Europe’s Badlands


Nobody who has witnessed the breath-taking beauty of the stars on a clear night in the desert will ever forget the experience. For many, deserts are the very embodiment of vastness, silence and loneliness. However, deserts are anything but tranquil: constant drought, regular sandstorms, searing heat in the daytime and icy temperatures at night combine to create a secretive world that is both harsh and beautiful.

The word ‘desert’ causes most people to think of the Sahara or the Gobi: vast sand dunes that cover large areas of countries and continents. Alternatively, inhospitable stony deserts like Death Valley or Australia’s outback might come to mind – but the world’s deserts are not limited to Africa, Asia, America and Australia. Europe’s deserts are remarkable, not because of their dimensions, but because of their unusual history, characteristics or geographic locations in Spain, Italy, in the Highlands of Iceland or on the volcanic island of Fuerteventura. There are tiny deserts in Sweden and Norway, and large ones in Poland, Serbia and Ukraine. They all continue to expand, and their growth is being exacerbated by climate change.

Spain’s Tabernas Desert is often compared to the Badlands of North America, and temperatures here can rise to above 45 degrees Celsius during the summer. It is an inhospitable, sparse world created by centuries of low precipitation, extreme heat and strong wind erosion. There is very little vegetation and the stony landscape’s hills and valleys are interspersed with coarse canyons. The animals and plants that live here are specialists that have learned to survive despite the meagre resources the desert offers: the desert flower Moricandia foetida only grows in a few select places, and Bonelli’s eagles and scops owls are among the region’s notable predators. Meanwhile, wild cats and foxes roam the Bardenas Reales semi-desert in northern Spain. Little apart from saltwort grows on 400 square kilometres of sparse soil, and great bustards frequently fall prey to eagles and vultures.

The desert environment of Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands, is home to few animal species. Some types of quail, coursers and houbara bustards have adapted to life in the difficult island environment, while rare Canarian Egyptian vultures circle above.