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Francis Wharton.

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140 WILD SPAIN.



CHAPTER XII.

IBEX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN.

I. — Sierra de Gredos (Old Castile).

Twenty-six hours on the railway — at first with the
comparative luxury of a Pullman-car: the last seven
crawling across the Castilian plain, towards the frowning
ridges that look down on Talavera, whereon our Iron
Duke repulsed nearly twice his numbers of French, and
turned the tide of war : then thirty odd miles in a diligence,
and finally a five-league mountain-scramble on mules —
this it costs us to reach the home of the Castilian ibex.

Night was closing in and sleet descending in driving
sheets, when at length, round a projecting spur, we
sighted our destination. The hamlet hung on the steep
slope of the sierra, whose snow-clad heights and jagged
peaks, towering away into cloud-land, gave us a fair fore-
cast of the labours in store. As for the village — a more
picturesque, rumble-tumble maze of quaint, shapeless
hovels, all pitched down apparently at random, with their
odd chimneys, odd balconies and projecting gables, all
wood-built, it would be hard for fancy to depict, or for
artist to discover. And the natives— the light-framed,
lithe mountaineers, clad in the short majo jackets, tight
knee-breeches and cloth gaiters, with smart sky-blue waist-
coats, brass-buttoned, and crimson fajas : the women
enveloped in brilliant manias of grass-green or scarlet, and
with short petticoats that displayed rounded limbs, bare to
the knee — ^verily we seemed to have fallen upon some sur-
viving vestige of Goth or Moor, all unknown to the world,
hidden away in these recesses of the sierra.



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Plate XX. Page 141.

THE HOME OF THE IBEX— A SKETCH IN THE SIERRA DE GRED08.



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IBEX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN. 141

Such things, however, had but a platonic interest for
men weary, drenched and travel- worn: and a terrible
shock remained in store, when, upon a low paneless barn,
we deciphered, in hieroglyphic symbols, the word posada.
At the moment of our observing the ill-boding sign, a pig
was in the act of entering the portals.

Nothing, however, remained but to make the best of it.
The cold was intense, and in the deluge of rain and sleet
outside, it was impossible to erect our tent, even had
a level site existed. We had with us, however, on this
campaign, a genius, and with magic skill Vicente trans-
formed the uncouth den : order replaced chaos : our
bedsteads were erected, basins, towels, soap, even chairs
and a table appeared as by legerdemain : while a savoury
olla with two brace of quarter-pound trout from the burn
below, and a stoup of good red wine, stood before us.

We soon had the local hunters collected around us, all
old friends — Magdaleno, the crack shot of the sierra,
Claudio, Juanito, and little Ramon : but their reports were
not encouraging.* The snow on the heights was still
impassable : Almanzor and the Lagunas de Gredos were
inaccessible, and these regions formed, we knew, the madre
— ^the true home of the ibex. The system of the o/eo, or
mountain-drive, was only practicable as yet (May) on three
or four limited areas of the sierra: but there also remained
open to us the resource of stalking the ibex. Of this sport
we will speak later ; but we decided at first to adopt the
plan of monteriay or big beats.

The first day's batida embraced a huge natural amphi-
theatre of rock, seven or eight rniles in circuit, as roughly
depicted opposite. Our men had left before dawn to gain
the furthest flank, and we followed soon after, to cUmb out
to the peaks directly above. At first we ascended on little
shaggy mules, without saddle, stirrups, or bridle — only a
single cord to the nose-halter and a padded roller to sit on.
The upward route was as follows : one day will serve to
describe all. On the lower slopes (3,000 to 4,000 feet),

♦ A previous expedition in Gredos had proved entirely blank, not
an ibex being secured in a fortnight's shooting.



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142 WILD SPAIN.

rough pine forest, gradually opening out, an4 giving place
to a zone of brushwood and coarse vegetation : above,
another zone, of esparto and why grass interspersed with
patches of a peculiar gorse and rosemary scrubs and the
piorno, a tough green shrub, whose bleached limbs closely
resemble human skeletons. Here and there one could
imagine that the rugged slope had been, at no remote
period, the scene of a bloody battle.* Above this level,
plant-life rapidly grows scarcer and mor$ alpine — ^the
bleaberry and gentian, stunted heaths and piornos, with
beds of purple saxifrage, white and violet crocuses,
and a yellow narcissus, the two last right up to the
snow.

