Not in vain had the arrival of autumn been announced. It happened after a particularly cold night, when the highest mountain peaks appeared covered in snow.
From that moment on, nothing was the same again, the cherry trees lost their leaves and the birches turned yellow. Suddenly the swifts left the skies and the mushrooms patiently took over the same meadows where the deer began their rutting season.
We got accustomed to spending long hours in the tent while, outside, the downpour torpedoed on a waterproof fabric so thin that it seemed impossible to keep us dry.
The raincoats become our second skin, the boots seemed to be made of mud.
“The extreme climate and the exhaustion marked our days after a month and a half of walking.”
We had spent the last weeks tracking bears in the Laciana Valley and now we were entering a humid and misty Somiedo. Until that moment, all our efforts to find the plantigrade proved ineffective, and the bad weather made it even more difficult to spot any of the three hundred specimens scattered in 5,000 km² of rugged denseness.
The extreme climate and the exhaustion marked our days after a month and a half of walking. The search was bringing innumerable hardships, but the worst of our ills was anecdotal compared to what the species we sought suffer.
Nonetheless, step by step, we were approaching an awaited meeting with the Brown Bear Foundation (FOP is its acronym in Spanish).
With nearly three decades of experience, the FOP began its work in the 90’ when the bear was critically endangered at the national level. Centuries of persecution, poisoning and habitat destruction seemed to have brought the complete annihilation of the species in its last viable stronghold: the Cantabrian Mountains.
Since then, the foundation have removed 1,541 illegal traps in the field and denounced 151 poachers. It became a co-owner of 112 km² of forest and bought 131 properties where it planted more than 230,000 fruit trees exclusively to feed the bears. The members devoted themselves to raising awareness, worked with the administrations and created the Bear Patrols, mainly responsible for the surveillance and monitoring of the species.
Results? The Ursid population quadrupled.
“Centuries of persecution, poisoning and habitat destruction…”
“… a success story in the conservation of one of the most emblematic and threatened species…”
For days we accompanied the technicians during their daily patrols, visiting old coal mines in the process of regeneration, checking the development of various reforestation sites and spending long days lurking behind telescopes and binoculars.
Chamois and wild boars, cows and foxes… until one morning, when no one was expecting it any longer, a young bear appeared on the other side of the mountain, manifesting for us a success story in the conservation of one of the most emblematic and threatened species of the Iberian fauna.
But not all species were as lucky, for some of them help did not arrive on time. This was the case of the largest flying bird on the continent who had no defenders, only attackers.
The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) was continuously besieged for its uniqueness, since a golden bird with a wingspan of almost three meters represented an irresistible trophy for many hunters.
Yet, the ultimate force that condemned this bird to extinction was its close link with traditional mountain livestock, especially goats and sheep.
Same as the other three species of European vultures, the bearded vulture based his diet exclusively on corpses. But unlike the griffon vulture, the black vulture and the Egyptian vulture that feed on soft matter; the bearded vulture feeds primarily on bone and cartilage.
In a carrion, he stays at a distance, patiently observing how the others eat and, by the time the corpse is clean, he enters the scene with his majestic presence. When for the rest the feast is over, for him it is about to start.
Paradoxically, the very same specialization that helped him to avoid having competitors for millennia, convicted him in just a few decades when the rural exodus and agrarian reforms took place.
The less people lived in the villages, the less livestock there was in the mountains. Remaining shepherds gave up traditional practices and simplified their work, abandoned sheep and goat farming – which required more care and was less profitable – and opted for cows and horses that could be left grazing in the hills for most of the year.
Consequently, the unprotected herds became part of the wolf’s diet after the hunters stole its natural pray. It was not long until the cowboys responded: poisoned baits did decimate wolf numbers but bearded vultures were completely wiped out.
“… poisoned baits did decimate wolf numbers but bearded vultures were completely wiped out.”
“… claiming with their return the right to live free…”
60 years after the last representative of the species was taken down from the skies of the Cantabrian Mountains, the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture (FCQ in Spanish) began to work in the Picos de Europa.
Today, thanks to their undeniable dedication and a pioneering methodology, 26 specimens are inhabiting the Cantabrian peaks again, claiming with their return the right to live free and safe from human pressure in their natural environment.
Update: In just the few months between our visit and the publication of this chronicle, two bears were run over, two more were shot dead and one bearded vulture died electrocuted on a power line.
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