A grassy field with Puivert Chateau in the background

A Short Walk along a Long Distance Path (GR7)

We used to walk a lot both before DD and when she was still small enough to carry. Since having DS and also moving, we’ve mostly been limited to short works to and from the park or thereabouts; walks of a distance just far enough for the big one to walk both ways and the small one to walk or be carried as far as he wants or is able. It causes that parenting conflict where on the one hand you don’t want to be wishing their little lives away, but on the other you do kind of look forward to being able to do some proper walks again. The only way round this with children of their ages (2 and 4) is to carry the little one and make sure you have the capability of carrying the bigger one once she decides she’s had enough. When you’re carrying the little one, is often within the first 5 minutes of the walk, so we always have to factor that in when thinking about distance. Sigh. That means it’s really much simpler to walk with just one of them and, if it means carrying, that’s definitely easier with the little one.

So when DD was going to play at a friend’s house just over the hill I decided that, rather than just stay at home and try to get DS down for a nap (he’s started napping in the morning again!) I’d pop him in the sling and walk over to meet James and DD, then catch a lift back. I wasn’t exactly sure how far it was – there wasn’t time to check an online map or plot the route – so I figured it “wasn’t far” (that’s a technical term) and allowed myself an hour to get there. It was a cool weather day, warm but overcast, so a good temperature for walking, especially with a sling. I wasn’t worried about route finding because for most of the way, until the path rejoined the road, I’d be following GR7. GR is short for Grande Randonnée, which is the designation for a long-distance route that is well marked using the standard. There are over 100 of these criss-crossing Europe. GR7 is 1900 km long, starting in Spain then passing through Andorra and into France. The French part is 1400 km long. The section I was walking was from Puivert in the direction from Chalabre, heading North.

The Walk

This was a pretty interesting walk. There was plenty to see nature-wise with lots of spring flowers on the edges of the path both in the field and through the woods. There was plenty of evidence of the damage done by the moth that invaded last year – the Pyral du Buis (Box Tree Moth) – which I wrote about in a blog post. At the time I was quite blase about it. I don’t think I realised just how much boxwood was around here as I am more accustomed to the smaller-leaved versions that we have in the UK than the larger-leaved variety that’s around here. Now winter has passed and everything is greening up it’s really obvious how much damage there is. All along the first half of this week, where the landscape is open, the box has been decimated. This picture is an example.

Three boxwood bushes with brown leaves damaged by the Boxwood Month (Cydalima perspectalis)

The Impact of the Damaged Boxwood on the Landscape

Here you can see the damage close up.

Brown leaves of boxwood plants

A Closeup of Boxwood Damaged by the Boxwood (Cydalima Perspectalis) Moth

It wasn’t until I got deeper into the wood that I saw healthier specimens. Perhaps those within the wood were protected by the trees, out of sight, perhaps? Either way, I do wonder whether we’ll see them again this year given how much damage they did. There may not be much left for them to eat. I also worry a little about the fire risk given there’s so much dead vegetation around. I’m not sure how prone this area is to fires but I know that they get them regularly further down the valley, however, there also seems to be much less box down there and I’m not sure the moths ventured that way. Time will tell on the fire front.

Tragic decimation of the many boxwood trees aside, there were plenty of living plants to see – and evidence of wild animals. I took as many pictures as I could but DS started to get impatient with my stops and starts so I gave up after a while. Here are a few plant pics that I managed to grab, of the Early Purple Orchid and a small blue flower I’m not familiar with and need to identify. I also saw two different types of vetch, cowslips, clover, buttercups, another small blue flower on a tall stem which as bit like self-heal with a more orchid-like flower so another one to identify.

A purple flower on a all green stem on a grassy track

A slightly out-of-focus (blaming DS for wriggling) Early Purple Orchid

Small blue flowers amongst the wet and dry grass
A small blue flower to ID later. Any ideas?

One of the reasons I was keen to do this walk was that I hoped it would be cycle worthy. Which it is, absolutely is – on a mountain bike. It’s up there on there on my to-do list and will be welcome relief from sensible trailer-friendly tracks and tarmac. Oh yes.

