Why would anyone want to live in the Pyrenees?

April 26th, 2024
 

Lescun in summer, 900m above sea level, 170 inhabitants

Walking in the Pyrenees is fun. But ask yourself, would you want to live there all year round?

From May to October, the lush pastures on the lower slopes are complemented by the rocky saw-tooth heights. Walking can be a challenge, but the reward is at the summit, vistas of blue-grey ridges stretching to the horizon. Those blisters are forgotten.

Of course, this is the perspective of a holidaymaker, seen through rose-tinted sunglasses. But why would anyone want to live in the Pyrenees all year round?

In winter the skies are often grey, the temperature hardly rises above zero. Apart from skiers safely cocooned on artificial slopes, virtually nobody explores the summits.

I have climbed Canigó in January, but few people do so

But, for locals life is not a holiday. They must work, and most work is seasonal. Many hotels, restaurants and bars close after September and only open briefly when there is enough snow for skiing. If you work in tourism, you must up sticks, or live a frugal existence.

Omar was brought up in the Pyrenees but went away to university. He returned to work in a bar in summer and on ski resorts in winter. His plan is to facilitate access to the mountains for people with special needs.

In winter, farmers struggle too. The mountains are not designed for ploughing; livestock must be kept indoors through many of the long winter months.

Most villages don’t have a shop or a school. Hospital? University? Forget it.

Many farmers have a second source of income: Philippe (pictured here with a statue of a cow) runs a restaurant with the help of his family. “I went to Bolivia. I spent two years there. I loved it… both for the mountains and—especially—working with the Quechua Indian communities.”

So, apart from those who were born there and are used to it, why would anyone want to live there all year round? There are even some people who have left to live more comfortably on the plain but have later come back. Why?

Salva left Pallars Sobirà to work in a nuclear power station where he met Àngels. They now run a restaurant/bar where Salva’s parents had a farm. “I was from here but had never lived here as an adult,” says Salva.

I have been asking myself this question for some time. I visit the Pyrenees frequently but live on the plain, near the Mediterranean. Winters are mild. The sky is blue. I experience the Pyrenees as a tourist, I go to the Pyrenees to play. Now I want to know what makes the Pyrenees work.

Adeline runs a walkers’ hostel and market garden in Ariège. “I decided to resign from teaching. It was a bit like jumping off a cliff because I knew it would be difficult to earn my living.”

So, I joined up with Open University Emeritus Professor Gordon Wilson to ask people who live in the Pyrenees why on earth they do it.

The answers are as varied as the people we interviewed, but yes, there is a pattern. For those who want to know more about life in the Pyrenees, for those who think the Pyrenees might be for them, we have analysed the kind of person you need to be to make a living ‘up there’.

Mustà and his assistant examining a dead sheep. Mustà comes from a farm in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, so he was well prepared. Even so, there were new challenges: “The bear was eating a sheep fifty metres away. Well, I shut the tent up and that was it. I just let him eat it.”

We interviewed fifteen people. Some had lived in the Pyrenees all their lives (natives), others had been away and come back (returnees), and some had moved to the hills having previously lived elsewhere (incomers). They talked about themselves and their families; over half were couples with one partner from the mountains and another from down below.

Pepo comes from Barcelona. He runs an adventure sport company based in Pallars Sobirà. “We will never be ‘born and bred’ here, but my kids really are ‘born and bred’… I’ve lived here longer than in Barcelona and I feel that I am from Surri though I wasn’t born here.”

The result of the interviews is Mountain People, Tales from the Pyrenees, published by Austin Macauley.

In it, our witnesses talk about the obstacles and the steps they take to overcome them. Most of them have not given in to fate. They are not just hoping for a better life but are actively working to achieve it in the context of the mountains. And most of all, they identify with their chosen abode.

Josep, native, and Maria, incomer, with their children. Josep works for the council; Maria has horses and runs a B&B. “I like hunting. I like it a lot. Wild boar,” says Josep.

Stevenson Trail – Chemin de Stevenson, 2021

October 22nd, 2021
 
Monastier-sur-Grazeilles

Monastier-sur-Grazeilles

The Stevenson in question is the Scottish author Robert Louis Stephenson, best known in anglophone countries for Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In Monastier-sur-Grazeilles, in the French Massif central, however, he is principally known as the author of Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Stevenson spent some time in the small town of Monastier-sur-Grazeilles before setting out on his walk across the southern half of the French Massif central. Despite the title of his book, Stevenson set off from the Velay area, crossed the Gévaudan, and climbed Mont Lozère before even entering the Cévennes.

Read the rest of this entry »

New book: The Implausible Rewilding of the Pyrenees

October 17th, 2021
 
Celia, the last Pyrenean ibex

Celia, the last Pyrenean ibex died on 6 Jan 2000. New ibex have been brought to the Pyrenees to replace her.

The Pyrenees are changing with the arrival of a Noah’s Ark of animals: bear, wolf, lynx, ibex, griffon vulture and more. They have all been here in the past, but their return is contested. Read more in my new book.

New website: www.wildingthePyrenees.com

The Implausible Rewilding of the Pyrenees, is now available in two editions from [best for me] and Amazon.

Chez Paco. New accommodation on the GR10 at Le Perthus

September 1st, 2021
 
Gîte d'étape at le Perthus

Gîte d’étape at le Perthus

Francisco Lorente has opened a gite for walkers passing through this frontier town in the Pyrénées-Orientales. There are four single beds in two bedrooms, showers, dining room, and a kitchen. Outside there is space for tents (with separate facilities). 100m from the centre of Le Perthus, it is situated in a wooded zone away from the noise of cars. 17€ per person in the gite, 10€ per person in a tent.

