The huge ice sheets of the Pleistocene, which covered the Alps and the Pyrenees, resulted in the isolated development of many Iberian species of fauna. Following is not a definitive list of the sixty plus mammals to be found in and around the Picos de Europa, just a personal selection.
The Cantabrian brown bear and Iberian wolf texts on this page are with the very kind photographic collaboration of Carlos Sanz, respected Spanish naturalist, photographer, author and wolf expert. He has an exhibition travelling around Spain "Amigo Lobo. Leyenda y Realidad del Lobo Ibérico" (Our Friend the Wolf. Legend and Contemporary Times of the Iberian Wolf). Dedicated to all those who are working, and have worked, for the conservation of wolves, especially the sadly-missed Dr. Félix Rodriguez de la Fuente. Carlos also wrote and directed "Pacto con Lobos", an excellent two-part documentary on the Iberian wolf, recently televised in Spain.
(Ursus arctos L.1758)
Spanish name - Oso pardo cantábrico
Weighing in at an average of 130kg (females) and 180kg (males) and measuring between 1.6m and 2m in length and between 0.90m and 1m in height, the Cantabrian brown bears have a slightly different genetic identity to other brown bears of Europe.
The bear's weight varies hugely depending on the time of year. Emerging from their hibernative state they can be very underweight, especially the females who have given birth during the winter, and need to feed to restore their body reserves.
With latest recorded numbers now standing at around 140 individuals, their continued existence in the north of Spain is precarious although numbers of cubs born this year (2006) are encouraging. Continued furtive hunting, laying of poisoned bait and removal of carrion due to the new EU Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) laws however, don't help their situation.
During the first half of the 20th century the bears were split into two population pockets - western and eastern - and are now considered an endangered species threatened with extinction and protected under Spanish and EU laws.
Following are some photographic monitoring examples, part of the important Cantabrian bear conservation work of Fapas, Fund for the Protection of Wild Animals, who very kindly gave permission for reproduction of their photos on this page. Their other projects include the plantation of fruit trees, collaboration with hunters to avoid accidental shooting of bears, conservation of ancient woodlands, the removal of traps set furtively and the installation of bee hives.
Proposals to build a ski resort on the San Glorio pass, with all the implications involved for the destruction of this important habitat of the remaining bears in the Cordillera Cantabrica, have been for an environmental impact review to the EU. This part of the Cordillera provides a main corridor of access for the bears of the eastern and western populations.
Unbelievably, this project has still not been stopped. I started a petition in English which will be sent to the EU Minister for the Environment. The proposal has grown to include visitor's centres/hotels and is planned to be open all-year. The number of cubs born last year was encouraging and recent climate change has led to complete non-hibernation in the bear's usual behaviour patterns, all leading to even more unsustainability of the said project.
Here is a photo of El Valle del Naranco, one of the wildlife-abundant valleys in which the company, Tres Provincias S.A, wants to build carparks, hotels etc. as access to the adventure playground they plan to construct.
On the 28th of March 2006 an American-born Green Party MEP in Spain, David Hammerstein, took the matter to the European Parliament to object on the basis that the proposals are illegal. The areas in question are (supposedly) protected by EU laws, in particular NATURA 2000 which states that any building proposals have to be compatible with the conservation of affected habitats and species.
If the project goes ahead, it will possibly be largely funded by the very same institution that made the law.
"A major problem facing bears today is population insularization, in which subpopulations of bears become isolated from one another and each isolated subpopulation lives in a relatively small area with limited resource diversity. Already many isolated subpopulations of some species, including brown bears and American black bears, have gone extinct."
"The range of the brown bear is larger than that of any other bear species. Brown bears occur in Europe, Asia, and North America from northern Arctic tundra to dry deserts. Within this vast area, however, the brown bear's distribution has been significantly reduced, largely as a result of increasing human populations and habitat loss. Since the mid 1800s the rate of decline accelerated with the advent of the use of firearms and poison to kill bears.
This decline is well documented in Europe, where bears in modern Denmark disappeared about 3,700 years ago. They went extinct in Great Britain in the tenth century, in eastern Germany in 1770, in Bavaria in 1836, in Switzerland in 1904, and in the French Alps in 1937. "
Extracts from "Bear Conservation Around the World" by Christopher Servheen
For the latest news on the Cantabrian brown bears visit The Picos de Europa.
Canis lupus signatus
Spanish name - lobo ibérico
Distinguished by the dark markings running down its forelegs and the dark "saddle" on its back, this subspecies of European wolf measures from 1.05m to 1.35m in length with a weight of between 25 to 55kg.
