Heavenly mud

Written by Lucy Brzoska

During the recent years of drought, in parched, dusty Collserola, life was more of a struggle for the boars.  Their long muscular snouts found the ground unyielding, and food supplies dwindled. And for an animal that can’t sweat, damp places to cool off were few and far between.

But the continuous rainfall this winter has restored streams that had run dry.  The water took a long time to seep through, but finally springs I’ve never seen working have woken up.  And for the boars, apart from making their ploughing a lot easier, there are now plenty of muddy puddles to bathe in.

Mud also makes walks in Collserola more interesting.  Signs conjure up nocturnal scenes we’re not privy to. We can see where the boars habitually rub their flanks on the rough pine trees after a satisfying wallow.

And two-toed hoof marks proliferate.

In a stream just below a narrow road in Vallvidrera, opposite a row of houses, a boar was satiating its thirst and rooting in the soft mud. Tiny eyes contrasted with large hairy ears and snout – reflecting weak sight but sharp senses of hearing and smell.

It was a typical Collserola periphery boar: used to living alongside people.  Hopefully, it wouldn’t venture too far across the boundary.  (See previous post for boar problems in Collserola.)

Boars in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

I found a palette of colours as autumn turned to winter in Collserola. It’s at this time of year that the variety of trees is most visible: the darker green of holm oak (Quercus ilex), the silvery olives (Olea europaea), the broccoli-green of stone pines (Pinus pinea), and the yellow-brown of deciduous oaks (Quercus cerroides), who are in no hurry to shed their leaves.

The constant rainfall this autumn – not the usual torrential storms, but steady day-long rain – has made moss and lichen flourish. A startling rock by the path is encrusted with orange-yellow lichen on top, and emerald-green moss on the side. The ground is a constellation of moss and earth stars, most of which have already popped. A vivid dark red fungus (a species of Russula) has pushed up through the pine needles, like a mole tunnelling its way out the ground.

A plastic strip tied to a tree guides you up the overgrown terraces, long abandoned. Butcher’s broom grows in the gloom, hung with smooth red balls. A gang of Pekin robins (Leiothrix lutea) express their displeasure at my presence with angry rasping calls. I climb up to the ridge, where spiny Mediterranean gorse (Ulex parviflorus) flowers among the rocks. You can see that Montseny is still powdered with snow, while the Pyrenees are solid icing-sugar white.

Instead of following the ridge back to Vallvidrera, I decide to take the path that skirts the coolest, shadiest corners of the valley. With so few shopping days left before Christmas, it’s very quiet. Probably only a handful of mountain bikers have passed all day. The wings of chaffinches vibrate inside a wild olive. The smallest member of a roving mixed flock, a goldcrest (Regulus regulus), investigates the tip of an oak branch.

The path steepens and it’s almost impossible not to run down . . . straight into a tribe of boars, who scatter through the leaf litter. A male with visible tusks gallops up the slope, where he stands huffing and puffing among the trees, staring belligerently. Poor light and the excitement of the moment has resulted in a less than clear image.

After they finally disperse, I reassure myself that no one in Collserola has ever been attacked by a boar. Their population in the park is estimated at 650 and rising. This season, the hunting clubs of the Collserola region are on strike in retaliation to new restrictions on their activities. Their demands have been partly met: they can continue killing thrushes, for instance. But rabbit shooting is still not permitted in the woods, and the number of days when hunting is allowed in the park has not been increased. So the hunters are envisaging a Collserola so overrun with rampaging boars that the administrative powers will come on bended knee next year and grant them all they desire.

Meanwhile, the boar population is controlled to some extent by forest rangers, who shoot the ones that leave the park limits to explore urban areas. This upsets the residents, some of whom can’t resist feeding the inquisitive beasts and become fond of them. After taming the boars, they have the unpleasant surprise of coming home to a bloodstained street and bodies piled up by their front doors.

A Walk in the Woods

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Early Saturday evening, a good time to head to Collserola. If you get ensnared in its web of delights, it doesn’t matter, because the metro runs all night. The rendezvous for Nick, Monica and myself was 5.30pm outside Mundet station, one of the last stops of the green line. As you ride the escalators up to the street, you’re gliding out of the city itself.

An aim of the walk was to increase our knowledge of Collserola’s plants and trees. We went along, pooling our fragments of information and consulting a guide book. Monica tapped into a great store of knowledge acquired when studying biology at university. The further she walked, the more she remembered.

The northern part of Collserola, lying between Horta and Cerdanyola, is the most thickly wooded and least disturbed, with the greatest variety of trees. If you grow up in Britain, an oak is an oak, but here there are three: Holm, Cerrioides and Kermes.

At the side of the wide track, tall shrubs were thriving – Matabou and Matapolls – ox-killer and chicken-killer in Catalan, or Shrubby hare’s-ear, with its yellow umbels, and Flax-leaved daphne, not yet in flower.

