The Picos de Europa National Park

  • Region: Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y León
  • Province: Asturias, Cantabria, León
  • Declared a Natural Park: 1918 enlarged in 1995
  • Declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve 2003
  • Z.E.P.A
  • Park surface area: 64.660 hectares

Points of interest

The Montaña de Covadonga National Park ( now The Picos de Europa National Park) was established in Asturias in 1918, the first national park in Spain. The now much larger park covers three major massifs – Western, Central and Eastern which are all part of the Cordillera Cantabria range. The dramatic Cares river canyon, which is 1,500m deep, divides the western and central parts.

The protected area encompasses these spectacular limestone mountains which are approximately 40 km in length (E-W) and 20 Km wide (N-S). They are situated just 20km inland from the Atlantic coast in northern Spain. This gives them a mixture of both Mediterranean and Temperate climatic influences. Altitudes range from 75m to 2,646m with 200 points over 2,000 metres, all given greater relief by the depth and steepness of the gorges and ravines cut by the rivers and tributaries. The highest peaks are Torre de Cerredo at 2,646m, Naranjo de Bulnes at 2,519 m and Pico Tesorero at 2,570 m. The latter is where the borders of the three provinces meet.

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Grass snake – Natrix natrix – Culebra de Collar

  • English: (Three species) Grass snake, Barred Grass snake, Mediterranean Grass Necklace Snake
  • Spanish: (Three species) Culebra de Collar, Culebra de Collar Europea, Culebra de collar mediterránea
  • Scientific name: (three species in Iberia) Natrix natrix. (Linnaeus, 1758) – Natrix helvetica helvetica and Natrix astreptophora
  • Français: Couleuvre à collier.
  • Deutsch: Ringelnatter.
  • Italiano: Biscia dal collare.
  • Português: Cobra-de-água-de-colar.
  • Distribution: The grass snake is widely distributed in mainland Europe, ranging from mid Scandinavia to southern Italy. It is also found in the Middle East and northwestern Africa. As recently as 2017, genetic work has found that natrix has more than one species present in the Iberian peninsular.

Non Venomous

The grass snake has a well defined broad head, round eye and pupil and the iris orange or red. Adults can reach about 130cm in length, though are usually 70-95cm. The most common color is brown or dark green, with small dark spots. The young have a yellowish white collar edged with black, which may disappear entirely in adults. An aquatic species, though less so than the Viperine Snake (Natrix maura) and seen less frequently.

The other forms of Grass snake in Spain

Natrix helvetica helvetica (In Spanish Culebra de Collar Europea) is found in the Pyrenees. The Barred Grass snake has a body colour of grey-green and distinct banding along its flanks for the entire length of its body. It can grow to a length of over a metre. It was included within the grass snake species, Natrix natrix, until August 2017, when genetic analysis led to its reclassification as a separate species.

The Mediterranean Grass Necklace Snake (or the Red-eyed grass snake) (Natrix astreptophora). Again recently seperated from the common grass snake, you find this snake close to water sources helping to identify it by its habitat in the south of Spain. (It is not very abundant in any part of its distribution area). There is a good article about this species on the website of the Great Malaga Path:

Natrix astreptophora
Natrix astreptophora (photo Gran Senda de Malaga)

Identifying the differences in the three species in the field is near impossible unless you have excellent photographs or have a long time to study the specimen. But, for the two newer species, geographic position helps to rule in or out.

Habits and habitat

Generally prefering shrubby locations near water. Can be found in meadows, hedgerows and woodland along the sides of rivers and other water bodies. they are mainly diurnal with crepuscular activity during the hot summer months.

Grass snake - Natrix natrix - Culebra de Collar1
Grass snake – Natrix natrix – Culebra de Collar

Feeding on amphibians, especially frogs, toads, their larvae and fish, grass snakes are strong swimmers and may be found close to rivers and streams. At distance and because they are in the water they are sometimes at first glanced confused with the viperine snake.

The mating period is April through June and a clutch of 12 to 28 eggs are laid 27 to 36 days after copulation. The eggs hatch after an incubation period of 42 to 71 days. Several females may lay eggs in the same place so sometimes a large number of juveniles can be seen in the same area. The young are about 18 centimetres long when they hatch and are immediately independent and self sufficient.

