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Vultures in the Ossau valley
Despite the agricultural and hunting activity in France the South West has managed to keep much of its rich heritage of flora and fauna, though its most famous mammal, the brown bear, is, alas, threatened with extinction. Saving the bear appears to be important to the French Government, but recent casualties have shown the problems when conservation comes face to face with the hunting culture.
In one case the body of a bear sparked off a hunt by the local gendarmerie akin to a murder inquiry. When the culprit was found he explained
Butterfly on flower
that he thought the animal was a wild boar, although it was noted that his father was one of the area's most celebrated bear hunters in his time. In another case the shooter explained that he was frightened by a bear.
The saddest news came in late 2004 when the last remaining local female bear was shot dead by hunters from Urdos, orphaning her cub. The hunter who shot her claimed he was defending himself as she attacked him - quite naturally as she had her cub nearby. However even the local President of the hunters association pointed out that they had been warned that Cannelle was in the area with her cub, and should not have been hunting there at all. Since then there have been demonstrations demanding that the French government repopulate the area with brown bears from Slovenia, but the Bearn sub-group is to all intents now extinct.
The grand tetras, or Capercaillie, a large game bird that used to abound in the mountains has virtually disappeared, but there is still ots to see.
Avian raptors abound, and the mountains have several important colonies of griffon vultures (seen at right soaring above the Vallée d'Ossau). The shy gennet can sometimes be seen at night.
The flowers of the Pyrénées, like their cousins in the Alps so well-known in garden centres, bloom to their own rhythm in the mountain seasons.


