Transhumance in the Ariège Pyrenees

May 19th, 2018
 
Transhumance with cows

Transhumance with cows

 

There’s nothing quite like transhumance, following the animals as they leave the farm on their way to the mountain pastures for the summer. And for the farmers Philippe and Jason Lacube, their fellow workers and friends, it is an opportunity to explain farming and to enjoy themselves with the 140 visitors who have come to participate in this ancient tradition.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bears in the Pyrenees: the official report for 2017

May 13th, 2018
 
Bear cub. Photo: Djo

Bear cub . Photo: Djo

 

The French Réseau Ours Brun (Brown Bear Network) has released its annual report [summary at end in English]. There are now officially 43 bears in the Pyrenees, spread over an area of 5,000km2 in two separate zones. 41 live in the central zone (up 2 from 2016) and 2 in the western zone. With ten adult females now present, there should be more cubs this year. Read the rest of this entry »

Two new bears in Pyrenean rewilding initiative

March 29th, 2018
 
Bear cub [photo: DJO photo]

Bear cub in Slovenia, source of the reintroductions [photo: DJO photo]

 

I have been talking to both sides in the conflict between ecologists and anti-bear shepherds. So, the announcement on 26 March came as no surprise.

“I wish to arrange for the reintroduction of two female bears in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques [western Pyrenees] in autumn. I will ask the Prefect to organize discussions so that the reintroduction is successful,” said Nicolas Hulot, French environment minister.

France signed the Bern Convention in 1979, and the 1992 EU Habitats Directive reinforced its commitment to restoring the bear population. Two waves of arrivals, in 1996/7 and 2006, saw eight bears transplanted from Slovenia; the population here has now reached forty. But it is plagued by inbreeding, and the two male bears in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department are isolated from the main group. This is where the females will set up home.

Alain Reynes, president of the pro-bear Pays de l’Ours told me: “It’s good news but the real good news will be when they arrive. We need to work to make it happen.” As he points out, in 2010 the environment minister Chantal Jouanno proposed to release a bear to replace Franska, killed in a road accident. But nothing came of the idea.

On the other side of the equation, when asked for his reaction, Philippe Lacube, one of the major figures battling against reintroductions, commented: “It’s astonishing, because we were promised a coordinating committee. But instead of sending us two officials they’re sending us two bears!”

 

Dead sheep after an attack in the Orlu valley

Dead sheep after an attack in the Orlu valley

 

Earlier I had talked to Gisèle Gouazé, president of the cooperative that lost the 209 sheep last summer.

“Generations and generations of people have cleared that mountain and have maintained it. Where are we heading now?” she asked.

See also

bear footprint seen in Pyrenees

Bear footprint seen in Ariège, French Pyrenees [photo: Catherine Brunet]

Safe snowshoeing (2): techniques and technology

February 28th, 2018
 
Snowshoeing near Chioula, Aude

Snowshoeing near Chioula, Aude

 

After my last disastrous outing, I’ve compiled a snowshoeing safety checklist for future use. My intention is to summarise the main issues involved, but this is not a definitive guide to snowshoeing and readers need to compare my thoughts with other sources.

As far as safety is concerned, snowshoeing is the equivalent of skiing. Many ski resorts now have dedicated paths for snowshoeing, which are perfectly safe. Anywhere off these paths and you are faced with the same issues as skiing off-piste. You either need to pay a guide (see list below) or to review the situation carefully.

Checklist for safe snowshoeing in the Pyrenees

  • Planning
    • Check out several alternative treks, so one can be selected on the day, according to weather and experience of group. Have a Plan B for when things go wrong.
    • Calculate slope angle on and near route. Aim for less than 20° (37%) for greatest safety. Mature, dense forest also provides good protection from avalanches.
    • Check out known avalanche zones online.
    • Locate potentially dangerous snow bridges, over streams and in areas of karst.
    • Is the path well used so that the snow will be trodden-down? If not, walking in fresh deep snow can take twice as long.
    • If in doubt contact a professional guide or mountain rescue.
  • Weather
    • Follow the weather forecast for one week before the walk.
    • The day before the walk, check out actual snowfall, wind and temperatures online and by telephoning your accommodation, nearest town hall (mairie in France, ayuntamiento in Spain, ajuntament in Catalonia and Andorra) or ski resort. Is the snow likely to be soft, hard, icy?
    • On the day, take particular note of the weather trend.
    • Wind speed and cloud cover are as important as temperature.
  • Experience
    • Check the experience of the group and adapt the snowshoeing to the weakest link.
    • Only take people you know on difficult walks.
  • Equipment
    • I’m not going to consider avalanche beacons, shovels, probes, crampons and ice axes here. My philosophy with groups is to avoid areas where the slope angle is steep enough for avalanches to be possible.

