25th August

The Picos de Europa are a fantastic little mountain range. Their name probably reflects the fact that they were visible to sailors returning to Europe from transatlantic voyages; the peaks reach over 2000m and it is just over 20km from the coast. If you want a comparison, the mountains are about three times the height of the highest hills in the Lake District, but the Picos de Europa national park covers only a quarter of the area of the Lake District, which is why I describe it as a small range. On our first visit 10 years ago, we walked the length of the park in a week carrying our tent and using the many refuges to overnight.

Traditional Farming Cheese

Being formed from limestone, they offer some dramatic scenery where water has eroded deep gorges between steep vertical slabs of rock, and these slopes have excluded modern agriculture. There is, however, a long and continuing traditional of farming here. With the rich soils, abundant rainfall and mild summers (due to the coastal location) producing lush grass on the lower slopes it’s useful for producing hay and feeding small dairy herds. The harsh winters of the upper plateaus are followed by an eruption of alpine flora which graziers take their herds to in the spring to get the brief abundance of forage.

A mixture of cattle, sheep and goats are reared, and all can be used for milk production, much of which is made into cheeses which mean the summer abundance can be enjoyed in the winter months. These traditional cheeses have very high value today.

Maintaining farming here is part of the whole package. Abandoned farmland quickly loses its wildflowers and the open views which draw in thousands of tourists. The tourists also include the cheese as part of their experience; it is on every restaurant menu and many outlets advertise it and offer tours of the maturation caves and tasting opportunities.

One block of the famous blue Cabrales cheese from here achieved a Guinness World Record price this year: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/549138-most-expensive-cheese-sold-at-auction. At over £9000 a kilo it really is good cheese!

Local farmer scything hay on the side of the Picos 

Each farmers has a small numbers of livestock and much of their work is done in traditional, low-cost, high-labour ways, such as scything grass to make hay and shepherding with dogs rather than putting up fences round the fields. The dogs are also important for deterring the wolves which still occur here, and which may still take a few livestock but also hunt the abundant wildlife.

As soon as we arrived at the start of our first walk, we saw one farmer heading up the slopes in his tiny tractor and trailer, and start cutting hay. This was also the time when I discovered that my own food production system had led to a disaster!

I had harvest everything from the garden and allotment that might rot while we were away, and much of it was packed in a cool bag to bring with us. We have a tall pear tree which produces very early ripening pears, so took the ladder to collect the fruit. Our ladder folds into 4 and when it is stowed away it functions as our boot rack; we had to take all the boots off and put them back after the harvest, I then packed a pair of boots for the holiday…

Walking with wildlife

On arriving at our first walk, I discovered that I had in fact packed the left boots of two different pairs… so I had to do all the walks in my lightweight hiking trainers. Not the worst disaster of all time, but I did end up with sore feet by the end of the holiday!
Coffee stop spot

We started our walk at Sotres on the northern edge of the park and walked to the point of the trail. We walked through steep valleys, looking up at immense peaks, and reached the plateau meadows.

From 11am we started seeing the huge broad wings of griffon vultures – eight took off while we had our morning coffee at the first stop. The vultures are such a prominent feature of the National Park that they are illustrated on many tourist attractions – they are likely to be seen by the majority of visitors, and are something easily recognisable and clearly different from the wildlife you come across on an average day in Spain.

There was also a fabulous lammergeier – a specialised vulture which collects bones from carcasses, to drop and crack open on rocks and get at the marrow! These birds were all taking off from the cliff tops as the heat of the day got thermal air currents rising and gave them the free ride they need to scour vast distances looking for any unfortunate casualties from the night before; they no doubt depend highly on finding what the wolves have finished with.

Among them was also a smaller bird of prey, a booted eagle – not much bigger than a buzzard and with a similar varied diet of small mammals and birds but also includes reptiles where it lives in warmer places.

At our lunch stop, we noticed some of the distant rocks seemed to be moving, and raising the binoculars found that in fact it was a herd of Chamois (mountain goats), probably 100 or more, which is one of the key species for the wolves to hunt.

On our return via this same cliff there was a golden eagle, impressive in size and quite capable of taking a young Chamois, but still dwarfed by the vultures. All these carnivores clearly depend on a reliable supply of prey and carrion, which is only to be found in places like this with a functional ecology, starting with the plants and insects and up to the birds and mammals that become the prey for the top carnivores.

We will end today’s adventure barbecuing some of our home-grown vegetables at the campsite, reflecting on these large iconic wildlife species. We have two more days in the Picos de Europa so will take a look as some of the smaller elements later - the plants, insects and I will tell you about one very, very special bird!

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Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring