Travel: Wild beasts and red-blooded passions

The craggy hills of Corsica are alive with vengeance, vendetta and rare animals. And it's perfect walking country
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Jean-Francois, our guide, raised a forefinger and the group fell silent. We gazed out over the broad sweep of the valley, at the rocky slopes sprinkled with ancient Laricio pines. Overhead, an eagle soared among the granite peaks. But there was no sign of our elusive quarry.

Setting off at first light, we had hiked up to a windswept ridge near the summit of the 1,500-metre Cuccavera Pass in central Corsica. It had been a long and arduous climb, punctuated by bursts of rainfall. Would we be rewarded with a glimpse of a mouflon?

Three days earlier none of us had even heard of this creature, whose name sounded like a colloquialism for a strangled French sheep. Now, a little wiser about the local fauna, we knew it to be a rare species of wild mountain sheep native to Corsica and neighbouring Sardinia.

On Sardinia, mouflon were long ago hunted to extinction. The Corsican flock has dwindled to little more than 1,000 animals although the species has been protected, in theory, since the early Seventies. The Cuccavera Pass is part of the Monte Cinto massif, one of two regions where the animals still roam.

For me, and for my dozen companions, the die was cast on the day that we arrived in Evisa, the mountain village that was the base for our week- long walking holiday. Heading to the hotel bar for an aperitif, we noticed a striking photograph hanging on the wall. It showed a singular-looking creature crowned by gigantic spiral horns. We almost choked on our pastis. The great mouflon hunt had begun.

Day after day we scanned the maquis, the dense tangle of undergrowth that shrouds much of Corsica's rugged interior. Our hopes were highest in the early morning, when mouflon emerge to gorge themselves on grasses and leaves before ascending to some remote crag to lounge in the sun. But despite our vigilance, they remained tantalisingly out of sight.

Meanwhile the rest of the island's wildlife - ubiquitous and unpredictable - competed for our attention. We saw dark brown cows scrambling up sheer rock faces, nimble as goats, and sheep snoozing among pine needles in the scented forests. Herds of goats and semi-wild pigs wandered freely and congregated on the narrow mountain roads, a hazard for unwary drivers. In Evisa, cows ambled along the main street in the moonlight, in pairs like elderly married couples.

Given this proliferation of animal life, it came as no surprise to learn that traditional Corsican cuisine revolves unashamedly around red meat. Cousins of the creatures that scampered past us on our hikes often ended up on our plates in the evening, in the form of steaks, salamis and home- cured hams, stews and casseroles of veal, pork and kid.

The most prized local meat comes from an animal that I only ever expected to see on a supper table: wild boar. Yet one day, peering over a grass verge near the village of Marignana, I saw two hulking, black-bristled beasts rooting around in a vast rubbish tip. It may have been one of their final forays for our visit coincided with the boar-hunting season, and consequently the maquis echoed to the crackle of rifles.

It is, perhaps, only natural that the Corsican diet is so unashamedly red-blooded. For this is an island famed for vengeance and vendetta, where an insult to family honour could once spark a vicious feud that lasted for decades and claimed scores of lives. It is difficult to conceive of such seething passions among a race of vegetarians.

The last vendetta ended in a village near the capital, Ajaccio, in the Fifties, but scores are still settled swiftly and ruthlessly. During a trip to Bonifacio, the ancient southern port, we learnt of a turf war between rival tourist-boat operators. Tempers overheated, and a man lost an arm. We saw him on the quayside, one sleeve dangling free.

Intriguing though this was, it was a diversion from the main plot. By now the week was almost over, without so much as a sniff of a mouflon. At a rowdy late-night session fuelled by myrtle liqueur, a local speciality, we decided to give it one final shot, to make an excursion to south-eastern Corsica, to a place where - if the gods smiled on us - we might just strike gold.

Our destination was the high pastureland of the Bavella Pass, where mouflon are said to graze in the shadow of the famous granite pinnacles. The road twisted its vertiginous way up to the village of Zonza before penetrating a thick forest of pine and chestnut. Herds of pigs foraged among the autumn leaves. Ever optimistic, we gazed to left and right, hoping to see a woolly creature peeping out shyly from behind a tree. Once again, we were cruelly disappointed.

Jean-Francois did his best to console us. It was not a good time of year to spot mouflon, he explained. Better to visit later in winter, when the snow drives them to lower altitudes. Or in June, during their brief mating season, when the males compete by charging across valleys at each other, from as far as 30 miles away.

The ram left standing after the collision - often the older, tougher one - gets the girl, according to Jean-Francois. But after the age of seven, the males are no longer fertile. Hence a laughably low reproduction rate that helps explain the rarity of the species - together with the island's large population of foxes, who regard baby mouflon as a delicacy.

Our prey could hardly be blamed for keeping a low profile, we decided. With poachers, foxes and impotent rams to contend with, it was not surprising if mouflon felt lukewarm about posing for photographs. It was time for us to give up and stop chasing rainbows.