Read the rest of this entry »

Safe snowshoeing (1): Cautionary tales

February 27th, 2018
 
Snowshoeing near Chioula (Aude)

Snowshoeing near Chioula (Aude)

 

The last time I organised a snowshoeing expedition in the Pyrenees, I mucked up. We arrived at our destination over three hours late, in the dark.

Read the rest of this entry »

A serious situation

February 11th, 2018
 
Gisèle Gouazé with part of the flock grazing on their winter pasture in Betchet

Gisèle Gouazé with part of the flock grazing on their winter pasture in Betchat

 

Early last June [2017] 838 sheep went up to their estive (summer pastures) near Mont Rouch as they do every year. But, despite the presence of a shepherd living with them on the mountain, nearly half of them didn’t return. The reason? Bears. Read the rest of this entry »

Snow reports for walkers in the Pyrenees

January 29th, 2018
 

From mid-July to September, apart from occasional showers, the only snow in the Pyrenees is the icing on the glaciers. But for the other nine months of the year walkers need to take into account the possibility of drifts and avalanches.

So when and where can you hike in the Pyrenees this winter without crampons or snowshoes? Please help me to reply by filing snow reports below.

 

* indicates the first high ground encountered on the GR10, HRP and GR11 trails where snow may be a problem, between 15 October and 14 June

* indicates the first high ground encountered on the GR10, HRP and GR11 trails where snow may be a problem early and late in the trekking season

Read the rest of this entry »

Can sheep be protected from bears in the Pyrenees? No, says Éric Fournié

January 4th, 2018
 

 

My last article was based on Catherine Brunet’s book La bergère et l’ours [The shepherdess and the bears] in which she declares that the measures proposed by the State to protect sheep can work. Here, I reproduce interviews given by farmer Éric Fournié and his shepherd Gérard Pujol about their experiences in the mountains in the summer of 2017.*

Transcript of the interview with Éric Fournié and Gérard Pujol

For the last five years Éric Fournié has done everything the State has recommended to protect his sheep. This summer 223 went up to the estive [mountain pasture] at Arréou [near Seix, Ariège] and he thought that this year was going to be a good one.

Read the rest of this entry »

Can sheep be protected from bears in the Pyrenees? Yes, says Catherine Brunet

December 28th, 2017
 
Tarasconnaises sheep

Tarasconnaises sheep

 

It is twenty years since bears were first reintroduced into the Pyrenees and yet the question of how to protect sheep is still being debated. Some breeders assert that a shepherd permanently on site with a patou (guard dog) and who brings his sheep together at night will have minimal losses, particularly when compared with natural mortality. This is the authorities’ official line.

Others, notably in Couserans (Ariège), say that cohabitation with bears is not possible especially in areas where the slopes are steep and rocky. The flocks disperse into smaller units (escabots) in search of sustenance. Some shepherds have tried to follow the official recommendations and report difficulties.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rewilding the Pyrenees: news about bears

December 13th, 2017
 

 

Last Saturday I went to a meeting of farmers, politicians and officials called to discuss the effect of bears on sheep farming in the Pyrenees. There are now about forty brown bears in the massif following two waves of reintroductions over the last twenty years. Their presence is still controversial, particularly in Ariège where the meeting was held. Ensauvagement, rewilding, is a dirty word in some quarters.

To my mind, there were two significant developments at the meeting which went by the name of the États-Généraux du Pastoralisme. One was the announcement of a scientific investigation into whether the government-recommended measures to protect livestock really are useful. And the second was the President of the Ariège council’s announcement that he could envisage, albeit reluctantly, that the bears are here to stay.

 

The famous video in which a group of armed men dressed in balaclavas threaten to “restart bear-hunting in Ariege”

 

The discussions started in the morning but it wasn’t until the Prefect [the government official responsible for overseeing the department] had left that things started to heat up. During the final plenary session, a man who had just arrived asked for the microphone. He grabbed the attention of the audience by mentioning “the famous video that you have all seen, with the guns” and then went on to say that bears had no place in the Pyrenees. The audience clapped and a few minutes later he left. For him, that was all there was to it.

Read the rest of this entry »

map of GR10

 
site designed by Archétype Informatique: création de site internet, Narbonne