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A general panorama

pop-macizo-41.jpg, a larger image will be opened Mount Gorbeia, the Basque mountain par excellence, is, above everything else, a place of contrasts: abrupt Karstic landmasses to the north and rounded sandstone peaks covered with vegetation to the south, conifers and grazing grounds towards the Cantabrian and thick deciduous forests towards the Mediterranean; the gathering of Cantabrian and Sub-Cantabrian fauna in their constant territorial struggle … all of which was the stage of the intriguing part of history of ironworkers, shepherds and coalminers; all mixed with legends of White Magic witches, witches and gentiles.

This enormous diversity gives Gorbeia enormous natural worth and heritage, in addition to the Park’s surface area of 20,016 hectares that makes it largest Natural Park in the Basque Country. Numerous small villages and hamlets line the boundaries of the Park. Traditional architecture has been preserved in most of the buildings, but with profound differences between them, depending upon in which of the valleys they are located.

Almost 500 cavities having a total network of 100 km exist in the Park. These caves have given rise to many legends. In fact, it is generally supposed that Supelegor is one of the residences of Mari, the Dame of Anboto. The remaining coalmines, primitive “refrigerators”, kirikiños (or chestnut pantries) are reflections of other ways of life.

Sites from the Neolithic and megalithic monuments reflecting a traditional shepherding and grazing culture, today represented by the pens and huts of shepherds scattered over the meadows of Gorbeia. The few remaining people who still dedicate themselves to shepherding drive their herds and flocks to high mountain grazing grounds towards the month of May, where they stay until the first winter frosts.

pop-macizo-40.jpg, a larger image will be opened The peak of Mount Gorbeia, or Gorbeiagane as it is sometimes called, is crowned with a cross approximately 17 metres high. This cross (the third to be erected on Gorbeiagane) came about on account of the suggestion made by Pope Leo III to all Christianity to commemorate the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX by worshipping Christ the Saviour. The afore-mentioned recommendation led to several initiatives, amongst which huge monuments in the shape of crosses were erected on the peaks of the highest mountains. Mount Gorbeia is one of the mountains that used to be used as lookout and warning posts in Vizcaya and the General Assembly in Gernika used to be announced from here.The Gorbeia landmass forms part of a series of mountains crossing the Basque Country running parallel to the Cantabrian coastline. This mountain range favours rainfall in the valleys of the Atlantic side, since they are the first obstacles that water-drenched winds coming from the northwest and predominant in the region run into and stop. Starting from this line of peaks, the landscape begins its transition into Mediterranean environments, producing a significant decrease in the diversity of Euro-Siberian plant species whilst increasing the abundance of species having a Mediterranean character.In spite of our being able to appreciate signs of this

bio-climatic transition on the reduced scale this protected area occupies, the Gorbeia Natural Park may consider itself as being an essentially Euro-Siberian territory in which human beings have remodelled the landscape with even greater force than even the climate.

The Atlantic side of the Park is characterised by the presence of important forestry plantations favoured by the vast short-term profitability they offer and the private ownership of the land. From valley floors to an altitude of 600 metres, the most cultivated species has always been the Insignis pine (Pinus radiata), also called Monterrey pine, whose plantations occupied some 2,283 hectares of the surface area that was included within the boundaries of the Park back towards the beginnings of the ‘90’s.

pop-macizo-43.jpg, a larger image will be opened From this altitude upwards, a great variety of species of conifer have been introduced, amongst which the surface areas occupied by Lawson cypresses (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), Japanese maples (Larix kaempferi), European black pines (Pinus nigra) and Scotch pines (Pinus sylvestris) are worth special mention.

The current vegetation blanket differs considerably from what might be considered as potential vegetation along this northern sector. Almost all the oak forests have disappeared completely and the majority of oaks that still do exist are mere groves that show evident signs of deterioration. Worthy of mention, however, are the Itxina beech forest located in an exceptionally beautiful limestone landscape and the dense, large forest of Altube, particularly singular as far as fauna and botanical interests are concerned since a great part of its surface area is located below the altitude of 600 metres.

The plants covering the south side are better preserved, though traces of human intervention in the landscape can also be easily observed. In this section of the Park, our attention is drawn to the predominance of autochthonous forest species, whose main representatives are beeches and oaks. The beeches are mainly distributed over gulleys and high, shady areas in which mists frequently occur, whilst the oaks prefer to spread mainly over valley floors and in acid soils, though always in a fragmented and sparse fashion.

pop-macizo-44.jpg, a larger image will be opened The most widely found forest formation is of groves of oak trees, which are frequently found growing alongside other clumps of pendunculated or common oaks (Quercus robur) and sessile oaks (Quercus petraea). Oak trees generally grow on dry, sandy soils found normally on sunny slopes, and they form one of the most characteristic forests found growing in supra-Mediterranean soil.

