Crete’s wildlife and landscape are two of the island’s attractions, including gorges for hiking, rare raptors like the lammergeier, wildcats and ancient trees.
Hippos in Chania? Elephants at Elafonisi? Though these creatures roamed the island in times past, Crete’s landscape – and its fauna and flora – has been changed considerably by human habitation.
Crete’s defining natural features are its mountains, which cover two-thirds of its surface. Four great ranges slice through the island from east to west. The highest and most dramatic are the Levka Ori (White Mountains) in the west. The central Psiloritis range contains Crete’s highest peak, Mount Ida at 8,058 feet (2,456 m).
In the east are the Dikti and Siteia ranges. Made primarily of limestone, the mountains are riddled with caves that vary from great caverns with impressive formations to unexplored pot-holes. The best-known cave is the Diktean Cave, the birthplace of Zeus.
Looking at Crete’s dry landscape today, often covered in stubby kermes oak and phrygana (a low scrub), it’s hard to imagine that it was once densely forested in cedar and cypress. The seafaring Minoans were the first to fell the ancient trees, using the lumber for ships and building, but the Venetians and Turks continued the deforestation and today only small pockets of native woodland exist, mainly in remote areas.
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With the loss of this habitat, Crete’s deer and many other larger woodland species of mammal largely died out. Of the smaller mammals that remain today, the endemic Cretan spiny mouse with its characteristic back spines is notable.
Growing wild on many hillsides, and adding to the pleasure of walking on Crete, are numerous aromatic herbs including oregano, thyme, sage, and marjoram. Needless to say, these are commonly used in Cretan cooking, often gathered wild by people going foraging for them. See also our page on The Herb Man of Kouses.
Cretan dittany, or diktamo, is a medicinal herb that grows in remote gorges and which was used in ancient times to heal arrow wounds and ease childbirth pains. These days, people make tea with it, as a pleasant drink in its own right but also to help soothe stomach pains.
The kri-kri, sometimes called the agrimi, is a large, wild goat with sweeping horns, much like those of an ibex. Its summer coat is reddish-brown, and males have a rather large beard. Plentiful in ancient times, it was often depicted in Minoan art but was subsequently hunted to near extinction.
The only natural population left is in remote areas of the White Mountains, where happily numbers have increased since the introduction of the national park there in 1962. Some animals were also moved to Dia and other offshore islands for protection. The kri-kri is very shy, but we were fortunate enough to see and film some of them when we stopped for a break while hiking the Samaria Gorge.
Crete’s geographical position and diverse habitats of high coastal cliffs, rocky islets, wetlands, and meadows make it a mecca for birdlife. Out of Greece’s 420 species, 350 have been spotted on Crete, and the island is also a top-over for winter migrants.
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Crete is the last breeding ground in Greece for the rare and endangered lammergeier, or bearded vulture. This magnificent bird has a wingspan of up to three meters (almost ten feet). Only about thirty birds are known to survive on Crete, but lammergeiers are occasionally seen soaring over the Omolos or Lasithi plateaus. An unusual feature of this bird is that most of its diet consists not of meat but of bones. It drops bones from a great height to smash them on rocks and then eat them.
You would have to be very lucky to see a lammergeyer but you’re far more likely to see a griffon vulture, with its distinctive white head. They’re still rare but Crete has the healthiest population of them in Greece and you may see them in groups of up to twenty or so, mainly in the mountainous regions. Other raptors to watch for include Eleonora’s falcons, which can also be seen in large groups, or the more solitary golden eagle.
In spring the Crete countryside is ablaze with colour as wild flowers bloom in every field and crevice. One-third of Greece’s 6,000 plant species can be found on Crete, and nine percent of these are endemic. One of the more unusual is Phoenix theophrasti, a native date palm, a reminder that Crete is as close to North Africa as it is to Athens.
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Several dozen African and Asiatic species, as well as plants from the Balkans and Western Europe, are also present on Crete, making it a rich hunting ground for botanists.
Above all, however, Crete is renowned for its wild orchids – there are some 67 varieties to be found around the island – and bulbs, including wild tulips, Cretan iris, and Cretan ebony.
Along the tree line (1,500 meters/4,921 feet) of the southern White Mountains are cypress trees that are over 1,000 years old. Not only are they among the oldest trees in Europe, but early signs of coppicing suggest that they may also be the world’s oldest managed forest. At this elevation the tress rarely grow taller than two meters (6-7 feet), but are often larger in diameter than usual. The annual rings on their trunks record climatic changes since Roman times.
The beaches west of Rethymnon, west of Chania, and around Matala on the south coast, are important breeding grounds for the loggerhead sea turtle. These creatures lay their eggs in soft sand at night, and are greatly threatened by tourism development. The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece operates a conservation programme with kiosks in the appropriate resorts to raise awareness of the threat to the turtles.
Most in danger of extinction, though, is the Mediterranean monk seal, which has been seen around islets off the coast of Crete. There are also small populations around Corfu, and Alonissos in the Sporades. In all, though, there are only about 700 seals left, all in isolated pockets in parts of the Mediterranean.
The Greek name for the Cretan wildcat is fourokatos, which means the furious cat. This animal was for a long time thought to be a myth until a team of students studying carnivorous animals unexpectedly trapped one in 1996. This astonishing find confirmed reports by shepherds in the Psiloritis Mountains who claimed to have seen this elusive, nocturnal animal.
The captured cat weighed 5.5 kg (12 pounds) and was radio-collared and set free. Sightings are almost non-existent, although the cat has been photographed using photo-traps. It has a tawny coat and a growl like a tiger, but is not in fact related to the cats of mainland Greece or Europe. Instead, it is related to a species from North Africa.