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upcoming for the Easter holidays at the Natural Gallery: Our trip to the cork savannas of Spain and Portugal

In September last year my partner Amanda Squire, and I were able to make a journey to explore the amazing cork savannas in Spain and Portugal.  We are going to be holding an exhibition of the paintings and photographs from the trip at the Natural Gallery during the Easter holiday and we are producing a short book with these illustrations.

We completed the conversion of our trusty van (affectionately know to us as Myfanwy) with an upstairs extension for sleeping and various painting adaptations including the installation of a rather out of place office chair, and we set off by ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare in Ireland and then down to Bilbao.  And so, our five-week and 4000 mile adventure to Extremadura in Spain and to Alentejo in Portugal began.  For Amanda it was a badly needed holiday and a chance to develop her photography, for me it was a chance to get back into my painting and sketching of wildlife and to get to know the colours of another wild arid landscape.  And for both of us it was a bit of van life and meeting up with good friends.  By great coincidence my good friend Lulu Williams from university days and her husband Simon were doing a similar van holiday mainly in northern Spain so we began with a couple of very relaxing days by the beach with them.  We then had to get to my brother Mark’s 60th birthday party in Lisbon, a fancy-dress 3-day extravaganza with friends and family.  It was quite a trek to get there in two days so we put foot and didn’t stop much those first few days.  Our main trip to the savannas began 10 September as we headed east from Lisbon into Alentejo.  My great friend, Paddy Waller joined us for a week to explore Extremadura and do a bit of hiking.  It was great to share our adventure with them all along the way.

What follows are extracts from our travel diary, a catalogue of the artworks interspersed with photographs by Amanda and a few maps.  Apologies to our Spanish friends for any mis-translations, we will be glad to sort these in next edition.  The Dehesa artworks are available to view at the Natural Gallery if you are in the vicinity of Solva and we may do a show of them in the New Year 2024. Or you can click on the URL links for each artwork at the top right of the page to get more information on these.

I have always loved Spain.  Our family holiday to Fuengirola South of Malaga in 1972 was an eye-opener for me as a very young teenager.  It was the first time I was able to explore a truly wild landscape in the mountains or sierra above our town. I was so excited to see my first big birds of prey in the skies, not really knowing what they were then, and fascinated at the craggy conifers growing directly out of hard rock; but equally shocked to see shotgun cartridges littering the ground almost everywhere.  I found a small zoo in town and there at the end of the cages sat a sad row of injured hawks, falcons and eagles.  It was the Hobby that caught my emotion I had never seen one before, such a beautiful fragile falcon, and its name in Spanish has been with me since that day, it was simply labelled: El Alcotan.

Things have been turned around since then in Spain, followed by Italy and other Mediterranean states. Thanks to the hard work of conservationists the mad craze to shoot anything that flies has largely passed over in these countries while we still wait for Malta and Lebanon and other to come to their senses.  I joined some of these conservationists from Fundacion Migres to watch the raptor migration into Spain at Tarifa, and in a single day 16/4/2011 we counted over 1000 Booted Eagles returning from their northern winter in Africa.

Since coming back from working in conservation in Africa in 2001 I have also been very lucky to join my great friend Paddy Waller who began a tradition of taking his three sons and friends up a different mountain range in Spain every year if possible.  Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland so there has been no shortage of these.  I went on three of these amazing trekking holidays.  Paddy married a wonderful Spanish lady Julia and settled in Xativa where for a while they ran a culinary and culture holiday company as well as imports of food and wine from Spain into UK.  So the treks were long and hard but always wonderful food and wine and a comfy bed as a reward!  While dodging the wild bulls we met in these spectacular landscapes and with the amazing raptors and wildlife to watch on these trips I think it’s fair to say Spain was giving me my Africa fix, as much as possible, in Europe!

There is another similarity between Spain and Africa which is that Spain, along with Portugal, holds the largest expanse of a savanna habitat in Europe.  It is the Cork Oak and Holm Oak savanna known as Dehesa in Spain and Montado in Portugal.  Savanna is a fantastic habitat for wildlife, especially raptors, because the spacing of trees and grasslands in between supports a rich array of plants and animals.  I first read about the Dehesa while in Africa and became fascinated that such a habitat could still exist in the middle of developed Europe, with vulture, eagles, wild boars and predators.  I set a bucket-list item to get there one day.

When next in Spain or Portugal consider going inland to these fabulous places.  We are sure you would find it well worth a visit..

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