It is to the Pyrenees what the chamois is to the Alps. To call it a subspecies, would hardly suit this animal. This mountain game is proud, agile and graceful, yet harvesting one is sometimes surprisingly easy. The emphasis is on sometimes. We were off to the vertiginous slopes of Mt. Valier! Stars still studded the sky as we left the small village of Seix, where we had spent the night. A small, sinuous road melted into the mountainside and only the front beams of the vehicle illuminated the vegetation that became more and more sparse as we ascended. At the wheel was Vivien Marty, our hunting guide, who wore the official uniform of Office National des Forêts (National Forestry Office). We were here to hunt the wild fauna present on the approximate 9000 hectares of the national hunting reserve of Mt. Valier. We had a full agenda! This reserve was established in 1937 to protect the fauna from excessive elimination in an era when sustainable management was an alien concept. This makes it one of the oldest reserves in the Pyrenean chain and in France. The isard, also known under the name Pyrenean chamois, is the most well represented species on the reserve. However, we also encountered marmots and a particularly rich variety of avifauna such as the golden eagle, Western capercaillie, Griffon vulture, and the extremely rare bearded vulture. Brown bear also make sporadic passages through the area. The local livestock farmers owning the 6500 ovines, bovines, and equines that maintain the pastures however, pay a cumbersome price due to the presence of these plantigrades. After a few kilometers of rocky incline, Vivien stopped the car and we continued the journey on foot, accompanied by the glow of our headlamps. Underneath our feet was a narrow path that in hindsight, we surmised it would be better not to return on. At some points, the slope was close to being completely vertical. The decision to climb in the night was an excellent idea, since it prevented us from being hit by vertigo. As we advanced, the sky began to illuminate the Eastern Pyrenees. In front of us, the silhouette of Mt. Valier stuck out against the blue sky, where a few distant planets still twinkled. The gradient intensified for good, our calves heated up, and our breaths became accelerated for about an hour. Finally, we attained a pass offering 180˚ panoramic views of the rising sun. The summit of Mt. Valier, which culminates at 2838 meters, was tinted a pale rose, and a soft breeze rode up from the valley bottom. In the distance, the characteristic song of a mountain partridge, probably perched on top of a rock, rang out. The moment was magical, and we savoured it, recognizing its true value. Saint Valier, the first bishop of Couserans, whom this local peak was named after when he scaled it in 452 AD, most likely also felt the serenity of these sacred seconds preceding the sudden eruption of the sun’s rays. After savouring fresh croissants dunked in scorching hot coffee (the local people know how to do breakfast), it was time to get serious so we grabbed our binoculars and swept each slope with comb-like precision. Vivien knew his stuff, and a few seconds sufficed for him to spot the first animals; a nice herd composed of fifteen head enjoying the lush grasses of a slope that was still in the shadows. It was the beginning of November and the rut was still to come, but the two bucks present in the herd were weighing each other up. They adopted an attitude that left no room for doubt: there was going to be some action! We pulled the spotting scope out of the backpack just as the two belligerents sprang into a crazed race, that took them over a ridge and out of our sight. There was no time to lose, we would have to try to find a vantage point offering a clearer view of the backs of the valleys surrounding us. We packed up and went along with Vivien, who leapt over the landscape like a mountain goat, while still taking care to stay under the crest to avoid being seen. After a few hundred meters we finalized the approach by crawling, a tactic that proved to be judicious since we found the animals 250 meters below us. One of the bucks had disappeared, and the area’s master seemed quite pleased with his work. Jean-Thomas, who won the draw of who would shoot first, was already in position. The shot broke the mountain’s silence, and the first isard collapsed under the watchful eyes of his peers, who fled without asking any further questions. Once the traditional honors were rendered to the game and it was field dressed according to the rules of the sport, we looked at our watches and were stupefied by the swiftness of this hunt. According to Vivien, the second buck shouldn’t be too far away and he proposed we go lower, since large, vegetation covered slopes were located beneath us. Apparently, the animals liked to stay here in the beginning of the morning, before joining up with the cliff band just below. We left Jean-Thomas, his trophy, and our backpacks on one spot, before tackling the descent towards the unknown. Regular breaks were used to soak in our surroundings. At times on our