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Towns - Natural History

Bielle. Ancient capital of the Ossau Valley
Asté Beon - La falaise aux vautours. The high cliffs above Asté Beon are protected because of the growing colony of Griffon Vultures there. Climbing is forbidden, but close-circuit cameras have been installed linked to an observatory below. Here you can watch the colony with powerful telescopes or on television screens.
Larrau. Village high up in the mountains in the Pays Basque
Bird watchers on the Col d'Orgambidexha
Col d'Orgambidexha. To the west of St Engrâce lies the Orgambidexha pass, the front line in the battle between naturalists and hunters. Every Autumn the passes and mountains of this part of the Pyrénées fill with hunters ready for the migration of the Wood Pigeon, or palombe, very much a local delicacy. Other migrants also suffer. The shooting rights are sold every three years and in 1979 two naturalists bought the rights in this pass, to stop the shooting, much to the fury of the hunters.
Since then the triennial price for this pass has increased, while that of most of the other areas has decreased. The revenue goes to improving the facilities for hunters. This year (1997) the price to be paid by the Association Orgambidexha Col Libre is expected to go up from 100,000 FF to 106,000 FF.
From mid-August the migrations begin: Black Kites and Honey Buzzards; then Black Storks, Ospreys, Hobbys and Marsh Harriers (September); then in October Red Kites, Buzzards, Sparrow Hawks and of course the Wood Pigeons as well as many other smaller birds; finally the Cranes pass in November.
The Association welcomes support, financially and at their study centre. Tel: (+33) 5 59 25 62 03
Argeles-Gazost.
Beaucens - Donjon des Aigles. High up on the Eastern side of the valley lies Beaucens, and the Donjon des Aigles. There, in an old ruined fort, a thrilling display of tame birds of prey catching their food is put on for audiences. The effect as these magnificent birds fly up the valley and low over your heads is unforgettable.
Bayonne. Large city and port on the mouth of the Adour
Botanical garden. 1000 species in a Japanese style setting
Ilbarritz: La Barthe. Nature trail 1.5 km long. learn about the local flora and fauna.
Orx marshes, 15km from Bayonne. Best time to visit this 800Ha site is between Autumn and Spring. Although it is hunted many kinds of water-loving birds can still be seen there, including Acrocephalus warblers and Marsh Harriers, as well as herons. There is a road that divides the marshes in two: the flooded side is easier to watch as the birds can hide away in the vastness of the marshes on the other side.
Reptile House. A visit to the fascinating world of reptiles with 50 different species to see including boas, pythons, iguanas, crocodiles, lizards ...
Urcuit: Maison de la Nature. 15 hectare site including farm showing local flora and fauna; aquarium. Open Wednesdays, weekends and school holidays, Apr - Oct
Bidache. Small village with spectacular ruins
Hawks and other raptors. A display of hawks and other raptors flying is put on in summert near the castle ruins.
Bidarray. Basque village on fishing river
Pottok Reserve. La Maison de Pottok gives you the chance to see these local wild ponies in their natural habitat; there is also an exhibition on their history. See also vultures and large avian raptors. Open in July and August only, and be prepared for a walk.
Bidart. Basque coastal resort
Eldora-Parc. A visit to South America! See the Hacienda, its gardens, the arena, plaza and a farm with llamas, alpacas ... Open April - October
Hendaye. Border town on the Basque coast
Chingoudy Estuary. This estuary, between the Bidassoa river and the Atlantic ocean, and slightly inland, provides a refuge for many kinds of geese, duck, waders and gulls.
Hossegor. Landes holiday centre once beloved of the French arty set
Bird-watching Hossegor lake. Main interest is in winter and spring - sailboards and bathers take over in summer. Many gulls and waders in the salt-water lake. There is an embankment which juts in to the sea and provides a good vantage point for divers, razorbills, gannets shearwaters and petrels. Expert watching advice is to visit the lake at low tide and the embankment at high tide.
Etang noir nature reserve, Seignosse. One of many lakes in the Landes area, the Etang noir and its marshes were declared a nature reserve for the rich flora and batrachian (frog and toad) population. 59 Ha in area.
Jurançon. Town that gave its name to the wine
St Faust - Cité des abeilles. An exhibition of bees at work in their natural habitat. They say only one visitor has ever been stung, and that was by a wasp!
Lescar. Originally Benehamum under the Romans and first capital of Béarn
Artix lake bird reserve. Some 15km to the west of Lescar is a lake created by a hydro-electric dam, fed by the Gave de Pau. Although it is difficult to get at; this area of woods, islands and mud-banks hs a surprisingsly large number of ducks and waders during th winter and migration seasons. Interest includes a colony of Night Herons and Little Egrets, and ospreys hunting in April.
Mauléon. Old capital of the Soule
Moncayolle: deer forest. Visit a deer herd during a walk in their natural habitat. They will come and eat from your hands. Open June - August or by appointment.
Moncayolle: deer park. At A l'Orée du Bois you can visit deer and even feed them during the summer. Open afternoons 14/7 - 20/8 otherwise make an appointment.
Moliets. Typical neat Landes coastal resort
Courant d'Huchet and Lac de Léon. Nature reserve centred on a Landes lake and its fast flowing exit through the dunes to the sea. Interest: bottanical, otters, genets. 656 Ha in area.
Mont-de-Marsan.
Landes forest round Captieux military camp - bird-watching. Hundreds of cranes feed and roost in and around the maize fields in winter and at migration time round the camp, to the north of Mont-de-Marsan. Hide near Lencouacq.
Orthez. Market town and one of the old capitals of the Béarn
La Saligue des Oiseaux. Nature trails alongside the marshy borders of a lake.
Saint Jean-de-Luz. Most important Basque fishing port
Urrugne: Florenia botanical gardens. 18 hectares in a hidden valley organised into seven worlds of flowers: Open Easter to All Saints, closed Mondays except July/August
Saint Lary-Soulan.
Néouville nature reserve. Part of the Pyrénées National Park, the Néouville nature reserve lies between 1750 and 3092m. It is a mixed mountain habitat of forests, lakes and uplands. Mountain birds and batrachians - frogs and toads - thrive there. 2313 Ha in area.
Sauveterre-de-Béarn. Spectacular walled village overlooking the Gave d'Oloron
Isle de Glere. A rare lichen lives on this island in the Gave d'Oloron.
Tournay.
Arboretum with more than 170 species of shrubs and trees..

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