Links of interest for

France : Ouessant


Les Iles du Ponant is an association of 15 islands situated off the west coast of France with a total population of about 15,000 inhabitants, ranging from 186 to 4834. Since its establishment in 1971, the association has been working to promote the economic, social and cultural life of their residents while helping to protect the islands' environment. Each island has a Commune with a council elected by the local population and a budget. Delivery of public services is a joint responsibility of this Commune, a county Department, a regional Council and other national State agencies. For the purposes of this case study we are going to concentrate on Ouessant island, in the Department of Finistere within the regional Council of Brittany. Adopted in late 2007, the Brittany Coast Charter acknowledged their islands were all confronted with the same problems, but their locations and characteristics meant that the solutions to be applied must be specific to each one. The regional Council therefore implemented a durable development strategy and consequently gave significant financial assistance to offset the additional costs of insularity and in particular to provide social housing.

From the old Breton Enez Eusa meaning Island of Terror, Ile d’Ouessant, or Ushant in English, is a flat-topped island with spectacular cliffs all round. Its central plateau, averaging up to 60 m above sea level, offers easy walking and cycling. In the southwest, a deep bay allows ships to harbour - though rocks and violent currents make it difficult to land. There are numerous lighthouses protecting these reefs, of which four are located on or near Ouessant. The most westerly point of France and roughly 7 km long and 4 km wide, it has long been a beacon for ships entering the English Channel. The famous Creach lighthouse is reputed to be the most powerful in the world. Traditionally the sea provided the islanders with both employment and resources, and with the men folk away for extended periods it was left to the women to tend the fields and harvest seaweed. Today, agricultural activity has all but ceased but left a very appealing semi-natural environment that, together with the local microclimate, attracts both second homeowners and summer visitors (both staying visitors and day trippers). The main town is Lampaul, some 4 km away on the opposite shoreline to the natural harbour of the Baie du Stiff. Over 250,000 people visit the island each year and tourism constitutes between 70-80% of the island's economy.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

Ouessant is not connected to the continental grid and electricity production is thus local, using two groups of 1200 kVA and two groups of 1450 kVA generators that annually consume half a million gallons (1,890,000 litres) of fuel oil to provide the 5500 MWh consumed on the island. A submarine cable has been deemed too expensive and two attempts with installing wind turbines were unsuccessful. In 2008, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME,) and EDF, regional and local authorities hired Sogreah consultants to conduct a study into demand-side management and development of renewable energies. The outcomes of this study revealed several lines of action could be taken to decrease energy consumption on Ouessant by 26%. As a first phase, inhabitants were given free supply and installation of energy efficient light bulbs and appliances for hot water saving. In addition, householders were encouraged with a 60% grant to renew their refrigerators or freezers for recent models of class A+ or A++ that consume less power. A second phase aims to promote the greater use of photovoltaic systems.

In addition to the above, the Sabella Consortium has been working on the first French submarine tidal stream D10 turbine. They are presently designing and building a pre-industrial series model with a 10 m diameter, producing 200 to 500 kW according to the site's kinetics. The passage of Fromveur, located between Ouessant and Molene, is subjected to powerful currents that can reach up to 9 knots and a strong contender for the Eussabella project. This could establish two 'farms' of four D 10 turbines in Fromveur that would be coupled to a centre of energy storage on Ouessant sufficient to guarantee green energy independence for the island.

There are other marine energy projects underway in Brittany. For example, EDF has been working on a tidal current demonstration farm in Paimpol-Brehat and Hydro-Gen on a marine current mill based on the concept of big floating paddle wheels.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

There are both glass and paper/plastic/can recycling containers found in villages and other places around the island. There are larger green scrap bins provided at one location designed to take tyres, old furniture, household appliances, etc and all these items are then shipped to the mainland for further processing. Composting of green waste is actively encouraged. Old and discarded cars must be registered at the City Hall before being taken to a disused quarry for later recovery. Construction debris and rubble must also be sorted before being taken to this quarry, as the former landfill site can no longer be used.

Water Management & Security

The general problem of water shortage on the Ponant islands has been studied. Drinking water is in short supply particularly as the growth of tourism has brought an enormous swelling of the population during the summer months leading to increased consumption. An important issue at stake is stimulating a more sustainable use of water by inhabitants, especially now aridity is becoming more and more of an issue. This requires the development of island-specific solutions for water supply and water treatment. The size and characteristics of the island determine largely what equipment and technology is most appropriate. An option for the least populated islands, with a dispersed settlement pattern and located further from the mainland, could be a 'return' to older systems of water management like the reintroduction of individual tanks for each house. Development of a specific programme for the construction of new tanks, facilitating regulations and the obtaining of permits, and additional subsidies could encourage inhabitants to purchase a tank. Using water from their own tank, even if not permanently, would make inhabitants more aware of the amount of water they are using and thereby encourage them to be more economic in their use of both their own tank water and 'public' water.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

