Los Monegros

The Ebro Depression and Los Monegros

Barely 100km from the peaks of the Pyrenees, Los Monegros is a different world, a semi-desert area of badlands made up of gypsum and sandstone hills and plains with steppe vegetation. It’s a place of vast vistas, broken by ruined farm buildings and crumbling stone huts scattered here and there.

In places, weird sandstone formations known as torrolones, stand out, looking every bit like something from the American Southwest, where the clay soils have been eroded away, although here there are no cactai or tumbleweeds. This one is near Lamaja, very close to where Orwell fought. is called Cabeza de Perro, Dog’s Head.

Cabeza de Perro by Rodriguem on Wikicommons

Apart from the occasional pine plantation, there’s hardly a tree in sight but modern agriculture empowered by EU subsidies, heavily irrigated, fertilised and ugly, has invaded these lands, the artificial green vividly contrasting with the arid pastel hues of uncultivated areas. Monster machines stand by ready to water the stony ground, while solar and wind farms bring money to a poor region. 70% of the steppe has been lost, but most of the remaining 30% enjoys some form of protection for the unique flora and fauna. 

It is often claimed the Monegros take their name – The Black Hills – from the Spanish juniper woods (Juniperus thurifera) which once cloaked much of the area, felled you’ll often hear people to build the ships of Philip the II’s Invincible Armada. It’s nice story which conjures the image of Aragonese juniper entombed in the North Sea, but just that. Juniper is not used extensively in shipbuilding and more importantly large areas of the Ebro Depression have never been forested, at least not since before the last Ice Age. The story forms part of a traditional belief that Spain was once a sylvan idyll, forested uninterruptedly from the Pyrenees to Cadiz, and that a hypothetical red squirrel could make such a journey from tree to tree. Whatever the case, almost all of the juniper woods that did thrive in these harsh soils have been felled, burnt and overgrazed but there are still spots here and there, most notably the relict woodland of Retuerta de Pina km 8 west of Bujaraloz along the NII. The rest of the Monegros is a shadeless land, which can be bitterly cold or blazingly hot, so unless you are intrepid you’ll probably want to explore by car. 

An interesting feature of the Monegros is the presence of seasonal saline lagoons which appear with rains, most notably the Saladas de Sástago-Bujaraloz, a series of 99 depressions which temporarily fill with water forming a landscape of saline lagoons unique in Western Europe. Water is often only present for a short time before evaporating and leaving white expanses of salt crust which creates a habitat which is exceptionally rich in species specifically adapted to such extreme saline environments, including several endemic species such as the crustacean Candelacypris aragonica, all of which are now threatened by irrigation. The still considerable unirrigated areas provide a key habitat for steppe birds such as pin-tailed sandgrouse, black-bellied sandgrouse, great and little bustards, stone-curlew,, Montagu’s harrier and small numbers of Dupont’s lark. All are also directly threatened by the spread of irrigated farmland. 

One threat to the ecosystem of the Monegros appears to have been defeated. In 2007, the Aragonese government announced plans for Gran Scala, a huge 17bn European project to build a “destination city of leisure for all ages.” which was to include a whole string if water-guzzling theme parks and casinos.  With the financial crisis, this Spanish Las Vegas was definitely ditched in 2012. 

Just outside the town of Sariñena, the Laguna de Sariñena was once a shallow endorheic saline lagoon, but the depression has in recent decades filled up due to runoff from irrigation and become a sizeable body of fresh water surrounded by reedbeds. Whatever the case, Sariñena is today along with Gallocanta a key site for waterbirds in Aragón. Large numbers of cattle egret and imperial heron nest here along with marsh harrier and other wetland specialities, and the reserve has become one of the best places in Spain to hear bitterns boom, especially between February and April.  A signposted path with hides runs around the lagoon, while the interpretation centre has permanent exhibits and telescopes trained on the reserve. 

Elsewhere, the stunning sandstone cliffs and riverine forest along the Ebro at Alcolea de la Cinca is a birding hotspot.

A century after the disappearance of the Iberian lynx from Catalonia and Aragón, now a preliminary plan to reintroduce this beautiful feline into the extensive steppes of the Monegros and adjoining Catalan area. This is still only a potential plan, but exciting.nonetheless.

George Orwell in the Monegros

George Orwell fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War on the Aragonese Front. In the early months of 1937 he was stationed in the Sierra de Alcubierre which forms the western edge of the Monegros, and famously wrote about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia (1938). Although most of the remarkable chapters set in Aragón are centred understandably on the tedium of life at the front , landscape and nature infuse the writing giving a sense of place as well as time. He writes memorably of bullets whistling over his head like redshanks and of how “wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes”. Peasant lads with buckets hunted for snails, “which they roasted alive on sheets of tin”, quails were caught in the evenings with green nets: 

But Orwell was generally struck by the lack of birds:

You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.

Almost always the sky was empty of birds. I do not think I have ever seen a country where there were so few birds. The only birds one saw at any time were a kind of magpie, and the coveys of partridges that startled one at night with their sudden whirring, and, very rarely, the flights of eagles that drifted slowly over, generally followed by rifle-shots which they did not deign to notice.

My favourite passage is on discovering what are clearly stripeless tree frogs, perhaps their only  brief and shiningt mention in English literature:

Spring was really here at last. The blue in the sky was softer, the air grew suddenly balmy. The frogs were mating noisily in the ditches. Round the drinking-pool that served for the village mules I found exquisite green frogs the size of a penny, so brilliant that the young grass looked dull beside them.