West and South Dorset Green Party

Conservation in the Spanish Picos Mountains

14 March 2012

Julian JonesLocal party press officer, Julian Jones, describes his conservation working holiday with The European Conservation Action Network (EuCAN), which offers volunteers the chance to visit other EU countries to link with and assist conservation partners. Here, Julian gives an account of his trip last Summer to the Picos mountains in Spain to help efforts to conserve the Bearded Vulture.

Reader's seeking details of the 2012 visits should contact Nigel Spring or Kathy Henderson of EuCAN on 01963 23559 or nigelspring@yahoo.co.uk

Introduction

The European Conservation Action Network (EuCAN) was set up by the Kingcombe Trust and Butterfly Conservation Dorset. The scheme is open to anyone in the labour market aged over 18 (but not in education) and my fellow volunteers covered a range of ages from early 20s to mid 50s.

Our partner in Spain was the Fundacion para la Conservacion de Quebrantahuesos (FCQ) which is dedicated to reintroducing the Bearded Vulture, also known as the Lammergieir, to its former haunts in Spain.

The Spanish name for the species means breaker of bones, referring to their feeding technique.  After a carcass has been stripped of meat by other animals and the numerous Griffin Vultures present in Spanish mountains the Bearded Vulture carries bones away to a breaking ground where it drops them from a height to smash into edible pieces.  Amazingly their digestive system utilizes not just marrow but the bone itself, giving them a very precise ecological niche devoid of competition.  The success of this strategy means they have lived for millennia in the mountains of Europe, Asia and Africa.

During the 20th century, however, farmers began using poison against birds and animals that threatened their stock and the Bearded Vulture was a victim to the point where by the 70's they became extinct in all the mountains of Spain except the Pyrenees.  The surviving population there are protected and assisted by the FCQ and provide a source of chicks for the re-introduction effort in the Picos.

The journey

Our group of seven travelled by minibus and ferry as EuCAN have a firm policy not to fly. For various reasons we took a scenic route to Spain via the Dover-Calais ferry and a large part of the French road network.  We camped at three points along the way and visited ‘La Brenne', a region of man-made lakes studding a flattish landscape in the Loire area, south of Tours.  EuCAN have worked there several times in the last four years and we took the opportunity to spend a day there observing progress, looking at a fine new hide and enjoying the abundant birdlife and butterflies.  An early treat was to see two hoopoes right in front of us foraging on the road and verges as we were driving toward our campsite.  We had David Norfolk, an expert on birds, in our party, so nothing was missed and he often set up his tripod and telescope so that we could admire them in detail. Notable species were bee-eaters, purple heron, night heron, large egrets, cattle egrets, black kites and the whiskered tern.  

Pearl bordered fritillary (possibly!) Pearl-bordered fritillary (possibly!).

The range and quantity of butterflies was spectacular; far in excess of any site the UK could offer.  In one hour walking round a fairly small area I probably saw more species than I've seen in the UK in my life.  Of course having butterfly experts on hand did help! 

In Spain

The Picos are in northern Spain, west of Santander, shared between the provinces of Asturias, Castille y Leon and Cantabria. They cover 40 kilometres east to west and 20 kilometres north to south, with peaks reaching 2,600 metres.

Picos landscape

Picos Landscape.

The area is unusually green for Spain as the Picos get plenty of rain - we were told there is rarely more than two days of sunshine at a time.  FCQ have a recently built and very impressive visitor centre and offices in Benia de Onis and we generally gathered there to join up with the two staff, Diego and Jose, who spent a great deal of time working and socialising with us.  There was plenty of free time but when we worked it tended to be quite intense due to the landscape and later the weather. 

Initially we helped build a bridge over a mountain river called the Ria Casanu to allow local farmers access to the slopes of the mountain opposite.  That required all the iron girders and wooden planks to be dragged and carried in by hand down possibly an 800 foot descent of a pathless hillside.  Despite the heat, the ticks and the risk of being bowled over by a sliding girder this was great fun and deserves to be made an Olympic sport.  We got the bridge built in two days and it should withstand any flood the river can throw at it. 

On the finished bridgeOn the completed bridge.

We also erected two large release cages, high in the mountain above a deep valley, for young bearded vultures to be raised and fed in the final 25 to 28 days leading to their first flight. 

Erecting release cages for Quebrantahuesos chicksErecting release cages for Quebrantahuesos chicks.

