parts of the Eco-Museum are the Resin Products Factory at Luxey, and the forestry activities centre nearby at Garein.

Plan of the Marqueze Eco-Museum, near Sabres

Dwellings at Marqueze airial.Cart drawn by oxen and outbuildings at Marqueze airial.


Keeping sheep in Les Landes, with shepherds on stiltsThere were few ways to earn a living in this unhealthy, temperate desert, keeping flocks of sheep being a major occupation. In 1850, there were 1 million sheep; by 1862, there were 527,000, and by 1890 this had reduced to 295,000 as forest replaced the frugal moor pastures. The land - mostly marsh and sandy moors - was so poor that it would only support one animal per hectare. Thus, the shepherds and their flocks roamed widely over the area, moving up to 20 kilometres a day over communal moorlands to find sufficient grazing for the flock. At night, the sheep were penned in a sheepfold, which ensured that the animals’ manure was not dispersed unnecessarily. The manure was the main crop from the sheep, being used on the fields.

The output of twenty to thirty sheep was required to adequately fertilise one hectare of the poor, acid Landais soil.

  • 1 kilogram of rye bread fed an adult, a family of eight to ten people would eat 4,000 kg rye bread a year.
  • 3,200 kg flour are needed to make 4,000 kg bread.
  • 4,000 kg rye grains are ground to make 3,200 kg flour.
  • 4 hectares of land are needed to produce 4,000 kg rye grains.
  • 60 tons of manure are needed to fertilise 4 hectares of land.
  • 100 sheep will produce 60 tons of fertiliser.
  • 100 hectares of moorland provide food for 100 sheep.


Shepherd on stilts, knitting, with his flock.1905
Shepherd on stilts, knitting , with his flock.1905

Stilts first appeared well before the forest, when Les Landes was an immense marshy country, very flat, with the vegetation primarily consisting of grass and undergrowth. Principally, it was shepherds who lived in this landscape. The shepherds had several reasons for using stilts:

  • in order to more easily make a path through the vegetation when the shepherds travelled the long daily distances required by their sheep-tending;
  • to avoid wetting their feet in the marshes;
  • but their main use was to be able to supervise their flocks of sheep from afar.

Landais postman on stilts.The first records of stilts in Les Landes date from the beginning of the 18th century. However, it is not known whether using stilts was invented locally by the shepherds, or whether they were an import, say from the Flemish region of Belgium, where stilts had been used since the Middle Ages.

Landais stilts were made from two pieces of wood:

  • the escasse (“leg” in landais patois) from where comes the modern French name for stilts: l’échasse; and
  • the pé paouse (“foot rest” in landais patois), which is fixed on the escasse, generally giving a stilt height ranging between 90 cm and 1 m 20.

The stilt user attaches the stilt to his (or her) leg with two leather thin straps.

Other Landes inhabitants also used stilts to move around the marshy landscape. For example, the postman as shown in this posed postcard.

The use of stilts by the shepherds for work purposes disappeared gradually between the middle of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century with the establishment of the forest, which drained the marshes and eliminated the pastures, and thus the sheep and their shepherds on stilts.

Sylvain Dornon, stilt user extrodinaireBut during this time, the shepherds started to use stilts for games, and they also mixed stilts and dances with the other villagers. In 1889, Sylvain Dornon, a former shepherd turned baker, started the first folk group on stilts in the park of the Moorish Casino at Arcachon The spectacle started with sporting events and races, and continued with dances. The first dance was Lou Quadrilh dous Tchancats - the stilt-users’ quadrille.

Sylvain Dornon also performed various stunts to promote the use of stilts. He went up the Eiffel Tower on his stilts during the World Fair of 1889, and in 1891, walked from Paris to Moscow via Vilno - 1830 miles or 2850 km - in 58 days.

“The preparations did not take me a long time. I manufactured myself two pairs of whitewood stilts, one which measured 1 m 10 and weighed 3 kilo 200 (the pair), and on which I accomplished all my voyage, and another pair which measured 1 m 80, that I dispatched in Moscow. I also dispatched two trunks containing replacement linen and clothing, one to Berlin, the other to Moscow. I got some good charts which I placed, with a little linen and a loaded revolver, in a small yellow leather satchel to be carried slung over my shoulder. On March 10 all was ready. I had obtained for the voyage a solid costume that, to add a picturesque note to it, I supplemented by the Landais goatskin and beret.”


Stilt-dancing display, at a folk festival Today, there are 21 Landais folk groups which continue the dances on stilts of their ancestors, and other traditions. Stilt folk group members also take part in the stilt races that are part of the Challenge of the Federation of the Folk Groups Landais. These races include the long-distance race of about 150 km from Arcachon to Capbreton.

Even a few years ago, stilt-dancing groups would often give free displays of their art. Now, it is unusual to find a free stilt-dancing display. The towns that invited stilt-dancers to give a demonstration now will corral the dancers in an enclosed arena or a pelote court, demanding payment for the privilege for sitting on hard benches amongst un-chosen company. [To the right: Stilt-dancing display, at a folk festival.]

life with the forest

The suite of pages on Les Landes - its forestry industry continues with Working in the forest. The third page focuses on resinous and other forest products.

end notes

  1. Département
    the above is the French way of spelling the word that Anglo-Saxons spell as department. Here at, we use both spellings when describing the French administrative department, which is fairly equivalent to an American state or British county..

