The Cantal mountains are among the least-known parts of France. Neglected by the French themselves on the grounds of lousy climate, no decent food and inadequate skiing, the high grasslands of this giant eviscerated volcano are largely left to themselves, even in summer.The highest peak barely reaches 2,000 metres (6,500 ft), so the flora is sub-alpine, even on the tops. But the grasslands overlying the basalt rock produce a wonderful display on the steepest slopes where the ubiquitous brown Salers cows can’t reach to graze. This is classic transhumance country, with the cows leaving for the high pastures in spring and returning in autumn. These days, the milk for the local cheeses is mostly brought down the hills on 4×4 vehicles, but the ruins of the old burons where the cheese used to be made on the spot can be seen all over the mountains. The cows still wear proper bells, and on still days the rhythmic clanging fills the valleys, as if you were listening to a distant gamelan orchestra.By now, at the end of July, the main flush of the spring flowers is past. The red and pink dianthus are mostly over, as are many of the small viola species which litter the slopes in May and June. The seed heads of the tall yellow gentian (gentian lutea) dominate the remaining flowers, here mostly yellow daisies of one kind or another – and, possibly, some kind of tansy (tanacetum). There are pockets of the mountain pansy (viola lutea) in flower, even in July, scattered among the rocks, mixed in with heather and buttercupThe occasional patch of dianthus is still in bloom, with colour varying from very pale pink to mid purple. Wetter patches on the mountains are dominated by dwarf willow and blue sow thistle (circerbita), though whether this is the alpine species or the common one, I can’t tell. Blue lupins grow in places where they get some shelter. In spring, you can occasionally find the starry blue gentian verna on the edge of damp rocks – though it is not common.
I hadn’t realised just how difficult the wind streaming over the crests would make it to take reasonable close-ups without blurring. I must have had to junk about thirty pictures.