feet, at times on our bottoms, we hurtled down the incline. Suddenly, Vivien spotted a female isard accompanied by her young, ascending towards us. Surely, a buck must be following! Plastered to the ground, rifle balancing on its bipod, we tried to hold a steady aim on the game, all the while cursing and struggling against Newton’s law. Vivien was right, and after letting a dozen isard pass, the buck appeared in the rifle scope. The fur over his spine was standing on end, and one could tell he was not planning on letting “his” nannies ascend the slope infinitely to leave his territory. He was 300 meters away on the dot, a distance that did not allow any room for error or movement. The bloke simply kept climbing the gradient at a fast pace, without any struggle at all. The first animals that led the line jumped a rocky obstacle and disappeared without leaving a trace. We could do nothing but follow the buck through the scope and hope he would call for a break. By chance, he ascended practically parallel to us, and the shooting distance only increased slightly. Vivien was behind the range finder and constantly announced the distance that still separated us from the isard. When Vivien whispered “315 meters,” the buck stood still for a few seconds and the EVO bullet in 30.06 caliber instantly struck him. He was certainly also susceptible to gravity’s influence, and we all agreed that at this spot the vegetation cloaked slope was at an angle of close to 70°. The isard’s body glided over the grasses, the rhododendrons, and the stones, before we lost sight of it. Watching Vivien’s facial expression, it was obvious that the hard work began now. Before taking a stab into thin air, Vivien quickly ascended to retrieve a pair of crampons. Rushing was useless here, safety was the priority. Once we rejoined the spot where the isard had been standing at the time of the shot, we quickly found the vivid red blood that confirmed, if any confirmation had been needed, that our quarry had not suffered. We couldn’t say the same for ourselves. It was with extreme prudence, that we followed the scarlet blood trail that disappeared in the mountain’s many chasms. After a hundred meters, Vivien seemed to lose all hope in finding the animal, at least from above. According to him, the isard fell into the cliffs below us, and the best thing to do in our case was find it by “attacking” from the bottom. However, this meant we would have to climb all the way to the mountain’s summit, only to descend to the valley, and then climb back into the cliffs. It would be a true nightmare. We decided to take up the search, when suddenly a brown mass, tangled up in a small bush clinging to the mountainside caught our attention. He was there, supported by his horns that had gotten caught in the shrub’s branches! It took us nearly a quarter of an hour to cover the final few meters that separated us from our prey. Finally, we could admire the superb “scarf” that characterizes the species. His horns boasted a patina that embodied the passing of time and preluded the fact that this was an old buck. Examining the growth rings confirmed the verdict; he was eleven years old. Perfect! The situation was more than perilous, but we still had to field dress the animal in order to lighten the load. Thereafter, we had two hours of extremely slow climbing ahead of us. Step by step we hauled ourselves into what turned out to be a vegetation covered wall, underneath a blazing sun, and under the perplexed gaze of flying carrion-eaters who were rejoicing over the thought of an absolute feast. They would have to be content with a few entrails. The law of nature isn’t always “easy”! Photos: Philippe Jaeger and Lilian Camalet Translation by: Savanna Koebisch Family Portrait Often considered a sub-species of the chamois, the Pyrenean chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra pyrenaïca) is in fact a species in its own rights that divides into three sub-species: the Abruzzo isard, that of the Cantabrian Mountains and that of the Pyrenees. It is of close resemblance to the chamois. However, the isard is smaller in size and weight. It reaches a maximum height of 70 to 75 centimeters at the withers, and weighs between 20 and 40 kilograms. These measurements depend on the age and gender of the individual animal. Their horns are likewise smaller, with tighter hooks, a smaller diameter and a tighter implant on the skull. The other area of phenotypic differentiation is the coat, that is distinctly darker and features a dark “scarf” cloaked over both sides of the neck. Author: Philippe Jaeger Philippe Jaeger is originally from Alsace and in his youth he was opposed to hunting. He changed his opinion when he met people who explained to him that the foolish behaviour of some hunters had nothing to do with real hunting. Philippe got his hunting licence and bought a hunting dog, which he trained himself. Today he can’t imagine his life without hunting. He is now 46 years old and has a son, and, when he is not travelling around the world to go hunting, he enjoys his family life in the Vosges Mountains.