Noticias en ‘Environment’

April 7th, 2010

Where the Weasels Were!

The week ended with a late flight into Barcelona after two hectic days in Paris – a lifestyle I thought I’d left behind long ago when I moved to Spain! Having Nick Lloyd’s company during the drive home to the Pyrenees made all the difference though, and the following day we were able to spend time naturalizing in the wildwood around Casa Rafela.


Recent rainfall ensured that there were plenty of tracks clearly visible and Nick’s expertise soon identified the passage of a badger (Meles meles), a very common species hereabouts that I normally notice from their latrines. Much more rare – and infinitely more exiting – was our stumbling upon  two weasels (Mustela nivalis) apparently playing among a pile of boulders beside the track.


One had darted across the lane as we approached, drawing our attention, but we were amazed when it, or another one, re-appeared among the rocks. Soon there were two ducking and dodging about and although both were evidently aware of our presence – we were downwind and stood frozen to the spot, of course! – they were apparently unperturbed. Indeed they appeared to be curious about us. I was able to slowly remove my pocket camera and attempt a few images as they continued to gambol around their ‘fortress’ – disappearing at times and turning up a few yards way, tantalisingly ever closer.


But at length they failed to reappear and, somewhat reluctantly, we continued along the path home. But in the gathering darkness another treat was in store; just a few hundred yards from home I saw a female red deer (Cervus elaphus) crossing the field ahead of us. It was by then too dark for photography and in any event the deer was gone in a few seconds – not before we could both positively identify it. I was amazed to find such a large animal so close to home, a home range that I’d been walking almost daily for the last dozen or so years! Nick postulated that it had wandered from the nearby Serra de Boumort game reserve, which is especially noted for its large population of red deer, and this led me to wonder if it was an adolescent male seeking a new herd. With no digital image to enlarge this will remain forever a mystery – and is, perhaps, none the worse for that!

The Irati Forest

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).


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!

The Valle de Roncal – Navarre

The Valle de Roncal, in the extreme east of the Autonomous Community of Navarre, runs due north and  is deep and dark, with dense, seemingly impenetrable forest lining the steep mountainsides. But at the extreme head of the valley, beyond its ‘capital’ Isaba (Izaba in Basque) the valley of the river Belagua takes a turn for the east and opens out very markedly.


This area, known as the Macizo de Larra is based on karstic rock formations, one of the most important in Europe. The formation has been widened by the effects of glaciation that allows long daylight hours and encourages the growth of deciduous trees at higher altitude than is usual. The area is notable for its virgin forest, especially with the presence of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and we walked among them, following a marked trail, the Mata de Haya, in the Reserva integral del barranco de Aztaparreta nature reserve.


The dark, dense and damp forest made a sharp contrast to our home in Catalonia; the other end of the Pyrenees does not benefit from the Atlantic weather systems and by July we yearn for the temperate climate enjoyed by lands on the Atlantic seaboard – including the British Isles! It’s strange to see plants and flowers that were once too common to be of any note to us; we haven’t seen bracken in half a dozen years and the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) seems exotic to our eyes!


Indeed, the lush vegetation seemed voluptuous, tropical even, in the mid-summer heat (rare for the western Pyrenees – and only in the daytime as we were to discover later whilst camping at Isaba!). A paradox here is that although the pine forests of the Mediterranean regions are quicker growing, they don’t exude the sense of flux, the physiology if you will, of deciduous growth – and death!


Leaving the forest via the summer pastures it was difficult to imagine how much the scene would be different in winter, but we have vowed to return in the autumn. The herdsmen, (and women!) return with their cattle to the tiny, close knit village communities like Isaba or Roncal itself – the latter giving its name both to the valley and the famous, and delicious, sheep’s milk, Queso de Roncal, which is a mainstay of the local economy.


Isaba has a grim, rather unfriendly face, much to do with the severe black masonry of its older buildings and their forbidding adornments.


But the people themselves were warm and welcoming, despite the obvious impact of tourism, which is also vital to the economy there. Friends, even Catalan friends, all agreed that we would eat well in Navarre, and indeed we did – what a pleasure it must be to garden here with all this lovely water to hand!


