Wildlife in the Spanish Pyrenees

“Often, the first thing you’re aware of is a huge shadow on the snow.”
“And you hear the gush of the wind, you’re that close.”
Lucy and Simon Woollons are the founders of our Spanish Pyrenees specialists Aragon Active. The last time they had guests, a bearded vulture with a wingspan longer than a grown man breezed above their heads as they were out snowshoeing.
“I can still remember seeing the orange feathers on the chest,” says Lucy. “It was incredible.”

It’s a remarkable and increasingly common story. Bearded vultures are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Also called the lammergeier – or lamb vulture – they were persecuted, believed to be fearsome predators and, depending on who you spoke to, possessed by the devil. The truth is that bearded vultures mainly scavenge, crunching on the bones of already dead animals. That scavenging is a vital part of mountain ecosystems, recycling carcasses and cutting the transmission of infectious diseases.

Organisations like the Vulture Conservation Foundation have worked tirelessly to reverse the bad rep of the bearded vulture. And there’s been a sea change in recent years. A release programme in the nearby Alps and Picos de Europa has increased numbers. In the Spanish Pyrenees, you’ll see supplementary feeding stations and full-time wildlife wardens. Responsible tourism businesses like Aragon Active support reintroduction efforts by hiring wildlife guides who work on these projects.

From bearded vultures to moon moths

It’s not all about the bearded vulture, though. The biodiverse landscapes of the Spanish Pyrenees provide habitat for a motley crew of birds. Golden eagles nest here year-round and the high gorges are lined with natural viewpoints that put you eye-to-eye with soaring griffon vultures.
Woodchat shrikes, ring ouzels, Alpine citril finches and wryneck woodpeckers fly the skies, and you’ll need binoculars to spy bright but tiny wallcreepers, bee-eaters and firecrests. Golden orioles and hoopoes (check out the punk hairdo) flicker through the forests too. Insects and butterflies are abundant, so you can look out for Spanish moon moths, white admirals, Mazarine blues and Spanish purple hairstreaks.

Bear with them

You’re less likely to see signs of brown bears, although 50-60 do roam the Spain-France border of the Pyrenees. The death of the last native female Pyrenean bear in 2010 prompted a reintroduction project, but it’s been much less successful than reviving bearded vultures.

Unlike the vultures, bears really do kill livestock and strip orchards when they need to. A lack of investment in reducing human-bear conflict means that farmers end up frustrated with lost income. “No to bears!” signs hang from road bridges in the Spanish Pyrenees. Three bears were shot here in 2020 – five percent of the tiny population.

This region relies on farming and tourism. If tourists travel to see wild bears in pristine habitats, there is a reason – a reason that puts food on the table – to keep them. Combined with education, prevention and a solid compensation system, wildlife holidays in the Spanish Pyrenees could improve the future of Pyrenean brown bears – and the people who live alongside them.

Our top Spanish Pyrenees Holiday

Wildlife and walking holiday in the Spanish Pyrenees

Wildlife and walking holiday in the Spanish Pyrenees

A naturalists paradise in the heart of the Spanish Pyrenees

From €1395 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
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If you'd like to chat about Spanish Pyrenees or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

A time capsule of biodiversity

Natural parks like Ordesa y Mount Perdido and the Western Valleys have barely changed in 1,000 years. On the Spanish side of the border, the mountain peaks, gorges and high-altitude lakes are as inaccessible to big developments as they’ve always been. A few endemic forests of spruce and black pine still creep up steep valleys – a rarity in Europe. It’s one of the reasons why vultures and bears – creatures that need large, untouched territories – have been reintroduced here.
Wildlife holidays explore these landscapes carefully, following existing footpaths in small groups and with a local guide. They’ll take you along medieval pathways through oak forests and meadows laid with orchids and rockroses. Pyramid-like saxifrages and hardy violets and vetch are endemic. Drive a few hours south, meanwhile, and you’re on the Mediterranean coast, and supplied with a completely different check-list of wildflowers and animals, including dolphins.
The biodiversity of the landscape is what Julio Gallego Escribano, co-founder of our experts Estarrun Travels, loves about the region: “You find different climates, from Atlantic to Mediterranean… You find that you can climb big mountains around 3,000m but you can also walk around forests – beeches, oaks, pines – and it’s very varied.”
We have a strong philosophy of using local guides... They give you the kinds of things that you’d never find in the guidebooks.
Hundreds of towns were abandoned in the Spanish Pyrenees: some because of migration to more prosperous cities, some due to natural disasters, and others because they were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. Your guide will uncover these little lost civilisations, showing you the Egyptian vultures that have moved in. Disused mining roads, meanwhile, pave the way to teetering chamois territory about 2,000m up.

“We have a strong philosophy of using local guides,” says Lucy. “They’re full of enthusiasm and fantastic local knowledge – they know the plants, the wildlife, the geology, the local history. They’ve always got anecdotes to tell... They give you the kinds of things that you’d never find in the guidebooks.”

Julio agrees: “We try to show guests the best of these valleys; to show them places that few people can reach. We work with local guides who know this area very well, and we walk through the valleys and forests that few people explore.”

What are wildlife holidays in the Spanish Pyrenees like?

Wildlife holidays in the Spanish Pyrenees last around a week. They’re usually small group holidays, so you’ll be exploring, wining and dining with a group of like-minded wildlife lovers. Out in the field, it’s often a case of the more beady eyes the better.

Itineraries feature daily hikes led by expert botanists, conservationists or villagers who have known these paths for decades. You’ll explore national parks like Ordesa y Mount Perdido or the Western Valleys, where thousands of species of flora and fauna live, including Pyrenean endemics.

Most accommodation is in the countryside, where the cicada call of nightjars and clanging cowbells are the loudest sounds around. Guest houses are characterful. You might stay in a 17th-century family-run farmhouse with a communal kitchen and dining area. These trips are great for solo travellers who would like a social holiday with companions who become friends by the time the week is up.

May and June are the best times to see a combination of mammals, birds and wildflowers in the Spanish Pyrenees. You’ll also get great hiking weather. Wildlife is here all year round, however, and the forests are beautiful in autumn. Snow is a good canvas for animal tracks; you’ll just swap hiking boots for snowshoes.
Photo credits: [Page banner: ikeofspain] [Bearded vulture: Francesco Veronesi] [Golden Oriole: Imran Shah] [Canyon: Guillaume Baviere]