Spain: Pieces of the Puzzle

Andújar practically means lynx to the travelling wildlife watcher. But wild cats can only stand balanced on top of an ecosystem. Lynx fall and rise in sync with their rabbits, and the rest of the natural web dances nearby.

Looking for wild cats is a painstaking, perplexing and humbling business, but as the hours pass in waiting, other stories whisper from the rocks. Look closer, and even in this thin carpet between cold rock and fickle sky, life wins a foothold.

Lizard

Lizard Sp 1

Natterjack toad

Natterjack toad 2 Feb 2018

Some of it is in the water – a carp of this size is a handsome prize for an otter.

Otter Andujar 6 Feb 2018

I heard it eating, eating, munching and crunching, long after it vanished from sight into the rocks.

Some of it is in the sky, on massive wings. Griffon vultures circle lazily in thermals, or rest with kingly distain on cliffs.

Griffon vultures1

Vulture in Andujar2

Some of it is more controversial; numbers of deer are artificially held at absurdly high numbers by deer hunting estates, which must be having a significant impact of the rest of the ecosystem through overgrazing. That is a political problem; it is hardly the fault of the deer. Magnificent red deer abound.

Red deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Fallow deer are also a common sight.

Fallow deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Just occasionally, a third hoofed mammal shows itself: Andújar is home to the mouflon, the rare wild ancestor of the ubiquitous domestic sheep. This ram was travelling with two red deer.

Mouflon and red deer

Their wariness is instinctive, but the real ruler of this ecosystem – the Iberian wolf – has sadly vanished despite strict legal protection; the suspicion has fallen on illegal killing by deer hunters.

But one more predator does survive in the mountains’ quieter corners. I put out a couple of trailcams on the off-chance, and was thrilled to catch an Iberian wildcat! This is related to the Scottish wildcat but is noticeably larger.

Snapshot_16

Spain clearly has serious conservation challenges, but the battle to save them will be worth the fight.

Spain: Land of the Lynx

Master of rabbits, slave of rabbits. Live by rabbits, die by rabbits.

The very word ‘Spain’ derives from the Phoenician I-Shpaniameaning quite literally the Land of Rabbits. Here and only here is the European rabbit native, in the dry southwest of our continent, along with a bit of Morocco and Algeria. They have become so familiar on golf courses and road verges in Britain that few of us stop to question what a rabbit’s real land looks like.

Storm rolling in

Or realise that it might be collapsing towards extinction there.

Introduced diseases such as myxomatosis and RHD have decimated the rabbits of Iberia; habitat destruction and intensive hunting have also hurt them. And if the rabbit falls, it takes an entire ecosystem with it. The mighty imperial eagle and the outsize Iberian wildcat are amongst the carnivores dependent on rabbit.

So, above all, is the pardel lynx.

It’s overcast today. We spent the morning in the cobbled streets of Marmolejo, a little town with whitewashed walls and orange trees. The road into the mountains winds away north, flanked with wintry meadows and hillsides speckled with stone pine. Vultures cruise lazily overhead; here and there a hoopoe flies.

That is all forgotten when green eyes shine in the grass.

Iberian lynx10a 5 Feb 2018

A pardel lynx!

I came to Andújar with the vague idea of huddling on a freezing hillside for hours – days – until I glimpsed one half a mile away with a spotting scope. And this cat poses like a lion!

Iberian lynx1 5 Feb 2018

I’ve crossed paths with 13 of the 40 or so species of wild cat. All are unique and precious; but this, the rarest of all, puts on the performance of a lifetime. For five hours we share his company. He sleeps, yawns, pads about and sleeps some more.

Iberian lynx8a 5 Feb 2018

Iberian lynx3a 5 Feb 2018

He is lucky; the Sierra Morena support the largest surviving population of pardel lynx. We have seen a few rabbits here, but fewer than I’d hoped.

And there’s question of where his cubs will live – crossing highways is dangerous. Andalucía asks anyone who finds a wounded lynx to report it to the mainstream emergency services; it has also undertaken an energetic programme of ‘watch out for lynx’ signs. I have been encouraged by the very positive local attitude towards the lynx. Reintroduction efforts have recently boosted their numbers elsewhere.

Iberian lynx4a 5 Feb 2018

There are four species of lynx. The smallest is the bobcat, and the biggest by far is the northern or Eurasian lynx, the spotted ghost of the ancient European wildwood. I’ve tracked that species, occasionally, in the timeless primeval woods of Poland. But the pardel lynx has no such wilderness. The fact that its numbers are creeping upwards is testament to its willingness to live in the human shadow, along with the human desire to save it.

And its rabbits. There simply is no lynx without them.

Iberian lynx11 5 Feb 2018

Long may they both thrive in these mountains.

Spain: Sierra de Andújar

In medieval times, they said that the Milky Way is the dust stirred up by travelling pilgrims. Those pilgrims were walking, walking, walking, all the way to Spain, sometimes, and today they still come, albeit called by the new saints called Sand and Sunshine. But the stars shine clear above.

