According to the cycle route websites, the route from Luzenac climbs 817m to the Col which is at 1361m some 16.7km away. This is the local patch and holds a diversity of habitats each with its own flora and fauna. As April turns to May, each is becoming richer; the changes since the cold days of early march are profound.
The route runs through the small villages of Unac and Cassou winding up through steep valley woodlands, pastures and meadows to dry limestone grasslands (pelouses sèches) on steep slopes, up into into the beech and pine forests to reach the Col from where tracks lead up into the mountains with swathes of alpine grasslands.
Pastures and meadows
The meadows are filling with herbs, in late April Pyrenean fritillaries are abundant in some fields with cowslips, buttercups, crosswort, milkwort and speedwell. And here there are orange tips and brimstones, neither of which stay still on sunny days. In early May, the cows and their new born calves are put out into the lower pastures; the cow-bells ring constantly and the mothers are more watchful than curious as they are highly protective. In early May, the fritillaries fade as the grasses and taller flowers such as meadow cranesbill and cow parsley take over.
The dry grasslands on the steep slopes above the pastures support a wonderful array of plants and butterflies. In early April, white Cistus is ubiquitous with abundant Potentilla and a scattering of early spider orchids As May arrives, the orchids and flowers diversify; sainfoin is one of the obvious and attractive but man orchids also seem to sprout everywhere. In late April, the slopes are filled with the sound of tree pipits and cuckoos. There are echoes of the chalk grasslands at Fackenden in Kent, except that downland species such as ground pine are absent and restricted to just a handful of sites in southern England and the butterfly diversity is equally depauperate.
The woodlands above the grasslands are a mix of planted confers and natural beech woodlands. The beech woodland is more accessible and full of the sound of song thrushes and robins. The ground beneath the beech trees has suddenly filled with Pyrenean squill, woodruff and seven-leaved bittercress. Marsh tits are frequent.
Above the Col at around 1,500m, the limestone grassland’s are dominated by juniper and birch and will come into their prime in late summer. In late April, the spring gentians are coming out in small patches, similar to the chalk milkwort which is common at all altitudes. The most notable are elderflower orchids in their mix of purple and vanilla yellow types; these are abundant and light up the roadsides through the high hills. A woodlark sings sporadically as it has done since early March when snow covered most the ground. The melancholy song of mistle thrushes fills the valleys.