17th EGC offers a mid-conference excursion to the Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park on 14th September and a post-conference excursion in Navarre from 16 to 18 September.
Map: Venue of the conference (Tolosa), destination of the mid- conference excursion (Aizkorri-Aratz) and main destinations of the post-conference excursion to Navarre (source: GoogleEarth).
Mid-conference excursion (14th September 2022)
We aim to show participants the biodiversity-rich grasslands of the Cantabrian valleys and mountains in the Basque Country. Two optional excursions are planned:
Excursion 1. Mountain walk to Aizkorri, led by Javier Loidi.
We will travel by bus to Otzaurte, where we will start a mountain hike to the top of Aizkorri mountain range, and finish in Arantzazu. It will be a long hike, with approximately 1,000 m slope.
The highest peak in the Basque Country, Aitxuri (1,551 m a.s.l.) is located in this limestone mountain range, which limits the Cantabrian and Mediterranean basins. Basque legends place one of the houses of the goddess Mari, a personification of mother earth, and all the elements it contains, in these summits. In these mountains, we can find such treasures as the Tunnel of San Adrian, containing a chapel, crossed by a medieval road, and the Arrikrutz cave, with galleries full of giant stalactites.
In 2006, the Aizkorri mountain range became the Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park, of 19,400 ha. Several forest types are abundant in these mountains, mostly beech forests, but there is also space for semi-natural grasslands in many open areas that have been retained for extensive grazing, especially in Urbia and Oltza open fields, at approximately 1,000 m a.s.l, which have been used for the summer grazing of sheep since the Neolithic, as testified by several megalithic monuments. Nowadays also cattle and horses are grazing in these fields, but the indigenous latxa breed has been traditionally bred, mainly for its milk, which is used to make Idiazabal cheese. Shepherds join in small group of txabolas (small mountain houses) during the summer months. Besides shepherding, charcoal-making has also been a traditional activity in these mountains.
Many species of mammals, birds and amphibians inhabit these forests, pastures and cliffs: alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris), Iberian frog (Rana iberica), Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus), Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), European snow vole (Chionomys nivalis), European pine marten (Martes martes), European polecat (Mustela putorius), European wildcat (Felis silvestris) and several bat species.
On our way to the mountain summit, we will cross dry grasslands with Helictotrichon cantabricum and Sesleria autumnalis and basophilous thorny-cushion scrub with Genista occidentalis, secondary vegetation mostly of Quercus pubescens forests. We will go up to the Urbia fields, at 1,100 m a.s.l., through beech forests. In Urbia, grasslands of Violion caninae and heathlands of Daboecion cantabricae form the traditional pastoral landscape. Back on the limestone steep slopes towards the summit, we will find rocky grasslands with Teucrium pyrenaicum, Carex caryophyllea, C. ornithopoda, Festuca rectifolia, Brachypodium rupestre, Clinopodium alpinum, Thymus praecox, etc. At higher elevations, we will find subalpine dry grasslands with Festuca gautieri subsp. scoparia and Agrostis schleicheri (Festucion scopariae). Near the summit, limestone cliffs harbour rupicolous communities, with Potentilla alchimilloides, Hornungia alpina subsp. auerswaldii, Dethawia splendens and Erinus alpinus (Sedo-Seslerion hispanicae), as well as mesic chionophilous grasslands with Sesleria caerulea (Primulion intricatae).
Excursion 2. Visit two farms, meadows and pastures in Aralar and Aizkorri mountain ranges, led by Idoia Biurrun.
Our first stop will be a short walk to enjoy morning fresh air in the northern foothills of the Aralar mountain range (Aralar Natural Park), near the villages of Abaltzisketa and Larraitz, under the impressive silhouette of Mount Txindoki. There we will visit a farm where the farmer will show us the cattle and their facilities.
We will then move to Ataun, in the western foothills of the Aralar range, where we will learn about an old method of bringing the hay to the valley from the steep slopes in the hills, and also have a nice walk by the stream and surrounding meadows.
We will then travel to Arantzazu (45 min.), already in the Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park. In Arantzazu, we will first hike for 2-3 hours to mountain grasslands above the village, and afterwards visit the Gomiztegi farm and shepherd school. They will show us their facilities, how they make the Idiazabal cheese with the milk of the Latxa sheep, and perform a demonstration with Basque shepherd dogs working with sheep herds.
