The Traveller's Guide To Wild Spain

From swamps to snow-capped peaks, wolves to the white ptarmigan, Spain is a nature-lover's dream
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The Independent Travel

HOW WILD IS SPAIN?

HOW WILD IS SPAIN?

When you're jostling for street space or searching for a square metre of unoccupied sand on one of Spain's concrete-fringed costas, it's hard to imagine this same country can boast Europe's greatest range of wildlife and arguably its most varied collection of wild and beautiful places. Spain has been blessed with a naturally rugged terrain and a unique geographical position sandwiched between Africa and the rest of Europe. It boasts the highest number of bird species in western Europe and the southernmost region of Andalucia has more species of trees and plants than anywhere else on the continent.

Variety and diversity are the watchwords of the Spanish landscape with snow-tipped mountain ranges in the north, south and centre of the country, extensive grasslands in the east and invaluable marshland habitats at Albufera, near Valencia. Within the same southern coastal region, there's virtual desert (around Almeria) and the place that enjoys Spain's highest rainfall - the park of Grazalema, near Ronda. Offshore, the Balearics and, more especially, the volcanic Canary Islands add an extra range of habitats to the Spanish ecological kaleidoscope.

WELL LOOKED AFTER?

The good news is that large areas of land are protected by a system of 13 National Parks, numerous Nature Parks and Game Reserves. The jewels in the conservation crown are the National Parks of Ordesa in the Pyrenees (00 34 974 243 361; www.mma.es), Montaña de Covadonga (00 34 985 848 614; www.mma.es) in the Picos de Europa on the northern coast, and right down in the south, at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, the fragile wetland environment of Doñana (00 34 959 442 340; www.mma.es). The other parks on the Spanish mainland are Tablas de Damiel - an inland wetland on the otherwise arid plain of La Mancha - Cabañeros in the same area, Aiguestortes - literally "twisted waters"- in the Catalan Pyrenees and the mountainous Sierra Nevada, which is the largest of them all. The Canary Islands boast three parks in volcanic landscapes: Cañadas del Teide, Caldera de Taburiente and Timanfaya on Lanzarote. The other two island parks are the Archipiélago de Cabrera, a boat ride from Palma de Mallorca and the most recent addition to the list: Islas Atlanticás, off the western coast of Galicia.

On the debit side, the sheer number of visitors is becoming a problem in some of the national parks: 650,000 people visit Ordesa each year. Illegal hunting also takes an annual toll. The extremely fragile ecology of the Doñana park has been put at risk by agricultural pollution while the growth of resorts like Matalascañas has brought urban sprawl to its south-western edge.

In other parts of the country the owners of the numerous private game reserves have caused problems through the use of poisoned baits to kill animals that prey on their rabbits and partridges. Not only foxes, which are the intended target, but bears, eagles, lammergeyers and black vultures have also been numbered among the victims.

WHAT MIGHT I SEE?

Spain's emblematic creatures can be some of the most difficult to see. This is as true of the bear and the wolf as it is of the authentically home-grown Spanish lynx or the extremely rare Spanish imperial eagle. An even more prized addition to the collectors' list of mammals is the desman. This minute shrew-like animal with a distinctive trunk, which inhabits the banks of fast-flowing streams in the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa, is not only secretive but nocturnal into the bargain.

Among the birds, the most thrilling include the the lammergeyer, a type of vulture with a particular liking for bone marrow, which it obtains by dropping bones from a great height onto the rocks of the Pyrenees and more recently the Picos. The capercaillie also flourishes in the Pyrenees. The rare black vulture and the black stork can be spotted in the park of Monfragüe in eastern Extremadura, golden eagles in the Sierra Nevada, and the most colourful sight of all: the flamingos that nest in the Doñana. There's an almost endless variety of smaller, often brilliantly-coloured birds to be observed across the expanses of Spain's hinterland including bea-eaters, hoopoes, rollers and orioles .

In winter in the Pyrenees it's a particular treat to see a flock of ptarmigan, as white as the snow; in Extremadura, the azure-winged magpie is a unique sight, while on the island of Lanzarote, there's a colony of rare Eleonora's falcons.

AND PLANT LIFE?

Spain's must-see flora includes the indigenous, rare and very ancient pine-tree, the pinsapo, (the park of Grazalema is a good place to find it). There are also the bizarre cork-oaks, looking quite indecently stripped of their prized bark, while the Pyrenees boasts the huge beech forest of Iraty. On the Canary Island of La Gomera there's a unique subtropical environment called laurisilva, while on the Spanish mainland, in the valleys of the national park of Covadonga, ancient haymeadows have become home to 40 species of orchids plus many other wildflowers and accompanying butterfly species.

SO WHAT'S ENDANGERED?