Over the 20th century the demography of Ouessant has undergone a drastic fall, which reduced its population from 2661 inhabitants in 1911 to about 1000 in 1999. This reduction went along with cultivation abandonment and led to a nearly complete disappearance of crops. Only the island's native breed of sheep that are claimed to be the smallest in the world, with the rams shoulder height at just 48-50cm and the ewes 45-46cm, has been maintained in a traditional way. There are now about 1000 sheep (versus 5903 in 1857) and their exceptionally small size is attributed to the poor grazing. It is also claimed that it was the women of the island who cared for the sheep whilst the men were away at sea for long periods of time. The women found their diminutive size much easier to handle and so the breed was born. The inhabitants spun and wore the wool for their clothes. There were originally two lines of Ouessant, the Morbihan and the Vendeen, that eventually merged. The Morbihan was of a small size and black, brown or white in colour. The Vendeen was taller, only black with impressive horns.

As with most primitive sheep, lambing is usually easy and this hardy breed can live outside except in very wet or exceptionally stormy weather. The animals are given full liberty to graze all over the island from the feast of St Michael at the end of September to the first Wednesday of February, known as the Sheep Fair. The sheep are rounded up into two groups, north and south, and held in enclosures so that each owner can come and retrieve their animals. The sheep have specific markings cut into their ears enabling the owners to identify their stock. They are then tethered in pairs for grazing until the end of September. In this fashion roaming sheep would in the past have created no problems during harvest time and shelter from the winds was provided by a star-shaped stone construction erected in the grazing area.

A recent paper has analysed land-use changes on Ouessant using historical documentation (1844) and aerial photographs taken in 1952 and 1992. Over this period, especially during the last 40 years, the island underwent a complete transformation from rural landscape into a vast scrub. Nowadays, there are no longer cultivated areas, grazed areas have moved from the coastal fringe to the island core, and fallow land stretches over 40% of the island total area. The relationship between current sheep population distribution and vegetation shows that grazed areas take up meadows close to inhabited areas i.e. 150 m in average from villages. These results allowed scientists to analyse land-cover potential related to changes in the intensity of sheep grazing. Further studies & using sustainable development indicators and other analytical methods have measured changes in biodiversity brought about by fallow land encroachment and growth in tourism.


The Penn Ar Bed Ferry Company provides a daily foot ferry service to the island all year round departing from Brest or Le Conquet, and Camaret in the high season. These services are subsidized by the state under the principle of Continuite Territoriale, which stipulates that public services should be provided to assure access to mainland France. Total traffic approaches 275,000 per annum. French ferries also collect a special eco-tax, amounting to 7% of the tourist fare, which is used towards environmental projects, often protecting against damage caused by the pressure of large number of visitors in summer time. The tax goes to the island communities to protect their valuable natural heritage. Finistair Airlines have daily flights to Ouessant from Brest-Guipavas airport (approximately 7,000 passengers annually).

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

The Ouessant tourist office in the main village of Lampaul provides comprehensive information on accommodation, restaurants and the various leisure activities available like diving, sailing, and horse riding. Bikes are available for hire and there are 54 km of hiking trails around the islands as well as guided tours.

The Creach lighthouse built in 1853 is 55m high and one of the most powerful in the world. Its range of 80 miles was recently reduced to 33 miles, and the lighthouse has been a museum since 1988 with a permanent exhibition on the history of maritime beacons. The nearby 89m tall Stiff lighthouse was built in 1695 and lit in 1700 making it one of the oldest in France. At the hamlet of Niou Huella, two traditional houses have been restored and refurbished into an ecomuseum. You will see in one of them furniture typical of the island built of wood from wrecked vessels, painted in blue, symbol of the Virgin's protection, and in the second a display of farm and domestic implements and costumes, etc, which depicts aspects of life on Ouessant; an exhibit on the island's geology and population is upstairs. The island's last windmill with its round stone base is located at Karaes. Now restored, it is the only one left on the island, which used to have well over a hundred in former times. Forty or so were still in use after the second world war, when the islanders had to start growing oats and barley again, and were used to grind barley to produce course flour to make a rather tough bread.

For over a decade there has been an Annual Island Book Fair on Ouessant that brings to the fore all forms of insular writing and more recently the Ilophone music and song festival, both of which attract hundreds of visitors. There is also the Female Musicians at Ushant festival that offers a series of chamber music concerts to both musically and artistically complement the work undertaken at the Summer Piano Academy on the island. A local blogger gives almost a daily update about life on the island.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The Naturalist Association of Ouessant collects data on the fauna and flora of the island to contribute to a better understanding of biodiversity and to justify the establishment of protected areas. The Ouessant Ornithological Centre (C.E.M.O) monitor breeding bird populations, particularly seabirds, and record migratory species. The island is undoubtedly the premier rarity hotspot in France with a list of vagrants unequalled elsewhere in the country. Nearly 400 bird species have been recorded here according to Ouessant Digiscoping. La Pointe Sud - Ouessant Association of Environmental Protection undertakes work on waste management and collection as well as having a particular interest in preserving the dry stone walls.