The wide expanse of this type of forest and the existence of small clumps of a different oak species (Quercus faginea) are, amongst others, unequivocal signs of the bio-climatic transition towards the Mediterranean region type of vegetation that begins to take place starting from these southern mountain slopes that form the dividing line for the two seas. This forest landscape is completed with a few medium-growth, conifer reforestation schemes, though the size of the schemes bear no resemblance to the size of they reach on the north side of the Park.

The Gorbeia landmass is, therefore, an eminently forested protected area in which natural woods and forests and reforestation and repopulation schemes occupy somewhere in the region of 70% of its territory. The remainder of the Park’s surface area is mainly dominated by herbaceous or shrub vegetation. In the clearings, we can see large patches of heather, low shrubs and ferns, habitats brought on by the degradation of natural forests, the felling of conifer plantations, grazing and mountain meadows, all direct consequences of the secular use of the territory for grazing and shepherding.

pop-macizo-45.jpg, a larger image will be opened In high areas, frequently wedged between grazing lands, meadows and woods, we will come across ridges and rocky outcrops, singularly important environments for a flourishing and singular group of birds.

Lastly, on valley floors, we will be able to observe several clear areas of countryside, a habitat characterised by alternating fields, hedges and small woods, along whose borders run small rivers and streams springing from between the woods growing on both slopes of the landmass.

A large number of animal species live in Gorbeia; 166 species of vertebrates, of which 99 were birds and 36 mammals, have been spotted here.

The Pyrenean muskrat, European mink and even otters seek shelter in the smooth, clear water. Changes in this habitat means that the lives of these animals are becoming increasingly difficult.

As we approach the rocky area, the frantic scurry of a rock lizard will probably surprise us as we marvel at the sight of the slow soaring flight of an Egyptian vulture or the black silhouette of a clamour of rooks against the white rocks.

pop-macizo-46.jpg, a larger image will be opened The fragile and modest amphibians will probably go mostly unnoticed. Gorbeia, however, has a diversity and richness that is unique in the Basque Country, as illustrated by its having no fewer than 11 species. The rare, long-legged frog hides in oak groves whilst newts visit their watering spots.

In the woods, we can perhaps spot the blazingly fast flight of a goshawk or sparrow hawk, feel the presence of pine martens, sables or mountain cats, but the most well-known animal here is roe deer. These animals were reintroduced here in 1958 after disappearing completely towards the end of the XIX century. Nowadays, we can appreciate quite a large number of individuals.In Gorbeia, three general zones may be clearly distinguished:

Zone I

Standing on sandstone, the peaks (Oketa, Pagazurri, Gorbeagane …) and slopes of the southern sector upon which primitive beech forests spread over the higher areas and oak groves over the shady, lower slopes.

Rivers, especially the Rivers Baias and Zubialde, form beautiful calm stretches inhabited by waterfowl, kingfishers, Pyrenean muskrats and otters. The Altube wetlands area is of tremendous ecological value with its pools, peat moors and incipient peat bogs, all of which provide shelter for many amphibians, in addition to vast areas of primitive forest made up by the Altube beech forest.

This vast, scarcely populated surface area favours the presence of large mammals, such as deer, roe deer, wild boar and birds such as the booted eagle, sparrow hawk, royal shrike and woodpeckers.

Zone II

The second zone is made up of the clay slopes of the northern slopes descending towards the floor of the Valley of Arratia. Its primitive vegetation used to be oak forests that have been progressively replaced by meadows and crops and, more recently, by reforestation schemes of different species of conifer. Here, the main attraction is picturesque rural groups, such as Ipiñaburu, Urigoiti and Gezala, which, with their mills, ironworks and castle-towers, contain elements of great scenic and cultural worth.

Zone III

Lastly, high limestone areas. Particularly spectacular are the rocky crags of Aldamin, Hatxuri, Zanburu and especially Mount Itxina (1,000 m) that holds such interesting spots as the Cave of Supelegor and the Ojo or “Eye” of Atxular.

Predominant vegetation is made up of mountain grazing areas and scattered shrubs, though botanical species of great scientific interest abound in the crags. In these wide, open spaces, carrion, such as buzzards and Egyptian vultures are practically always present.


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