The Chamois (and its sister species – the Isard) are shy, agile, deer-like creatures of the mountains. They can run at 30 mph, jump up around 2 metres from a standing start, and leap over 6 metres. They are also superb climbers.
Chamonix Mont Blanc Alpine Chamois
Rupicapra rupicapra is found in many parts of Europe where there are remote mountain ranges. Each region has its own subspecies, seven in total.
The Alpine Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra) is the one that can be seen near Chamonix.
This is the subspecies that was introduced into New Zealand in 1907 (as a gift from the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph).
Pyrenean Chamois or Isard
The Pyrenean Chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) has three subspecies. Rupicapra pyrenaica parva (the Cantabrian Chamois) is found in Spain, Rupicapra pyrenaica ornata (the Apennine Chamois) is found in Italy, and Rupicapra pyrenaica pyrenaica is the one in the French Pyrenees.
The easiest way to see the Isard (Izard) is to travel by car from Lourdes towards Gavarnie. Turn off the road at Gedre – towards Heas. At the end of this road take the winding toll road up to the ‘Cirque de Troumousse’. There is plenty of parking on this alpine plateau, and Isard will be there.
When tanned with cod oil the skin of the chamois becomes very supple and absorbent leather. This ‘shammy’ leather has many uses.
- The original use (in southwest France) was for glovemaking. These gloves became very popular for carriage footmen in the 1800s.
- In the 1900s chauffeurs used the leather to clean windscreens (windshields) – a use that continues to this day (although usually without the chauffeur!).
- The non-abrasive nature of shammy leather makes it ideal for polishing jewellery, and the softness and absorbency make it ideal for false limbs – where the skin rubs.
- Professional cinematographers sometimes use shammy leather around their eyepieces, and artist use it for ‘blending’ when using charcoal.
- Soaking chamois leather in petrol (gasoline) makes it impervious to water, so it is sometimes used to filter fuel – particularly where the supply is a little suspect!
Chamois expect danger to come from below, so a skilled hunter (or athletic naturalist) does best when approaching the herds from above. Hunting is very strictly controlled, but naturalists are only bounded by their enthusiasm and level of fitness!
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