7 mins

Wild Spain on the trail of bears

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...

Brown bear (Ursus arctos) in, Spain (Shutterstock)

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

A brown bear, Spain (Shutterstock)

A brown bear, Spain (Shutterstock)

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 sniffing 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

A Griffon vulture (Shutterstock)

A Griffon vulture (Shutterstock)

Lunch at a local village café brought a menu of intriguing translations (‘Typical trouts,’ anyone? ‘Height cows’?). Meanwhile, Fernando told me how FOP now owns 14 local woodlands and helps manage many others for the benefit of bears. An extensive programme of planting fruit-bearing trees, such as wild cherries, alder buckthorn and whitebeam, is not only providing more natural food but also restoring a degraded habitat. More bears, with their foraging and seed-dispersal habits, means an enriched biodiversity across the entire landscape.

Meanwhile, education is slowly overturning historical fears. Attacks on livestock are rare and farmers receive compensation where, for example, beehives or orchards are raided – although mitigation methods such as electric fencing help prevent this. Bears avoid people – only seven aggressive interactions have been recorded in the past 30 years, with no casualties – but to keep things safer for both parties, some trails close during peak season. Community outreach work has created school projects and volunteer groups, while the FOP team use camera trapping and faeces analysis to keep tabs on the rising bear population.

Locals, in turn, have been discovering what bears can bring. “At first people were nervous of visitors,” said Fernando, explaining how tourism is new to these remote mountain villages (which perhaps explains that menu), “but there’s been a lot of positive talk.” With 20% of profits from ecotourism ploughed back into the community, people are seeing real economic benefits. And with the region now the self-proclaimed ‘bear capital’ of Iberia, pride seems to be replacing prejudice.

Pride was certainly etched on the face of Elías Suárez, who joined us for lunch. Three months earlier, Elías was awarded the Order of Civil Merit, Spain’s greatest civil honour, by King Felipe VI himself, for ‘connecting the people of Asturias with nature’. Elías was raised in a nearby village and knows many landowners personally, making him the ideal bridge between conservation and community. His ‘bear whisperer’ reputation is the stuff of local legend. I asked whether he’d ever had a close encounter. “Tan cerca como esta,” he smiled, indicating the width of the table between us. “As close as this.”

Our search continued early the following morning in nearby Parque Nacional de Somiedo. We wound up through the tiny stone hamlet of Perlunes to a precipitous viewpoint over the crags and ravines. It felt a world apart, the dawn hillsides glinting with dew-laden cobwebs. Birds appeared as the sun rose: a soaring honey buzzard heading south; red-billed choughs tumbling around the cliffs; griffon vultures rising on the first thermals. More chamois crested a ridge, a wild echo of the goats that emerged in a tinkling of bells from the village below. “Nunca digas nunca,” said Fernando, as we scanned the slopes. “Never say never.”

But still the orsos were lying low. That afternoon, we visited FOP’s small local museum. Among the interactive displays, conservation videos and bear T-shirts for sale, I was intrigued to find lovingly inscribed, vellum-bound hunting records dating back to 1609. They spoke volumes of just how deeply bears are embedded in the local culture, and how much would be lost if they disappeared.

A-list animals

An Iberian wolf (Shutterstock)

An Iberian wolf (Shutterstock)

Our final day found us heading east towards Fuentes Carrionas Natural Park. We were now leaving bear country and had to accept that our quarry had given us the slip – only by a whisker, mind you: at one viewpoint we’d met people who’d watched a female with cubs the day before and had the photos to prove it. But it’s wildlife, I told myself: the thrill of seeing any wild animal requires the possibility of having not seen it.

And it wasn’t over yet. Northern Spain’s A-list animals don’t end with the brown bear. In the village of Boca de Huérgano we picked up our new guide, Rafael, to help us look for another alpha predator – one whose local history is even more chequered. A rugged track led us bumping slowly up into the park until, emerging through the oak woods, we found ourselves on a sunlit central plateau with a panorama of muscular hillsides sloping away in all directions: a perfect arena for the red deer rut, which was now in full swing. As the hoarse bellows came at us in surround-sound, our binoculars picked out the russet coats of the antlered combatants staking their territorial claims. As each stopped to bellow, a puff of exhalation caught the low late-afternoon sun, the sound following a split-second later.

Aquí, aquí,” called Rafael, quietly. “Lobos.” While we had been enjoying the stag serenade, our diligent guide had been scanning with his telescope. Now he stepped back and ushered us forward. Through the eyepiece, I zoned in on a gleaming promontory of rock that rose like the prow of a ship between the steep sides of a gorge. On top, sprawled in sunlit grey and ochre, was – unmistakably – a wolf. As I watched, its ears pricked up. Had it seen us? No. Another appeared from the left. The first sprang up and the two greeted one another in that familiar canine frenzy of sniffing and tail-wagging.

A wilder future?

The Cantabrian mountains, Spain (Shutterstock)

The Cantabrian mountains, Spain (Shutterstock)

Since my trip, of course, Covid-19 has brought international ecotourism to a halt – in Spain as everywhere else. But while tour operators have been anxiously awaiting the lifting of travel bans, the teams on the ground have not stood still. Spain’s bear and wolf populations have continued to rise and the rewilding process continues organically, as a result. In February 2021, the government officially outlawed the legal hunting of the wolf in the north, adding the species to the national list of ‘special protection wild species’.

As the world opens up again, it is exciting to think that we needn’t travel long-haul to encounter serious predators back in the natural landscapes where they evolved. With Spain’s two A-listers just a hop away, I, for one, will be heading straight back to track down the one that eluded me last time around. Nunca digas nunca.

Footnotes

 

The Trip: The author travelled to Spain on a three-night trip with the European Nature Trust. Steppes Travel offers a tailor-made eight-day On The Trail of Bears in Northern Spain trip including accommodation, all meals, transport, the services of expert guides and
a donation to TENT’s project in Cantabria; it excludes international flights or ferry.

Getting there: Several airlines fly from UK airports to Oviedo/Asturias and Santander. Flight time is from around 90 minutes. Brittany Ferries runs a 20-hour overnight service from Plymouth to Santander, departing Sun and Weds (returning Mon and Thurs). Steppes Travel recommends this and will collect clients from the ferry terminal.

Getting around: The Cantabrian range spans much of north-western Spain, from the Pyrenees in the east to Galicia in the far west. Wolves and bears occur in three provinces within this region: Cantabria, Castile & León and Asturias. Viewing is best in natural parks, notably Redes, Somiedo, Fuentes Carrionas and Fuentes del Narcea.

Organised tours concentrate on these locations, following the local knowledge of experienced guides. Independent travellers can explore the region by vehicle. A good road network connects the major towns and parks. All reserves have marked hiking trials and viewpoints. Some trails are closed in September and October when bears are most active.

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