A walker himself, Francisco (Paco) can be contacted on +33 (0) 613098936   lorente.francisco@free.fr
see also http://chezpaco.e-monsite.com/

Punxó

July 6th, 2021
 
Walking to Punxó

Walking to Punxó

After having helped a film crew bring their equipment down from an estive, I ended up in the Cerdagne last weekend with friends. We climbed Punxó, a little-known summit.

It was bucolic rather than wild, but the pastures were still empty. An exceptional point of view. We identified Carlit, Cambre d’Aze, Puigmal d’Err and Andorra. We thought we could see Vignemale in the distance, covered in snow.

On the summit of Punxó

On the summit of Punxó

Little wildlife, but we did hear a marmot and see a short-toes eagle (Circaetus gallicus) circling above. On our descent we passed through pastures with cows and horses waiting for gates to be opened, signalling the start of their summer liberty.

An easy summit, accessible from near the Mas Franco, above Enveitg. 1000m climbing, 17.5km circular walk. http://www.mc2rando.fr/pyreneesorientales/1019punxo.html

The return of the wolf to France: what shepherds say

June 1st, 2020
 
Wolf at La Maison des Loups, Orlu, Ariège

Wolf at La Maison des Loups, Orlu, Ariège

 

The reintroduction of wolves changes the behaviour of herbivores, killing the weakest and sickest. The healthy ones move to safer zones. The landscape evolves. So what would happen if wolves returned to Britain? Putting aside the ecological interest, what would be their impact on the profession most affected, sheep farming? How would shepherds cope?

All you need in order to protect a flock of sheep is a livestock guardian dog (LGD). The shepherd must keep the flock together during the day, and round the sheep up into a pen at night. That’s the theory. So how does this work in practice here in France where we have gone from no wolves in 1992 to 530 today?

I’ve interviewed many farmers about rewilding. When it comes to wolves, unsurprisingly most don’t want them. But there are nuances: here are three opinions.

Matilde is from a sheep-farming family in the Alps and has learnt how to cope. Olivier, also from a pastoral background, lives in the Massif Central. He has no sympathy for rewilding. Maxime is a newcomer to the Pyrenees and to sheep farming. He is quite happy with the return of bears but doesn’t see a place for wolves. Read the rest of this entry »

The return of the Pyrenean ibex: hunters as key stakeholders

May 24th, 2020
 
Pyrenean ibex (capra pirenaica pirenaica)

Plate 22 (Spanish Tur) from Richard Lydecker (1898) Wild oxen, sheep and goats of all lands, living and extinct. Based on a sketch by Joseph Wolf in the possession of Lady Brooke.

Pyrenean Ibex Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica – bouquetin (fr) – bucardo or cabra montes (sp) – herc (cat)

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica, the Pyrenean ibex, is the only (sub)-species to have gone extinct twice. The first time on 6 January 2000 and the second time on 30 July 2003. Despite this double-barrelled failure, another subspecies of Iberian ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) is now thriving in the Pyrenees following reintroduction. Hunters’ attitudes and hunters’ money have played a big part on both sides of the equation. Read the rest of this entry »

The end of the Big Sleep

May 17th, 2020
 
Marmots in Catalonia

Marmot Marmota marmota – marmotte (fr) – marmota (sp, cat)

One of the earliest rewilding initiatives – and by far the most successful – was the work of two locals, Antoine Knobel and Jean-Marie Sabatut, and an avid hunter. The Pyrenean marmot woke up from its ten-thousand-year hibernation on 15 May 1948, in the Barrada valley near Gavarnie. There are now ten thousand marmots gamboling in the prairies above 1400m.

The marmot’s warning whistle has become, like the tinkling of sheep bells, an audible emblem of the mountains. Guided by the sound, walkers’ heads turn to catch a fleeting glimpse of a nose in the air, swiftly followed by the sight a tail disappearing down a burrow. In the more frequented areas of the mountains, marmots can be observed at close quarters. Near Gavarnie, the less timid ones will demand a toll. Read the rest of this entry »

Not as peaceful as it seems

July 13th, 2019
 
Port de Saleix, at 1800m above sea level on the GR10, looking east towards Saleix

Port de Saleix, at 1800m above sea level on the GR10 between Aulus and Marc, looking east

 

Two hours hard walking from the village of Saleix, Ariège, the rendezvous for the latest meeting of the anti-bear ASPAP was not an obvious choice. But as Philippe Lacube, one of the historic leaders of the movement and now President of the Ariège Chamber of Agriculture, explained:

“We could have gone to the streets of Foix or Toulouse. We preferred being in our mountains. We preferred being on our soil, at home; because, I think, it is this land we need to retake control of.”

These farmers, shepherds, mayors and supporters have had enough and believe the French state is not listening.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rewilding: with sheep, by hunters

May 16th, 2019
 
Mouflon

Mouflon. The principal distinguishing characteristic of the male mouflon is its long, curved horns (in females the horns are absent or smaller) © Laurence Terminet

 

The sheep isn’t the first species that comes to mind when I think of ‘rewilding’. It seems unlikely that the idea of rewilding with sheep will warm George Monbiot’s heart ?, given his views on the animal’s ecological hoofprint. But an ancient variety of sheep, the mouflon, present in the French Pyrenees in the Pleistocene, has been reintroduced: by hunters who were not in the least interested in the idea of rewilding. Indeed, they started the project in 1957 before the term ‘rewilding’ even existed. Yet, if there were more mouflons, they could become a food resource for the more charismatic brown bears and wolves currently preying on domestic flocks. Even shepherds – traditionally opponents of rewilding – might find some solace. Read the rest of this entry »

map of GR10

 
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