The riding here grew worse and worse : the little mules
scrambled like cats over the naked rocks, but at last even
they could no further go, and were left, picketed in rock-
stalls, on some hanging shelf. Now came a terrible
scramble on foot — ^hardly a step but needed to be made
good by hand-hold also, and then we reached the lower
snows. Treacherous ground this, here frozen into
miniature glaciers, there soft and " rotten," or, worst of all,
hollowed beneath, precipitating one in a moment upon
cruel rocks below. Here several minor accidents, and one
of a more serious nature occurred : but after all we prefer
the snow to the penultimate zone above— the region of
naked rock-matrix (in Spanish canchos corridos)^ where
smooth slippery faces of granite left no hold either for the
snow, or for feet, though clad in hempen-soled alpara-
galas ; and every crevice filled level with frozen stri» of
snow. Mass above mass towered these monoliths of
living granite, veined and streaked with the narrow
snow-lines : and beyond them, stretching away for leagues,
came the snow-fields of Gredos, imposing in the majesty
of a contemporary glacial epoch, and the silence of ever-
lasting ice.

We had high hopes of success in this first batiday for

* The ibex are very fond of this shrub, which in stunmer has a red
bloom ; and the zone of the piomalea is the lowest to which they
descend, even in winter.



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IBEX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN. 148

the ground covered was of great extent, traversed by many
ravines and corries, and had not been disturbed since the
preceding autumn. Yet it proved blank: only a single
ibex (male) was enclosed, and it escaped on the right, to
snow-fields beyond our reach.

This operation had lasted four hours, during which the
cold had been intense, a bitter blast blowing with hurri-
cane-force through the rock-passes where we held guard, as
through a funnel. At intervals the wind came laden with
fine snow or jagged crystalline icicles which ricochetted from
the rocks like things of life. At one period — the climax of
the storm — if a hundred ibex or wolves had filed past the
writer's post, his fingers were too benumbed by exposure to
have handled the rifle. The ascent had also occupied four
hours — the apparent altitude (by aneroid) being nearly
8,(XX) feet — and the return to the spot fixed for our camp
would require two more. Hence no time remained for
further operations that day, and we returned, sad and
empty-handed, to camp.

Two blank days followed, and on the third a hurricane
of wind, rain, and driving mist forbade all hope of sport.
The first beat next morning was again blank, no ibex
being seen ; but a second, though covering a much smaller
area, enclosed a band of eleven. These, when first
viewed, were coming in directly towards the guns,
and held this course till lost to sight in an intervening
ravine. Shortly afterwards the upper flank of the beaters
crested the further ridge, and at once, we saw, they opened
out their line, extending upwards towards the snow. These
men had already seen that the goats, true to their natural
instincts, were seeking to gain the higher ground : and a
marvellous sight ensued — to watch, through the binoculars,
these hardy mountaineers fairly racing with the fleet-
footed ibex, and striving, by sheer speed and strength of
limb and lung, to head their flight, and cut off their retreat
to the snow-sanctuaries above.

At first one could not believe that biped, however
specially organized, could possibly cope, in simple activity,
with the wild-goats on their native rocks. Yet, when the



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144 WILD SPAIN.

game emerged from the gorge, it became evident that the
flank-movement had, at least to some extent, succeeded :
for the now-alarmed animals, though still tending up-
wards, had abandoned the idea of direct escape in that
direction, and were now ascending the rocks in a slanting
course which pointed very little beyond our own positions.
The writer, who occupied the upper post, at the fooi? of
some teip*iiic canchos, which, in cold blood, had seemed
insuperable, now, in the excitement of the chase, found
means — nescio quoR — to surmount the obstacle and gain a
" pass " beyond, by which, it seemed likely, • the • game
might seek escape. More nimble still, our friend
Magdalepo had. ere this, with winged feet, reached a
yet greater height: and here, as the ibex, scudding
upwards with surprising speed, ' passed in straggling
file, his single ball struck fair a lordly ram, and threw
back the rest in dismay. ^ Quickly followed from below
the double crack of an ''express": but these bullets,
fired at 200 yards, produced no perceptible eflfect.

