Scribe on the Sands

Red deer3 Donana Dec 19

12 – 16th December 2019, Andalucía, Spain 

Doñana: art project of the mighty Guadalquivir River, a restless equation of marsh, forest and dune. Hardly an hour south of Seville’s bright streets lies a wilderness with sand that speaks, and slips under your boots, adding you to the register of living things that walked under umbrella pines.

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Rabbits, red deer and wild boar. Mongoose, Iberian fox and badger – they all came here before me, loping past rosemary shrubs, fur patted by a wind that teases winter even while cicadas pepper the nights. Something else is here, something wilder and rarer, and its insignia is etched in the sand.

Iberian lynx track Donana Dec 19

Iberian lynx. They are indivisible from rabbits – I contemplated their relationship in Andújar last year. This lynx is the rarest cat on Earth, a spotted, ear-tufted, sideburned ghost, and Doñana is its other major stronghold. Four times I see their sign on these sandy hikes, but the lynx hide themselves, as is their wont.

Rabbits keep watch, as is theirs. Their population is frail, stitched together by conservationists to keep lynx alive.

Rabbit Donana Dec 19

It is an ongoing campaign, but there is still hope; there are still lynx in Doñana. Somewhere, beyond the cork oaks and the horses wandering free.

Donana horses Dec 19

Doñana‘s other master predator takes to the marshes. For sheer grandeur, the Spanish imperial eagle tops the tree – and a kestrel hovers over it, as reckless as a crow.

Imperial eagle and kestrel2 Donana Dec 19

Imperial eagle and kestrel Donana Dec 19

There are little owls here, too, perched on the ancient stump of a eucalyptus.

Little owl Donana Dec 19

And red deer, still watching.

Red deer Donana4 Dec 19

Still leaving hoofprints on those sandy trails that tell so many stories.

Clouds build over the little whitewashed town of El Rocío.

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Clouds to wipe clean the sandy canvas, turn a fresh page if you will – but the rain is yet to fall.

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.