The Journey (pt V)

Valley of the Kings

This is a valley deep in the heart of the Riano mountains. We don't name names round here as there is a constant battle between those who wish to preserve the wolves, and those that wish to kill them. Saying that, at the end of the day everyone around here knows the territories of the packs, but thankfully they are very hard to find within these territories - this is why they survive.

In this valley you are unlikely to find any pyramids, the kings in this valley are the wolves, and also the bears. The Riano mountains form part of the distribution area for the Eastern population of the Cantabrian Brown Bear, and this valley is prime habitat for them.

 Cantabrian Brown Bear - Photo courtesy of my good friend Andoni Canela. 

Cantabrian Brown Bear - Photo courtesy of my good friend Andoni Canela. 

You are highly unlikely to see a bear round these parts though, with the Eastern population numbering 30-40 individuals they are considered in a critical condition from a viable genetic point of view. The Eastern population has not received the same efforts to save it, unlike the Western population which now numbers 200+ individuals. Luckily it does appear that recently individuals have moved between the Western and the Eastern population despite the 150km distance, thus providing a genetic lifeline.

In this part of Spain wildlife conservation is not given the importance it deserves, especially given the rich biodiversity here which has been lost throughout the majority of modern Europe. It is something that should be treasured and nurtured.

There is a sign at the beginning of a marked walking route in the nearby valley of Lechada, and this sign details the different Fauna you may see along this route. There is no mention of Wolves (it mentions bears even though the chances of seeing one are virtually zero), wolf/lobo is almost like a dirty word in this place - this needs to change, large parts of Spain need to change.

The journey up to the valley was tough as there was still much snow on the ground, however this just enhanced the magical beauty of this remote place. That these valleys are not included within the national park next door is hard to figure out, such are their beauty and biological importance.

Melt water was still running hard.

On the lower reaches of the approach to the valley I came across these beautiful horses, while they are domesticated they still contain a wild streak which dictates the need to remain vigilant around them. Unfortunately they are bred for meat, not to be eaten in Spain but in places like France and Belgium where demand is high. Sad as this is, at least they have led a wonderful life in these breath taking mountains. Many animals which end up on our table would not know that this freedom and dignity exists in our human dominated world. The only way we can change the way animals reared for food are treated is by taking responsibility for what we choose to eat and buy. Food in Iceland and other similar shops is so cheap for a reason, and that reason comes at a very high cost to those animals.

As I negotiated my way up through the snow, I started to see signs that bears and wolves had been around these parts.

Damage caused by bears who have a taste for all things pine.

As with elsewhere there were a few dead deer along the river course from the winters record snowfall, some which had their antlers removed (see previous posts). Where the dead deer had been touched by humans, they had been avoided by the wild animals who will avoid humans at all costs. But some as the one below had definitely provided an easy meal for the wolves and other creatures of the forest.

My trek continued through the snow under wonderful clear blue skies, with no sign or sounds of the modern world. It is no wonder this valley is a haven for wildlife, it is also a haven to sooth any soul for which nature is by far the best doctor.

Nearing the entrance to the upper part of this valley which is accessed via a narrow gorge I came across something quite exciting, a fresh bear track. possibly from that morning or the previous night.

This immediately heightened my senses as it was a very real possibility that the bear would still be close by, and to see a bear in these parts would be awesome. There is of course no real threat from these bears, as although they can reach up to 7ft in height they are far more scared of humans than we should be of them. The same goes for the wolves.

As the upper valley opened up I saw what looked like tracks in the snow where the bear had slid down a bank, and made his way across to where I saw the fresh tracks. It is likely that the bear had just woken from hibernation somewhere higher up on the mountain, and would now be busy trying to feed and put weight back on.

Top right is where the bear slid down the bank, and bottom left are the tracks towards me.

Although I was eager to go and explore the upper reaches of the valley, first of all I wanted to try and spot any animals nearby. This meant I had to find a good vantage point, and get there unnoticed which is easier said than done with snow on the ground. The valley opens up in to a near 360 degree amphitheater, but with snow still covering North facing slopes I would be concentrating on the other slopes.  On my way in I saw two large stags in the valley directly ahead of me, and several deer to my upper left grazing one of the slopes.

These were all big strong deer, and in the valley of kings only the biggest and fittest animals survive. This is the way nature is here, the weak die and the strong stay long enough to reproduce, thus producing consistently stronger animals. The wolves kill the sick and the weak, and keep the population healthy. Humans meanwhile want to kill the biggest and strongest animals to hang on their walls as trophy's, thus contributing to increasingly weaker populations of animals. We then blame the wolves for the reduced number of animals, and ignore our roles in their habitat destruction and the fact we are killing off these animals by our actions. This is the human way.

With the wind behind me the stags on the valley floor soon smelt my presence (despite my heavy application of Lynx) and left, but the deer to my upper left I managed to avoid alerting to my presence. I eventually reached a perfect vantage point, and on looking around it was obvious I wasn't the first to use this spot, it was scattered with bones, probably used by vultures to eat their scavenged gains. It was christened the bone yard. . .

The bone yard.

Given it was a 2 hour plus hike in, I was conscious that I needed to allow myself enough time to hike back out before dark. This meant that I would have to leave before the best time for the wolves, or even the bears which is just before dark and after first light. Nether the less there was still plenty of deer around to see, and I was heartened at the numbers given the particularly harsh winter. From my vantage point, and during my hike back out I counted over 100 deer in the valley. This just goes to show the restorative powers of nature, and dispels the human myth that wolves decimate the prey populations.

Just before I left the valley there was time to have a quick look around, and to replenish water supplies from the pristine streams running from the higher reaches.

So my time in these magical mountains was drawing to a close. I hadn't seen a wolf, but I was getting closer. It didn't matter though, just being in these enchanted mountains was enough, and knowing you are surrounded by such wilderness is indescribable - it's good for you. We need this wilderness, the world needs us to maintain these wildernesses and our children deserve that we do so.

Iberian wolf in the Riano Mountains - photo courtesy of Andoni Canela