As we walked deeper into the valley, a sparrowhawk skimmed the tree tops. Looking up among the branches, you could see alpine swifts soaring high above, reflecting the setting sun. As the woods swallowed us up, the atmosphere became more mysterious. The fading light didn’t stop the identification process.

Monica picked out a plant and held up a leaf: “This is not a leaf”, she informed. It was a stem masquerading as a leaf, with a small point in the centre – a cladode – where the flower would grow: Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom.

We passed an earthen bank riddled with holes, each entrance lined with webbing, suggesting a colony of tunnel-dwelling spiders. It emerged that two thirds of our group were arachnophobes (Nick and me). The real test would come later.

On the floor of the valley now, we were surrounded by impressively tall pines. Large bats flickered among them. The light was very poor, but it was still possible to debate the differences between hazlenut and elm leaves. Green woodpeckers flew away calling, startled by the intrusion. There was an increasing urge to speak quietly, like in church.

The route out of the valley was along a narrow path, following the rocky bed of a steep torrent, brought to life only after a storm. It was hot and tunnel-like, making us sweat (some more than others). At the top we emerged into a more sparsely wooded area: nightjar territory.

Churring filled the twilight. Then close at hand came a soft quick call, and we saw the silhouettes of a pair of nightjars. Their long wings rose and fell as they encircled us. The reason was a fledgling on the path a few metres ahead, its eye gleaming in the torch light. The parents circled us even faster, like in a playground game, clapping their wings. As we approached, the bird on the path silently flew off.

In the last hour we’d heard some rustling and grunting among the vegetation, suggesting boars. Now came a loud huffing sound, quite close, and coming straight towards us. A big man was slowly and heavily jogging through the woods, oblivious to our presence.

There was just enough light to distinguish the fox when it crossed the track, a grey shape materialising out of the darkness of the trees, and a hint of an outline against the paler background of the track. When it paused and turned, the torch picked up its eyes.

Back on the ridge, the electricity pylons – a feature of Collserola almost as much as the oaks and pines – were silhouetted against the sprawling city glitter. The lights spilled out onto the sea, from summer yachts and cargo ships moored off the coast.

A solitary bar hidden off the road, reached by a dusty track, was irresistible. We joined a small group of people eating and drinking in the cool night air. It was time to check the photos and recap what we’d seen before descending to the metro again. Three boars came trotting down the path we’d just taken. The bar owner said all his plants had been ruined. Only those in big sturdy pots were boar-proof.

Alert for boar sounds, we slowly and carefully picked our way down the steep crumbling path, fragrant with rosemary. The botanical identification didn’t lose pace: euphorbias, fragrant clematis, stonecrop, strawberry trees, lentisk. At a junction of paths, there was some lucky fox scat. Lucky for me, at least.

While we paused to prod and sniff the droppings, the torch light detected a glinting circular structure: a vast web blocking the path like a toll gate, and the owner, a fat spider waiting to seize its dues (possibly Araneus diadimatus.) As I’d been leading the way, concentrating mainly on the ground for my next foothold, or the plants at the side, my nose might have been the first contact point.

Unfortunately, there was no way round, and the web had to be partially unhooked. Adrenaline levels shot upwards at that point at the thought of what else might lie ahead.

At the halfway mark back to Horta, where the path levels out by a spring, loud grunting and snorting were heard. We turned off our lights, climbed onto a wooden picnic table, and waited. A female boar came along, and began tossing some fallen branches, rummaging under the leaves. Like the jogger, she ignored us. We could see her in detail, from moist black nose to short hairy tail. The world was vibrating with night insects, hypnotic and calming. Midwife toads bleeped – there are water containers nearby full of their tadpoles. We stayed long after the boar went her way.

Once the descent had been resumed, the peace of the night was shattered by my ear-splitting shrieks. Nick and Monica thought I’d come face to face with an enormous boar. That would’ve been infinitely preferable to being wrapped in one of the mega-webs I’d blundered into. There was a change in walking order, with Nick bravely leading the way now. Only one more spider blocked the path, spreadeagled in the centre of its impressive domain. On this occasion there was room to carefully duck underneath. Identification continued of the different berry-bearing shrubs: elder, hawthorn, Mediterranean buckthorn and the prolific laurustinus.

Back on asphalt, we were five minutes away from the metro when a small gang of boars galloped up the steps to the university buildings. They’d been ploughing up the roundabout, tossing aside plants as they dug in the freshly irrigated earth. We decided to sit on the grass nearby in case they returned, while bats hunted by the street lights. After a while, there were rustlings from behind, and the ivy rippled. Although the hedgehog increased its pace, it couldn’t avoid being snatched up, gently jiggled so it would unroll, and be identified as a Common European hedgehog.

The last few metres to the metro escalators were uneventful, and we were home by 3.00am.

Thanks to Monica for her picture of the boar.