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.
Yorkshire, 18 February: house martins on their way?
These house martins were gathering mud to build their nests on 5 February, nearly two weeks ago. They were in the far south of Europe, in the village of El Rocío at the edge of the Doñana marshes.
I wondered if they had overwintered. Some field guides show a resident population of swallows in the area, but overwintering house martins would be unexpected. And it seemed unlikely - there were several hundred of them. In fact, based on previous visits I was not surprised to see them. Until recently, I was always skeptical about those overwintering swallows, too. Certainly, you can see swallows every day of the year in Doñana. But my hunch was always that there was a long overlap between late southbound migrants and early returners. After all, in Britain we usually get a few late November records, and even December birds are not unknown.
My guess is that the last southbound birds and the first northbound ones overlap around Christmas or New Year. This year, both swallow and house martin numbers started to build up in Doñana from mid-January. Whether climate change is tempting some to stay in southern Spain all year will be difficult to assess, but I may have to change my view about overlapping migrant swallows.
In this part of the UK, it will be difficult this year to work out what is going on with our birds. Although we are now seeing some vague signs of winter at last, in reality, last autumn gave way to spring-like conditions without winter seeing fit to intervene. I've been keeping an eye on BirdTrack, the BTO-hosted app where birdwatchers record their sightings. It is an accumulation of millions of individually insignificant pieces of data, that collectively is giving us new insights into the distribution and migrations of our birds.
I see that a handful of house martins have been hanging around in the west of Britain and in Ireland, with a smattering of December records, and a few in late January. The last was on 1 February, until this week, when the species has again been reported in Cornwall, on February 15. Why not take the optimistic view and imagine that this may be an early arrival, rather than a lingering bird from last year?
February 3, Dehesa de Abajo, Doñana, Spain
Come St. Blas Day
Storks on their way;
If they don’t show,
Winter of snow.
I’ve taken a few liberties to keep it rhyming as it does in Spanish, but it’s one of several sayings that suggest the 3rd of February, here in Spain, is regarded as the first day of Spring. The literal version is “Come St. Blas Day, you’ll see the stork; if you don’t, it’ll be a snowy year.” Another version is “Frost on St. Blas Day, thirty days more”, echoing the English tradition that rain on St. Swithun’s Day augurs another forty wet days. “Plant one garlic clove on St. Blas Day, gather seven.” And a cloudless sky (a silken sky to use the Spanish term) at dawn on the 3rd February is said to usher in a good year for grapes.
Well, we’ve been seeing storks since we arrived, and the truth is, the saying no longer holds true, with huge numbers of white storks now spending all year in Spain. They have learnt to scavenge on rubbish tips like gulls, and fewer feel the need to head south to sub-Saharan Africa.
Some still do, and a few carry satellite tags with them. The conservation group SEO/BirdLife Spain has tracked dozens of storks, whose movements are followed eagerly by scientists and internet birdwatchers alike. One, named Picopelucho, was hatched here in Dehesa de Abajo, and on 20 June was fitted with a transmitter. A few weeks later it crossed the Strait into Africa, resting a few days in Morocco. Then it carried on to Mali, arriving there in early September. It was last heard of in November. The previous year, “Javier” made an identical journey, but then turned west to Senegal, before beginning the return journey on 10 December. He reached Doñana on 26 January, more than a week before St. Blas Day.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.