Between Spain and France, the Pyrenees Mountain Range acts as both a natural and legal border. Depending whether you stand on the south-facing side or the north-facing slopes of these vertiginous summits, the status of the fauna is different. Not only izard live here.
It was no sooner than eight in the morning when two human silhouettes hauled out of the mist that covered Cerdan. The mid-October sun was already illuminating the surrounding summits generously and elsewhere in the distance we could distinguish the Themis solar power plant. No doubt, Cerdan is a region blessed by the gods (see below). We walked for about an hour and thankfully our progression was done in the shade, our slope being orientated to the west. Loïc, a young man originating from the Gers, was our guide. This area was his favourite playground and he seemed to be carried by a euphoria similar to that of a young fiancé finding his true love.
The altimeter was flirting with the number 2000 and the effects of the altitude presented swiftly. Yet, we had to move fast since our animal seemed to want to taste the Spanish vegetation. He was slowly moving towards the boundary stones that marked the border. Our efforts would not be rewarded, since as soon as we were a few hundred meters away from being able to imagine a shot, the arrival of the 4×4 of a shepherd killed all hope by pushing our izard onto the “wrong” side of the mountain. It was time to catch our breaths and replenish our forces, while enjoying the splendor of the landscape. As far as our eyes could see was unadulterated nature. Loïc was already elaborating on a new stalking strategy. We would follow the crest towards Mt. Puigmal, the highest summit of the region with its 2,900 meters.
According to our guardian angel, the izard had a tendency to shuttle back and forth between those slopes and with a bit of luck, we could intercept them on the “good” side of the border. This time the pace settled down and we advanced on our tiptoes, holding our rifles behind our backs and taking care not to step over that sacrosanct dividing line. On the Iberian side the region had been classified as a national park and sworn guards watch over their habitat, equipped with technical means similar to those available in the special forces, meant to dissuade the evil French hunters who might grant themselves a few cross-border liberties. But don’t believe that the Spanish are victims of a green fever accompanied by cutaneous outbursts and animal worshipping, quite the contrary. At our neighbours’, the national parks organize hunting trips where the game is sold at the price of gold. This income justifies the abundance of surveillance means allowing them to ensure tranquility to their fauna.
Speaking of tranquility, a few kilometers later we saw our shepherd again, flying by on his 4×4, descending the mountain. He was evidently pleased by our presence. Once again Loïc explained to us the ins and outs of life in these mountains. Since the return of Slovenian bears and Spanish wolves, the pastoralism was forced to adapt. It was no longer in question to graze the sheep unattended. Hence, each herd is accompanied by a Great Pyrenees, a local race of dogs selected over the span of centuries, since these large carnivores had always been present on this massif. The canine presence is dissuasive for the predators, who become hesitant to rub shoulders with the watchdogs’ fangs. We felt the same fear when we by accident got a bit too close to some of the sheep dispersed across the mountain!
Just before noon we caught a glimpse of Mt. Puigmal, which was quickly swallowed up by a thick coat of fog that obstructed our vision past 50 meters. We were forced to stop our advance. For one, since the risk of getting lost in the rock fields surrounding us was too great, but also since it was impossible to hunt in such conditions. A southernly wind was picking up and hence, the situation would hopefully quickly evolve in our favor. It was time to take a rest, and to erect the spotting scope so we would be ready the moment the fog lifted. At these times it’s easy to have your doubts regarding the hunt, but this is exactly when it’s most important to remain confident in your guide’s abilities and remain concentrated on the end goal: izard.
Loïc was right, after fifteen minutes the light wind cleared the fog and we began an intense spotting session that would hopefully allow us to find animals. Hundreds of hectares of rocks, sheer cliffs, and high alpine terraces were combed through, but there was nothing there. Not a single brown spot, with the exception of two marmots that were lazing about while keeping an eye on the vultures traversing the azure blue sky. Loïc was beginning to lose his patience: “it’s impossible, there were 200 izards here before, and now there’s nothing!” It was difficult to contradict.
