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Natural born killer

Looking for European wildcats in Spain

Story by Sara Evans August 4th, 2015

She has 18 retractable claws, each complete with a razor sharp tip. Wrists that rotate for climbing trees and gripping prey. And when needed, she can sprint at 30mph to bring down her dinner. Only this cat isn’t a hungry lioness prowling the sun-baked African savannah; she’s a European wildcat, just ventured out from the forest on to a snow-filled meadow in the Roncal Valley, high in the Pyrenees of Navarra in northern Spain – a mere stone’s throw from the border with France. Tranquil villages dot the mountainsides here.

Honey-coloured stone houses, many of them medieval, huddle against the sides of the Pyrenees, overlooking dramatic rolling hills and ancient mist-soaked forests, where once, centuries ago, Navarra’s kings and queens hunted. To the west is the Basque Country and to the east, Aragon. Head south and the slopes turn to vineyard-filled plains, where Navarra’s famous wines are produced. The region’s capital, Pamplona, known mostly for its bull-running festival, is here too.

Cover image by José Ardaiz Ganuza   This image by Dominic Boyer

But to spot wildcats, you need to be here in the north of Navarra, up in the mountains where the forests and meadows are – which is where I catch my first glimpse of the species. At first sight, with her stripy beige and brown markings, she resembles a domestic tabby, but with the help of a telescope, I see she is much larger and more muscular than a house cat. Her fur, eiderdown thick, is far denser too. But what really gives her away as a wildcat – a distinct, separate species from the domestic cat – is her fabulous tail.

Held aloft, as she slowly crosses the snow, her tail is heavily banded, longer and much wider than a house cat’s, finishing with a proud black-tipped stubby flourish rather than a slinky tapering off. Confidently lifting one velvety paw after the other, she reaches the heart of the meadow, stopping to sniff the air aloofly.

Image by Dominic Boyer
Image by Dominic Boyer

Her richly patterned coat contrasts vividly with the surrounding pristine snow; creating the perfect sighting for myself and the small, hushed gathering of wildlife devotees who, with the help of expert guides, have travelled here, hoping to catch a glimpse of an untameable cat species, as secretive and elusive as the leopard. We’re here in early March, a good time for wildcat spotting. Now is the time, when the chill mountain air warms and the snow starts to melt, that wildcats leave their forest dens to hunt out in the open, where they are much easier to spy.

But it’s not just wildcats we are treated to. This afternoon, we’ve seen deer and fox, and watched a wild boar use his tusks, like snow ploughs, to get at peek-a-boo greens half-hidden in snow. And, a little higher up in the mountains, roam chamois goats still in pale winter coats that will darken as the season progresses.

Image by Dominic Boyer

Above the valley’s canyons and gorges fly birds so big the hearts of bird watchers miss a beat. Bonelli’s and golden eagles, Egyptian and Lammergeier vultures as well as buzzards and kites soar the thermals, wings stretched wide, as if they are trying to touch the edge of the sky. Closer to the ground are smaller birds. Feathery dazzlers like the ruby-coloured crossbill and lime citril finch flit through forests of silver fir and beech, twittering, announcing the coming of spring.

Oblivious to the birdsong, our wildcat makes her way through the meadow, prime hunting ground for a game of deadly hide-and-seek with a rabbit or mouse. With just a bite to the neck, this feline femme fatale can break the backs of rodents, crush their spinal cords and kill them almost immediately.Today she is out of luck and moves back towards the shelter of the forest.

Although her belly is taut, held high above the ground, it’s the time of year when she might be carrying kittens. If she is, in just a few months’ time will come soft mewling balls of untamed fluff ready to wander the wild whiskery world of the Spanish wildcat.

Image by Doug Yelland
Image by Amy Horn-Norris
Footnote: This story first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. All photos as credited in captions.
Navarre, Spain