Turned from their first point, the ibex,' now separate
and scattered, when next they appeared, were heading,
some for the snow-fields^ direc);, others for the lower passes :
in one of which a* five-year-old male offered a chance, at
eighty yards, to the ambushed *' Paradox " — a chance that
was not declined, though only attained at the end of a
severe scramble of 200 yards across the rocks. The
hollow-fronted ball struck on the ribs, and traversing
the vitale, " mushroomed " itself against the shoulder-
blade. Presently, from-the heights above, rang out three
or four reports in^ quick succession — the upward-bound
contingent of ibex were rimning the gauntlet of our
driving-line. A msJe and two females offered long or
random shots to the mountaineers. One of the latter
was reported hit — though the pair were followed by a
chivo, or kid, only ten days old ! — but no tangible result
was secured by this fusillade.

Meanwhile the stricken macho had descended to the
depths of the glen, where he was presently descried
by our scouts stretched on the shelf of a jutting crag.



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IBEX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN. 145

a mile below. How human eye managed to detect so small
an object amidst so vast a chaos of broken ground, rocks,
screes, and scrub-clad patches, passes understanding : but
soon a long "wing" thrown out, turned the flank of his



OUR FIRST OLD RAM— SIERRA DK CREDOS.

position, and the noble beast, aroused once more by the
rattle of a rifle-ball on the rocks, made a final effort to
escape, which was terminated by a " Paradox " bullet at
twenty yards' distance. This, our first old ibex-ram,
carried a handsome, massive head; but its symmetry was

L



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146 WILD SPAIN.

marred by one of the points being broken* The undamaged
horn measured rather over twenty-eight inches.
. So passed the days with varying incident, which it
boots not to recount in detail ; sometimes we saw game,
more often the reverse. One element alone remained
permanent and changeless — the daily labour was
extreme. Strength and physical powers were taxed —
aye, strained, almost to the breaking point, and in these
contests of lung and limb the wild-goat necessarily held
the advantage.

One morning, wind and weather being favourable, it was
proposed to double-bank our beaters — that is, to drive two
separate valleys at once towards a single dividing spur.*
The ascent to-day followed the ridge of a deep garganta,
or rock-abyss, embedded among pines, on one of which
was superimposed a pile of branches and sticks — the
home of a pair of Black Vultures {Vnltnr monachus). It
was almost a solitary tree — one of the few that survived
above the pine-zone, finding root-hold in a crevice of the
hanging rock : a flat-topped, wind-tormented tree, its spread-
ing branches distorted by the weight of winter's snows.
Hard by the nest sat one of these colossal birds, not 200
yards away, though to have reached the spot, across the
gorge, might have occupied an hour. An " express " bullet
was sent whistUng past his monkish cranium ; slowly the
great wings unfolded, and the vulture flapped heavily down
the ravine.

Vultures are comparatively scarce in this part of Spain
— far more so than in Andalucia. We only noticed one
small colony in the Sierra de Gredos ; and of its six or
eight pairs, our beaters, who passed close below their
eyries, declared that two were of the black species. The
Black Vulture is not known to nest either gregariously or

♦ It is worth mentioning, as showing the importance of the wind
and the precarious nature of this pursuit, that on the former occasion
a sudden change in the wind had destroyed all chance for the day, and
rendered useless many hours* hard work and carefully-planned opera-
tions. Even a "flaw" in its direction is often fatal to success, so keen
of scent is the cabra monUs.



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IBEX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN. 147

on rocks: yet we have twice in Andalucia noticed them
apparently doing both these things — associated with
Griffons — but without, on either occasion, reducing the
observation to proof. The above statement, however,
tends to confirm the fact. Bird-life, as in most mountain-
regions, was not abundant here. Buzzards soared over
the pines, and the song of our common thrushes and black-
birds rang through the woods as at home. Higher up
were ring-ousels and redstarts, wheatears (Saxicola anrita
and S. stapazina), black chats (Droniol<ra lencnra), sky-
larks and titlarks — all these breeding. Besides these,
we also observed the Egyptian Vulture, the Alpine pipit
{Anthtis spipoletta), and Alpine accentor {Accentor collaris)^
both common, the blue thrush, rock-thrush, nuthatch, and
Dartford warbler : and on May 10th, at 5,500 feet, after a
stormy night, picked up, in a disabled state, a pretty little
bluethroat {Cyanecula iro(^, Brehm) of the nnspotted y^rieiy,
with entirely blue gorget. This little wanderer had doubt-
less perished by the severities of weather encountered in
crossing this lofty range on his passage to the north.
During an afternoon's trouting in a hill-bum on May 13th,
the following additional species were observed (altitude
5,000 feet) — ortolans, cirl- and corn-buntings, stonechats,
wagtails, crag-martins, and sandpiper.

