Mountain Wildlife Friends: Living With Basque Country Wildlife

By Teo Spengler | September 2, 2020

While the wildlife in my San Francisco garden is pretty much limited to robins during the day and raccoons at night, in France it’s a different story. On the slopes of LaRhune, at my home in French Basque Country, the mountain wildlife is truly wild.

Wildlife in French Basque Country

When I first settled on the mountain, I admit my wonder at the Basque Country wildlife was mixed with good, old-fashioned fear, but over time I got used to all of the critters and love them.

Wild Basque Ponies with Bells

The iconic “wildlife” in French Basque Country is the Basque pony, called the pottok. These amazing beasts look very much like the big-bellied horses sketched on walls by cavemen, and they might have been, given how much is unknown about Basque history. When I first saw the ponies, I was surprised that these “wild” Basque ponies had thick leather collars with large metal bells attached.

While pottoks roam the mountain in herds, they aren’t entirely left to their own devices on the mountain. Each one is owned by a local Basque, and some of the owners provide them with food in winter and vaccines in summer. They use the bells to locate them, since each bell makes a different sound.

I love seeing the pottoks, especially with their new foals in the spring. But they proved problematic for the garden. These ponies are always hungry and, in winter, would root out whatever trees and shrubs I had planted and munch them up. In the end, I had to fence in the entire acreage in order to protect my young trees.

Mountain Wildlife Aplenty

The snakes were harder to get used to. The first time I saw a snake was at my window, and the window was open. The snake was huge and beautiful, considerably longer than 3 feet (1 meter) and coiled on the outer windowsill, its head raised and tongue flicking in and out. I rushed over and closed the window.

It turned out that there are two kinds of snakes in the area. The big ones are the magnificent couleuvres, large snakes essentially harmless to humans that keep down the mice population in the garden. I consider them friendly wildlife and never tried to harm them. The dangerous ones are vipers, much shorter and their venom will kill you in a couple hours. These I don’t see much, but I always wear snake-proof boots when I hike through the high grass fields.

In addition to the snakes, there are frogs, toads, newts and big electric-green lizards on the mountain. I put in a garden pond for them to lay eggs in where they can cool off on hot afternoons. Once I tried to protect a newt from another who was posturing aggressively until I learned from my natural history books that this was their mating dance.

But that’s not all the Basque Country wildlife by any means. Bird range from tiny European robins to cuckoos calling out in spring, to various types of owls at night, to vultures with a wingspread wider than my arms. There are hedgehogs that eat the dogfood when I leave it outside, and wild boars called sangliers that would eat your corn crop. There are little bounding creatures like deer, wild hares as big as my pitbull, and the blackbirds that wake me up in the morning with their silver calls.

The point of living on the mountain is to love these animals, and I do. Some disrupt the order I try to impose on my land, but I am learning to sit with the disorder and see the beauty. No teacher is more prepared to show you a different view of life than nature herself, and I remain her happy pupil.

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