GETTING TO GRIPS WITH…………………SPAIN 2

CONTRADICTIONS OF THE COUNTRYSIDE

Shouting at a man who is so angry he is doing an impressive impression of Rumpelstiltskin and brandishing a gun probably does not rank in the list of my most judicious acts, a point my partner was quite anxious to make at the time.
But I was furious. There we were walking along a public footpath in the woods with our two young dogs when they stopped to sniff at a hedge two feet from the perimeter of the path and all hell let loose.
Releasing a yelp of fury a man bounced out of the hedge screaming at us and making valiant effort to give the dogs a good kicking. They were too fast for him and there he was red face and voluble, jumping up and down and waving a hunting rifle futilely in the air.
Amidst the swearing and the mysteries of the Murcia dialect even I was able to decipher that we had ruined his day´s hunting. No prey would go anywhere near his improvised hide in the bush after my dogs had left their scent everywhere.
But, as I was at pains to point out, none too politely and indignant in the knowledge I had right on my side, his “hide” was literally on top of a public footpath, an area where not legally permitted  to fire his weapon at all.
Eventually my partner managed to drag me away from my prey, clipped the leads on our two very large dogs, and organized our retreat amidst soothing phrases and apologies for the intrepid hunter.
When I got home I immediately began to research my rights to walk my dogs in the countryside and the rights of the hunters, convinced that I would find right was on my side. However, it didn´t quite work out like that.
I was correct in that in Spain it is prohibited to shoot a gun within a 25 meter radius of a public footpath and prohibited completely on tarmac roads. However, here “public” seems to be a debatable concept.
Clearly national and regional parks and protected areas are free from hunting and often dogs are banned, so no problem. But most of the Spanish countryside, including miles and miles of completely wild mountains, is privately owned and has been carved up into hunting aeas (Coto de Caza), where walkers and especially walkers with dogs are more tolerated than welcome in spite of the “public” footpaths and published walking routes.
In a country where hunting is almost a national sport, and I use the term “sport advisedly, it is estimated that two percent of the population hunts and some 850,000 licenses are currently in force. The financial benefits, from licenses, obligatory insurance, permits in hunting areas etc. is estimated at around 6,475 million euros annually. Under those circumstances it is hardly surprising that in “the monte” the hunter is king.
In most regions there are laws which oblige walkers with dogs to keep them “under close control” and in many, it is obligatory to keep them on a lead. These norms are justified by “protecting the fauna and the hunting areas and hides.”  So, basically, even though I was in the right (he was too close to the path) I was in the wrong, because my dogs were clearly not under control.
As an avid and enthusiastic walker my partner and I have had several brushes with hunters over the years: some friendly, some not so friendly. But needless to say, these days, if I ever walk with my dogs, I always keep them on a lead, as much for their safety as for mine.
According to the ecologists some 25 million animals are legally killed by hunters annually in Spain. Some animals are protected, such as the lynx, the wolves, the bears, but the rest are considered fair game.
A game changer and a small, if late, victory for conservationists came recently when the Mancomunidad Turística de Sierra Espuña, which manages this extensive and beautiful natural park near Totano in Murcia, put the arrui, otherwise known as muflon or barbery sheep, on the hunter´s menu because it was “exotic” and was destroying grazing pastures of mountain goats and deer. A move supported by the Department of the Environment which was in turn being pressurized by farmers´ organizations complaining of crop damage.
Between 2014 and 2016 some 2,200 of these delightful animals were culled and then after a brief lull of a couple of years the park management committee announced their intention to exterminate them.
Some 17 scientific societies and 600 investigators signed a motion against the modification of the “Ley de Patrimonio Natural y Biodiversidad,” (Law of Natural Patrimony and Biodiversity) which permitted the extermination of the arrui and, somewhat bizarrely, the rainbow trout.
In April 2018 I was able to report in Nexonr that Congress had finally given the arrui a definite pardon, changing their status from “exotic or invasive” to “naturalized”. The herds may be controlled but they cannot be exterminated. The rainbow trout was also pardoned.
Clearly the hunters, who pay for their licenses, their hunting permits and obligatory insurance, want to kill freely while walkers and excursionists want to enjoy the peace of the extensive Spanish countryside and maybe see a few wild animals.
Farmers also clash with the growing ecological movement in Spain because wolves and lynx have been reintroduced on mountains ranges where free grazing has become common practice. There is a compensation system for farmers who lose livestock to wolf or lynx attacks but ecologists also suggest that fences, guard dogs and shepherds should be reintroduced as protective measures rather than victimizing newly introduced wildlife or, in some cases, illegally shooting them.
The two sides are still miles apart and walkers are often caught in the middle.
Some conflict seems inevitable as both hunters and walkers are  keen to protect their rights. Hunting accidents are not commonplace in Spain although they happen and even shots being fired in the distance can be unnerving for walkers. On the other hand some hunters can be arrogant and aggressive with walkers who they consider contaminate or disturb their “sport” by their very presence.
Walkers can take some measures to avoid hunters, who are generally weekenders and early risers, by walking mid-week or later in the day. Also bear in mind the hunting season for small game runs from October to February.
Coto de Caza signs and hides on the ground like large nests or wooden huts on stilts are very common in the woods and on the mountain slopes but they should be 25metres from any public footpaths and hunters should not shoot across paths.
It is permitted to walk in Coto de Caza areas unless they are private (Privado) and protected by a chain, gate and/or fencing or the paths are closed during certain periods with the appropriate notices.
However, in all Coto de Caza, during the hunting season, it is advisable to stick to the footpaths, although obviously this is not infallible, wear bright coloured clothing, and keep your dogs on a lead.
And maybe I should add a note to myself not to lose my cool with angry men wielding guns.




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