Sierra de las Nieves - Living Nature

Set at the very heart of the province of Malaga the Sierra de la Nieves which literally means Mountain Range of the Snows is an impressive sight indeed, rising majestically above the surrounding valleys and countryside and providing wonderful scope for exploration.

This magnificent part of the province of Andalucia, along with its rich fauna and flora is part of the well known Serrania de Ronda, which is located along the centre-west area and has just been declared the Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

Historically, this was place of refuge for highwaymen and outlaws while today the Sierra de las Nieves is considered one of the best places for the study of nature, including botany and birdlife.

In the XVIII and XIX centuries, this region attracted the attention of travellers and scientists from Central Europe. Among those who visited here were the swiss botanist Edmond Boissier and the German naturalist, Haensier. Likewise, the English traveller, Francis Carter described the Sierra de la Nieves in considerable detail in one of his best known books.

It was here that the botanist, Edmond Boissier, discovered the unique flora which he then catalogued for the first time, as well as a Spanish fir tree, known as the "Pinsapo" which normally grows in the colder latitudes of Northern and Central Europe.

The aforementioned naturalist, Haensier, also made an interesting discovery here at the Sierra de las Nieves. Although doubtless known to the local population which apparently never catalogued or actually identified the mammal, a member of the mongoose family (Herpestes ichneumon - Egyptian mongoose) breeds in the wild - called a "meloncillo" in Spanish. More interestingly still, to date, this is the only place in Europe where the animal can be found.

With respect to the geographical position, the mountains, although impressive, are certainly not the highest in the region. In no place do they reach higher than 2,000 metres above sea level, the peak being the tip of the "Torecilla" (1919 metres). Thus it is more from the geographical standpoint that the Sierra de las Nieves has become renowned; a rich landscape tapestry with profound valleys, flanked by dramatic cliff faces. Bubbling brooks lined with colourful wild flowers and numerous caves are etched into the landscape. More dramatic still however, is the abyss know as the "Gesm" with its 1098 metres gap which makes this the third deepest in the world.

The change of seasons also means that the mountains have a unique beauty all through the year. In the winter for example, the higher peaks will be thickly carpeted with snow as the temperature frequently plummets to minus ten degrees. This can be quite a surprise for those coming from our northerly climes who imagine that such a southern latitude equals non-stop sun.

Whether one visits for the landscape or for more specialised study of nature at its best, it is the aforementioned Spanish fir which, like the Californina Redwood tree is awesome in its size and magnificence.

Likewise the Andalucian Oak tree grows thickly on the steeper slopes, while the more common Cork Oak provides shelter for the wild flora and fauna. Chestnut trees provide a vivid palette of colour against the mountainside especially during the Autumn months, as do the plentiful wild flowers, such as Orchids, Cistus and the carpets of deep lilac heather.

Just as appealing as the fauna is the animal community with its abundance of mammals, birds and insect life. Among the larger herbivores is the Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica) a typical inhabitant of craggy and rocky places of the Sierra due to its large quantity and unique characteristics. Likewise the small Roe deer (Capreolus) is common here, although being easily scared it is harder to spot and tends to live deep in the woods.

Aside from the Egyptian mongoose which is a true zoological relic from the past, another well known hunter is the magnificent Wild Cat (felis sylvestria) the predecessor to our domestic animal. Although they exist in abundance, they are rarely sighted. The same applies to the beautiful Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes) which also breeds in the natural habitat of the Sierra de las Nieves and is of particular interest as it is a specific breed from the Canidae family which is fast becoming extinct due to the prevalence of hunters.

Let us hope that the fox does not share the same fate as another splendid animal that once inhabitated this region but has now sadly disappeared The Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos). Still today, certain caves are named after their existence, especially situated on higher ground, such as the top of "Torrecilla" where Bear's Cave is located.

As far as birdlife is concerned, it is hardly surprising that various birds of prey have chosen to make the Sierra de las Nieves their home. Such magnificent examples as the Golden Eagle and Bonelli Eagle inhabit the highest ledges whilst further down, the Peregrine Falcon and Griffon Vulture can be often spied circling and swooping between the mountains and valleys. Other birds prefer the deeply wooded areas, such as the Shor Toed Eagle, the quaintly named Booted Eagle and the Goshawk and Sparrowhawk.

More commonplace birds, although equally fascinating from an ornithologist viewpoint, are the Crested Tit, the Nuthatch and the Great Spotted Woodpecker which are all abundant throughout this region.

The idea of reptiles make many of us squirm and they are here too - in force! True they may not be everyone's idea of a delicacy but the Shor Toed Eagle would clearly disagree.. One of his favourite dishes is the Montpelier Snake which in some instances grows up to an impressive two meters. Another species is the Eyed Lizard which is, again, noteworthy for its size, this one being the largest in Europe with brilliant green eyes lined with blue, hence its unusual, though descriptive, name.

In an anthropological sense, there are numerous small villages dotted around the mountain range, mainly because of the natural resources available here, such as water. Ronda is perhaps the best known small town and was once extremely important as an Arab bastion and fortified city. Before this, the Romans found the city of Acinipo which today hails as an important archaeological ruin, knows as the "Ronda la Vieja (the Old Ronda), which is on the well trodden route between Andalucia and the adjacent region.

There are other villages of course, which are considered a part of the "pueblos blancos" (White Villages) or serranos "high lands". Among these are Istan, Monda and Yunquera.

The best way to reach the Sierra de la Nieves is by following the C-339 road from San Pedro de Alcantara on the coast, just beyond Marbella in the direction of Ronda. On this winding route, some of the most beautiful vistas of the Sierras can be enjoyed, although a word of warning here - don't let your attention wander too far as the road is narrow and has deep ravines on either side. For the more adventurous sightseer, this is also an alternate route to the beautiful city of Sevilla and naturally, far more intriguing than the more conventional highway.

To actually enter the park of the Sierra de las Nieves, watch for an iron cross, around 13 kilometres before reaching Ronda which is on your left hand side and should be used as a reference. Only a kilometre further on from here, on the right hand side is the wooden sign announcing the park.

Unbeknown to many the Sierra de las Nieves is a magnificent nature reserve which can truly provide a fascinating glimpse into the wildlife and natural landscape which helps make Andalucia such a privileged corner of Southern Spain.

This article was first published in the Andalucia Costa del Sol Magazine.