Jurassic Park – a week in La Garrotxa

I’d noticed the droppings and marks on the ground near our tent late in the evening, too late to consider changing location, and sure enough the wild boar snuffled through the camp at about four in the morning. In the dim luminescent light of the tent I saw the dogs’ ears prick up briefly. Lucky, my lupine husky-cross stirred and looked at me across the groundsheet while Streak rolled over in his half-sleep, grunting in the process. The boars stopped and silence reigned for a moment, then the night air was shattered by a huge braying sound – deep in the primordial forest one of the larger inhabitants of was on the hoof once more! I couldn’t help wondering whether the story about large game not entering tents was apocryphal, but the next thing I knew it was morning, and a damp one at that. We had survived our first night in Jurassic Park!

The title ‘Jurassic Park’ is a joke, of course. In fact La Garrotxa is about as far removed from the Jurassic period as can be, the region’s volcanic origins make it one of the most contemporary landscapes possible; the last large activity was about 15,000 years ago, not 150,000,000! And our camp, even though it felt like being in the jungle, was in a well-organised and officially registered site – albeit a very distinctive one – owned and run by Dutch ex-pat Stendert Dekker and partner Maria Tamayo. Can Banal is located just off the upper Llierca valley in a narrow, densely wooded defile. It was the primordial appearance of the forest, together with the echoic quality of the landform, that inspired the nickname; the braying wasn’t a sauropod ploughing its way through the jungle, but a distraught male donkey, or ‘jack’, imploring Stendert’s four ‘jennies’ to allow it to mount them. As well as the camping Stendert has owned and managed about 90 hectares of forest since coming to the area in the mid nineteen-eighties. Can Banal is in the Alta Garrotxa district, just to the north of the more well-known Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. He grazes cattle in areas where he has been able to clear the dense woods; a problem here since progressive waves of rural depopulation since the end of the nineteenth century has reduced human impact here.

Talking with Stendert gives a fascinating insight into woodland conservation issues. As well a grazing livestock, the woods were used for forestry activities like charcoal production, wood products like withies or osiers, etc. as well as for timber. Left to itself, however, the woodland has become too dense for use and is being damaged by invasive species like Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and European black pine (Pinus nigra), which outgrow the predominant native deciduous trees such as oaks, especially Downy oak (Quercus pubescens) and common beech (Fagus sylvatica). The problem is that as well as the pines starving the forest floor micro-systems of light, the autochthonous trees must compete for access to sunlight in the canopy and grow too tall and thin as a result. Stendert has to thin sections of forest gradually, otherwise the affected trees can’t withstand winds, and it can take over ten years of husbandry to restore the forest (this was music to ears for Mrs Simon, who is somewhat of an expert in the field, albeit her specialism is in humid tropical environments!). Fortunately, under the auspices of the new Plan per a l’Espais d’Interes Natural (the plan for areas of special natural interest or P.E.I.N.) the Generalitat (Catalan Government) has come round to the view that this intervention is necessary and gives the necessary permissions, and grants, for sustainable forestry practises. Another current issue, however, is the growing trend for second home ownership; managed tended forest is sparse compared to ‘natural’ wilderness and can appear ugly to urban eyes – supported by the myth that the natural environment is in stasis and that there exists a ‘pristine’ ideal form.

But La Garrotxa certainly does appear pristine and idyllic. The extent of the forest is truly astonishing and its undulating hills are dotted with beautiful masias, the traditional Catalan family homesteads. Although some of these are still farmed the agricultural economy needs input from urban spin-off such as rural tourism. We felt that the area was more like France than Spain and but for the lack of British ex-pat population it appeared more reminiscent of the Dordogne than the Dordogne itself! In fact we much preferred the Alta Garrotxa to the Pac Natural itself. We felt that there the villages have suffered from the impact of tourism and that there is a sense of being ‘over managed’. This is very laudable, of course, but it seemed to isolate one from the natural environment and villages like Santa Pau, beautifully situated in the heart of the Parc, was positively twee!

