Sometimes it sucks to be a biologist

I’m back from my break, and a fine time it was! We followed Algarvean tradition and fled north for part of our vacation, spending several days in the gorgeous Picos de Europa. For the first three days it was cloudy and occasionally rainy, a weather pattern that would have seemed enormously unjust to my pre-Portuguese self (“How could it RAIN on my vacation??”), but now felt simply marvelous (“Ooo, it’s COOL and I can even wear a sweatshirt!”). We humans are fickle creatures.

One day we made the trip up to the Covadonga Lakes, a high altitude bowl holding the two largest lakes in the Picos. The Spanish government is doing some good things to keep this popular spot from being loved to death: there is limited parking at the summit, and after about 8:30 a.m. the parking lot and the road leading to it are both closed. After that, the only way there is via the buses, which leave on regular timetables from one of the three large parking areas at the base of the slopes. Before you even approach the parking areas, you know which ones have available space because that information is advertised in large lit signs on the turnoff to Covadonga. This all made perfect sense to me, and in fact I think many of the western US national parks could benefit by copying that model.

So I was expecting good things upon our arrival at this obviously valued and protected place. Which made the shock all the greater when I realized that the Covadonga Lakes are, in essence, a giant cow pasture.


Lake Ercina lies cradled in a grassy bowl that has been grazed down to turf level. It looks like someone went through it with a commercial grass mower, the grass is so short and level. And there is cow shit every other step. This is not an exaggeration; it’s impossible to hike in this area without stepping in the stuff. The idea of sitting down for a lakeside picnic is laughable. Even more laughable is the concept of staying on the trail to avoid damaging the fragile alpine environment. The weight of a human footstep in a hiking boot is nothing compared to the weight of a cow footstep on the hoof — this environment is already damaged beyond belief.


The Picos are a very wet area; they’re located almost at the northern edge of the Iberian Peninsula and trap the moisture-laden air coming off the Atlantic. So they’re full of little streams and rivers. Every single stream in the Covadonga Lakes area — every SINGLE one — looked like this: utterly destroyed by cattle, with caved-in banks and the streambed trampled into a mud bog. Any one of them would have been a perfect textbook illustration for a class on range management and livestock-caused riparian damage.

I found myself wondering what the natural ecosystem should look like, and got my answer at the highest viewpoint of the area.


It turned out to be another textbook illustration: a demarcation line between the cow pasture of the summit and a non-grazed slope. The slope was lush with alpine ferns, grasses and berries, and probably hosted a glorious display of wildflowers in June and July.

And this is why it sometimes sucks to be a biologist, or to have any training in range ecology. We spent several hours hiking around this area, and my heart was breaking the entire time. I found the whole experience to be tragic. Yet all around me were people thoroughly enjoying the scenery, loving the mountain air, and even having fun hiking among the cattle with their constantly ringing cowbells. They didn’t see the destruction, and had no idea that alpine meadows don’t normally look like a hilly soccer pitch. Ignorance certainly can be bliss.

Of course there is also the question of whether I should be imposing my American-educated standards on an area with a cattle herding tradition that vastly predates the birth of my own nation. The Spaniards have been grazing cattle up here for a long, long time — this damage isn’t new.

That doesn’t make it any easier to see.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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2 Responses to Sometimes it sucks to be a biologist

  1. bArbaroo says:

    I had a similar reaction to the mt. meadows of the Pyrenees. Eons of human and domestic animal impacts had clearly altered the alpine ecosystem. Besides the trampling and stream incission, I also pondered the introduction of exoctic species. How could you ever really sort out what is endemic and what is introduced?

    If you think about how common a plant such as cheat grass is in the western US in only a couple of centuries of Euro-american settlement it makes me wonder about the plant communities in Europe. In the US we have fairly good documentation of what was introduced and generally when they were introduced. So alien species are fairly well known and documented(although no doubt not 100% complete).

    BUT given millenia of human impact in Europe, accidental and intentional introduction of plants and animals, much of it occuring long before such things were recorded, it makes me believe that the plant communities I saw in the “wilds” of Europe are just a conglomerate of native and non-native species now evolved into a new community. I thought it would make an interesting biogeographic study – investigating the DNA/genetics and trying to figure out what was introduced,the source and timing of those introductions; and considering how those plants are now integrated into the enviroment; have any become keystone species?

    • oregon expat says:

      I’ve enjoyed what little of the European wilds I’ve seen so far, but they still bear indelible signs of human cultivation and interference. Which, by my western American definition, disqualifies them from being wild at all. I wonder how far north I’d need to go to find real wilderness? Central/northern Sweden? Of course, there’s always Iceland…

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