Similar species: The adults are similar to the Montpelier Snake (Malpolon monspeliensis) Note: The grass snake normally has an orange iris and the Montpelier snake has a yellow iris.

The Grazalema Guide

The best way to see all our web projects in one place is over at the Grazalema Guide.

The Grazalema Guide – Tourist Information Portal for the Sierra de Grazalema, Wildside Holidays, The town of Ronda and the Caminito del Rey.

Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) Cabra montés

The Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) Cabra montés frequently found in herds across the Andalucian mountain ranges are wild mountain goats. There were until fairly recently, more subspecies spaced around the Iberian peninsular, but now only two exist.

These mammals which originate exclusively in the mountains of Iberia are known as Cabra montés in Spanish. They are generally shades of brown around the body with black markings on the chest, flanks and legs in the males, whereas the females are paler. The adult males can reach a weight of 80-100 kg and are approximately double the size of the females.

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The Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo) in the Sierra Grazalema

The Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo) is a species of tree which survived the last glaciation. An elegant tree growing to a height of about 25m with a conical shape. Its growth is dense and a rich green, although there are occasional specimens of a blue colouration. The branches generally form rings around the trunk. The roots which are thick and long are sometimes very superficial. The trunk is straight and cylindrical but in some old individuals the shape can be irregular, twisted and contorted with more than one leader. (This is often due to beetle damage). The leaves are needle-shaped, rigid and somewhat sharp, these needles living up to 15 years, the maximum age among all gymnosperms.

These trees need high humidity and shady slopes or soils that retain a certain amount of water. Male and female cones are present on the same individual, but to avoid inbreeding the female cones are at the top of the tree (giving more chance of wind dispersal) and the male cones are lower down towards the middle.

The female cone is made up of many individual triangular pieces; a small membranous wing that helps in wind dispersal, and the attached seed. These cones disintegrate and release the seeds during the autumn. Pinsapos, as they are known in Spanish, are biologically fir trees and belong to the group of gymnosperms or plants without true flowers such as cedars, pines and cypresses.

If you would like to see pinsapo trees and learn a bit more about them, why not book a day out with Sue from Nature Plus – Grazalema.


Where are Spanish Fir trees found?

Their distribution is very restricted but the Spanish fir tree can be found in three forest masses which are:

  • Sierra de las Nieves National Park‘; occupying a large area of about 3,000 hectares, both in concentrated small groups and more openly distributed with a mix of other species. They are expanding well between the municipalities of Parauta, Ronda, El Burgo, Yunquera and Tolox.
  • ‘El Paraje Natural Los Reales de Sierra Bermeja’; occupying about 70 acres in Los Reales, between Estepona and Jubrique / Genalguacil (Damaged by fire in 2021 but the main core forest survived)

Discovery of the Spanish fir tree

Clemente Rubio is currently attributed to the botanical discovery of the pinsapo as he took note of them in 1809 during a trip to the Serrania de Ronda. His writings were long believed lost but were rediscovered:

“We entered the pine forest .. in which there are few oaks and everything else pinsapos. They look from some distance like dark cypress with a conical shape …. “…

But the discovery for science is due to the pharmacists Haensel and Prolongo who showed sprigs of pinsapo to the botanist Edmond Boissier of Geneva who visited the city of Málaga in 1837.

Near Estepona he was able to see pinsapo trees with his own eyes on an autumn excursion with his friends Haensel and Prolongo and came to identify the tree through the cone as belonging to the genus Abies. There is nothing like the words of E. Boissier from his book “Voyaje Botanique dans le midi d’Espagne” to describe the emotion of the moment

… very near there, the guide showed us the first pinsapo from afar, with shouts of joy running full of emotion, but unfortunately the tree had no fruit, a second, third look gave me false hopes, I was lucky enough in the end and saw one whose upper branches were laden with upright cones. We hastened to scramble to pick them and there was no doubt about the kind of tree and its uniqueness. Abies was certainly close to our common fir …

Boissier reported the discovery in a magazine the next year giving the scientific name – Abies pinsapo.

Abies pinsapo are protected through environmental laws and regulations of protected natural areas of Andalucia, European directives and recently as a Biosphere Reserve. The pinsapo is listed as Endangered (EN) on the Red List of Threatened Vascular Flora of Andalusia.

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