  2. Grande Lande
    In the centre of Les Landes, the large Moors (la Grande Lande) comprises, from Gironde to the doors of Dax, a vast wooded area of pine forest, exploited since the 19th century. The forest feeds various wood industries, found above all around Sore, Pissos, Sabres and Morcenx. The forestry activity is less in the smaller towns, nestled in the middle of clearings or in the picturesque valleys of the Eyre.
    Petite Lande
    Fused to the east of the Grande Lande, the Petite Lande has hills and valleys with a checkering of meadows and cultivated fields surrounding well-kept villages.
    Further south, the Marsan is watered by the Midouze and its tributaries and characterised by steep-sided valleys and their series of artificial meadows and land cultivated to vines and cereals. There are many livestock-farming tenant farms.
    To the east of the department, are the hills of Bas-Armagnac, with their well-known vines and including neighbouring Villeneuve-de-Marsan and Labastide-d'Armagnac.
    To the north of Bas-Armagnac, this region has moors and broad-leafed forests, while from Estigrade to Losse and Lubbon is a zone of étangs (large ponds/small lakes) and dried marshes.
    region of the wine of the same name, which was part of the dowry of Eleanor of Aquitaine when she married Henry Plantagenet, King of England.
    Enclosed to the east by Petite and Grande Lande, the the lords of Albret extended their frontiers of their fief to the ocean in the 13th century. The forest, punctuated by fields and meadows, covers a great part of this primitive territory.
    Born has an attractive coastal region and vast ponds (étangs) swollen by the courants from the interior. Behind the lakes is sumptuous forest, decked with undergrowth according to the season with broom, gorse and heathers. Big market towns and villages are bordered by orchards and maize fields.
    This region ends a bit north of Soustons [an English name - South Town] is similar to Born with its beaches, lakes and refreshing courants. By the countryside is more various, thanks to populations of cork-oaks and rich land inland used for growing cereals and raising livestock.
    Maremne includes, between Vieux-Boucau and Labenne, the pretty seaside resorts of Hossegor and Capbreton and pretty lakes with invaded by a sylvan landscape of cork-oaks, laurels, mimosas and other rich vegetation due to the mild climate. The fertile soil is well-suited to maize.
    Inhabited since paleolithic times, with undulating farming land reminiscent of parts of middle England, Chalosse also is crossed by Compostelle pilgrims and, from the high hills, has magnificent views to the ocean, the endless forest and even to the distant Pyrenees.
    Seignaux, Gosse and Orthe are the small pays to the south of Les Landes.

  3. Rice grows successfully in the Carmargue region of Mediterranean in France; mulberries were cultivated in the Lyon region to feed the silkworms of the French silk industry; while tobacco is grown commercially in the Dordogne. Growing peanuts now succeeds to a small extent around Soustons in Les Landes.
  4. Courant
    Current: a small river close to the coast and cuts through the dunes to reach the ocean. A courant often originates from an étang (large pond) or lake.

  5. Commune
    used to describe local administrations, whether a village, town, or district. The territory of a local council.

  6. Cloisters and cathedrals of the south of France by Elise Whitlock Rose, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, the Knickerbocker Press, 1906.

  7. The opening times and prices for the 2006 season for all three Eco-Museum sites. For the Marqueze site, the opening times are based on the train timetable. The times and prices can be your starting point for the 2007 season (31 March to 4 November 2007). When more current information is available, will, of course, update our information.

  8. Pelote and the fronton
    A local sport, played in the southern and coastal regions of Les Landes, but mostly in the Basque Country, in Pyrenees Atlantique and north-western Spain. The game has been exported to other parts of the world by Basque emigrés.

    A small, hard, leathered-covered ball, filled with a wound rubber cord, is hit against a high wall, using a sort of basket strapped to the hand, a paddle like a ping-pong bat, or with the bare hand. When played indoors, one side wall is also used. The bare-handed players often have crippled hands as a result of the violent hitting of the fast-moving ball. Outdoors, pelote is played at the fronton, a tall, wide, marked wall, with lines marked on its asphalt playing zone. There are often tiers of seats for spectators.

Frontons: the two outdoor pelote courts (above left and left) show typical Landais weather , with occasional cloud bursts and thunderstorms.

The top left photo includes typical ‘brutalised’ trees on the right. In France, trees are hard pruned, which results in plentiful shade during the sunny, hot summer days, but during winter the trees show their knobbly scars. Note that generally the leaves from these trees are not just left to fall in autumn. Instead, they are removed as part of the hard pruning regime. The trees usually subjected to this treatment are plane trees - Platanus species.

Top right: an indoor pelote court deep in Pyrenees Atlantiques, being used for a folk display.

Bottom left: This fronton, next to the Mairie [town hall] on the left, is flanked on both sides by rows of concrete seats, like deep steps. Notice also the pruned trees in full foliage on the right.

Every town and village, large and small, in Basqueland [Pays Basque] and among its close neighbours, aspires to build its fronton, some indoors, many outdoors. Frontons of varying size and grandeur become centres of entertainment and festivity, ranging from communal barbeques and folk dancing to general partying. Frontons are hang-outs for local teenagers, practising skateboarding or practising their tennis strokes against the wall, and of course for clashes in the local pelote leagues.


on first arriving in France - driving Les Pyrénées, A64
motorway aires, introduction Pech Loubat, A61
Mas d’Agenais, A62 Les Bréguières, A8
Lozay, A10 Hastingues, A64
Catalan village, A61 Port-Lauragais, A61
aires on the A75 autoroute from clermont-ferrand to béziers Tavel, A9

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