Col de Pailhères at an elevation 2,001 m is an arduous but popular 20km cycle ride from Ax-les Thermes or a shorter but more strenuous one, with some remarkable hairpin bends, from Mijanès on the other side. At the summit, the support vans wait for the groups of exhausted riders with a table of refreshments. The griffon vultures and alpine choughs find it all much easier as they drift up the cliff slopes on the thermals and circle over the alpine grasslands; here too there are occasional short-toed eagles, black kites and lammergeiers. Less obvious are the pairs of citril finches and flocks of linnets which forage on the weeds in the short turf while breeding wheatears ‘chack’ from nearby small limestone tors. At the end of June, handsome Comtois horses and herds of sheared sheep are put out to graze and the hills are alive with the constant sound of their heavy bells.
Below the Col to the east is the small but pretty village of Mijanès and below that the old Cathar castle, the Château d’Usson; its torrid history closely tied to that of nearby Montségur.
The forests are primarily coniferous but with extensive beechwoods too; these are interspersed with tumbling streams and on flatter ground, species rich, calcareous flushes. The flushes are rich in plants and insects including abundant bistort Bistorta officinalis, ragged robin Lychnis flos-cuculi, common spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii and grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustris. There is also occasional marsh cinquefoil Potentilla palustris, much favoured by the small pearl-bordered fritillaries. In late June, pearl-bordered fritillaries were common in the forest clearings and laying eggs on abundant common dog-violets Viola riviniana.
Even though there are records on the very good, online biological mapping resource, I can find no violet coppers Lycaena helle which are the most fabulously coloured butterflies and restricted to areas of its wetland foodplant which is bistort. A chance encounter on a forest roadside with the stunning scarce copper Lycaena virgaureae, and in fact not uncommon at all, is some consolation.