But it’s really not one for the trailer. It nearly wasn’t one for a child-carrying solo parent: at one point there’s a fairly steep near-on scramble up a muddy, and slipping in the damp, bank. There were just enough rocks for me to get a steady footing and we made it. It was made all the more exciting by DS cheering me along with fearful cries of, “No, Stop!” – which suggests he didn’t have every confidence in me, the cheeky little so-and-so. We made it, of course, and continued, but it’s something to consider if a near vertical scramble isn’t your thing. I did wonder how that would work out for someone travelling with horses or a pack mule. Or actually just on a mountain bike. Can I get my bike up there by myself? There’s only one way to find out.

A muddy bank with rocks on a path lined with yellow broom plants

The steep and slippy bank rising up into the woods towards Col de Lapeyrouse on GR7

A rocky path through woodland

Rocky happiness, right there. I want to ride my bike, tra-la-la…

Having done it on foot I’m quite excited to the point of impatience about the possibility of scaring myself shitless clattering down the rocky descent from the Col de Lapeyrouse to the D121. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden anything that hectic – maybe Potato Alley in the Peak District comes close? I’ll find out, soon I hope, and will then report back. See, now I’m excited about it again!

A rocky path lined by tall boxwood trees

A landscape very similar to the labyrinth at Nebias – hardly surprising since it’s just up the road!

If you’re interested in the route and the map, read on.

The Route

From the village, cross the D117 and follow the D121 up the hill and towards Saint-Jean de Paracol. At the turning to Métairie d’on Bor, turn right onto the track and then immediately left. Follow this track through the field (conveniently edged by electric fence) and up towards the woods.

The rest of the way is easy to find as it’s an obvious path and waymarked using the standard white and red lines.

This is a one-way route so you can either come back the way you came or take the D121. It’s not as picturesque but is a pretty quiet road – no problem if you’re riding and not likely to be a problem on foot either. In future I hope to explore a few of the other tracks around and pick the brains of knowledgeable locals so that I can make it into a more interesting loop.

Map and GPX Track Download

To view the full-size map or download the GPX track, click on the map below to go to the main GPSies site.

//www.gpsies.com/mapOnly.do?fileId=zutrkceruzqgcash

Where to Park, Eat, Pee, etc.

There’s parking outside the Mairie in Puivert, in many side streets, or in the small car park on the D117.

As far as eateries go, there’s nothing at the Tougnets end so take food and water with you. On your return you can try: the Brasserie du Quercorb (an English-run microbrewery, civilized enough to also serve tea and coffee but no food); Adeline & Joan, a cafe/bar that has a menu and a small shop area – excellent coffee and free WiFi too; or try one of the buvettes down by the Lac du Puivert. Of the three that are there, my preference is for the L’escale.

Toilets can be found next door to the Mairie and also at the Lake.

Accessibility

Definitely not suitable for pushchairs, wheelchairs, or bike trailers! Also not recommended for anyone who is uncomfortable walking on steep or unsteady ground. A walking pole or stick is recommended.


Have you followed this route before? Are you planning a walk that way in future? A ride, maybe? Please comment and share your story!

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Why You Need to Know about Processionary Caterpillars

It’s Spring, at last (at least it was a few days ago – it’s raining again today and feeling more like Autumn again, but hey ho.) At this time of year everything comes alive and the ground starts crawling with critters. Most of these are harmless, friendly even, but then there are a few others we have to watch out for. One of the most prolific of these is the pine processionary caterpillar which, after having spent months in their fluffy-looking nests high up in the pine trees, make their way down to earth for the final stage of their life cycle (as caterpillars) where they then burrow into the ground in order to pupate, hatching a short time later as the Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea Pityocampa).

A silk cocoon hanging on the tips of a pine tree

Silk Cocoon of the Pine Processionary Caterpillar

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The Distinctive Pine Processionary Caterpillar

I first saw these on a walk with DS and DD last year. At the time we didn’t know what they were but luckily I knew better than to touch an unidentified furry crawly and rightly too, as it turns out. Because as harmless as they appear – how much damage can a small fluffy looking caterpillar do? – they are in fact quite toxic. Not so bad to healthy humans;  we can expect a rash, which can be pretty nasty – the picture on Google images don’t look all that appealing but, risk of anaphylactic shock aside, it’s usually a localised reaction somewhere on the body and eventually clears up.  As with all things of this nature it’s best to keep your kids from picking them up or rolling around on the ground anywhere where they’re likely to be found. For dogs (and sometimes cats – although cats apparently keep their distance more often than not) they can be fatal, as a friend living in Spain, so a few weeks ahead in the life-cycle, discovered just a few weeks earlier. Her dogs made it, luckily, but it was a close shave and one she could have avoided if she’d known more about the dangers beforehand.

