Remembering the disaster that nearly destroyed Doñana
Two years ago in February, my first landfall in continental Europe was Doñana, Spain. From there I headed north through Spain, and on through Europe to the Arctic. I first visited Doñana in 1988, thirty years ago. I did not know it then, but it was to be the first of dozens of visits to a place that I would be compelled to return to. Today, I look back exactly 20 years, to a disaster that nearly destroyed this, Spain's most beloved natural and cultural space. To mark the anniversary, the Spanish conservation group SEO-BirdLife have invited me to blog about my memories of that fateful night. Click below for the Spanish and English versions, and my reflections on a 130 year-long Anglo-Spanish conservation story.
Spring starts officially today, unless you're reading this in the southern hemisphere!
On this day two years ago: cuckoo, subalpine warbler, lesser kestrel, sawfly orchid. And a visit to Weird Sculpture Farm. Oropesa de Toledo, Spain. The Long Spring pages 45-48.
Thank you to Broadhurst &Co. of Southport for this equinoctial tweet of support!
Another outrage in the Monadhliaths
“They are ice-white in the morning sun; under the snow, even now, the budding heather is weaving for them a purple summer livery. But their name means ‘grey mountains’ in Gaelic, and behind their staunch ramparts lie murky lands, where adventuring eagles meet their doom.” The Long Spring p. 161
It was a clash of images – the brilliant blue and white of the Monadhliath mountains seen on that April morning, and the knowledge of the ugly secrets hidden within their granite bastions. During The Long Spring journeys I travelled alongside them, and wrote of their beauty and of their shameful history of raptor persecution. Three weeks – and 26 pages – later, I was in Sweden, but found myself once more writing about Scotland: another young golden eagle, a female tagged with a satellite transmitter, had disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the Mondhliaths, Inverness-shire. “Since 2011,” I wrote, “six tagged golden eagles have disappeared suddenly in the Monadhliaths, one of the most intensively-managed game shooting areas in Scotland. How many untagged raptors die there is known only by their slayers.”
After I had finished the journeys, but before I’d even completed the manuscript, I was already writing an endnote: “Within two months, another two golden eagles were added to this grim toll…” it said, also adding a hen harrier to the 2016 list of victims. The book finished, I sent it off, while the slaughter continued. I was able to make a last-minute addition to the endnote with the news that a buzzard had been illegally trapped in the Monadhliaths in June 2017.
On Thursday RSPB Scotland announced that another satellite-tagged golden eagle has disappeared in the northern Monadhliaths. This was apparently the twelfth in seven years, suggesting the appalling toll I have been reporting is an under-statement. Data from the two-year old male’s transmitter showed that he had been living north of Tomatin since early last year. He stayed almost exclusively in this area until mid December, when his tag, which had been functioning normally, inexplicably stopped transmitting. The area is mainly managed for driven grouse shooting,
"On Thursday night, The Shooting Times broke ranks with these criminals"
During The Long Spring, I became increasingly uneasy about the fragile coexistence between conservation and hunting, especially in three of the six countries I passed through. In France, I found that specially protected wildlife areas are managed by hunters for hunters and offer little or no added value to the species they are protected for, and in many cases are clearly detrimental. Sweden’s brown bears, one of the most endangered European mammals, are killed on spurious grounds of livestock protection, in order to assuage a minority field sports lobby over a majority of objectors. The patent cruelty of intensive pheasant rearing and the embedded criminality that afflicts so much grouse shooting shames the UK. On Thursday night, the Shooting Times broke ranks with these criminals, telling 26,000 followers in an unprecedented and unequivocal tweet: “If you kill raptors and you buy Shooting Times, please desist from doing both. You are ruining our sport and we don’t want your custom.”
In The Long Spring’s reflective final chapter, I revisit the question of hunting. Traditionally, calls for greater control of hunting take one of two forms – oppose it outright on moral and/or cruelty grounds, or take a morally neutral stance and manage it to minimise its impact on species and habitats. It occurred to me as I was writing my book that neither considers the cultural implications in this 21st century of giving individuals proprietorial rights over our impoverished common heritage. All the traditions and practices of hunting in Europe date from a time of abundance. I concluded that a case for reevaluating hunting can be made on conservation grounds, not just moral grounds.
"The case for a third way"
During the several months’ gestation between finished manuscript and publication last week, I have reflected further, feeling the need for a deeper analysis of my own feelings and views. In the first of a series of essays that pick up on themes from The Long Spring, I make the case for a third way: a fundamental cultural shift, that doesn’t have to mean dogmatic opposition to hunting and calling for the complete elimination of field sports. We need, though, to reverse a basic presumption about the place of hunting in 21st century Britain. This presumption, hitherto, is that we all have an absolute right to hunt, you, me, everyone, regardless of our impact on wider public interests. Click on the button below for the first of the Long Spring Essays, where I expand further on this theme.
This is the scene that greeted me here at home in Yorkshire on what is supposed to be the first day of The Long Spring - publication day!
The artwork for the book, along with more from my collaborator Richard Allen, will be the subject of a special exhibition in Richard's home town of Wivenhoe, Essex during 16-18 March, and on the evening of Friday 16th we will be launching the book with a talk at The Nottage.
