Vince Lea, Wildlife Monitor

North Spain Aug-Sep 2020 

I offered to write something for the CRT website as a daily account of our holiday when it became clear that, on return, I would be confined to home for two weeks self-isolation, following the government guidelines on travel restrictions to Spain and I would not be doing any fieldwork for a couple of weeks.   

I will look at many aspects of farming, forestry and fishing, climate change, pollution, local sustainable food production and see some great wildlife along the way. With maybe a few detours into cooking, physical and mental health, the joys, and pitfalls of camping holidays and when is it safe to abandon a productive garden?

So my partner Louise and I ventured off to Galicia in north Spain. Why did we decided to go ahead with our trip?

25th August 

We packed up the tent early and drove to the town of Covadonga, gateway to the western end of the Picos de Europa. Driving into the town we were confronted by a huge number of signs pointing to park-and-ride systems, so we pulled in to see what was going on.

It seems that tourism here has grown to such a level that taking private cars up the mountains is not possible in the height of the season, and a stream of buses take people up. We were a bit concerned given the risks of travel on confined spaces but once again everything was well organised and safe, with face masks and sanitiser everywhere.

The bus ride was excellent, giving a great view of the ascent and a rack of griffon vultures waiting on the rocks for the thermals to get started. We spotted them from a couple of hundred yards away, but as the bus came close the driver gave an announcement and everyone turned to look, and admiring chatter filled the bus. It was great to see so many ordinary Spanish folk enjoying nature like this.

Glimpses of the sea
Reaching the lakes, the bus pulled into an enormous car park and we saw hundreds of people already enjoying the scenery. The views here were indeed worth coming back for (we had visited the area 10 years ago). Glimpses of the sea could be seen in the distance, the lakes were sparkling and the crags and mountains all around were stunning.

Throngs of people and livestock

The whole area was thronging with people yet all around there were grazing livestock, cattle and sheep, all the herds had animals wearing bells to aid rounding up when needed and despite the abundant cow pats, everyone really enjoyed having this rural scene around them. With the increase in tourism, money was clearly flowing up the mountain. The farming was still as it was, and nature was all around us despite the many people – amongst the many griffon vultures we spotted another lammergeier. This species (also called the bearded vulture) is one of Europe’s most threatened species and has been the subject of a reintroduction programme in the Alps where it had gone extinct. Remarkably a young lammergeier found its way to Britain this year, spending the summer in the Peak District.

We did not have long to stay in the mountains here as we had a long drive west to get to our next campsite, at the small surfer’s town of Valdovino.

You can do good things and bad things with investment.

We drove the fast, efficient highways, barely another car on the roads and no delays as we sped along at the 120kmh speed limit for hours on end. The road cut through coastal hills and spanned vast distances over deep valleys on huge viaducts – each tunnel and viaduct had its own name and gave the length of the span at the start of it. Clearly huge investments have been made in this region.

Water rail
Water rail
The one thing that stood out from this journey was just how dull the average countryside has become, with intensive maize fields and eucalyptus plantations alternating with intensively grazed grasslands. We saw one jay and one kestrel in 4 hours of driving. 

Valdovino has a great brackish lagoon called Frouxeira close by and we had enough daylight left to take a short look at this before finding something to eat in town. This lagoon was bursting with life in the spring when we first visited, but at high summer it was rather quiet, though we did register the only water Rails of our holiday here, making their weird squealing calls from deep within the reedbeds. The classic Galician weather of damp drizzle set in as we made our way to the restaurant for a taste of the fabulous local seafood – ready to explore the coast for the next few days.

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring

I’ve got this mole…