Rich Pickings on the River: Lured to This Little Known Corner of Eastern Spain by the Prospect of Seeing Europe's Largest Colony of Vultures, Nick Smith Finds the Rice-Growing Ebro Delta Region and Its Surrounds a Wealth of Biodiversity, Environmental Controversy and Some Exceptionally Good Walking

By Smith, Nick | Geographical, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Rich Pickings on the River: Lured to This Little Known Corner of Eastern Spain by the Prospect of Seeing Europe's Largest Colony of Vultures, Nick Smith Finds the Rice-Growing Ebro Delta Region and Its Surrounds a Wealth of Biodiversity, Environmental Controversy and Some Exceptionally Good Walking


Smith, Nick, Geographical


Circling several hundred metres above, descending from their eyries in the steep cliffs of the limestone massif of the Ports de Beseit, are more than 200 griffon vultures. This is arguably the largest colony of these magnificent birds in Europe, and without doubt one of the great sights in the River Ebro region of Spain. Here at the easternmost extent of the Sistema Iberico mountain range is the Mas de Bunol bird observatory, perched almost exactly on the tripoint of the three ancient kingdoms of Catalunya, Aragon and Valencia. At this meeting place, many dialects fuse together, so when I ask about the vulture's Spanish name, it comes as no surprise to be told that it's called the buitre leonardo, the voltor comu, the utre or the aligote, depending on where you're from. Whatever it's called, for centuries this vulture has been thought of as vermin.

It's now illegal, but Spanish farmers still shoot griffon vultures, as well as poisoning them with strychnine. It's a mixture of sport and 'pest control' founded on the popular, but incorrect, assumption that the bird poses a threat to their livelihoods (not to mention that it's evil: it's thought to fly away with the souls of the dead). That there are some 12,000 pairs of griffon vulture in Spain today is something of a miracle, considering that in 1902 a law was passed specifically to ensure their extermination; a law that was to be reinforced in 1953 by the formation of the Spanish Society for the Extinction of Vermin and the Protection of Hunting. A recent census carried out by a consortium of conservation groups revealed that during the 1990s, poisoning alone accounted for the deaths of 390 griffon, 238 black, and eight lamerguier or bearded vultures.

In this region of Spain, the birds' survival is largely down to a local rabbit farmer called Jose Ramon Moragrera. The story goes that in September 1990, he started to leave dead rabbits from his farm out in the open for vultures he'd seen scavenging in the area. Day after day, Moragrera would walk to the clearing by the lake with his red wheelbarrow full of rabbit corpses. Slowly but surely, the birds came down from their limestone crags to feed, away from the poachers' guns and poisoned meat. Within a decade, the newly established Matarranya Nature Foundation (MNF) had set up an environmental education project based around Moragera's kindly gesture (they still use the same red wheelbarrow to deliver the rabbits--according to my guide, Javi, the vultures "like it").

Today, conservation projects such as the MNF are not only stabilising the griffon vulture population, but are also paving the way for growth in the numbers of other carrion birds, including the Egyptian vulture.

However, despite the fact that numbers are increasing, the habitat they need in order to thrive isn't, and the future of these wonderful birds is by no means secure.

The landscape to the east of the Ports de Beseit, characterised by the rich red clay that denotes classic olive country (see Traditional olive oil production in Mediterranean Spain), declines gently to the coast. There's some great walking around the town of Morella, and you can pick up the GR7 long-distance footpath, which will take you all the way to Tarifa on the southwestern coast.

Another great way to explore the region is by boat on the River Ebro, one of Spain's five great rivers, and the only one to drain into the Mediterranean. As with the griffon vultures, the river is called many things, although, put simply, it's 'Ebro' when it's flowing across most of Spain down from the Cantabrian mountains, close to the Atlantic coast, only changing its name to 'Ebre' (in Catalan) as it flows across the Rioja wine region and into Catalunya.

Farther downstream, where the Ebre finally ends its 928-kilometre journey and empties into the sea, there is a huge arrowhead delta formation that is one of Western Europe's most important coastal wetlands, home to an incredible diversity of wild birds. …

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Rich Pickings on the River: Lured to This Little Known Corner of Eastern Spain by the Prospect of Seeing Europe's Largest Colony of Vultures, Nick Smith Finds the Rice-Growing Ebro Delta Region and Its Surrounds a Wealth of Biodiversity, Environmental Controversy and Some Exceptionally Good Walking
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