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French Pyrenees 7 – 14 June 2019

Stunning scenery and mountain wildlife

For a combination of mountain views, flowers, butterflies and birds, the Pyrenees take some beating. Spectacular cirques, flower-filled meadows and soaring vultures; it lends itself to our mixed natural history style.

Many Honeyguiders know the Spanish Pyrenees: the French side is lusher, greener and the emphasis of this holiday is much more on the high Pyrenees. Access is easy to gentle walks or pottering in mountain pastures, up there with the isard – Pyrenean chamois – and marmots.

The short turf of mountain pastures has alpine plants including snowbells, trumpet and spring gentians, garland flower and birdseye primrose. In meadows, columbines, globe flowers and St Bernard’s lily delight the eye. On walls, the delicate pink of fairy foxgloves is everywhere. Fragrant and elder-flowered orchids and narrow-leaved helleborine are likely, and there’s a chance of black vanilla orchid. Familiar flowers in unfamiliar forms include a red kidney vetch and sheets of broad-leaved marsh orchid Orchis majalis subsp alpestris.

Snowfinch, both red-billed and alpine choughs, rock bunting and rock thrush are likely. That most thrilling of birds, the lammergeier, is as easy to see here as anywhere; other birds of prey include griffon vultures, golden eagles and red kites. There are wallcreepers, though typically they are elusive.

Butterflies include clouded Apollo, Camberwell beauty and swallowtail, plus a wide selection of blues, fritillaries and others.

Watercourses can hold Pyrenean brook newts and Pyrenean rock lizards scuttle around on rocks in the higher pastures.

alpine choughPyrenean brook newtApollo
Alpine chough and Pyrenean brook newt (Ivan Nethercoat); Apollo butterfly.

Our base is the Hotel La Brèche de Roland, of Gèdre, just north of Gavarnie. It’s an attractive former 17th century family house in the village, looking out onto Brèche de Roland. The ‘brèche’ or breach is like a bite out of the top of the cirque, measuring 100m by 60m. Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, carved it, according to 11th century legend. He was leading the fight against the Moors and was trying to smash his magical sword Durandel to save it from enemy hands.

Brèche de Roland
The Brèche de Roland - towards the left of the picture - from the hotel at sunset
(Stan Lovett)

Birds

Highlights, in addition to those mentioned above, could include short-toed eagle, peregrine, alpine swift, black woodpecker, woodlark, crag martin, water pipit, black-bellied dipper, crested tit, red-backed shrike and citril finch.

Butterflies

Some of the more than 50 species seen in the area: Apollo, black-veined white, Moroccan orange-tip, Cleopatra, clouded and mountain clouded yellows, green hairstreak, Adonis and Escher’s blues, Queen-of-Spain and pearl-bordered fritillaries, large wall brown, Piedmont ringlet, pearly heath and red-underwing skipper.

snowbell yellow rattle
Snowbell Soldanella alpina; a field of yellow rattle at Gèdre

Flowers

These are some of the most typical or striking of a long list: livelong saxifrage, mountain avens, entire-leaved primrose, rock-jasmine, ramonda, mountain thrift, large-flowered butterwort , Pyrenean rampion, spreading bellflower, alpine aster, Pyrenean snakeshead, Tofield’s asphodel, St Bernard’s lily, Pyrenean hyacinth and butterfly orchids.

isards
Isards - Pyrenean chamois (Ivan Nethercoat)

Holiday details

The cirque of Gavarnie is rightly famous; it can be busy but that takes little away from its magnificence and wildlife interest. Other sites to be visited include the Barrage des Gloriettes, Saugué valley, Ossoue valley, Col de Tentes, Col du Tourmalet and Cirque de Troumouse.

Price: £1,550 per person in twin room for a full week (Friday to Friday).

