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I love our wildlife in the Highlands but let’s be frank, there isn’t really that much of it, both in terms of diversity and numbers, with the obvious exception of deer. Make the relatively short crossing to mainland Europe however and one enters a very different world. France is eternally gorgeous and boy do they know about trees. They really have some wonderful areas of mature woodland, but then I suppose they didn’t have to cut theirs down to fight the French. But a lot of it is quite a bit like Britain. Cross the Pyrenees though and you are in a very different place. It starts pretty much straight away too. There are Lammergeyers around the border. Huge bone breaking vultures, impressive at rest, incredible in flight but they are not the only vulture to be seen. From the smaller white Egyptian, through the Griffon to the Black, the whole set is here. Not in paltry numbers either. There are a lot of them. See them perched on piggery roofs, nesting on the cliffs at Riglos or most impressively a mixed species group circling on a thermal.
It is certainly the birds which impress the most in Iberia. This meeting point between Africa and Europe has points of interest from both directions. Swallows, martins and swifts abound, indeed one wonders why they bother to carry on to the misty, dripping, chilly north of Scotland. There are insects here in profusion thanks to low intensity agriculture and this must have a direct effect on the numbers of swifts here. Their young bomb around in screaming, reckless flocks showing complete mastery of the air. For me they are truly ‘the bird’ so airborne are their lives.
A short walk can yield amazing treasures and a pair of binoculars is essential. Black kites are not unusual, stork’s nests adorn most churches and many electric poles. The birds themselves can be seen in great numbers in the rice paddies. A covey of partridges occupy every corner of stubble and LBJs of every shade flutter away in amazing numbers. Among them are rare jewels. Bee eaters cruise the sandy cliffs in search of their quarry and occasionally one is rewarded by the sight of a golden oriole. This dove sized bird is so improbably bright yellow that it delights the eye even in the brightest sunlight.
There are mammals too, though rarely seen. A night drive will reveal more in a few minutes than all of the poking around in rough areas. Foxes are plentiful, presumably making use of the rather sketchy waste disposal arrangements which exist hereabouts. The major difference from home are the boar of course. Huge, black and rarely seen without the aid of dogs but there, most definitely there. The rivers are lined with dense bush and there are countless areas of rough scrub land for them to vanish into. Towards the mountains huge areas of scrub grows and the cultivated land shrinks until it eventually peters out in favour of pine woods which in this part of the word yield prodigious numbers of delicious pine nuts, favoured by both boar and humans. Higher still montane vegetation takes over and I am told that chamois inhabit the high tops but it is another story that I’d like to find out more about. The mysterious extinction of the Pyrenean Ibex.
It was fully dark by the time I entered the village, small knots of people sat on steps and kitchen chairs outside their doorways and, to my amazement at this late hour, groups of very young children were charging up and down the street. I had been moving for over twenty four hours and my senses were dulled by engine noise and snack food so I was not able to fully understand what I was seeing. My young hosts put me smartly to bed and it was not until the following morning that I was able to see the village and surrounding landscape. Phrases like stark beauty and rugged grandeur are overused so they are out. The word beige did come to mind but that would not be fair. It is a rugged, stark and beige place but it is also so much more.
The houses of the village seem to climb on top of each other, each new one welcomed to share a wall, to shield its older neighbour from the unremitting pounding of the sun. Few of these houses would look out of place in a Roman landscape, indeed, I think it’s a fair bet that some of the founds under these houses go back at least that far. With pan tiles, cypress trees and ancient figs one could easily imagine Maximus Decimus Meridius striding the landscape, running his hands through his crops. Him or Clint Eastwood anyway.
This village and many others like it sit on small patches of high ground, islands in the seas of bare honey-coloured stubble and the odd deep green patch of sunflowers. The farms here are alien to me. In Britain, we sit as kings surrounded by our lands. Here the houses are usually in the villages, farmers commute to their land in the early mornings, work until the heat drives them home and then again in the evenings, even deep into the night at busy times. The farming is less intensive and more varied too. The patches of arable are interspersed with almond orchards and olive groves, small jewel like gardens of vegetables and odd rough areas with black and white signs ‘coto de caza’. The only livestock is housed in buildings, barring a few depressed looking sheep. The pig industry is strong round here but what conditions must be like in those low buildings and in this heat I dread to imagine. One might mistake this dry climate for an almost desert-like condition but there is no shortage of water. A huge construction project has ensured massive amounts of water and hydro power for the area, courtesy of the snow melt and thunder-storms of the Pyrenees.
There is more new construction hereabouts too, somewhat at odds with the tales of doom and gloom in the Spanish economy. A vast road building project is snaking it’s way down from the mountains, past towns with shopping developments, hi-tech industrial parks and large areas of housing, which actually appears to be occupied. Rather to my amazement I even passed a shiny new Land Rover dealership.
For a resident of the Highlands of Scotland however, all of the landscape and infrastructure becomes insignificant before one crowning feature. The heat of summer. Yes, I know other places get hotter, but not by much. I have seen the temperature gauge here top forty four. It was outside Ikea in Zaragoza, an unlikely place for the traveller I know. It is this kind of heat which bleaches the landscape and bows down the people, causing them to become, crepuscular, even nocturnal. But none the worse for that and why would it be? Just because it is not my norm to see kids (well behaved, polite, friendly ones I might add) scootering at midnight, does not make it weird. Just sensible.