As we were working in spectacular scenery we could pause, look up and spot griffin vulture, ravens, yellow beaked alpine chough, red-beaked chough, kites and, from time to time, golden eagles, short-toed eagles and egyptian vultures.  In the area but not seen by us were wolves, bears, chamois, wild boar, martens, badgers, foxes, mountain cats and stoats etc. We did see deer and at one point found what appeared to be wolf droppings packed with wool. The lower mountain slopes have meadows scattered about and these have never been ploughed so have wonderful flowers and are teeming with insect life.  That in turn supports bird life and the area really makes one realise the paucity of such ecosystems in the UK where intensive agriculture has made large areas almost devoid of insect and birdlife.  As a further example, we could stand in the garden of our accommodation at dusk and watch nightjars flying round executing arial manoeuvres to catch moths right in front of us.  I have never even seen a nightjar in England.

Mountain lake above Covadonga

Mountain lake above Covadonga.

Later in our stay we spent two days helping farming families with sheep shearing. Two days of rough and tumble with all those sheep might have been expected to leave our hands like sandpaper but amazingly the lanoline in the fleece is absorbed into the skin and we all had the softest hands ever. 

After shearing, with Rafael and his family.

After shearing, with Rafael and his family.

Talking to the sheep farmers, Rafael and Fatima, plus their teenage children over a fine lunch Fatima had prepared, we learnt that they are at least the third generation in their farmhouse and can trace their family back in Asturias for a thousand years.  This form of agriculture is hard and incessant work, and far from lucrative, so sadly Rafael does not expect his children to maintain the tradition.  Their example typifies the wider picture - 60 or so years back a thousand people would live in isolated summer villages, looking after their flocks high in the mountains and making cheese.  Now only a handful keep this up.  We were told, and not in jest, that the most endangered species in the Picos is the traditional farmer. 

Reflections

Reintroducing the Bearded Vulture is a very long term and expensive project and demonstrates the sort of problems likely to be encountered in projects of this sort. A similar reintroduction effort in the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia has seen almost every bird poisoned.   In the Picos the first two chicks were raised and released in 2010, equipped with GPS transmitters strapped to their backs.  This spring the male was found dead.  The cause is unclear but poison has been ruled out.  The female, Deva, remains in the area but her GPS is malfunctioning and it is very hard to keep track of where she is.  We attempted to see her on two or three different occasions but were unlucky.  At the time of our stay the arrival of the two 2011 chicks was in jeopardy because of changes in the political composition of councils who help fund the project. With an economic crisis the FCQ allocations are in competition with other demands on limited budgets. The Bearded Vulture is an iconic bird in Spain but if the project fails to progress as well as hoped it is bound to face threats to its future.  Taking the long view it is quite likely that if the Bearded Vulture population in the Pyrenees increases there will be a natural colonisation of adjoining areas like the Picos.  Birds already visit but do not nest and this may be because they see no others nesting there.  Given a good food supply and suitable nest sites a pair should eventually take the plunge.

A few aspects of Asturian culture deserve mention.  One was the popularity of cider, which has been produced there since the 12th century.  Tradition requires that rather than fill a glass, a small amount of cider should be poured from the greatest height the bottle will reach into a tilted glass to aerate the cider, which should then be downed in one.  Waiters show off by doing this with their gaze averted, hoping to hit the target with nothing spilt.  Another feature is the late night lifestyle.  An evening concert will typically start around 11.00 p.m.  In Cangas, celebration of St Andrew's saints day saw a massive stage erected in the main square with music blasting out across the whole town and up to our house in Llueves until 4.30 a.m.  The town hall also funded an extravagant firework display at midnight.

The return

At the end of our stay we cleared up the debris from the last night party, defied our hangovers and took a final trip to the FCQ centre to give a presentation about the work of EuCAN.  There was time for one more drive round in search of the elusive Deva before bidding farewell to our hosts and going back to the house for some lunch, cleaning and packing.  With everything stowed in the minibus we drove to Santander.  From there a 20 hour crossing to Plymouth with comfortable shared cabins felt a very civilised way to return.  Back on UK soil we drove east dropping off people in Plymouth, Bridport and Weymouth.  The trip had been really memorable and I would recommend a EuCAN trip to anyone game for a reasonable amount of hard work and an appreciation of good company, an insight into foreign conservation and the culture of the area visited.

View from our village of Cangas De Onis View from our village of Cangas De Onis.

 



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