Single room supplement: £180

En suite facilities

Flights: Scheduled Ryanair flight, London Stansted to Lourdes

Deposit: £300

Maximum number (two leaders): 14

Main leader

Chris Gibson has recently taken early retirement from Natural England where he was based in north Essex. He is an author of several wildlife books and has led many holidays for Honeyguide. He is an outstanding all rounder, from birds through flowers to moths, and recognised as a ‘naturalist of distinction’ by the British Naturalists’ Association.

toward spain alpine chough apollo Escher's blue From the Col de Tourmalet Griffon from the cafe
Click on the thumbnails above for a selection of French Pyrenees photos by Ivan, from June 2011.

Conservation project

The lammergeier, or bearded vulture, is Europe’s scarcest bird of prey. Though never common, their decline prompted a partnership to tackle their protection and, as a result, numbers are now on the up. La Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO, the French Bird Protection League) is active here, with careful monitoring of the local population of the casseur d’os (bonebreaker), including tracking birds with radio transmitters; site protection in collaboration with other mountain users, such as climbers; and food provision in the breeding season.

More on the LPO's bearded vulture project (in French) here.

Lammergeiers — increasing in the French Pyrenees

1994 — 17 pairs
2004 — 24 pairs
2014 — 39 pairs

Lammergeier in flight (Ivan Nethercoat)

lammergeier in flight

The range has also expanded. In 1994, they were just in the western half of the French Pyrenees. Now they are found throughout the French Pyrenees. Source: LPO.

In addition there were 126 pairs in the Spanish Pyrenees, with the highest number (83 pairs) in the region of Aragón. Add in one pair in Andorra, and that's a total of 166 pairs in the Pyrenees.

For prices, see Holiday Details at the bottom of the page.

travel aware logo

FCO travel advice for France here.

Holiday reports

Our French Pyrenees holiday are either in June or September. Recent reports:

September 2017

June 2015

September 2014

June 2013

There are more French Pyrenees holiday reports on our holiday reports pages.

French Pyrenees photos

017: from Ivan Nethercoat on Flickr and Chris Durdin on Facebook. Plant galls and fungi were a feature of the holiday expertly helped by group member Mervin Nethercoat: photos on Flickr.

Gallery: photos mostly by Chris Gibson.

Photos by Ivan Nethercoat, June 2013

Photos by Chris Durdin from September 2014 on Facebook and Ivan Nethercoat's on OneDrive.

Gallery: photos mostly by Chris Gibson.

Photos by Ivan Nethercoat, June 2013

Hôtel La Brèche de Roland in Gèdre. Click on the picture to see the hotel's website and a picture of our hosts, Odile and Philippe. Odile prepares table decorations from garden and wild flowers - click here to see pictures. The hotel is also on Facebook here.

Breche de Roland Hotel


Cirque de Gavarnie

Cirque de Gavarnie

griffon vulture

Griffon vulture

view from 'dipper bridge' in Gèdre

View from 'dipper bridge' in Gèdre

Honeyguide web pages on the French Pyrenees

Pyrenean brook newt

Pyrenean brook newt and Pyrenean rock lizard

Welsh poppy

Welsh poppies


"The habitat is saturated with eagles" - a line (translated) from a French study (summary here) of golden eagles in the French Pyrenees near Ariège. The study found that the isard (Pyrenean chamois) was the eagles' main prey, by weight, and that their breeding productivity was low, linked to a relatively high density of pairs.

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Alpine marmots were re-introduced into the Pyrenees, from 1948, to reduce the predation pressure on isards by golden eagles, according to recent studies (here).

In successive introductions, about 500 marmots were released, and they now number in tens of thousands. Their impacts on the environment remain largely unstudied.

Cardabelle

Cardabelle at Col de Tentes

Chris Gibson

 

SUPPORTING

LPO

Lammergeier

Lammergeier (Chris Knights)

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... where there are many holiday photos to enjoy.

Atol protected

The air holidays shown are ATOL Protected by the Civil Aviation Authority. Our ATOL number is ATOL 3253. ATOL Protection extends primarily to customers who book and pay in the United Kingdom. Click on the ATOL logo if you want to know more.

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