Both excursions will join at 19:00 for the Grassland Party nearby the Arantzazu sanctuary.
Post-conference excursion (16-18th September 2022), organized and led by Asun Berastegi
(IMPORTANT: The number of participants for the post conference tour is restricted to 40)
The three-day post-conference excursion will take place mostly in Navarre, a highly diverse region where three biogeographic regions meet: Atlantic, Alpine and Mediterranean. Natural vegetation in the Atlantic region, in the North, is formed by oak forests (mostly Quercus robur, but also Q. pyrenaica and Q. pubescens in the driest areas) in valleys and hills, and beech forests in the mountains. Grasslands are semi-natural grasslands, except for azonal grasslands in rocky areas. Meadows are mostly found in valleys, while in the mountains, acidophilous grasslands of Violion caninae (Nardetea strictae) and basophilous mexo-xeric and rocky grasslands of Festuco-Brometea prevail. Heathlands are one of the most typical landscape features, especially on siliceous bedrocks and leached soils.
The Alpine region, in the northeast corner, is the Pyrenees, one of the most beautiful and impressive European mountain ranges. The Pyrenees form the border between Spain and France from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and in Navarre, they are represented by the Western Pyrenees, the most oceanic part of the range. Natural vegetation comprises downy oak (Quercus pubescens) and silver fir-beech forests in the montane belt, Pinus uncinata forests in the subalpine belt and alpine grasslands over the timberline.
Larra karstic area in Navarran Pyrenees. On the right, thorny-cushion scrub with Genista hispanica subsp. occidentalis on steep slope, in the clearings of Pinus uncinata woodlands. Photos: Idoia Biurrun.
The Ebro River valley occupies the south of the region, with a typically Mediterranean climate, though we can still find differences from the upper part to the centre of the valley (the so-called Ebro depression). On the upper part, the climate is still quite rainy, and natural vegetation corresponds to deciduous marcescent forests dominated by Quercus faginea, whereas evergreen Quercus rotundifolia becomes dominant on the rocky slopes. Secondary grasslands still belong to Festuco-Brometea, but to particular xeric types with Brachypodium phoenicoides, Aphyllanthes monspeliensis, Stipa iberica, etc. Down the valley, the climate becomes drier and warmer, and the natural vegetation is dominated exclusively by evergreen sclerophyllous trees (Quercus rotundifolia). Secondary shrublands and grasslands are typically Mediterranean: garrigues, with Rosmarinus officinalis (Ononido-Rosmarinetea) and Mediterranean grasslands, where Brachypodium retusum is the dominant species (Lygeo-Stipetea: Phlomido lychnitis-Brachypodion retusi).
Sheep heards are taken from the winter pastures in Bardenas Reales to the summer pastures in the Pyrenees along traditional paths (Cañadas Reales), nowadays most of them under roads. Sheeps arriving to Pyrenean valleys (left), climbing to the mountain (center), enjoying the subalpine grasslands. Photos: Asun Berastegi.
The driest area in Navarre is located in the southernmost corner, near the Ebro River. Here, the bioclimate is Mediterranean xeric, too dry even for the sclerophyllous forest, and thus the natural vegetation is an open woodland with Pinus halepensis and Juniperus thurifera, which is better represented towards the center of the Ebro depression (Monegros), in Zaragoza province. An exceptional grassland type can be found here on the clayey soils: the relict Mediterranean steppes, formed by Lygeum spartum, with Stipa capillata and S. lagascae (Agropyro-Lygeion sparti). Lygeum spartum also forms grasslands on the edges of inland saltpans (Limonion catalaunico-viciosoi), in contact with halophilous scrubs (Suaedion brevifoliae) and grasslands (Puccinellion lagascanae). Another outstanding feature of this semi-arid area is the abundance of nitrophilous steppic scrubs of the class Pegano-Salsoletea.
Castil de Tierra, Bardenas Reales with Lygeum spartum on the front. Photo: Javier Loidi.