A heavy silence hung over the mountain. Occasionally, a few wind gusts would break the gloomy ambience. Suddenly, Loïc exclaimed “quick, hand me the spotting scope!” He seized the spotting scope and orientated it towards a slope over a kilometer away. Not a word, we were suspended, waiting for his verdict. Was he finally going to announce the presence of an izard? Quite the opposite. He moved over to let us look through the ocular and what a surprise awaited us at the other end. It was hard to believe, but an enormous wolf sat atop a boulder. He stood up, joined up with a trail, and started walking towards us. He was outside the capabilities of a rangefinder in which the laser was able to measure one thousand meters, but he slowly trotted in our direction. The moment was split between the pleasure of observing an animal, in plain daylight, whose Pyrenean population does not exceed a dozen individuals, and the consequence of this presence that had literally emptied the mountainside of its horned ungulates.
The most unbelievable part of the experience, was having watched a group of hikers minutes before spotting the wolf, passing in close proximity to the trail used by the predator. Hard and fast proof that these animals are capable of adapting to human presence in their environment, with the potential of an encounter with a questionable outcome. As we were glued to our respective oculars, a new blanket of mist covered the mountain range. The wind brought our scent towards the wolf and we would no longer see him once the curtain of fog had dissipated. It was useless to prolong our hunt, since a simple glance at the Spanish slopes confirmed Loïc’s suspicions. All the izards were glued to cliff faces inaccessible to the large carnivore.
Taking the trail into the valley, we spotted movement below us. Three vultures were poised on a carpet of rhododendrons, wings spread and fighting over carrion. Immediately Loïc pointed out that the vultures had just arrived and that the kill must be fresh. A quick glance up confirmed his hypothesis. Dozens of Griffon vultures were arriving from every azimuth and voiced their wishes of joining the feast. The object of their desires eventually slid down the slope and we identified a sheep whose haunch had been devoured, along with the innards. This was the indisputable signature of Canis lupus.
We returned to the Capcir plateau at dusk and at dawn the next morning we set out into an adjacent valley that overhung the small town of Valcebollère. Here, the biotope was the opposite of the preceding day. Rural desertification had made way for a cover of thick vegetation dominated by oak trees and sweet chestnuts. Here and there, a few remaining rare clearings were invaded by ferns. Rocky peaks emerged out of the greenery, like stony icebergs in an ocean of vegetation. These natural menhirs offered an ideal environment for izard, who find plenty of food. But first and foremost, they find protection from predators and the hounds used for wild boar hunts. These hunts, like everywhere else in France, have become quite popular amongst the local hunters.
Once we had left the last houses of the village, Loïc began walking up a trail. In no longer than thirty minutes we came to a clearing congested with ferns but still closed in by the remains of a livestock fence. We scaled a cliff and from the other side of the small valley we could watch over a rocky piton decorated by a few birch trees and rowans boasting their fall colours. Loïc immediately spotted the reddish silhouette of a lone female izard. She observed the valley, probably intrigued by a peer or by her kid. The rifle was positioned on the shooting sticks but we would have to wait before shooting. In the event that she was accompanied by a kid, the shot would be prioritized to the younger animal. We quickly spotted a young buck who was climbing a slope blanketed by heather in full bloom. There was no haste, so we appreciated the spectacle offered by these graceful animals. After a few moments there was no doubt that the nanny was not accompanied by a kid, and the RWS Evo Green bullet crossed the 224 meters that separated it from the game. The nanny was struck down, the young buck hesitated a few seconds, and then calmly distanced himself to make way for the hunters who just took possession of their game, and rendered it the honors that it merited.
Translation by Savanna Koebisch
Under the Rigorous Sun
The Cerdagne plateau, located at 1,200 meters of elevation, presents itself as the ideal place for research and the amelioration of physical performance in athletes. This region also benefits from a record number of sunlight hours, with 3000 hours per year. This is why we find the Themis solar center and its two ovens, including the oldest solar oven in the world built in 1949. This natural heritage site already created tension between the kingdoms of Spain and France, which finally came to a successful conclusion in the form of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that ratified the creation of the Spanish enclave of Livia on the Cerdagne plateau.
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