Green Spain is a place that has earned its name. With its huge swathes of lush emerald forests and its undulating verdant mountains, this is a pocket of true natural wilderness. And the region has its own natural paradise, Asturias. This is the country’s beating green heart, home to its first national park, Picos de Europa, and a mosaic of limestone mountains, oak forests and 400km of protected coastline, the best preserved seaside in all of Spain. These all knit together to form seven UNESCO biosphere reserves, home to a huge diversity of wildlife. Here are just five animals to look out for...
1. Brown bears
Among Asturias’ forests and mountains prowl some 300 Cantabrian brown bears, the region’s wildlife icon. However, at one point in the 1990s, only 80 to 90 bears remained and it was feared that they’d become extinct. Conservationists duly stepped in and their numbers have been growing ever since. Somiedo Natural Park was created in the process and it, along with neighbouring Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias, remains the best place to spot them. Hiring a guide will boost your odds of a sighting, as will visiting from April to late May when mother bears emerge from dens with their cubs. Late August and September are also good for sightings, with bilberry season luring hungry bears out to feast on fruit before winter’s hibernation.
2. Iberian wolves
Wolves can be found across north-western Spain, and you can spy them stalking the forests and rugged wilds of the Asturian mountains. It is estimated that there are around 2,000 Iberian wolves in north-western Spain, with a large number of this population found in Asturias. These creature are elusive but your best bet for sightings is to look for them when they are at their most active, between August and September, or during the mating season which runs from December to February. Those who are eager to learn more should visit La Casa Del Lobo (House of the Wolf) in Belmonte, a museum dedicated to the Iberian wolf and the landscapes it patrols.
3. Deer and ibex
While bears and wolves often receive top billing in these parts, deer and ibex provide Asturias with one of its finest wildlife sightings – and both are much easier to spot. Often found roaming the upper slopes of mountains, such as Ponga and Aller, and Redes Nature Park, the guttural bellows of red deer reverberate around these rocky wildernesses during rutting season (between mid-September and mid-October). It’s a spine-tingling, cathedral-like noise. This autumnal groaning is matched only by the fallow deer in the Sueve Mountains – the only place in Asturias you can spot them – while diminutive roe deer are seen pacing the thick forests and craggy plains of the Cantabrian Mountains. Asturias is also home to the Cantabrian ibexes, the majority of which love to stride the rocky highlands of Picos de Europa National Park’s western massif and the verdant limestone peaks of Redes Natural Park.
Life-affirming wildlife encounters don’t only exist on land in Asturias; there’s a bounty of them offshore, too. The Bay of Biscay boasts some of the most diverse sightings of cetaceans in the world, and Asturias is at the heart of it all. To give you a flavour of its busy waters, seven of the world’s 20 species of beaked whale are found here, including the Cuvier’s beaked, northern bottlenose and Sowerby’s beaked whale. They are tricky to spot because they can spend over an hour submerged underwater, but guided whalewatching tours from Gijón/Xixón and Llastres heighten your chances of encounters (as does visiting in spring or summer). They’re also not the only whales you can spy here: minke, fin and pilot whales are among the others, and you might also be lucky enough to see dolphins, porpoises, seals and turtles, too.
Asturias’ tapestry of landscapes makes it a welcoming place for birds, and nearly 400 species roost here, around 70% of Spain’s total number of species. On the coast, the Villaviciosa and Eo estuaries serve up sightings of ospreys, cormorants and grebes, while shearwaters, Atlantic puffins and oystercatchers can be seen on a winter stroll among the plains and craggy cliffs around Gijón’s shores.
Inland, wooded areas such as Somiedo Natural Park and Las Ubiñas-La Mesa Natural Park hide woodpeckers, goshawks, peregrine falcons and the threatened Cantabrian capercaillie. Asturias reserves some of its finest birdlife for the mountains, though; nowhere more so than the La Reina lookout in Picos de Europa National Park. You and your binoculars can track three different types of vulture (griffon, bearded and Egyptian), golden eagles and red kites, all while enjoying the panorama of the mountains – a memorable end to a truly wild adventure in this natural paradise.
What are you waiting for?
Start planning your dream visit to Asturias now by heading over to the official website.