The people of the Ariège inhabit a wild and inaccessible corner of France; there is no escape from the narrow valleys and high mountains. But yet this is a landscape that for centuries has been subject to intensive human use.
The discovery and dating of numerous charcoal pits and forges tell of a significant iron smelting industry from the Bronze age onwards with a peak in activity in the 18th and 19th centuries. These industries put tremendous pressure on woodland resources and eventually transformed fir-dominated forests to to those dominated by beech. So the wilderness that is the Ariège is one that has been tamed and reshaped with significant consequences for its biodiversity, not only the larger mammals that have been largely eradicated but also the composition of the vegetation itself. Many of the valley forests today are young trees and many have been planted. Within the Ariège valley, the only location with more than a handful of veteran trees is the Orlu Reserve.
The large churches speak of a well-populated past but today many of the the village houses are empty and fraying; adjacent fields, once managed as neat terraces are now disappearing under scrub woodlands and swathes of broom. However there is a modern renaissance, remote villages and market towns appear to be being repopulated by new inhabitants seeking a greener and more sustainable life. The market in the square at Massat is busy on a Sunday with many organic food and produce stalls; local people gather on the low wall in front of the huge church to enjoy the spring sunshine. The city of Foix and its many restaurants appears to have been transformed to cater for large numbers of hungry visitors. In the countryside, tourism is advertised everywhere for canoeing, camping, climbing and walking.
The roads to the Cols have more cycles than cars, many taking the famous climbs and rapid descents of the Tour. On the weekends, there is a constant stream of traffic travelling south past Luzenac and the by-pass above Ax-Les-Thermes to shop in Andorra and then return laden with tax-free goods; the police and customs officers wait for them at certain roundabouts and pull unlucky cars over to check that the strict limits on alcohol and tobacco have not been breached.
Farmers are investing by building great barns to house their herds of beef cattle over winter; here they are fed on ‘big bale’ silage and in spring turned out on the pastures in the hills. Many villages have a kennels for hounds and terriers that spend the winter hunting sangliers and cerfs. Much has changed in the Ariège but some things never will.