Unfallowing Fields

Retuertas horses are back enjoying their freedom in western Spain for the first time in 2000 years. Photo: Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Retuertas horses are back enjoying their freedom in western Spain for the first time in 2000 years.
Photo: Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

There aren’t many good things to say about the economic problems faced by Spain since 2008, with high unemployment and mass company closures.

The amount of farmland being utilized has also receded with the contracting economy, but there’s been an unexpected silver lining.

In areas no longer under cultivation, animal species that were disappearing are beginning to establish themselves with the assistance an initiative known as Rewilding Europe. The group works to reclaim abandoned grazing and farmland, and to create ‘wild nature’ reserves.

Carlos Sanchez, director of the conservation group running the site, was quoted as saying,  “We are recovering the most primitive breeds to try to help manage an ecosystem which has been abandoned due to the disappearance of humans.”

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It is active in a number of countries, but identifies its areas of activity in terms of regional ecosystems rather than national borders. Thus, the five main areas of activity are Western Iberia, the Eastern Carpathians, the Danube Delta, the Southern Carpathians, and the Velebit.

Among the species being reintroduced in Spain are European oxen; the Retuerta, an ancient breed of horse; European vultures (the vast majority of the four surviving vulture species are in Spain); and the Iberian lynx. Rewilding Europe aims to support nature reserves that not only promote the return of wildlife, but create new economic alternatives to industry and agriculture.

Spain’s economy has taken a turn for the better over the past year, but perhaps the land being reclaimed as wild has been abandoned for long enough that there’s no immediate risk of the new nature reserves coming into conflict with farming interests.

Animals, especially large animals and predators, change environments. Given enough time, it will be interesting to see how re-wilding changes local landscapes.

Caballo horse (Equus ferus caballus), Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, Salamanca, Castilla y Leon, Spain Photo: Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Caballo horse (Equus ferus caballus), Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, Salamanca, Castilla y Leon, Spain
Photo: Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

More: Making Europe A Wilder Place

Almond Dilemma

Almond plant. Source: Franz Eugen Köhler / Wikipedia

Almond plant.
Source: Franz Eugen Köhler / Wikipedia

I was in our local French supermarket the other day when I spied some packages of California almonds. Now, the usual almonds we get around here are from Turkey or Israel, and they taste just fine, but I grew up around California almonds in California, so in a moment of expat nostalgia, I bought a package of almonds from the other side of the world.

Of course I know California is the throes of its worst drought in 500 years. Of course I think about the sustainability footprint of sending snack foods aroundthe planet on planes. But our supermarket’s buyer has notoriously fickle tastes – this is the first time I’ve seen California almonds there, it may be the last.

California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds. exporting 70% of its crop to 90 countries (according to the Almond Board of California). Almonds are the state’s top crop export, with the trend increasing due to growing demand in India and China. Just last year, one year into the historical drought, articles were touting the almond boom, with vineyards being sold and ripped out to plant more almond trees. The revenue from almonds in 2012 reached $5 billion.

Meanwhile, almonds are relatively thirsty trees. In the 1960s, I remember driving by almond orchards that used flood irrigation, a profligate method that is exactly what it sounds like. According to almond growers, irrigation these days is more efficient and appropriate for what is essentially a very dry climate, even without the drought.

When I buy a bag of California almonds, or for that matter a pack of Peruvian asparagus, or Spanish strawberries, I’m not just buying the delicious and healthy crop that was produced elsewhere. I’m buying the water  that was used to grow those products in very dry regions. Water that has, effectively, been packaged and shipped to me in the form of an almond or strawberry.

Pulling out almond trees, 2013. Tree crops, like almonds, are a long-term investment and must be watered every year, regardless of drought, to maintain the productivity of the tree - which can produce for up to 25 years.  Photo: AP/Scott Smith

Pulling out almond trees, 2013. Tree crops, like almonds, are a long-term investment and must be watered every year, regardless of drought, to maintain the productivity of the tree – which can produce for up to 25 years.
Photo: AP/Scott Smith

Less than a year after the articles on the expansion of the almond industry, images of drought-impacted farmers ripping out their almond trees abound. Entire economies have been successfully built around these crops, and removing them would be devastating locally. Between the complexities of water politics, the weight of old water habits and the urgency for solutions brought on by the drought, the boom of California almonds may turn out to be short-lived.

Do I give up ever buying California almonds again, as I have with several other foods that I no longer buy due to their sustainability footprint? I find myself in a quandary precipitated by an impulse buy, and I’m not sure how to resolve it.

Almond blossom Photo: Golona

Almond blossom
Photo: Golona

Abyssal Giant

A giant squid (Architeuthis dux) washed ashore near Cantabria on the northern coast of Spain this week.

Marine creatures wash ashore all the time. Dolphins, whales, seals, jellyfish and starfish, are found on beaches around the world, often in alarming numbers.

Architeuthis dux Image: Verrill / Wikipedia

But the great Architeuthis dux is one of the rarest of all sightings, both in and out of the water. Little is known about them, and what is known applies mostly to what can be discovered from their corpses – even less is known about them while they are alive. A study in obscure clues and educated conjecture.

They grow long, live deep, and feed large.

They are creatures of the superlative. While they aren’t quite the largest invertebrate (that honor belongs to Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, the colossal squid), they aren’t much smaller.

Their long tentacles, lined with the suckers that make them so fearsome to us, are actually more frightening than I had realized. Each sucker is lined with hard, sharp chitin – claws with which the prey is drawn inextricably towards the inner beak. Their eyes are the largest in the world (except for perhaps those of their large cousin, the colossal).

They have formed the stuff of human fantasy for centuries, mythical stand-ins for the dangers of the unknown, kraken-points on a map to indicate where rules of the known world becomes treacherous and can pull the unwary sailor into the inky depths.

And the giant squid is one of the main characters in one of the strangest books I’ve read all year, China Miéville’s Kraken.

There have been a few live sightings – elusive, tantalizing and intriguing.

The posthumous fate of this particular squid is undecided. It might go to a museum, it might be dissected. But for a moment, at least, it succeeds in death what it undoubtedly did in life – inspire awe and induce a few shudders.