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Wildlife in the Ariège Pyrenees

The department of Ariège has preserved and maintained its traditions and authenticity in a setting of unspoilt nature. Since 2009 a large part of its territory is designated a Natural Regional Park. The variety of flora and fauna is exceptional and the transhumance of sheep, cows and Mérens horses is still actively practiced, sustaining mountain meadows with abundant wildflowers.



All year round, but especially in winter, you'll notice strange green balls caught in the trees in Ariège...

From time immemorial people have attributed sacred or medicinal virtues to mistletoe. How can one fail to notice those green tufts with white berries perched in the leafless trees in winter? And as mistletoe grows only rarely on oaks -- less than 15 identified in all of France -- a tree symbolising strength and power, it's not surprising that it was so sought after by the Druids.

The Desman of the Pyrenees


Galemys pyrenaicus

This small mammal is the largest aquatic insectivore in France. It measures between 24 and 29 cm in length (of which a bit more than half is tail) and weighs between 50 and 80 g. It's also called the "trumpet rat" because of its long, flat, fexible snout, about 20 mm long, endowed with sensors. It inhabits streams, rivers and lakes in the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian mountains in Spain, at altitudes between 400 and 2,500 m.

Raptors of the Ariège Pyrenees

We are still fortunate enough in the Ariège to have three of the big diurnal birds of prey living in their natural state:
gypaete barbuGriffon Vulture - wingspan 2.80m, weight 7.8 kg
Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) - wingspan 2.70 m, weight 7 kg
Golden Eagle - wingspan 2.20m, weight 4 kg

How do we identify them?
All three have long, well-separated primaries (large terminal wing feathers).

Bears in the Ariège Pyrenees

Ours des PyrénéesIf you go down to the woods today…in the Ariège you may get a big surprise. Brown bears to be precise. And while you might think it normal to have bears wandering in the mountains as in many other places in the world, in the Pyrenees it is causing controversy.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the Pyrenees began to be associated with bears. In fact, if you believe classical mythology, the very naming of the mountain range came through an ursine connection.

Orchids of the Ariège Pyrenees

orchidée en Ariège PyrénéesDid you know that there are almost 60 species of orchids in Ariège? And while a few are very rare, others grow so abundantly that you practically have to tiptoe while walking in certain semi-abandoned pastures. You'd never suspect that these very meadows, because they are grazed less than in the past, will cause these orchids to disappear. Saplings will begin to push up through the invading bracken and the forest will replace the open land.

Of course certain orchids grow in the forest, but they are more discreet. In the shade of the trees and the absence of sunlight they have lost the essential characteristic of plants: the colour green, the sign of chlorophyll and photosynthesis. Through the intermediary of a fungus they draw their nourishment from the sap of tree roots. Certain ones will produce a blossom that never opens, sometimes even remaining underground.

Though our indigenous orchids can't rival in beauty their exotic cousins, they are no less interesting for their biology. Did you know for example that the seeds are very small because they have no starch reserve? A single capsule of a male flower may contain up to 6,000 seeds. In order to germinate they must associate themselves with microscopic underground fungi which procure for them the necessary nutrients. But they are prudent, for they keep the fungi at the extremeties of their roots and destroy those that attempt to infest the entire plant.

The Mont Valier Nature Reserve

Mont Valier par Sandrine RousseauThe Mont Valier Nature Reserve was created in 1937 and is one of the oldest reserves in the Pyrenees. At its heart is the majestic peak of Mont Valier at 2,838 metres (9,314 ft) in height. The largest reserve in the Ariège, it encompasses 9,037 hectares (about 22,000 acres) in total area and the southern boundary extends for 14kms along the Spanish border. This vast protected area has retained its wild, untamed character and deep, steep sided valleys with rushing streams alternate with cirques carved out by ancient glaciers.

The Orlu natural reserve

OrluThe Orlu natural reserve covers 4248 hectares in the high mountains near Ax-les-Thermes, a protected area where researchers conduct studies of wildlife. It also serves as a training site for professionals in fields concerning the natural environment. When species repopulation projects are planned for other parts of the Pyrenean chain, Orlu reserve is where specimens are captured for release elsewhere. The general public is welcome and a marked trail educates visitors on the life of the mountains.

The Orlu reserve is the base for the Ariège division of the national office for the conservation of wildlife (ONCFS).

Many thanks to these photographers

About us

From 2000 to the end of 2017 ariege.com was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.