Much more to our taste was to walk around the immediate vicinity of Can Banal, where Stendert has marked numerous walks that take in the nearby section of the GR1 trans-Pyrenean route. Much more to our liking!

Snowmelt fills the Noguera Pallaresa

It’s been a record breaking winter for rain and snow – and not before time after three years of drought. But even though the snow held on for longer than usual the seasons follow their eternal path, and a warm, early spring ensured a dramatic melting up in the high Pyrenees. It was a slightly unnerving night, camping in a watermeadow on the riverbank, and certainly a noisy one! But a dawn walk along the bankside path was certainly worthwhile. I’ve read that the Noguera Pallaresa is the most powerful river in the Pyrenees. Although I’m not sure how this is measured, it’s certainly easy to beleive at this time of year.

After breakfast we decided to retrace our steps along one of our favourite stretches of the river, the Congost de Collegats. Here, the old road that links the Pallars Jussà to the neighbouring comarca of Pallars Sobirà has been bypassed by long tunels, leaving the riverside to its own devices. For a change it was the river’s turn to grab one’s attention, rather than the magnificent scenery of the ravine.

Further upstream a stop at the picturesque and historical village of Gerri de la Sal, where salt has been extracted from springs at least since 807 when Benedictine monks founded the monastery here, was rewarded with a new discovery.

With a mission to educate and inform, the Planter de Gerri uses rehabilitated terraced gardens to grow a wide range of autoctonous plant species. It will be good to return here in furture years when the installation has matured.

Stormy Weather – Springtime in the Ebro Delta

I’ve been spending a lot of time in flatlands of late, ranging from the plateau ‘desert’ of Los Monegros* to the Fens of East Anglia. Wetlands have a strange beauty all of their own. The rice paddies, called ‘arrossars’ in Catalan, of the Ebro Delta brought back memories of Guyana, where we studied the huge Mahaica Mahaicony Abary (MMA) water management project back in the mid-nineties. There we gained a great deal of practical knowledge about the arcane subtleties of rice cultivation.

* Los Monegros is certainly not a desert

The increasing intensity of the rising thunderstorm and the humidity of the afternoon were atmospheric reminders of those days.

For all the technology, rice production is labour intensive, involving huge maintenance of the land’s drainage and irrigation channels. The odd big installation like a pump house or sluice, are the tip of the iceberg – the real work involves slopping around in the mud, trousers rolled up, attending to the thousands of miles of ditches – but that afternoon the farmers fled the impending tempest and headed home!

Typical of cultivated wetlands like the Fens or on the Guyanese coast, the Delta is far from uniformly flat. Tiny settlements, some ugly, some with a neat cosiness, are found squeezed onto patches of higher ground.

The mosquitoes make camping here a reckless activity, and many tiny Cases de Pages offer snug accommodation.

But for us the dream would be to stay in a ‘Barraca’, the traditional hovels that still dot an ever more wild land/seascape.

Los Monegros

I’ve been doing a lot of research into the issue of Los Monegros and the proposed Gran Scala casino development. In fairness I still have a totally open mind; taking on board the environmental concerns but also the social issues, which are complicated to say the least. But in the meantime I was able to actually go there last week – something that I feel few of the protagonists are actually doing right now!

It’s been over twenty years since I was last here, and lately I just seem to view Los Monegros from the luxury of the High Speed Trains that wizz through the region at over 300 kilometres per hour. What I see is that the term ‘desert’, often used by protagonists on both sides of the debate, is far from the truth; the region is farmland, although the living there is clearly very hard.

We drove through Otiñena, one of the key villages in the controversy, but didn’t stop as it was clear that the World’s press had been there before us. But a quick appraisal showed that the poverty in the district is real enough – it reminded us strongly of villages in the Western Sahara; is this modern Spain, we asked ourselves?

But the region has a stark beauty all of its own, and I feel for the environmentalists who are afraid that this will be lost or severely damaged by the development. Most of us have a feeling for the sense of ‘wilderness’ but how many know, or care, what that term actualluy means, I wonder?

I want to write a serious feature article on Los Monegros and would welcome views from all sides of the debate. But in the meantime I just want to share a few images of a landscape that could soon change forever.