Bavens and choughs tenanted the crags, and the red-
legs were met with very high up. Both in this sierra, in
Nevada, and other alpine ranges, we have kept a strict
look-out for ptarmigan, but not a sign of them have we
met with. They are unknown to the cazadores of the
sierras, and it appears certain that none exist in Spain,
save in the Pyrenees.

On some precipitous rocks adjoining one of our posts
to-day was an eyry of some large bird of prey — either a
lammergeyer or some eagle, whose young brood kept up Sk,
plaintive, chattering wail while we were there. The spot,
however, was inaccessible owing to deep snow and tre-
mendous canchos which intervened. One day, close to the
snow-line, we came across a fat, blue-grey little beastie,
apparently of the dormouse tribe {Liron, in Spanish), but

L 2



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148 WILD SPAIN.

he got to earth, or rather rock, ere we could capture him.*
But we must return to our ibex.

Though, as regards venison, this day's operations proved
fruitless, yet it remains memorable for the magnificent
spectacle afiforded of the wild ibex on his native heights.
As the beaters, looking at the distance Uke mites or
fleas, gradually drew in towards the peaks of " El Cum-
brasco," a herd of eight ibex were observed slowly
picking an upward course towards the picaclioa del
caiion. Disturbed, apparently, by some goatherd below,
these ibex never offered any promise of a shot ; yet the
spectacle they presented, while still wholly careless of
danger, the easy grace of every movement and spring-like
step as they bounded from rock to rock,. was one of those
rare views of wild life one seldom enjoys and never forgets.

The ibex took the snow about midway between our two
lines, and on the glacier- foot, below the " Cannon Rock,*'
they halted as though to court admiration — the grand
wide sweep and graceful curve of the horns carried by two
old rams set off in sharply defined outline against the
snowy background.

Other days were devoted to stalking the ibex — each,
with his cazador and a. single gun-carrier, on a separate
hill; and this was perhaps the hardest work of all,

* From big game to butterflies is a far cry ; yet, on the chance of
having some entomological readers, we may mention the following
Bhodopalocera observed in these Central Spanish sierras : On the wooded
slopes and among the scrub, the speckled wood(.^^erta) and a large wall
{? sp.) were common ; so -also was a small species of azure blue. A
single orange^ip (Cardamines) was observed, and several of the hand-
some Melanargia silUus, A very small copper was perhaps Polyom-
matus virgaurea, var. Miegviy Vogel, and of the clouded yellows,
Colias phicwnone, E., higher, and C edusa and hyalcy lower, were
also observed. On the heights was a small orange-, or chestnut-
oeloured insect, very active, and quite tmknown to us. A hairstreak
(? Theckla rohoris) and L. »inapis occurred in the lower woods,
where the brilliant Gonapterix Cleopatra was also seen, as well as
one or two examples of a large and very handsome insect, apparently
of the Limenitis group— chequered black-and-white, probably
L: Camilla^ F. One should, however, be a specialist to identify
these exotic species.



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IBBX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN.



149



involving almost incessant climbing, scrambling, and
walking on the worst of ground from morning till long
after dark. But in this sport we have hitherto met with
no success, either on this or other occasions. The Spanish
ibex is so scarce, so rarely seen on the move by daylight,
and so wedded to snow-fields beyond human reach, that it
is by mere chance they are found in situations where a
stalk is possible — ^very different to the descriptions we have
by such men as Kinloch and Macintyre, of the sport that
ibex afford in the Himalayas. There it would seem that
Cajyra sibirica is not infrequently to be found resting, feed-






^*-^'-<











THE PEAKS OF OREDOS.



ing, or moving about by day on mountain-sides considerably
below the snow, and in situations where it is possible for
the stalker to approach them from above. In Spain,
where the wild-goats are much harassed, we have never
had the luck to fall in with such opportunities : though
that such do occur is demonstrated in a subsequent
chapter ("Ramon and the two big Rams"). Here, in
Gredos, and also in the Andalucian sierras, it has not
hitherto been our good fortune to fall in with ibex where a
stalk was even remotely possible. Though ibex might be
in sight daily, they have been found either on open ground



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150 WILD SPAIN.

or snow, or in crags surrounded by snow — either position
equally inaccessible to human beings— save on two occa-
sions, both towards evening, when goats have been descried
on somewhat lower ground than usual ; but, alas ! on the
opposite mountain-side, far away, and separated from us
by an intervening gorge, to cross which and re-ascend the
further slope would have occupied well nigh half a day.
Had such opportunities but occurred in the mornhuf, instead
of the evening, it is just possible that this record of our
ibex-stalking days might not have resulted in a blank.

