In a secluded valley in the Serra da Sao Mamede, Alto Alentejo, Portugal.

Encounters with Iberian Lynx in Portugal's Sao Mamede Natural Park, Alentejo

Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus). They exist in the Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede, Portugal

Whilst building the wooden deck at the back of the Quinta conversation got around to the local wildlife one day. Roger said he saw an Iberian Lynx sat in the road near the peak of Sao Mamede in Alentejo.

Iberian Lynx are known to exist in Portugal's Algarve hills and nearby in Spain but not in the Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede so I was a bit dismissive and suggested it might be a one of the other cat-like creatures known to occupy the area. Maybe a genet.

"Well it was a cat the size of a dog with pointed tufted ears, sat in the road in broad daylight and when I stopped the car it walked away into the undergrowth." he said, with a hint of indignation.

Caught in the headlights.

About a year later, in the evening after working at the Quinta and returning to our house in Portalegre I headed up the hill in the Freelander. It was after dusk and fairly dark but not completely and I saw the headlights of an oncoming car in the distance. It was so far away I kept my headlights on main beam.

As we drew closer to each other I dipped my headlights and so did the oncoming car. In fact our dipping was simultaneous. That's a bit of a coincidence but not impossible, I thought. As we got close I slowed down, knowing that to pass each other on the narrow forest road we would need to be going pretty slow.

On reflection, no coincidence.

Closer still and the car in front was off the road and slightly above it. I was looking at the reflection of my own lights in the eyes of an animal at the edge of the road and I could make out that it was the size of a medium sized dog. Closer still and driving slowly in case there was a shepherd I hadn't seen I watched the "dog" walk off the road and disappear into the undergrowth. This was a fire break so there wasn't much to hide behind but the animal was nowhere to be seen even when I stopped to get a better look.

As I drove on with full beam lights I saw another pair of eyes looking down from the higher ground on the other side of the road. As I drove by, from the movement of the car and the distance between its eyes and knowing the terrain and the distance of the animal I could tell this was a smaller animal about the size of a domestic cat.

It wasn't until later that I was able to reason what I had just seen. There isn't a dog on earth whose reflecting eyes would look like the headlights of an oncoming car. This was a cat the size of a dog. The reason it walked off the road rather than bolt was because its young offspring was on the other side of the road and it didn't want to be separated.

So Iberian Lynx breed in the hills of the Sao Mamede Natural Park.

There was no coincidence with simultaneous dipping of headlights but there was a coincidence. My encounter was about 100 metres away from the place Roger had described about a year earlier.

It was close to the highest point of my route where the spur road runs up to the peak of Sao Mamede.

Wrong habitat?

This is the wrong terrain for Iberian Lynx. They are said to be much more likely to occupy grassy areas inhabited by rabbits which they feed upon. Back in 2004 we saw a young rabbit twice at the Quinta but none since then.

We have new neighbours who keep hens and guinea fowl. One evening at dusk, when they were about to put the fowl in for the night the neighbour saw one of his guinea fowl heading up a path away from the house. A few moments later he went to fetch it but all he found was a few feathers in a bit of a trail. He had seen fox attacks before but this was very different. He asked me "Are there any big cats around here?". My reply began with "Well, it's funny you should ask that..."

By Chris Jones 2013