Nature and Wildlife

The region of the Pallars Jussà and Sobirà, that is to say, the valley of the river Noguera Pallaresa, contains an extraordinary variety of environments within a relatively small area, with an abundance of associated wildlife. The fact that the region has until recently been isolated from the built-up areas around Barcelona and Catalonia’s coastal strip means that these environments remained in pristine condition while more accessible areas suffered the depredations of modern times, such as the use of pesticides, forest clearance, etc. Notwithstanding the fact that Catalonia’s star turn, the wonderful Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici, was founded during this period, in 1955, the region now hosts dozens of large protected areas. (NB this link is to the Spanish Environment Ministry web-site and includes details all the other national parks).

View from Casa Rafela – in the distance the Sierra de Montsec

The immediate area around Fígols is mostly indigenous open woodland and heath, called Alzina in Catalan after the predominant tree species of holm oak (Quercus ilex), interspersed with meadows, vineyards and olive groves. Much of the agricultural land has been abandoned since the Civil War (1936-39) or even earlier, thus herbicides and insecticides have never been used there, so the richness of the woodland and meadow flower and insect species may be imagined. The farming is low intensity and is supported by E.U. and local government funding, through schemes such as ‘set-aside’ and controls of the crop types planted each season, to ensure its environmental credentials. The village’s territory extends to over 2,500 hectares (6,000 acres) and the fact that a group of locals owns the hunting rights, rather than an exploitative commercial consortium, ensures that this environment is sensitively maintained. Furthermore, grazing rights over the common land are used by the village goatherd, which again forms part of the management of the habitat.

Of note in the immediate area is the large number of small ravines, called barrancs in Catalan, which provide not only deep cover for the larger game like wild boar (Sus scrofa) but numerous earthen banks which are ideal for birds such as the migrant bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) which nest in burrows. There is a large colony of these in the woodland close to Fígols and they are a common, and very delightful, sight from the terrace! In fact our Fígols Bird List is too extensive to include here, but mention must be made of the large raptors; griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus), red and black kites (Melvus melvus and Melvus migrans) and buzzards (Buteo buteo) are a daily sighting from the house, while solitary specimens of Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and the fabulous Lammergeier or bearded vulture, (Gypaetus barbatus, called El Trencalos, or bone breaker, in Catalan due to its habit of smashing large bones onto rocks to get at the marrow!) are occasional visitors. In fact the avifauna is so rich that the provincial tourist authority’s web site has a specific page in English for birders, this gives details of viewing habitats throughout the province of Lleida, which ranges from high Pyrenean to desert landscapes, together with a species based search facility which includes English common names, the results of which include field notes, status, i.e. resident or migratory and even examples of the calls!

As well as the wild boar (Sus scrofa), that sometimes pillage the home orchards in and around the village (including in front of the house!), foxes (Vulpes vulpes), badgers (Meles meles) and red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are common sightings. Rather more difficult to see directly are beech martins (Martes foina), which are identifiable mainly from their droppings, and gennets (Genetta genetta), an exotic cat-like carnivore that is thought to have been introduced from North Africa by the Moors. Numerous other small mammals such as rabbits and hares provide prey for these carnivores. As well as the dusk being an ideal time to watch out for these animals (it’s very common to see foxes roaming in the middle distance), there is also ‘The Changing of the Guard’; as the swifts and swallows, which are very active around the village, share the darkening sky will large numbers of bats. The night sky is full of bats. Although twenty-eight bat species have been identified in the Catalan Pyrenees the only species we’ve managed to pin down is the free-tailed bat (Tadarida teniotis), which is unique in having an audible sound. Back on terra firma, lizards and geckoes abound, indeed two families of geckoes live under the eaves of the terrace; their nightly skirmishes make great entertainment as they seek to be nearest to the moths attracted by the wall lights! Tawny owls (Strix aluco) are highly vocal in the pre-dawn and the very, very lucky ‘twitcher’ may see an eagle owl (Bubo bubo) – to be honest the only time we’ve ever seen one we nearly ran it over as it was feasting on a road kill a few miles from Fígols!

More exotic species can be seen in the various Reserves Naturals (protected environments where human activity is strictly controlled, as opposed to being almost completely banned as occurs in the Parcs Nacionals) in the region. The La Terreta reserve (Cat.), which adjoins Fígols’ territory to the north, has a special vulture reserve which may also account for the amount of vultures we see from the terrace! Across the valley from Fígols the Serra de Boumort is famous for its large population of red deer (Cervus elaphus); along with the cliffs of the Serra de Boumort, the spectacular congosts, or ravines, of Mont Rebei and Collegats host colonies of nesting birds of prey. Smaller wetland habitats are also represented at the lakes of Basturs and Montcortes, which are almost unique in Catalonia in being spring fed. Among the several local reservoirs the Embalse de Terradets is notable for its large areas of reed beds; the lake is silted up and therefore is not drained for irrigation or hydroelectric power. The riverbanks provide ideal habitats for Grey Herons (Ardea cinera) and Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and, somewhat surprisingly, there is a colony of Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) on the Segre near Camarasea.

In the high Pyrenees, and within an hour and a half drive from Fígols, the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici extends to just over 14,000 hectares (about 35,000 acres) and is managed alongside its own peripheral zones making a total of nearly 41.000 hectares. This links to the much larger Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineus, extending to an area of over 110.000 hectares; enough to support a re-introduced population of brown bear (Ursus arctos) and an unplanned population of wolves (Canis lupus); fortunately there are plenty izards (Rupricapra pyrenaica), the Pyrenean sub-species of chamois, for them to eat!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, so to speak, there is plenty of interest to nature lovers of all stripes in the immediate viscinity of Casa Rafela. Ornithologists shoud visit our birding guide for more details and a full list. My own personal interest s for mammalia – although spotting anyting other than tracks and, er, traces is much more hard work – but it’s worth it!

A weasel looks out in curiousity from its ‘fortress’ of stones near Fígols – a sight well worth a short stroll in the dusk – see my blog for further details!

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