I begin my report assailed by doubt: will I meet chamois in the coming days? The weather forecast to be unstable does not seem on my side. However, as soon as I arrived in Ax-les-Thermes (720 m asl), in Ariège, the gateway to my journey, I discovered by chance in the Teich park, a 47 m high redwood totem. .. surmounted by a proud isard! A work by Nicolas Dorange, 2021 French chainsaw sculpture champion. The artist reveals the beauty of the noble animal, combining elegance and power. I see a sign there.
At the town hall of Orlu (825 m alt.), I meet Christophe Lhez, territorial agent, in charge of the tourist development of this territory: “Everyone has a link, from near or far, with the isard ” The animal is rooted in the culture of the valley, he admits. However, if you want to see people wearing folkloric berets, you will be disappointed. The mountain, we are ready to talk about it, but as it is live everyday.” To prove it, he offers me to attend the summer solstice party. While waiting for this evening, I take a marked path from Ax-les-Thermes which leads to the bottom of the valley. The romantic Château d’Orgeix (816 m asl) reflects its silhouette in a lake. Further on, we go up the course of the Oriège, rich in brown trout. The route along the torrent allows you to discover the indentation of this green valley with steep wooded slopes, before leading to the crash of a waterfall. But no isard around.
Back to Orlu. Elders from the valley sing Le refuge, a Pyrenean “hit” by Bigourdan singer Edmond Duplan: “How good it is to fall asleep at the refuge in the evening, near the fire that goes out… in the land of the chamois.” A song that expresses how much this animal is revered in the Pyrenees. “It seems that you are interested in izards?” asks me a participant. Appointment is made at the Relais mountain the next day, to talk about it. “By the way, would you like to eat some? A fillet seared in the pan, it’s a delight!” launches, with sparkling eyes, Jean-Pierre Clanet. A chamois hunter for more than forty years, he is accompanied by Jean Mot, president of the intercommunal hunting association.
And it is while tasting meat that melts in the mouth that the two men tell of their fascination for this animal. How many times, overwhelmed by her beauty, have they refrained from firing their rifle with scopes. And to share their tales of Spartan nights in mountain refuges and their games of hide and seek with the beast… “It has an extraordinary flair. heights”, explains Jean Mot. “Only true mountaineers are able to walk for hours at daybreak to catch a glimpse of the chamois, so elegant, much less clumsy than its cousin, the Alpine chamois,” adds his sidekick.
Marmots in sight
What’s more, “in summer, with the heat, the chamois seek coolness at altitude”, warns Xavier Rozec, curator of the national reserve of fauna and flora of Orlu, a site of 4250 hectares, between 900 m and 2765 m above sea level, managed by the French Oce for Biodiversity (OFB). Last July, relying on their sense of observation and their knowledge of the field, Xavier Rozec called on hunters in the valley to take part in chamois counting campaigns. Estimated today between 500 and 600 individuals, their population has been scrutinized since the beginning of the 2000s, after an epizootic of pestivirus inflicted heavy losses on the massifs. “Hunters are also asked to kill a few very specific individuals in order to carry out veterinary samples”, explains in turn Jérôme Aspirot, head of the Mountain Observatory, a municipal structure which works with the OFB. This information complements nearly forty years of research on the izard documenting the evolution of its habitat, the impact of pastoralism, tourist visits and climate change.
I continue my trips at altitude, between two sunny spells. In the absence of isard, a few marmots have pointed the tip of their snout. Suddenly, the weather turns nice. By mutual agreement with Lilian Cazabet, the photographer who accompanies me, we fix the departure at… 6 o’clock in the morning. Silent, we walk, on the lookout for the slightest noise, scrutinizing the grandiose landscape that surrounds us and the imposing Dent d’Orlu, culminating at 2200 m, where, according to a legend, Satan would have impaled himself, after having miscalculated his vol… The forest path leads to a meadow called la jasse en Gaudu, nestled at an altitude of 1,380 m. Right in front of me, Lilian Cazabet stops and raises her arm. He turns around, a victorious smile on his lips. My heart is pounding. Above all, don’t talk. I then first see fine horns in the mist, then a silhouette, a second… Four chamois in total!
The Lord of the Pyrenees
After a few seconds of immobility, the herd, surprised by this human presence so early in the morning, takes to their heels. Fortunately, Lilian Cazabet, faster than lightning, took some shots. Comforted by this encounter, we continue our journey to the refuge of En Beys, hoping not to cross the path of a badly licked bear… A few weeks ago, shepherds had to shout to scare away a plantigrade which was approaching.
The ascent continues, the path zigzagging between birches, mountain ash trees and clumps of rhododendrons, before weaving at the foot of rock walls with crenellated ridges. As I put my backpack down for a break, I disturb two izards who clear off towards the peaks. But some are more curious than others… And I jump when I discover a third one overhanging my eyes!
At the En Beys refuge, the sun broke through the cloud layer, revealing a magnificent landscape at an altitude of 1970 m. The ideal setting to discuss with the caretaker, Julien Militon. “Isards are a topic of conversation that comes up every day, he remarks, amused. Very early in the morning, in the evening, around 5 or 6 p.m., you can see them nearby. So, we go out for the long -view. It’s the attraction of the refuge!”
Already noon. The mists have dissipated and the heat is felt. It’s time to go back down to the valley. On the way, Lilian and I find Xavier Rozec, in the middle of the work of collecting… the droppings of desman from the Pyrenees (a small mammal), in the course of the Oriège. “So?” he asks me. “I saw seven,” I said triumphantly. The Orlu National Reserve deserves its reputation as a sanctuary for the aptly named “Lord of the Pyrenees”.
On the Loup
Did you say isard or izard? Both ! Even if the first spelling is essential. The z was notably the bias of the author of a book published in 1952: In pursuit of the izards. His name: Father Louis Pragnère (1877-1965). This native of the Hautes-Pyrénées then related his memories of hunting. Nicknamed “the chaplain of the peaks” for having celebrated more than sixty masses at the top of the peaks, this man of character had carved out a sacred reputation with his impressive list of hunts of some 600 izards, with a z therefore, killed in all illegality. In all weathers, the poacher priest acted in the face and under the beard of the gendarmes and forest rangers on whom he played terrible tricks!
- From Ax-les-Thermes station, served by a night train, a shuttle bus provides access, all summer long, to the Forges d’Orlu. Info. : pyrenees-ariegeoises.com and 05 61 64 60 60.
eat and sleep
- At an altitude of 1970 m, the refuge of En Beys. Information: refuge-enbeys.com and 05 61 64 24 24.
- The national reserve of fauna and flora of Orlu. Information: bit.ly/valleeorlurn.
- Mountaineô located at the Forges d’Orlu. This museum space is dedicated to hydroelectric power and local biodiversity. It also offers outings to discover the fauna and flora. Information: bit.ly/Mountaneo.
- Two steps away: the house of wolves. Information: www.maisondesloups.com. And a tree climbing course. Information: akrobranchdorlu.com.
- In Orgeix, the Crabé farm, to attend the milking of the goats at 5 p.m., and buy cheese on site.
- Marked trails for walks of a few kilometers or itinerant, including the Pérics tour: four days, between Haute-Ariège and Pyrénées-Orientales. Information: tour-des-perics.com.