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.
Live action from Alcalá de Henares
A year ago today, the journeys that made up The Long Spring came to an end. I was in Arctic Norway, having reached my final destination via North Africa, Spain, France, Britain, Sweden and Finland. Birds were my constant companions, and some species - cranes, ravens, even bluethroats - seemed to be acting as guides on my path, so constant were they.
For the first half of The Long Spring, right up to the Channel coast, white storks were like emblems of travel. I visited one of the towns laying claim to the title "Stork Capital", Alfaro in La Rioja, Spain. Another is Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid Region, where pride in the local storks is almost universal. Now SEO/BirdLife offer the chance for everyone to enjoy the not-so-private lives of this much-loved bird, live by webcam. The show has attracted over a quarter of a million hits so far.
One of many abiding memories of my encounters with storks last year is of their own special sound at the nest, which you should be able to hear from time to time if you tune in to the Alcalá family. My notes from Alfaro say:
"Each bird’s return is marked by a duet of bill-clattering, a sound like deep castanets, amplified by a resonating chamber in the birds’ throats. This gular pouch under the chin, is turned skywards as the birds draw their heads back to lay their long necks along their backs. It is a sound that in Spain is familiar and distinctive enough to have acquired its own word – crotoreo."
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.