For details of this and forthcoming talks in Leeds, Speyside, Shipley, Bolton, Walsall, Norwich, Southport and Derby, click the TALKS tab.
Together, they depict a cross-section of the wildlife I encountered on The Long Spring journeys, including cranes, ospreys, choughs, moose, mountain hares, and white-tailed eagles. In the final illustration, even the extinct great auk is featured. And I did encounter some!
The Long Spring is published in March.
3. Olivier Messiaen
March 29 2016, Côte Vermeille, Pyrénées-Orientales. The headlands stretch out into the sea like crocodiles. In an echoing crevice of the cliff-face a blue rock thrush sings
When Olivier Messiaen came here in June 1957 he wrote into his notebook a succinct description of the landscape he discovered, notes that found their way onto the cover page of his piano piece Le Merle Bleu – the Blue Rock Thrush. He also noted that the blue rock thrush song “blends with the noise of the waves. I hear the Thekla lark as it flutters in the sky above the vines and rosemary. The yellow-legged gulls cry from afar. The cliffs are terrifying. The water comes to die at their feet in the memory of the blue rock thrush.” He was describing the landscape and sounds of the coast near Banyuls-sur-Mer, and provided the clues that would lead me to the same spot nearly sixty years later.
During The Long Spring journeys I walked south from Banyuls along the twisting coast road until I found a path off to the left that took me down to the sea. From there I looked south along a series of headlands – Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis, Cap de Peyrefite, Cap Canadell, and Cap Cerbère. Messiaen’s note on the title page of Le Merle Bleu is specific in naming the places he had come seeking inspiration: “Near Banyuls: Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis.” I was looking for a cliff face among the many minor capes and inlets, using the clues he left behind.
To my right, the bay reflected a deep, charcoal-infused blue. In Le Merle Bleu, the blue rock thrush represents the sea in its different simultaneous moods. I heard one in the distance to my right. Suddenly, the bird appeared from between two rock stumps to my right, flew over the finger of rock I was sitting on, and disappeared down into the smaller cove on my left. On its short passage through my visual field, its colour changed with each wing-beat, according to its background and the angle it made with the sun. In the score, Messiaen mentions the colour-shifts of both the sea and the bird; the one represents the other. He annotates the score itself: “the resonance of rock faces”, “luminous iridescent, blue halo”, or depicting the horizon of “the blue sea”. The harmonies are intended to complement the “satin texture and the purple-blue, slate-blue and blue-black shades” of the blue rock thrush's plumage.
Olivier Messiaen wrote his first significant birdsong-inspired piece in Stalag VIII-A prisoner of war camp in Görlitz (now Zgorzelec, Poland). Quartet for the End of Time, a staple of modern repertoire, was originally written for Messiaen and three fellow prisoners to perform, which they did on 15 January 1941 to a rapt audience of 400 inmates. For both Maria Àngels Anglada (featured in the second article in this series) and Messiaen, wildlife symbolised freedom and identity and their works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature, one of the themes of The Long Spring.
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
2: Poet of the marshes
During The Long Spring I visited Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, in Catalonia, where I discovered not just a wealth of wildlife, but also a poet, Maria Àngels Anglada. Born in 1930, she grew up speaking an illegal language, and when the Franco-era repression was finally lifted, her poetry and novels helped cement the modern Catalan literary heritage. The words she chose to use were those of nature: wildlife symbolised freedom and identity, and her works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature, something she had in common with other artists in this series.
Aiguamolls is a series of wetlands, once covering nearly 12,000 acres, formed by the rivers Muga and Fluvià where they flow into the Bay of Roses of the Costa Brava. Ten plaques, each a poem or an excerpt from Anglada’s prose, form a literary trail around this Parc Natural.
The first poem on the trail is called Al Grup de Defensa dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà; the last, Aiguamolls 1985. The two poems are almost identical. The first was written in 1976 at the height of the transformation of the Costa Brava from a remote, rugged and picturesque landscape to the world’s first and most notorious mass-market resort. It foretells the cataclysm of the lost marshes: “Will they invade this living shelter that so many wings yearn for from afar?” …. Lines dedicated to the local campaigners who were fighting against overwhelming odds.
Then in 1983, victory was declared with the designation of the area, first as an Area of National Interest, and later as a fully protected Parc Natural. Anglada rewrote her poem in celebration: “They have not destroyed this living shelter that so many wings yearn for from afar.” …. “Flamingoes, our friends the mallards, return, return, Kentish plover and lapwing, colourful princess of winter.”
The earlier poem’s prediction that “walls of cement, debris, dust alone will be the nests where once pulsated life” became, in 1985, “walls of cement and iron have retreated before nests all pulsating life”.
Anglada’s 1981 short story Flors per a Isabel - Flowers for Isabel – is set in 1810 and relates how in “the first half of March…with the war we had neglected cleaning ditches and a large pool of shallow water lay under trees that broke into bud with their feet soaked.” These words are on a gate at the edge of a flooded field which I leaned on to watch two angular great white egrets making geometric reflections in the still water.
