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?

24th August 

Yesterday’s walk followed a familiar trail for us 

Today we set out to explore a new trail, starting on a trail to Bulnes which we had followed 10 years ago, then from Bulnes we planned to ascend to some higher areas up what looked like a steep route on the map. I was going to miss my boots!  

Yesterday it was clear that the mountain range, Picos de Europa, had become a lot more popular as a tourist destination for the Spanish people, compared to our previous visits. We don’t know whether this was a factor of going in the holiday season of August, if it was a response to the covid-19 outbreak leading to people avoiding their traditional destinations, or a genuine increase in interest in the great outdoors, but it was clear that the amount of parking was in short supply (we had seen one car that had rolled off the side of a hill where it had attempted to park in an unwise spot) so an early start was made. 

Despite the numbers of people using the national park, we were extremely impressed by seeing no litter anywhere, and extremely considerate behaviour by everyone – face masks were always donned by anyone passing us, and/or efforts were made to get off the path to allow people to pass at safe distances. The size of the park and length and abundance of trails meant that there was plenty of room for people to disperse and enjoy wide open spaces safely. The trails pass through small villages such as Bulnes, where the local farmers live and where refreshments can be bought. 

View of the valley leading to Narajo De Bulnes

Farming Observations

Although grazing livestock can access all parts of the landscape, their numbers are low, and much of the area is very inaccessible naturally due to the steep terrain and limestone boulders, so grazing levels are lightThere are favoured areas where grass is grazed short, less favoured areas with longer grass and other parts with scrub, woodland and forest, all merging and flowing into one another in a diverse habit mix. This is what nature reserves try to achieve on their small patches, but traditional land management of the mountains has achieved it on a grand scale in the Picos. Too much grazing would see the demise of the forests, and the people still depend on them for their heating, fencing, and building maintenance – access to small village is not often by road, so they must be self-sufficient in timber and wood fuel.  


All the while we were walking there was an abundance of insect life, with chirping crickets and grasshoppers, buzzing bumblebees, and the eye-catching wings of butterflies being the most obvious, but around the cow pats there were flies and beetles, and near the river dragonflies, mayflies and stoneflies made an appearance.

One fox dropping was particularly appealing to a bunch of  chalkhill 
blue butterflies gathering minerals from this localised source
– butterflies are always portrayed as delicate flying decorations of
flowery places, but they do have some unsavoury habits as well!  

Spring is the best time to visit for the
wildflower experience, but we noticed many
wildflowers including various 
Crocus and a
Dianthus (as pictured)
The main species to be seen was the 

chalkhill blue, something we work hard to conserve in the chalky places of Cambridgeshire, but which was thriving across the landscape here, it depends on one particular plant, Horseshoe Vetch, which requires short grassland conditions on chalk or limestone soils. Almost all insects have narrow ecological requirements like this and providing them on nature reserves requires a lot of work but having a light touch agriculture on a large landscape scale means that sufficient opportunities pop up  to keep these plant and butterfly populations thriving.  

The cracks in the limestone support an
array of specialist ferns which can tolerate
the dry conditions of life
in a rock.
Taking advantage of the abundance of insect life was a vast array of insect-feeding birds, most notably the 
crag martins which are a large member of the swallow family, all brown and nesting in craggy places as their name suggests. We saw a small group clinging to the side of a rock face where a trickle of water gave them a chance to drink. They swoop up alongside the rock faces hoovering up the insects being swept up on the up draughts from below.  

Other insect-feeders were pied and spotted flycatchers, potentiallyon their migration from further north, black redstarts, stonechats, white and grey wagtails and vast numbers of choughs, and their close relative the Alpine choughs – both depend on short turf with lots of insect larvae to winkle out with their long slim bills. Choughs are rare in Britain due partly to the use of worming chemicals in livestock reducing the amount of insect larvae that develop in the dung; low stocking densities mean that parasites do not build up and veterinary treatments like this are not needed in more natural systems. 

The shock of my life

Our ascent above the village of Bulnes was a steep hard climb, and in the hot sun it was a serious physical work-outLunch time was a welcome chance to sit and admire the sheer rock faces all around us. I chose to sit in the shade of a large boulder, but Louise decided the grass there was too wet and she stayed in the sun. So, it was Louise who, near the end of our meal, saw it first. 

Wallcreeper [Tichodroma muraria] by Nrik Kiran can be
reused under the CC BY-SA 4.0
“Wallcreeper!” This is one of the holy grails of the birdwatching world, a total one-off of a bird, and confined to the kind of places which birdwatchers struggle to get to, above 1000m. They are never abundant, never reliable in their appearance and always a long way off on the side of a mountain… this one was true to form. 
I moved to a better vantage point. Once looking at the right bit of rock, the bird gave itself away quickly enough – they move sideways across the rock face with a few flaps of their broad wings revealing the crimson, black and white patterns. They are like giant a butterfly in flight, but when they land and close their wings to the rock-grey back that blends in perfectly with their surroundings. We watched it move along the cliff face to our right, then disappear out of view behind our boulder 

And suddenly had the shock of my life when the wallcreeper flew back and landed on the top of the boulder barely 10 yards away! Unfortunately, there was no way I could move to get the camera! It soon flew on down the valley – it was using the boulder as a stepping stone to cross the open space of the valley and was about to start working its way along the other side, searching the crevices of the rocks for insects and spiders. A wonderful experience and one that made the exertion of the climb worthwhile 

That night at the campsite we made plans for a final day in the Picos de Europa. We were going to visit the area where we first started our Picos experience, Lake Covadonga. On our previous visit it was entirely shrouded in fog. Hopefully, the fine weather was going to stay, and we would see what it was like! 

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring

Read about Covadonga