The top picture was taken a year ago by one of our guests, John Tschopp from Canada. It is the view across the nearby plains of Belén to the Gredos mountains, about a hundred kilometres away. They rise to almost 2,600 metres and form the northern boundary of Extremadura. It shows the mountains as they normally would appear in March, covered in snow. The lower picture is the same view taken this March. The difference is striking. The mountains bear testament to the fact that we are in a long drought which has lasted all winter and is now pushing its way into spring too. The foreground in both pictures tells the same story. The upper picture shows green pasture, in the lower the field is parched. There is no sign of rain on its way and now the unusually bitterly cold temperatures of early February have been replaced by temperatures more suited to late April. The ground is like dust and very few flowers have managed to show an appearance. In my vegetable garden, the broad beans are a sorry sight, the rows broken by big gaps where plants have withered. I have planted lettuce and Swiss chard and am watering them furiously. Everyone has the same story and are equally worried. Livestock farmers face having to buy more feed at prices that will rocket. Farmers depending on rain for their spring crops are desperate. This will mean a higher cost of living, hurting an already fragile economy.
It is not good news for the birds either. Breeding success depends a lot on the amount of primary productivity, i.e. how much the plants will grow. On that depends the number of insects and other herbivores. On these many birds will depend. We have enjoyed two wonderfully productive springs over the last two years. For many birds one poor spring can be overcome: long-lived birds will experience good times and bad, so that single bad episodes may not be significant during a lifetime, small birds have fewer chances, but their populations can often bounce back after a setback. However, there are some species that we are particualrly worried about. Little Bustard is one. Unlike many birds in Extremadura, its population has been declining very sharply over the last decade or so. We know that dry springs can reduce their breeding success enormously because of the absence of food for chicks. To an already highly vulnerable population, such setbacks can be very serious indeed. We are all hoping for rain.
I drove back home across the plains, feeling troubled and helpless. My mood lifted somewhat by the sight close to the road of a party of proud male Great Bustards, which took to the wing in their powerful, stately fashion. From a nearby pile of stones a movement caught my eye and for a moment we looked at each other. It felt like just the two of us. Little Owl and me.