Personally, while I’m usually quite nervous of pests (and general pestilence) in this instance I’m mostly just relieved they’re not spiders – which is what I thought they were when I first saw the giant cocoons on the tips of the tree branches. But then I don’t have dogs. For any doggy owners, there’s some really useful information on this website and a very thorough write up of a doggy encounter with them on this other blog, ouiinfrance.com. In short, to protect your animals you need to prevent them from having any contact, not only with the caterpillars themselves but also with the spines, which are the cause of the problems. If they have an encounter with any caterpillars the advice is to get them to the emergency vet, so if this is you – go now. Go!!

The question I have though is how to get rid of them and what is being done about it because they really are prolific and I can see that if no action is taken this problem is only going to get worse. In future we may end up in closer proximity to them – while they’re around now there aren’t any particularly close by so unless my cats wander off into the woods, which are about 1/4 of a mile up the road, they’re unlikely to come into direct contact with them.

While these are common across much of Western Europe, different countries have different policies, as you’d expect. In France there’s a directive which places the onus on the land owner but requires action at the local level to be enforced. All good with the obvious problem that unless it’s enforced – and I’d say from the number of nests around here that it isn’t –  it’s unlikely to make the least bit of difference. Plus there’s so much land and so many owners, many of whom are scattered over the entirety of the globe, which means and not all land has an obvious owner, or at least not an owner on hand to actively manage it. Since the pesticides that were used to eradicate them are now banned (good) the best methods involve removing the nests and burning them (not good since fires can easily get out of hand and the act of removing the branches/nest can spread the dangerous hairs) or traps, which are the most ecological solution. The basic principle of the trap exploits a weakness in the caterpillars programming. You see these creatures, once they leave the nest, head to tail, seem to have no compulsion to go around anything, so as soon as they hit the barrier they just go round and round. Or rather, the first one goes round and round and the rest just follow! This discovery was thanks to a French naturalist, Jean Henri Fabre, who wrote a book entitled The Life of the Caterpillar (which is available to read online) about them. One day while studying them he managed to coerce them into forming a loop, so they were all equally following and leading, walking in circle. To his surprise them they continued this way for the best part of four days. Fast forward to today and four days is ample time for a trap to be set up and emptied. Game on.

The traps are designed so that a small tube leads out of the barrier into a collection bag, which you can then dispose of safely. There’s an official product, called Eco Piège, which you can pay upwards of 35 euros for (yeah, right), or you can go DIY.  Some cheap and cheerful DIY barrier ideas include using pipe lagging, some pipe and a bin bag, as in the picture below, posted by Linda Garnett to Facebook.

CaterpillarTraps_LindaGarnett

DIY Processionary Caterpillar Trap using Pipe Lagging

Another simple idea used recycled water bottles – but of course now I can’t find the photograph to share. Also I’ve seen pictures of clear plastic gaffer-taped to the trunk of the tree, kind of like a large buster collar (the kind you put on your dog or cat to stop them scratching their stitches out). However you do it, the best approach seems to be one that involves funneling them into a container that you can easily seal in order to limit your contact with them.

As an alternative to catching the live caterpillars and then having to dispose of them, Farber recommends checking the tips of the trees for eggs and removing the branch tips before they hatch, so no cocoons or dangerous fibres to have to deal with. That might be a worthwhile approach if you’ve only got a few trees in a fairly small area and can easily keep a close eye on them but on the scale of the problem as it seems to be around here, that would be a lot of work!

So there you have it. You have been warned! Personally I hope I never have to put up with these on my doorstep but, if I do, at least I’ll have some ideas about how to get rid of them. And in the meantime I’ll be keeping myself, my pets and my kids well out of their way!

28/04/18 Update – I managed to get an up-close cocoon shot so have added it above.