Location and General Description
The Cantabric Mountain system constitutes an ecotonal zone between the Eurosiberian and the Mediterranean biogeographic regions in Europe, which spreads in a west-east direction along 600 km, from the Galician Atlantic coasts (Finisterre Cape) to the Western extreme of the Pyrenees in the Basque country. The ecoregion also extends along the northern part of Portuguese coast and the bordering mountains between this country and the Spanish Galicia region. The highest elevations (Torre de Cerredo, 2,648 m; Torre Bermeja, 2,606 m; Pico de Santa Ana, 2596 m) correspond to the central axis of the Cantabric Mountains, known as "Picos de Europa". This range was shaped by an intense Alpine orogeny into a complex landscape characterized by steep rocky slopes, amazing canyons, karstic high plains, and high summits. Alternately, the Galician-Portuguese Western extreme of the ecoregion is characterized by lower smooth elevations, which correspond to very old massifs shaped by the late Paleozoic Hercynian orogeny. From the geological point of view, ancient Paleozoic rocks (carboniferous limestone, slate, coal, conglomerates, quartzite, sandstone) predominate in the central axis, flanked by Mesozoic (limestone, dolomite, sandstone) and Tertiary rocks in the Eastern Basque lower mountains. The Galician-Portuguese Western extreme is characterized by Paleozoic and igneous rocks (mainly granite), which are related to outstanding plant endemism (Pteridotite flora). Evidence of Quaternary glaciation appears in the Central and Western mountains, with few small cirques, and ice-smoothed, U-shaped valleys.
From the bioclimatic point of view, the ecoregion has warm Atlantic conditions. Average annual temperature is between 8-14 º C, and average rainfall is between 900-1,800 mm. The coastal strip experiences mild winters and high rainfall, which is very uniformly distributed around the year. The Western Galician-Portuguese coast has a Mediterranean character, being warmer and drier during summer. Higher mountain elevations –mainly the central axis- are characterized by cold winters with abundant snow.
The Cantabric and Northern Portugal Mountains support a highly diverse altitudinal range of forest types, varying widely from the Atlantic coast to the mountain summits. Lower elevations are characterized by mixed deciduous broadleaf forests (Q. robur, Fraxinus excelsior, Tilia platyphyllos, T. cordata, Ulmus glabra, Acer pseudoplatanus, A. platanoides). From a biogeographic point of view, emphasis should be given to the outstanding relict Mediterranean evergreen oak forests of Quercus ilex and Q. suber, which are scattered in limestone rocky elevations all along the coast, as well in mountain limestone canyons. These relict forests include many Tertiary relict species such as Laurus nobilis, Arbutus unedo, Rhamnus alaternus, as well as several fern species, such as Woodwardia radicans, Culcita macrocarpa, and Stennograma pozoi. Pinus pinaster has become significant in the Galician and Portuguese coastal sand dunes and rocky dry slopes.
Medium and high elevations are characterized by deciduous mixed forest of Q. petraea and Q. pyrenaica with Fagus sylvatica, which is absent in Galicia and Portugal. Small stands of scattered birch (Betula alba) frequently appear in the highest elevations up to 1,800 m. Above the timber line, high mountain summits are mainly characterized by endemic-rich cushion scrub communities, where dwarf Juniper, broom and heather species (Genista legionensis, G. occidentalis, Arctostaphylos crassifolia, Daboecia cantabrica, Erica mackaiana, Ulex gallii) predominate in meadows, peat bogs and rock plant communities.
The Cantabric and Northern Portugal Mountains still host some old growth forest, which maintain very pristine conditions and a high biodiversity. About 2,000 vascular plant species, of which between 10 to 20% are endemics – i.e. Genista berberidea, Aquilegia discolor, Armeria maritima, A. Pubigera, Cytisus ingramii, Linaria faucicola, Petrocoptis viscosa, P. grandiflora. The Covadonga National Park hosts more than 40 Orchid species.
Mammals are a prize of these national parks. Of particular interest are the last herds of wild horses (Equus caballus). Also present are wild boar (Sus scrofa), chamois (Rupicapra parva), red deer (Cervus elaphus elaphus), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and seldom seen, the Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus). Large carnivore populations are still significant, mainly in the central and western part of the ecoregion. The brown bear (Ursus arctos) population is fragmented in two small remaining groups of about 40-50 and 20 individuals; the wolf population is currently spreading into the southwestern part of the ecoregion. Large herbivores, such as red deer, and roe deer, are generally largely distributed. The endemic Cantabrian chamois (Rupicapra parva) occupies the high elevations of the Picos de Europa National Park, and the Somiedo Natural Park, with an estimated population of more than 8,000 individuals. A local horse variety, known as "asturcon", is very close to the original wild horse that appears in prehistoric paintings. Otter (lutra lutra) is still well represented in the Cantabric rivers and lakes. The ecoregion hosts other rare and threatened small mammals, such as the snow vole (Microtus nivalis), the Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus), and the endemic Cantabrian hare (Lepus castroviejoi).
Among the most notable birds are the highly endangered capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), and ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus). There are indeed a wide variety of raptors, though unfortunately, many of these are experiencing a decline. Other species include short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus), booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), sparrow hawk (Accipiter nisus), kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and eagle owl (Bubo bubo). Only one species of amphibian is endemic (Salamandra rabilarga) and is also included on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. One third of all European butterfly species are present in this ecoregion.
Wilderness areas can still be found in certain valleys, canyons and high slopes of the Cantabric and Northern Portugal Mountains. Intensive cattle raising historically has transformed the forests of most of the coastal low elevations and plains into pasture lands. Since the beginning of the 20th century, artifical plantations of Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.) and Monterrey pine (Pinus radiata) have also contributed to degradation of most of the forest landscape along the coast and lower mountain elevations. Air pollution and soil removal related to coal mining and power stations have reduced the mountain forest cover in significant areas.
Types and Severity of Threats
The current European Agriculture Common Policy has led to the collapse of the Cantabric cattle raising economy and the abandonment of traditional rural economies. This rural abandonment trend, which started five decades ago, has resulted in the natural expansion of forests in many mountain areas. Nevertheless, the low pasturelands of the coast and the hinterland are rapidly being tranformed into exotic tree plantations, with negative consequences to the biodiversity, to the environment and to the traditional rural landscapes. Furthermore, road construction (i.e. the coastal higway Basque-Galicia higway, the trans-mountains Madrid-Oviedo, and the Madrid-A Coruña higways) together with forest fragmentation are increasing the risk of extinction of the Cantabrian brown bear, already divided into two populations as a result of the Madrid-Oviedo highway.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit of the same name. It includes the lowland to submontane, montane to altimontane acidophilous oak and mixed oak forests, montane to altimontane beech and mixed beech forests, and mixed oak ash forests of the northwestern Iberian peninsula (Bohn et al. 2000).
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Prepared by: Pedro Regato
Reviewed by: In process