On the first day, we will travel directly to Jaizkibel, a small coastal mountain between San Sebastian and Hondarribia, a beautiful town on the border with France. Sandstone is the prevalent rock of this mountain, and thus heathlands cover almost all of the surface, maintained by repeated burning and extensive grazing. These coastal heathlands are very thermophilic, as frost is very rare this near to the ocean, and therefore the floristic composition is quite different to that of the mountain heaths. Small patches of mires are scattered in the heathland, with interesting communities belonging to the alliances Anagallido-Juncion and Hyperico elodis-Sparganion. After a walk in the heathland, we will have coffee and refreshments with an impressive panorama of the estuary of the Bidasoa River, the natural border between Spain and France, with the towns of Hondarribia (Spanish Basque Country) and Hendaye (French Basque Country).
Estuary of Bidasoa River, frontier between Spain (below) and France (up). Photo: Isabel Salcedo.
We will continue our journey by bus up the Bidasoa River and will enter Navarre a few kilometers from the sea. We will climb to the Belate mountain pass, in the interfluve of the Atlantic and Ebro basins. In Belate, we will stop to visit mountain acidophilous grasslands and heathlands, but we will especially focus on the Belate mire. This is one of the largest mires in the Basque mountains, although it has long suffered from drainage, eutrophication and overgrazing. During recent years, a restoration project has been initiated, and we will be able to see some of the permanent plots used for monitoring.
Latxa sheeps grazing in the heathland, Baztan, Navarre. Photo: Juan Antonio Campos.
In the afternoon, we will continue our journey by bus southwards, and our next stop will be in the Urbasa mountain range. There, we will enjoy the mountain landscape, with basophilous beech forests and extensive grasslands. The location of this mountain, south of the Atlantic-Mediterranean divide, creates a high diversity of vegetation, with temperate grasslands of Festuco-Brometea and Nardetea co-occurring with submediterranean grasslands with Festuca hystrix, Helianthemum canum, Jurinea humilis, etc. From Urbasa we will go down to the Mediterranean region, and travel to our accommodation in the historical town of Tafalla. Here, we are already in the Ebro valley. For those of you who never visited the Mediterranean Region, we will make a special toast during the dinner!!
Palace of the kings of Navarre in Olite, near Tafalla. Photo: Asun Berastegi.
On the second day, we will travel directly southwards to the Ebro depression, towards the driest area in Navarre, Bardenas Reales. In route, we will stop near the Aragón River in Mélida, a tributary of the Ebro Rover originating from the Western Pyrenees, where we will enjoy the panorama view and visit some halophilic and gypsophilic communities in Caparroso. The main stop during this journey will be in the impressive Bardenas Reales, a huge non-urbanized extension of eroded hills, plateaus, saltpans and canyons, in which there are clay, chalk and sandstone.
Bardenas Reales, Cabezo de las Cortinas. Photo: Monika Janišová.
After a long stop in Bardenas, picnic included, we will resume our journey and travel northwards to the Pyrenees. We will make a last short stop in the Mediterranean Region, near the village of Lumbier (Iso mountain pass) and a photo stop at the panorama of the impressive canyon Foz de Arbaiun. In the evening, we will reach our accommodation in the village of Isaba. We will sleep at the Isaba hotel, but before going to bed, we will have the opportunity to walk around the village, which is full of life during summer weekends.
On the third day, we will go by bus to the mountain pass called Piedra de San Martín, on the border with France. From there we will hike through subalpine and alpine grasslands and dwarf shrublands with Juniperus communis subsp. nana and Rhododendron ferrugineum. The most abundant grasslands are acidophilous Nardus stricta grasslands (Carici macrostylidi-Nardion) on deep soils, communities of Festucion scopariae on the sunny and rocky slopes, and of Primulion intricatae at locations where snow accumulates.
Left: Pic d’Anie, 2,507 m a.s.l., in the border between France, Navarre and Aragón. It is named Auñamendi in Basque. Right: Wester Pyrenees from Anie. Photos: Asun Berastegi.
Festuca gautieri in scree (left) and F. altopyrenaica on rocky slope (right). Photos: Asun Berastegi.
In the late afternoon, we will travel to Bilbao, where our journey will finish.
Practical advices for the participants about the excursions
Rainwear is recommended for the excursions. Be aware that ticks may occur in areas we will visit. Although incidence of Lyme desease is low in Spain, travellers should avoid tick bites by wearing long sleeves and pants.
From left to right: Aster alpinus, Linaria alpina and Soldanella alpina in alpine grasslands, Larra. Photos: Asun Berastegi.