Maria Àngels Anglada i d’Abadal was born in 1930 in Vic, 65 miles from Aiguamolls, and died in 1999 having moved into the Empordà, which reminded her of the ancient and modern Greek literary landscapes she studied at the University of Barcelona and whose idioms she blended into her own works. She visited Mytilene whose “wild flowers, silvery olive trees and intensely blue sea reminds me of the Costa Brava, before they destroyed it.”
I am grateful to the poet's daughters Mariona and Rosa, and sister Enriqueta, for their help in improving my translations.
Next in the series: Olivier Messiaen’s Blue Rock Thrush
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
1: Celebrating Finland 100
During The Long Spring journeys I encountered many artists, past and present, with close associations with the places I visited. For some, such as Maria Àngels Anglada, the Catalan novelist and poet, and the composer Olivier Messiaen, wildlife symbolised freedom and identity and their works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature. In Finland, I read some of Elias Lönnrot’s epic Kalevala, the poem that inspired so much of Sibelius’s music. When the poem and the music inspired an independent Finland a hundred years ago this month, wildlife was an inextricable part of the narrative.
In this first in a series of articles, I recall my journey through that young country.
Half world's population of rare endemic affected
Last month’s wildfire in Doñana appears to have had a serious impact on threatened species, including forty species of plants. One, Linaria tursica is endemic to the Doñana area – more than half the known world population is found in the burnt area.
Moorish toadflax, as its scientific name could be translated, is a small, pale purple snapdragon-like flower highly adapted to mobile sandy soils. Also associated with the affected area are the globally-threatened Spanish imperial eagle and other raptors including red kite, short-toed eagle and booted eagle.
However, Carlos Dávila of SEO/BirdLife, sees an opportunity. Much of the burnt area is a plantation of pine, which over much of Doñana has replaced the native cork oak : “It would be good to see an ecological restoration following the fire that is based on planting key elements of the original forest such as wild olive, mastic, dwarf palm, Mediterranean buckthorn or strawberry tree. And when conditions of soil and shade are right, replanting cork oaks will be possible.”
Fire ravages lynx habitat
During The Long Spring, my first port of call in Europe, once I’d crossed the Mediterranean, was Doñana. It is Spain’s most celebrated natural space, and one of Europe’s most important wetlands. It was probably my thirtieth visit, at least, a place I have been drawn to since the 1980s, when I was first sent there by the RSPB. My task was to work with what was then a small organisation, now the mighty SEO/BirdLife, to help build support for conservation in Spain. They were battling against Costa Doñana, a plan to double the size of the already huge resort at Matalascañas, threatening to destroy internationally-important sand dunes, home to the world’s most threatened cat, the Iberian lynx.
After a five-year fight, the plans were cancelled and instead, in 1992 a €344 million investment was announced: El Plan de Desarrollo Sostenible de Doñana – the sustainable development plan for Doñana.
Ten years later, on the night of 26 April 1998, I tuned in to the BBC World Service at the tail end of a news story about an environmental disaster in Spain. A reservoir containing waste from the Los Frailes pyrite mine at Aznalcóllar had collapsed, spilling five million cubic metres of lead, arsenic and cadmium-laden mud and acid water. A tsunami of poison flowed into the River Guadiamar, one of the main sources of water into Doñana, thirty miles downstream. The wave killed everything in the river, and spread over 5,000 hectares of farmland, which will never again produce food. The RSPB and SEO/BirdLife mobilised again. SEO would focus on supporting recovery efforts and pushing for long-term solutions, while the Government’s clean-up was under way. I again coordinated international support.
Three years ago, I went back to make a programme for the BBC radio series Costing the Earth. As reporter Julian Rush and I stood on the banks of the Guadiamar, close to where the wave of toxic waste had flowed sixteen years earlier, we could see poplars and willows had thrived in the humidity of the river and the warmth of Andalucía. The contaminated farmland has been allowed to rewild and has become a green corridor linking Doñana with the Sierra Morena to the north, hopefully reconnecting the fragmented and brink-teetering Iberian lynx population.
So news this weekend of fire raging through the pine and juniper forests to the west of Doñana brought back the same sense of doom I felt in 1998. As the flames spread uncontrollably, whipped by hot, dry gusts of wind, it became clear that the Iberian lynx captive breeding centre in El Achebuche was in their path. The animals and officers were evacuated: nine adult and five young lynx were gathered together for relocation; one sadly died during the operation, and with little time available, another thirteen had to be released to fend for themselves; eleven were eventually relocated and appeared in good health, with no immediate news of the whereabouts and safety of the other two.
Over four days, the fire gutted more than 10,000 hectares of pine and marine juniper forest and matorral scrub. SEO’s preliminary assessment was published on Monday: protected areas important for lynx - including the territories of three wild females -, chameleon, stone curlew, short-toed and booted eagles have been badly affected.
This morning efeverde.com reports that tracks of the remaining two lynx have been seen, and experts have set camera traps and cage traps in the area. The fourteen evacuated lynx have arrived back in the breeding centre at El Acebuche. The fire is under control, but 45 firefighters, equipped with five fire engines and a bulldozer, will stay in the area until the risk of re-ignition is over.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.