Hunter and his dog

It’s cold. I’m 2,000 feet up a mountain, and the grass is hardening with frost. Around me are the rough ideas of farmland: sprawling grassland tumbling down a hill thinly spiked with stone pine, hens asleep in their coop, sheep behind their uneven fence, uncountable kittens watching with bright eyes. The casa that I meant to call Home for a week holds onto its whiteness against the gathering night.

Casa

It wasn’t easy to get here. The unsuspecting hire car that we collected in Seville smelt hot as we coaxed it up brutal switchbacks on a narrow dirt track, ever higher, ever steeper, a barrier-free drop into the abyss awaiting on every bend. Now it is parked on the cold grass under a lemon tree and thousands of stars.

What is Spain?

I’ve never been to the Costa del Sol. While tacky resorts spring up around the coast like mushrooms, the vast, shockingly mountainous interior of this bewildering country retains a veneer of old-time rural wild. Turn off the zippy motorways, and within minutes you are bumping across a dirt track in an olive grove. Or facing a bovine roadblock.

Roadblock

Or looking into forests where you can hope that some of Europe’s most exotic wildlife still survives.

Pardal lynx sign

Recuerda el lince. Remember the lynx – the pardel or Iberian lynx, the most endangered wild cat on Earth, and Europe’s only endemic felid. The population today is estimated to be around 400, which is still very low but an improvement on the near extinction of previous decades.

I’m come to the Sierra de Andújar region to learn more about this beautiful and enigmatic cat.

But the first lesson is always the land itself. Imagine a giant yellow carpet studded with olive trees scrunched against a mountainous riddle of slate and granite – that is Andalucía. And the boulders! They are everywhere; it is as though someone has torn open a mountain, shaken out its bones, and tossed the skin away.

Boulders Sierra de Andujar

Above this skeleton, there are trees. Stone pine is so bobbly, you’d think a child had drawn it, but it climbs all over the Sierra Morena, green-topped with bark like cracked marble.

Stone pine forest

Stone pine bark

Of course, there are some barriers that no trees can handle. Sierra Mágina consumes the south-eastern horizon.

Sierra Nevada

I’m not headed to the peaks today. The lynx are below the snows, although even here it is frigid enough. Wrapped up warm, we set out to find them.

Romania: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

Snapshot_18

Red fox

Snapshot_11

Wild boar

Snapshot_15

Roe deer

Snapshot_14

Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Apold – Never Eat an Amanita

June – August 2016

Fortunately, nobody does. We’re welcomed into the woods above the final Transylvanian village by the most notorious species in European biodiversity: a death cap Amanita phalloides. Eat this, and you will need a liver transplant…at best.

Death cap2

Gathering medicinal plants is a common activity in Transylvania; I’ve met many elderly women doing just this while I’m out on my mammal surveys. But as with most things in life, you do need to know what you’re doing. Apart from highly poisonous fungi, these hills also host deadly nightshade.

Deadly nightshade

Going back to the mycology, we note many boletes, some of which are edible.

Bolete

So, Apold. I don’t remember much about arriving here. I had a headache for a full week in Daia and arrived in the final village desiring nothing except sleep. The novelty of the campground wakes me a bit – it is actually inside the parameter of a fortified church. The students are based in the towers, but I’m sticking to my trusted tent.

The village is modern enough to contain car noise and German tourists. There is an ‘end of season’ air to the work this week and my main ambition is not to lose any more cameras. Trailcam 4 gets special treatment of course – we leave it on a track next to some huge bear tracks.

The transects are laced with electric fencing, but I find mammal sign before even leaving town: badger fur caught on wire.

Badger fur

Going higher, we find some very welcome mammal sign – bear scat!

Bear scat4

The geography is for the adventurous spirit; the Great Thicket of Apold remains in our mind for many days. We achieve the gold standard of Apold by climbing right through it, but it’s so hot, and transect after transect is starting to blur into one.

Apold thicket

But with a few surprises – a beautiful slow worm greets us. This is not a snake, but a harmless legless lizard.

Slow worm

Time rolls on. The final survey is only days away.

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

Snapshot_8

Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

Snapshot_9

And…

Snapshot_7

After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Daia – The Winged Ones

June – August 2016

Daia is still in a questionable mood. Clouds roll inwards from the mountains.

Daia mist

High on the transects, the trail cameras keep a lonely vigil in the mist.

Daia up high2

Weather has a low impact on large mammal surveys, unless the rain is so heavy that it obliterates the tracks. The bird team are warier than me; their standard method is to set mist nets, very fine netting that captures birds with low risk of harm. Using mist nets in rainy conditions is not recommended for many reasons, and given that they take time to set up, it is easier to have them near camp when the weather is changeable.

Which means that the rest of us can have a look too.

Baby great tits

Red-backed shrikes are abundant.

Red backed shrike2

And a great spotted woodpecker is a nice surprise.

GSW

All the birds are fitted with an identification ring and released to continue their day.

They are far from the only animals in camp. A convolvulus hawk moth searches for nectar in the drizzle.

Hummingbird hawkmoth

Even when the wildlife is hiding, the farm kittens melt everyone’s hearts.

Daia kitten

Through it all, their wild forest cousins move noiselessly in the misty hills, fending for themselves amongst the bears.