In the far north of Spain rise the Cantabrian Mountains, home to one of the most pristine ecosystems in Europe. In the heart of this untamed range lives the smallest subspecies of chamois: the Cantabrian chamois.
It’s already the end of November and chamois hunting season in Spain ends in two days’ time. Very early in the morning, just as we are crossing one of the many Picos de Europa (“Peaks of Europe”), the raindrops turn into snowflakes that quickly cover the 2,648-meter Torre de Cerredo. When the sky finally clears, we experience a sunrise whose brilliance is heightened by the crisp, clear air.
We meet Manuel, our hunting guide, and set off on a two-day hunt, which the locals call rebeco: a term whose origins go back to the Celtic language, meaning something like “dwelling in the stones”. We were on our feet for eight hours the first day, but found not a single chamois track. Now the second day in this breathtaking landscape begins. We have just covered a few hundred meters when Manuel pauses, looking through his binoculars. He mutters, “Cervo,” and the binoculars replace our translator as they reveal a pack of red deer about a kilometer off. In the midst of dozens of deer, we spot a stag with impressive antlers eyeing us from his observation post. He has spotted us. Such suspicion leads us to conclude that hunting pressure is high – not surprising, since Asturias likely has the greatest density of wolves and bears in Europe. The deer disappear behind the ridge and we continue our ascent. After five hours, we reach a plateau that rewards us with a magnificent view. But, so far, no chamois.
We relax a bit while Manuel takes his spotting scope out of his backpack. As an icy wind blows snowflakes into our faces, we discover countless tracks on the opposite slope. It’s such a vast expanse that it takes us about another hour before we see a brown spot in a rocky area of around 100 hectares. Manuel is convinced that it’s a chamois, but we have to get closer to be sure. Then a rock face cuts us off. The animal is still about 300 meters away. The rifle rests on the bipod. The laser rangefinder is working perfectly. But the chamois stays put. It is a male, about six years old, as we can guess from its Horns – which don’t extend beyond its ears. When the chamois finally stands up, we notice it’s as big as a roebuck! The scope is aligned above the dorsal line, the animal stands wide, but the moment the finger gently pulls the trigger, a violent gust of wind catapults the bullet behind the chamois.
The male chamois nimbly moves down the slope, leaping from rock to rock in ways that would make us two-legged creatures break all our bones, before finally stopping and assessing the danger we pose. Manuel has tracked its whole journey with the laser rangefinder and lets another bullet fly. This time, it reaches its target. The lifeless body falls from the cliffs – and we need two hours to retrieve it. Only then do we realize that the Cantabrian chamois is much smaller than its relatives in the Alps and Pyrenees. In our case, that’s a real advantage – we still have a few hours of walking before we arrive back at our starting point… on the other side of the Peaks of Europe!