The Irati Forest

October 21st, 2009 | Written by Simon Rice|

While we were in Navarre we couldn’t resist a visit to the Irati Forest, one of  Europe’s most important woodland areas whose 17,000 hectares stretch westwards into the Basque Country and over the Pyrenees into France. The forest is most notable for its abundance of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and silver fir (Abies alba).

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The approach to the Forest along the banks of the Irati river is verdant enough, with meadows being increasingly engulfed by woodland. But the road suddenly leaves the valley and climbs towards a cleft in the ridge.

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Here the Forest’s ‘secret’ nature is apparent and it is easy to see why it has remained isolated through time, maintaining an air of magic that spans the centuries and gave rise to numerous myths and legends!

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Once under the canopy, however, the range and beauty of the habitat easily overwhelms the ominous sensations we had on our arrival – helped by the glorious August sunshine illuminating the new green foliage!

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Timber extraction is both a pillar of the local economy and an essential element of forest conservation, however. Although the forest is relatively young, at 12,00 years it emerged after the last great ice age, it has had many stages in its development. Originally composed of oak this gave over to the predominating fir trees from the middle-ages. This in turn has been overtaken by beech in recent centuries due to the increasing lumber trade.

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As with most forest areas, it is interesting to observe how fragile the habitat is, and how little material is required to support such apparently huge vegetation. A forest trail blasted through the surface reveals the scant soil on which the canopy evidently thrives.

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Inside, it is easy to believe that the woods are endless, but climbing back out of the Forest its ‘spell’ is broken by the sight of the distant peaks of the Pyrenees on the far side.

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Back at the picture-post-card village of Ochagavia it is easy to guess how close we are to the French border – time to head home to Catalonia!