It is, however, fair to add that we have never tried ibex-
stalking in summer, when the obstruction of the snow
would naturally be much less ; the goats, on the other
hand, have then a vastly extended field to roam over.



II. — Eiscos DE Valderejo,

Far away to the eastward, a triple-peaked momitain
filled the whole horizon. From the distance it appeared to
be composed solely of barren gi'ey granite, and only sparse
patches and striae of snow adorned its crests. This was
the Eiscos de Valderejo, and on its heights there roamed,
we were told, a good band of ibex, including some machos
of the first rank.

To this sierra we projected a spring campaign. The
distance (by road) from the nearest available base was
some thirty miles, along smiling valleys redolent of historic
interest ; past castellated monasteries and fortresses, relics
of feudal times, now abandoned to farmers, and to storks,
whose nests lined the battlements ; for the plough had
long superseded the sword, and now the deep glens glory
in husbandry and viticulture. Here corn and vine grow
beneath olive, fig, and chestnut : verily fruit and grain
seem to jostle each other — it is hard to conceive a more
fertile scene ; the air vocal with the melody of nightingales
and Orphean warblers, and the ringing note of golden
orioles. The peasantry live in crazy, ramshackle hamlets.



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IBEX-SHOOTING IN SPAIN. 151

whose quaint picturesqueness is beyond our power to
describe, but spend their al fresco lives in the field
or the vineyard, doing a modicum of work, and a
maximum of rest, eating, sleeping, or chatting, in happy,
contented groups beneath the gratefu shade of the
chestnuts.*

Our road was a marvel of extravagant engineering,
executed and maintained regardless of expense. It is only
another of the many anomalies of Spain that in rich pro-
vinces, such as Andalucia, where there are carriages and
traffic, there should be no roads ; here, in the wilds of Castile,
where there are neither trafl&c nor wheeled carriages, the
road-system is magnificent. The explanation appears to be :
in the one case, the Government says "you have money,
and can make your own roads," — in the other, " there is
no money, so we will provide roads," even though they
are not required.

The Eiscos de Valderejo is an isolated mountain, cut off
from neighbouring heights by deep gorges on all sides,
save where a high, but narrow " neck " connects it on the
west with the main range. Across this neck (5,000
feet) is carried the northern highway — the carretera de
Avila, along which is carried on at intervals a
frequent transit of mule-teams, droves of cattle, sheep,
and the Uke. At the time of our first visit this traffic
was almost continuous, for the ancient **Fair** of
Talavera (40 miles away) was drawing supplies from all
the provinces of Spain : fine young mules from fai- Galicia,
horses even from the Asturias, cattle, goats and sheep,
including a few merinos, from pastoral Leon. By day or
night the monotonous tinkle of the cencerros (cattle-bells)
ceased not on this and many another highway and bye-
way for many a weary league around Talavera.

Such is still, in Spain, the far-reaching power of the
'* Feria," or Fair : an institution antiquated and out of
date in modem lands. Yet the business and bustle, .the

* Such place-names as Mom-Beltran de Lys, the Torre de la Triste
Condesa, and others, seem to suggest tales of historic lore and legend,
probably long since forgotten.



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152 WILD SPAIN.

display of national types and characteristics at the great
provincial * 'fairs'* — such as that at Talavera — ofifer
pictures of Spanish rural life abounding in interest, and
well worthy of study and observant description. But the
pen must be directed by sj^mpathy and understanding, or
the result will merely be so much more of that silly
writing and grotesque " wit," with which we are already
only too well acquainted. Peru / . . . . vamonos !
To our ibex.

Well, the narrow col or neck, connecting the Eiscos
with the neighbouring heights, being thus contaminated —
for the wild goat will never cross a path or sufifer the
propinquity of man — the ibex of that sierra form an
isolated colony, absolutely cut off from all contact with
their fellows. That such should be able to survive on
so limited a space — their territory is but eight miles
by four — amidst a nation of tiradores, is partly due to



Online LibraryFrancis WhartonWharton and Stillé's medical jurisprudence .. → online text (page 12 of 36)