The Iroise Sea is the part of the Atlantic Ocean which stretches from the Ile de Sein to Ouessant off the coast of Brittany in north-western France. It borders on the English Channel to the north, the Celtic Sea to the west and the Bay of Biscay to the south. The origin of the name is not clear. It appears to be fairly recent dating back to the 17th century when naval maps referred to the Passage de l'Iroise. The considerable differences in depth and the adjacent English Channel are responsible for the strong currents through the Iroise. High tides in the Channel bring about strong north-easterly currents which reverse at low tide. As a result, there are many lighthouses in the area and many local legends describing tragedies at sea.

It is one of the most dangerous seas in Europe. In winter, there are often violent storms with huge waves. Despite several major oil spills and cases of overfishing, the Iroise Sea is still rich in flora and fauna with the coastal city of Brest promoting itself as the maritime capital of biodiversity. It is especially well known for its seabass, its pods of dolphin, grey seals, otters and, on occasion, sunfish, basking shark, leatherback turtle and even whales. There are breeding pairs of chough on Ouessant and many varieties of seabird including cormorants, guillemots and puffins. The sea is also recognized as the richest environment for seaweed in Europe that are commercially harvested and turned into cosmetic products. As a result, on 2 October 2007, after years of debate and discussion, the French authorities created the country's very first marine park, officially labelled Iroise Marine Natural Park, that covers an area of 3550 km from the north coast of Ouessant to south coast of the Ile de Sein, the mainland coastline to the east except for the Rade de Brest, and the 12 nautical-mile limit on French territorial waters to the west. The marine natural park also takes in the UNESCO Iroise Biosphere Reserve established in 1988 and both form part of the older Armorique Regional Natural Park established in 1969.

Integrated Development Planning

The origins of the Armorique Regional Nature Park lie in a renewed interest in Breton culture in the 1950s and 1960s which led to a demand for greater regional autonomy, and pressure from local conservation groups who were becoming increasingly worried about the potential impact of agricultural change, new fishing practices, the pressure for recreation spaces and major infrastructure projects in the region and in the Iroise Sea in particular.

The park’s first ten year plan assumed that the footfall of most visitors would be light and there would be little need for new infrastructure or new attractions. In the second ten year plan a wide range of small-scale tourist initiatives was encouraged in the 1980s but these in turn created some problems:

  • Development outside the park’s boundaries has consequences within the park. For example, a new marina in Brest opened in 2000 and as a consequence visitors to Ouessant topped 300,000 in 2004 for the first time, a figure regarded by many as way beyond the capacity of the 8km x 4km island.
  • 70,000 sailing boats cruise the Mer d’Iroise each summer and the park is vulnerable to water pollution and oil and chemical hazards from vessels.
  • For eight months of each year it is windy and often rain-lashed, so the tourist season is short. The management is considering how to extend the season in what is essentially an outdoor venue.
  • The permanent population in the islands continues to fall while there is an increase in the number of second or holiday homes.
  • It is questioned whether the park should attempt to accommodate all new tourist demands or whether it should concentrate on its core product.
  • Studies were either underway or completed in 2004 and 2005 into waste management in the park, visitor transport, organic food production and energy supplies to public sector buildings.
  • There are problems with high volume tramping causing damage to some types of vegetation – in part associated with “right to roam” legislation.
  • The realisation that ecotourism and sustainable tourism are different things.

As Ouessant lies within a biosphere reserve as well as marine and regional natural parks, it is subject to a complex array of management plans that are constantly evolving and have been reviewed in this 2008 report. The MAB reserve has also been subject to an earlier comparative study with another in the United States by the Small Island Ecosystem Group. In May 2010 the marine natural park publicly presented its draft management plan for the next 15 years and the results of a survey showing that 90% of people who know the park had a positive opinion of its measures for resources management and species protection.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

Most of the northeastern coast of Ouessant is undergoing severe wave-cutting and cliff-top sliding. Many sectors of walking/biking tracks are vulnerable to collapsing or falling down completely and at one site near Porz Arland, the strength of wave erosion has penetrated so far inland that it has formed a deep hole into which fell a large farm machine. A recent study on Banneg Island in the nearby Molene archipelago concluded that "over the last 30 years, the storms of winter of 1989-1990 have generated the most significant morphogenic changes in terms of erosion and reworking. The decade between 1979 and 1990 was characterized by high intensity storms, possibly responsible for the minor reworking of the cliff-top storm deposits, were more numerous than during the following period (1991-2007). With the prospect of climatic change due to the global warming, sea level rise as well as the potential increase in storm frequency could accentuate hydrodynamic and morphosedimentary processes. As such, these morphologic features appear to be a good indicator of climatic and/or meteo-oceanic variations on the short and long term."