Damien Enright: Splitting the silence of the upper valley in La Gomera

Damien Enright: Splitting the silence of the upper valley in La Gomera

Splitting the silence of the upper valley in La Gomera, the sharp crack of a rifle echoes between the steep, inaccessible scree slopes, patterned in horizontal or vertical layers of volcanic rock, red or grey or a dozen variations of each. Even where one rock face is persistent, it is often fractured by lava flows or ’’cañadas’’, the paths of water streams often dried out for centuries or millennia but, given a unique occasion of heavy rain, capable of reappearing as fast-flowing rivulets or waterfalls.

The rifle cracks are from the guns of the Seprona division of the Guardia Civil that manages nature conservation across the Spanish mainland and islands.

I mentioned Seprona in a column of a few weeks ago, when I reported watching, through binoculars, one of the unit’’s patrol boats stop and arrest a Tenerife fishing boat belonging to one El Chorizo (a spicy sausage) whom I called El Salchicón (a plain, fat sausage) because it more accurately conveyed the poacher’’s physical shape.

However, the Seprona riflemen in the hills were not shooting poachers, not human poachers anyway. Their targets were wild sheep and goats roaming the inaccessible slopes of the upper valley.

Two months ago, a farmer friend of my son had enlisted him in a wild goat chase, the intention being to capture a few kids to corral and tame into being decent, law-abiding goats doing a useful job, i.e. producing milk and meat for humans.

The goat chase failed. The goats skipped up the nearest dizzying heights and looked down on their pursuers with disdain. Their disdain, however, must, these days be tempered by a healthy awareness of Seprona. They are shot on sight, as are wild, shaggy sheep which carry about haystacks of discoloured fleece , the miracle being that they can not only carry the weight but survive in the heat on the shadeless terrain where one could fry eggs on the rocks or bake a skinned banana in the sun.

Temperatures in the Canaries in the Atlantic ocean are generally more moderate than in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, and perhaps the sheep rest in the caves, with which the slopes are riddled, during the heat of the day. However, it would seem that if they go abroad in daylight, they risk walking into the crosshairs of a Seprona sniper rife and humane, but sudden, death.

Damien Enright: Splitting the silence of the upper valley in La Gomera

They are left where they fall. There is no way that the body, be it sheep or goat, can be recovered short of abseiling down the life-threatening inclines, not only perpendicular with only narrow galleries upon which only the sharp-hoofed sheep or goats can get purchase but, often composed of rocks likely to crumble underfoot.

And this brings me to one reason why the animals are shot on sight: they dislodge rocks and cause rockfalls which threaten human dwellings, these, in some cases, having been built without permission where previous generation would have been far too wise to build. Last week, a house narrowly escaped a boulder weighing almost a ton coming through the roof.

The other reason for culling the creatures is their bad habit of raiding farmers' vegetable gardens at dawn and dusk. They can wreak havoc on a vegetable patch, the kids scampering over the drills and through the trellises of beans, pimientos and tomatoes in merry games.

And the third reason is the liking the animals have for cropping endemic plants to death which they can do at any time of the day. The endemic flora of La Gomera, and the endemic or indigenous flora of all the islands is unique, and must be protected.

In previous generations, goats and sheep were highly valued, and never escaped or bred in sufficient numbers to form raiding parties, start rock falls or make any dangerous impact on endemic plants. Now that tourism, rather than agriculture is a mainstay of island economies, goats and sheep have had their way on the slopes and the abandoned terraces, once the territory of the human species.

Their bodies feed the ravens and the buzzards, both of which have proliferated in recent years. There are no vultures here.

Every now and then I see what I think is an unfamiliar bird swooping through street-side gardens, but it turns out to be a monarch butterfly, 5cm across, with wings, like stained glass windows, divided into black-framed panes of gradated colour.

Since Saturday, the beaches are no longer out of bounds. Ahead of the rest of Spain, we can walk out together for up to one hour, and walk across the beaches to swim. Few Canarians venture into the ocean. The sea today is of 20°C but, for them, it will be too cold until July.

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