Posts Tagged ‘Ariège’

Why would anyone want to live in the Pyrenees?

Friday, 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.

The return of the wolf to France: what shepherds say

Monday, 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. (more…)

Not as peaceful as it seems

Saturday, 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.


Rewilding: with sheep, by hunters

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

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. (more…)

Transhumance in the Ariège Pyrenees

Saturday, 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.


Bears in the Pyrenees: the official report for 2017

Sunday, 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. (more…)

Two new bears in Pyrenean rewilding initiative

Thursday, 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]

A serious situation

Sunday, 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. (more…)

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

Thursday, 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.


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

Thursday, 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.


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