Friday, October 29, 2010

Autumn Colours

During a recent autumn walk in the Galbe Valley, there were the yellows, golds and browns of the tree leaves, but it was not the only colour I found.

Autumn Croci (Crocus nudiflorus)
Browning grass
Cotton Grass (Eriophorum)
Snow Gentian (Gentiana nivalis)
There are more photos of autumn colours here.

Megalithic Art and a Mouflon!

In late October, I revisited a favourite valley of mine - the Galbe Valley, which begins near the village of Espousouille or Espolla. There are several small lakes at the end of the valley which is dominated by the Pic Baxouillade (2546m).

Pic Baxouillade
Having seen a fox near to one of the lakes, I made my way out of the valley towards the Camporells Lakes and the refuge there. On route, I wanted to find the Engraved Stones (Peyra Escrita in Catalan.) Some say that there are engravings on the rocks that date from the Magalithic Period (4000 BC)

I found 2 large blocks of stone with  flat tops. They appeared like large stone tables. I could have sat down by either stone and eaten from it.  Unusually, they were not covered with lichen as were other rocks nearby. The smooth surfaces of both the rectangular blocks were indeed engraved.

There were many names and dates that were very modern, but some of the names and particularly some of the shapes looked much older.

Perhaps the older engraved names are those of shepherds who would have spent the summer months in the area tending their flocks. As for the shapes and signs?

The cold night was spent camped by the Estany del Mig. In the morning I could see ice had begun to form on the lake.

Estany del Mig. The view from the Refuge des Camporells
I returned to Esposolla by a path that allowed me to look down on the valley where I had been the day before. While descending I saw some prints in the snow on the path. Shortly afterwards I came across a mouflon - a type of wild sheep. It was a male with the characteristic horns. The thick horns curl almost in one complete revolution.

Galbe Valley
Mouflon prints
 There are more photos of the rock engravings here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Merens – Black Prince of the Ariege.

The Merens or Merenguais is a small, black horse, originally found in the Ariège valley, in the Eastern Pyrenees. It is the Ariege village of Merens-les-Vals, that gives the horse its name. It is an ancient breed, and closely resembles the horses painted on the walls of the Niaux cave, near Tarascon-sur-Ariège,13 000 years ago.

Given the mountainous terrain of its native land, it is no surprise that the Merens is surefooted and hardy with good endurance and agility. The Merens horse has long been a companion to the "Montagnol" (mountain farmer), the horse being comfortable working on steep slopes. It was also used in mining, forestry and the army. In the Middle Ages, the famous Count of Foix, Gaston Phoebus, had Merens horses in his army, and later Napoleon made use of them during the Russian campaign.

Originally the Merens would have spent all year in the mountains. Now, in June, the herds move up from the lower valleys to spend 5 months in the high summer pastures, roaming in a semi-wild state.

While Merens horses are increasingly bred in other regions of France and even other countries, an authentic Merens is one who has run free in the high Pyrenees like his ancestors thousands of years ago.

Each 3rd week in August at Bouan in the Ariege, there is the National Merens Day with over 200 Merens horses on show.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lovely Lichen

As summer turns to autumn there are less and less flowers in bloom but still plants of interest to find in the mountains. In the forest, various lichens can be found. Lichen is pronounced LIE-ken and is from the Latin word lichen, a kind of plant.

A lichen is a plant composed of an algea and a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. This means a relationship where both parts are reliant on each other. The function of the algae in the relationship is to provide the food for the lichen. This is done through photosynthesis. The fungus, having no chlorophyll, cannot manufacture its own food, but can absorb food from the algae. The fungus is responsible for providing the structure to the lichen, enwraping the algea completely, providing protection from the sun and moisture. 

Lichens are a food source for animals and humans, can be used to make perfume and produce dyes, and provide a source of primitive antibiotics. Lichens are also used in flower displays and in model railway landscapes to represent trees and shrubs.

On a recent walk in the Planès valley, I found several lichens in the forest.

Pixie Cups (Cladonia fimbriata).

Pixie Cups (Cladonia fimbriata)
The cup is where the spore-like soredia reside. The lichen need the spore-like soredia to be scattered for the lichen to grow. The next generation of Pixie Cups will not grow until the soredia connect with the host algae, Pleurococcus on the ground near the site. When they enter the symbiotic relationship, the Pixie Cup will grow again in the new location.The soredia are dispersed by raindrops landing in the cup or by the action of the wind blowing in the cup and creating a vortex. 

It is said that Pixie Cups were valued by the Eskimos who used them as wicks in their blubber oil lamps. The lichens would be floated in the oil and then lit. 

Old Man's Beard (Usnea filipendula)

Old Man's Beard (Usnea filipendula)
Old Man's Beard is sensitive to air pollution especially sulphur dioxide. It contains Usnic acid which is a potent antibiotic. This combined with the hairlike structure resulted in the use of this lichen to treat surface wounds. It is also high in Vitamin C. The lichen does not feed on the tree and causes no harm. The tree is just a host.

Tree Moss (Pseudevernia furfuracea)

Tree Moss (Pseudevernia furfuracea)
Tree Moss grows on the bark of furs and pines. It is used in the perfume industry and has been found inside Egyption mummies. The lichen does not feed on the tree and causes no harm. The tree is just a host.

For more information about lichen, see the British Lichen Society or British Lichens.

'The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness'
John Muir