A thorny subject among many local livestock farmers, the Iberian wolf, or lobo Ibérico, has long been persecuted. With numbers estimated at about 2,500 (2007) individuals in the Iberian peninsula, the species is deemed endangered by some regional governments but not by others. In most of the north of Spain it is still not illegal to hunt wolves.
Following the government's encouragement of the systematic killing of wolves in the last century, their precarious predicament has been exacerbated by the decline in habitat and numbers of their main prey, red and roe deer. Competition from man for their food has led them to search elsewhere, sometimes leading them to kill farmed animals out to pasture. (More enlightened regional governments offer compensation for such livestock loss). Encroachment of human "civilisation" on their territory, ignorance and superstition surrounding these beautiful, socially-advanced animals does not help their current situation.
From El Mundo newspaper, 27.4.'07
"Wolf sightings are becoming increasingly common in Segovia and Ávila,
provinces where they disappeared 40 years ago. Some wolves have even been
spotted recently in the mountains over the A1 tunnel leading into Madrid.
The sightings fit in with a general picture of southward expansion of
Iberian wolves from their stronghold in northern and north-western Spain.
Wolves are protected in most of their range throughout Europe but in
Castilla-León they may be legally shot with a permit. Unfortunately, says
biologist Yolanda Cortés, this encourages poaching so a total of 300 - 400
wolves are hunted in Spain each year, about the same as the number of cubs
produced by the entire population."
See also Little Red Riding Hood, a version for the 21st century.
Visit Ascel for information on Spanish wolves.
(Rupicapra pyrenaica ssp. parva)
Spanish name - rebeco
Probably the most emblematic of Picos wildlife, the Cantabrian chamois is a sub-species of the European chamois, smaller than them and their cousins in the Pyrenees, measuring between 110-130cm in length, 70-80cm in height to its shoulder and weighing between 20-30kg. Both sexes grow small horns.
Perfectly suited to the rocky environment of the Picos, herds of rebeco can often be seen leaping around the crags or cooling off in summer on the remaining patches of winter snow.
Concern for their population growth here now centres on an epidemic of mange, which is untreatable.
Spanish name - Jabalí
Mainly active at dawn and dusk to avoid hunters, these indisputable omnivores forage for grubs, fallen fruits, seeds, fungi, small animals and just about anything else using their highly-developed sense of smell (their eyesight being poor). Living in small, matriarchal groups (Eng. sounders, Sp. manadas), the sows give birth to between four and twelve young usually in the spring. Each piglet has it's own particular teat to suckle. Stripes provide excellent camouflage, disappearing within about six months.
Nominated as one of the "World's Worst" invaders by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), boar are still hunted in Spain. The sub-species found in the central and north of Spain, Sus scrofa castilianus, can reach a weight of 150kg.
Though boar numbers are "controlled" by hunting in the autumn/winter (the beating method with dogs), this can often have the opposite desired effect by spreading their distribution even more by dispersal.
Boar activity can regularly be noted around the wooded valleys of Liébana and the Picos; turned-over ground in their search for food and tracks on paths. While proving a nuisance on farmed land, in the woods they provide tilled soil for the new growth of saplings and rejuvenation of the woods.
(Cervus elaphus hispanicus)
Sp. Ciervo Ibérico
The larger of the two deer species in our area, the characteristic antlers of the males start to grow after their first year of life, being shed in March/April and then growing anew. A fully-grown stag can weigh up to 140kg.
Rather smaller and with a greyer coat than Cervus elaphus, the number of Iberian red deer in Spain is currently estimated to be some 300,000.
The hinds give birth to one fawn in the spring, after gestation following the autumn rut, which stay with her for two to three years depending on whether male or female respectively. Hunted as "trophies", their unique genetic identity is in danger of being lost through natural introduction into Spain of more northern European red deer and the release of deer bred in farms.
They can often be seen from the road on the edges of woods in the Picos and valleys and Mike occasionally comes across wolf kills like this gory one.
Sp. Corzo Ibérico
The only other cervidae in Cantabria and the Picos de Europa, Roe deer are the only ungulates that can delay their pregnancies. Conceiving in mid-summer, the doe's fertilised eggs don't develop until mid-winter.
The young are born (usually twins) in the spring and spend most of their young, daylight hours hidden in undergrowth, only visited by their still-vigilant mothers to be suckled. These are the smallest of Spanish deer with a shoulder height of between 65-73cm and length of between 1m - 1.2m. The antlers of the Spanish bucks are fully developed in May and shed in early winter.
