It has not happened through skilful or conscious planning but sort of over the years we have accumulated a certain amount of special places in the southeast quarter of Spain which we visit annually or bi-annually or sometimes more. These places are not where you can dine at the latest fashionable restaurant,see amazing art treasures from the Golden Age, or visit expensive shops. They are “far from the madding crowd”; places where sometimes the attraction is not always screamingly obvious. They either have the tranquil mountain atmosphere of having very few, if any visitors or a desert-like silence where you really feel you are inside an environment that is balanced and unchanged and which only dear Mothernature can produce through years of wise evolution.
The human inhabitants are few and what we would nowadays call “eco-integrated” through centuries old activities which go hand in hand with the area.What is so special about these places is that you can hear the ‘other inhabitants’ at night,see them during the daylight hours and seemingly live close to them.
The Secret Valley,at first sight, is non-descript with abandoned farms,outbuildings and fields of cereals lining its length, which are like large wide steps as they follow the undulations of the rolling hills…with an almost an elongated terraced paddy field like effect. The entrance to this valley is off a quiet main road onto a small badly surfaced almost one track lane leading to a small hamlet fifteen kilometres in and then onto a plain of undulating fields and hills with spectacular dry rocky mountains as a backdrop.Surprisingly flat, the valley opens out, up to four hundred metres wide whilst in other places it is little more than one hundred and fifty metres across.
Flanked on both sides by steepsided hills covered in Mediterranean pine forests the agricultural area in between is cut in half by a green bordered stream which during the winter floods some of the fields with a marshy effect making a great habit for water birds.The water from the stream in the summer keeps the fields from drying out and helps make this valley a truly unique environment. Bird and animal wildlife are abundant. The number of bird species here is such that it seems almost incredible knowing that this region is one of the hottest and driest in Spain,although at night coolness does come with the starlit darkness.
Raptors abound as there is such a wealth and variety of wildlife: even in a morning’s visit it is not unusual to see many of the following: Short Toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Golden Eagle, Buzzard,Sparrow hawk, Black Kite,Kestrel,Lesser Kestrel,Little Owl, Pallid Harrier, Griffon Vulture, as well as non raptors: European Beeater,Woodpecker,Cuckoo, Mountain Thrush, European Roller,Golden Oriol,Heron,Egret,Duck and many many more birds(many of whom we do not know by name).
Roaming the land during daylight hours, cropping all in their dusty path and penned in at night safe from danger, there are two flocks of sheep; they and their shepherds both aliens to this land.
Albeit outsiders they have been integrated into the (eco)system over hundreds of years because they respect it without changing it much. Indeed the sheep are an important part of the system providing droppings to fertilize,and flies,ticks and a whole range of insects for hungry birds The sheep always graze on the mountains, and hills and on harvested fields. Any that die, fall by the way side and enter into the foodchain as dinner for the local vulture population who conveniently live nearby in a very large rocky mountain range that looms high in the near distance,a reminder of how mountainous this country is.What the vultures don’t get the foxes and night time scavengers finish off.
The other (semi-)domesticated inhabitant of this fertile oasis is the pigeon. The humble pigeon here lives atop of farmhouse buildings in flocks of around a hundred individuals, give or take a few. I say give or take a few as they are constantly hunted by Sparrow hawks,farmyard cats and ingenious Booted Eagles who after thousands of generations hunting these hills have honed their hunting skills to a deadly swooping art taking pigeons from their hot tiled rooftop perches.There are only three farms operating in the fifteen kilometres of the valley,but plenty of abandoned buildings dotted along the valley.
What is so special about this place is its variety of wildlife, the low impact of man on nature and the fact that its seasons come and go whilst everything survives alongside the threats and dangers(they have recently planted rows and rows of irrigated lettuce in the old floodable fields,diverting the stream).
Every year we see the local shepherd who waves us down and has a chat. and the local big landowner’s security guard who doublechecks I have my camera wih me instead of a shotgun. He can’t believe I am not there to hunt. He says he gets poachers come for the wild boar and partridge and always asks me, “So you’re not a hunter,then?” I laugh and say, ” Yes, I am a hunter but I shoot with my camera.” He laughs back at me but I get the impression he thinks I am a secret hunter as he asks me the same question every year. I can’t wait until this spring when we will be there again in that Secret Valley somewhere in Spain.
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