Echoes of pre-Famine times in Spanish countryside

WHAT wildlife would Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza have encountered on their famous foray all those years ago, asks Richard Collins

Echoes of pre-Famine times in Spanish countryside

Francolins and pheasants are mentioned in Cervantes’ great novel.

Wolves were common in his day, brown bears lived in the forests but neither Cervantes nor the Don would have twitched the elusive Iberian lynx, now Europe’s rarest mammal.

“La Mancha”, a Moorish name, means a “dry arid place”. This huge plateau, in the centre of Spain, although sun-baked and wind-swept, is fertile.

Dotted with windmills, which the Don famously attacked, there are olive groves, vineyards and great expanses of cereal.

Ponds, in which the farmers collect water, support ducks, grebes and herons, the loud jerky song of the great reed-warbler being the soundtrack.

Dragon and damselflies perform their courtship dances. Sheep congregate in large tightly-knit flocks with La Mancha goats, said to be the ancestors of American ones.

The Alhorines Valley, to the east of the great plateau, is a major grain-producing area.

On a visit last week, I thought it resembled the Irish landscape of pre-Famine times.

Up to the 1850s, we grew cereals for export to Britain. When the steam engine arrived, Ireland could no longer compete with the cheap grain steamships brought from elsewhere in Victoria’s empire.

Livestock-farming replaced tillage. Hawthorn and blackthorn hedges were planted to control the movement of animals, giving us the rural landscape we have today.

The gloriously coloured bee-eaters and rollers of the Alhorines would look totally out of place in Ireland, but there are echoes of our pre-Famine times in the Spanish countryside; the “bunch-of keys” jingling of the corn bunting, for example, was a familiar sound on the Mullet Peninsula even in the 1970’s.

Alas, this little brown bird is now extinct in Ireland. Nor do we hear the “wet-my-lips” call of the quail and the rasping of partridges nowadays, but the skylark sings above the swards of the Alhorines, where it competes with four other lark species.

Two great bustards were seen near Thurles in 1902 and one was shot near Castletownbere in 1925, but our misty island is probably too wet for them to nest.

They bred in England and the south of Scotland, until hunting and mechanised farming sealed their fate; the last British bustard nest was recorded in Suffolk in 1832.

Populations started to decline throughout Europe two centuries ago; most of the bustard’s former haunts are now deserted.

These are the celebrities which bird-watchers, visiting the Alhorines, most want to see.

There are two Spanish species, the great and the little. “Bustard” comes from the Latin “avis tarda”, meaning “slow bird”; when threatened, they often run for cover rather than fly.

But there was nothing tardy about the ones we saw; they moved off quickly and took flight as we approached.

Eating invertebrates and plants, these sociable ground-dwellers have spectacular communal displays in which males raise and shake out their tails in foam baths of gleaming white feathers.

Deemed to be one of the most spectacular birds on the planet, the great bustard is Europe’s equivalent of the ostrich, to which it is not related.

A male can weigh 16kg, rivalling the trumpeter swan for the title of world’s heaviest flying animal.

Bustards resemble farmyard fowl or long-legged geese, but they are in fact dry-country cousins of the wetland-loving cranes.

Driving slowly along dirt tracks, we had little difficulty encountering both species.

However, those other notables, the pin-tailed and black-bellied sandgrouse, and the recently re-introduced lesser kestrel, eluded us La Valle de los Alhorines is within easy reach of the resorts of Valencia and Alicante.

The road network is excellent and accommodation is available in villages topped with picturesque Moorish castles. It’s worth engaging a local bird-watching guide.

The ones leading our excursions were excellent.


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