Their relatively small stomachs oblige them to feed little and often and, if shoots, leaves and berries of high nutritional value are abundant, their territories are also small. Roe deer "barks" are often heard from the edges of woods around our village and they can sometimes be seen in neighbouring fields.
These dainty creatures are hunted around the Picos from October to January.
Sp. Topillo nivál
With a life span of only 12-13 months, this small mammal is found mainly in rocky, mountainous areas of Spain, including the Picos de Europa and the Cordillera Cantábrica, most commonly at altitudes of between 1,000m - 2,600m.
Making use of the air trapped between rocks under the snow, the snow vole doesn't hibernate but stores food for the winter; consuming all green parts of plants such as saxifrage and sempervivum species. It also eats insects and other small vertebrates including small lizards.
Measuring between 9-15cm in length and weighing up to 70g, the snow vole's coat is mostly brown with white underparts, sub-adults being paler. It has comparatively long whiskers. Females can breed twice a year, giving birth to 3-5 young each time with a gestation period of 21 days.
Predators include fox, weasel, beech marten and tawny owl. Snow voles are particularly affected by ski resort activity! Presumably the compaction of pisted snow has a negative effect on their winter habits.
(Felis silvestris silvestris)
Sp. Gato montés
Protected in Spain since 1973 and listed in the Catálogo Nacional de Especies Amenazadas (National Catalogue of Endangered Species) as vulnerable by the MMA (Ministry of the Environment), fossil records suggest that the European wildcat is the oldest of the species.
Distinguished from domestic cats by its thicker coat (always tabby with dark stripes), large bushy tail and markedly larger upper canines, the Spanish MMA give a possible weight of the male as being 8kg with an average weight of between 4-5kg.
They are shy, solitary animals, the territory of each individual covering some 50-80 hectares, limited in areas where snow cover is greater than 50%, more than 20 cm deep, and remains for more than 100 days of the year.
A usual litter of between 2 and 5 kittens is born in the spring, the young cats staying with the queen 'til about 5 months old when they are then rejected to fend for themselves.
Their main prey is rodents, birds and lizards. They are preyed upon themselves by foxes, wolves and large birds of prey.
According to the MMA, although they are quite widely distributed throughout the Iberian peninsular, their population density has dropped alarmingly, probable causes being habitat loss, traffic accidents, becoming trapped by snares illegally set for other species and possibly contraction of diseases through interbreeding with domestic specimens.
Our experiences of wildcats in Liébana and the Cordillera Cantábrica include various sightings in the vicinity of the San Glorio pass and tales heard of locals keeping them (or hybrids) as pets.
Sp. Desmán Ibérico, Desmán de los Pirineos or Topo de río
Closely related to the mole and resembling a miniature duck-billed platypus, the Pyrenean desman must be the most unusual of Spanish mammals found in the Picos de Europa and Cordillera Cantábrica.
Perfectly adapted to its mountain stream environment, the desman is extremely sensitive to pollution rendering it an excellent monitor for the purity of the water in which it lives. With its webbed feet, ability to close its eyes and ears when underwater and elongated snout, this small mammal feeds on insect larvae and crustaceans.
Desmans are monogamous and the females are capable of giving birth three times a year, typically to four young. Adults measure 11-16cm in length not including the tail.
Endemic to the Iberian peninsula, they are found in the Pyrenees and northern and central Iberia from sea-level to an altitude of 2,500m.
Natural predators include otters, storks, herons and occasionally birds of prey such as common buzzards.
The Pyrenean desman is listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species as vulnerable and on the Spanish Catálogo Nacional de Especies Amenazadas as of special interest.
Although cat-like in appearance, the Common, Small-spotted or European genet is actually a long-bodied, short-legged viverrid. An agile climber, it measures roughly 1m from head to tail and weighs between 1-3kg. Luckily, the genet is not hunted for its dark, spotted coat due to its strong odour.
Solitary and nocturnal in habit, like a cat it has retractable claws and can be a ferocious biter so has few predators. Genets mark their territories using anal scent glands, often standing vertically on their front paws, a consequence of which is the existence of even less potential predators. Their preferred habitats around the Picos are rocky areas and holm oak woods.
Female genets have four teats and give birth to 1-4 young, sometimes twice a year. The young stay with their mother for about eight months and reach sexual maturity at two years. Genets have a life-span of between 8-10 years.
Originally spread northwards from Africa into Spain and France, their main food sources are small rodents, birds and their eggs, amphibians, reptiles, fish and wild berries.
Flora & Fauna of the Picos de Europa
Casa Gustavo - Aliezo 39584 - Cillorigo de Liebana Cantabria - Spain
Tel: 00 34 942 732010