Searching for WILD SPAIN
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|May/June 2021
An increasing number of rewilding projects in Europe means we no longer need to travel far to watch big predators in their natural habitats. Wanderlust goes on a Cantabrian bear hunt...
Mike Unwin

My eyes ached. I lowered my binoculars to blink back some life into them then resumed the vigil. Wildlife watching, I reflected, sometimes involves staring for a very long time at nothing while hoping, in vain, for something. But with expert guide Fernando Ballesteros beside me doing the same, I was determined not to be caught napping.

The ‘nothing’ I was scrutinising was, to be fair, the glorious dawn vista of northern Spain’s Cantabrian mountains, and the ‘something’ for which we were combing the rugged slopes was a wild brown bear. Our odds on a sighting were hard to gauge. Here, in Fuentes del Narcea Natural Park, we were deep in bear country and the roadside mirador is a renowned viewing spot. Furthermore, this was peak time: early autumn generally brings the animals up to the higher slopes for the blueberries. But it had been a bad blueberry year, Fernando explained, and they could still be down in the woods, polishing off the last of the season’s hazelnuts.

Either way, it was a fine autumn morning and first light was etching form into the panorama,from the high limestone battlements, down across the heathery hillsides to the dark wooded valleys. As I scanned the horizon, it also revealed distant radio masts, a cable car and what Fernando told me is an old coal-mine: reminders that this is a human landscape, too.

My binoculars inched once again over the landscape. I tried to be methodical, working along ridge and down gulley. Would a bear be out in the open? How big would it look from here? Suddenly I saw a brown animal crossing the scree. Bingo! “Fernando,” I called. “I’ve just…” But he was already onto it. “Chamois,” he exclaimed. “Bravo!” Ah, I think. Nice. But…

RESTORING THE BALANCE

This was September 2019, before the pandemic. I was in Spain with The European Nature Trust (TENT) who, since 2000, have been working with various European partners to protect and rewild some of the continent’s most important natural landscapes. Critical to this process has been restoring populations of indigenous large mammals where they have been historically persecuted or even eradicated, from European bison in the Romanian Carpathians to brown bears in Italy’s Abruzzo mountains.

These projects are about more than the simple satisfaction of seeing apex species back where they belong. Each species is a critical missing piece of a broader ecological jigsaw. Returning them to healthy numbers has a knock-on effect through the entire ecosystem, right down to plant communities and even water flow – as demonstrated so impressively by the return of wolves to the USA’s Yellowstone National Park.

In the Cantabrian Mountains, TENT’s partner is the Fundación Oso Pardo (FOP). Founded in 1992 to arrest the decline of the brown bear, FOP has since helped the animal’s numbers recover from a historic low of around 30 to more than 330 today. This, for the first time, has made ecotourism a viable option, and I was hoping to join the ranks of the many who have now enjoyed a sighting.

“In the past five years bear tourism has developed incredibly,” Fernando told me, as he packed his telescope into the van and we headed down towards the forest. He explained that the Cantabrian brown bear, though the same species as the grizzly and Kodiak, does not allow the easy viewing associated with its more habituated American cousins. Smaller and shyer, it is wary of people and sticks to dense cover. Sightings involve knowing where and when it might appear. Now, in the hyperphagia (binge feeding) season, when females are roaming the hillsides with their cubs, viewing is at a peak. All you need is binoculars. And patience. “We have our red lines when it comes to bear-watching,” explained Fernando. “One is distance and the other is feeding. Here you can see bears naturally, at a natural distance, without disturbing them.”

Passing a poster bearing the FOP bear logo, we continued through rough pasture into woods groaning with autumn’s bounty: brambles, acorns, elderberries. Though technically carnivores, brown bears subsist largely on plant matter and this traditional farming landscape offers plenty of nourishment. Cue Exhibit A: in the middle of the path, a fresh pile of what bears do in the woods. “Sweet,” pronounced Fernando, as he prodded the blackberry-infused droppings with a stick and crouched for a sniff. “Muy bien!”

It was sobering to imagine that an adult bear had sauntered down this very track just hours earlier. Sure enough, we soon found the broad, five-toed prints. I peered deeper into the woods and imagined the animal returning tonight and sniffng at our own prints. As we continued, the track revealed signs of other nocturnal commuters: the parallel slots of wild boar; the cat-like signature of a genet. It all vindicated FOP’s philosophy: manage the habitat for one animal and everything shares the benefits.

HUMANS FOR HABITATS

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