There are about 150 endangered species of fauna and flora in Spain, the majority of which are plants. It's a number that has doubled since 1990. Nevertheless, the highest profile animal, the bear, is doing rather better in Spain than it is on the French side of the Pyrenees: there are now reckoned to be more than a hundred in the Cantabrian mountains. Also making a comeback is the wolf, with Spain numbered among its last remaining refuges in Europe. The population is slowly recovering from its 1970 low of 400-500 odd individuals with 2003 figures estimated at as many as 2,500. The lynx on the other hand, which once roamed across the greater part of the Iberian Peninsula, is now limited to a couple of hundred in the south of the country, making it the world's most endangered wild cat.

According to the Red Book of endangered birds, of the 390 species recorded in Spain, 15 are in "critical danger" of extinction. Birds such as the osprey, the bittern and the ferruginous duck may not be here in a decade from now.

Among those considered to be merely in "danger" are the Spanish imperial eagle, Bonelli's eagle, the Egyptian vulture, the lammergeyer and perhaps surprisingly, the red kite.

AND WHAT'S DANGEROUS?

Bears and wolves are very unlikely to attack a human, even if you are lucky (or unlucky enough) to come across one of them in the remote forests and mountains of northern Spain. As far as snakes are concerned, Spain has 13 varieties, five of which are venomous. Fewer than half a dozen people a year actually die in Spain from snake bites but even so, should you hear a warning shout of "serpiente" the ones to watch out for are the three kinds of viper: the asp viper, Lataste's viper and Seoane's viper. Less dangerous are Montpellier's snake and the false smooth snake.

HOW ACCESSIBLE IS THE WILDLIFE?

The National Parks are often not the most accessible way to the wild. In the case of the most fascinating of them - the Doñana - entrance to the park is strictly controlled and booking is recommended; getting to the only National Park in the Balearic Islands, the Parque Nacional Archipiélago de Cabrera, entails a 40-minute boat ride south of Majorca.(Access is limited to 200 visitors a day, more in August). The reward for those who make the effort is a plethora of lizards and the chance to see a rare osprey or an Eleonora's falcon.

Less crowded, and usually easier to get to, are the Nature Parks, which often include villages, hotels and campsites within their boundaries. For example, among the best places to appreciate the South's craggy mountain landscapes are in the Andalucian parks Sierra de Grazalema and Cazorla.

AND WHAT IS THERE FOR THE LAZIER ENTHUSIAST?

You're rarely far from something interesting. Within a stone's throw of the crowded southern coast I've watched the aerobatics of a flock of bee-eaters from a holiday apartment, seen peregrine falcons hunting at dusk and enjoyed a short family walk during which the kids have found praying mantises, huge grasshoppers and a strikingly-coloured ladder-snake. Every region has its own treats. For instance, a few miles from Ronda, the cave of El Gato is home to a colony of huge Alpine swifts. An hour's drive north of Madrid, near the town of Sepúlveda, there's an undemanding but spectacular walk beside the gorge of the river Duratón, with the unusual delight of being able to look down on the squadrons of planing griffon vultures.

WHAT'S THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT?

It depends where you want to go. The northern coastal strip, including the Covadonga National Park, is not known as Green Spain for nothing and even in summer you're likely to get a few showers. The centre and south of the country becomes unpleasantly hot in mid summer, so expect to find plenty of company from Spanish holiday-makers escaping the stifling cities. Late spring and early summer are the time to appreciate the spectacular array of flowers in the more mountainous areas.

Something of interest is always happening in the Parque Nacional de Doñana. November, December and January are the peak periods for waterfowl and when there are the fewest human visitors. The most exciting events for birdwatchers are the spring and autumn migrations across the narrow strip of water that separates Spain from Africa. The migration northwards occurs between late February and June and in the other direction it's mainly in August and September. Tarifa is a very good vantage point.

WHAT KIND OF HOLIDAYS ARE ON OFFER?

A good place to start your planning is the Spanish Tourist Office at 79 New Cavendish Street, London W1W 6XB (020-7317 2040; www.tourspain.co.uk). Specialist operators include Nature Trek (01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk), The Travelling Naturalist (01305 267994; www.naturalist.co.uk) and Alto Aragon (01869 337 339; www.altoaragon.co.uk). For walking tours Inntravel (01653 617 788; www.inntravel.co.uk) and Pico Verde (01617 735 335; www.picoverde.com) can arrange self-guided trips, while Sherpa (020-8577 2717; www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk) and Exodus (0870 240 55s50; www.exodus.co.uk) offer organised tours. To see wild Spain from four legs, In The Saddle (01299 272 997; www.inthesaddle. com) offers riding weeks in the Alpujarras mountains for £860-£1,230, including accommodation, all rides and most meals.

Mick Webb is co-author of 'Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes' (Virgin Books, £7.99), which covers both the Spanish and French sides of the Pyrenees. Additional research by Ben Crichton and Lucy Land

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