A day in Doñana

Following the European Vertebrate Pest Management Conference at the University of Sevilla, we were treated to a field day into the Doñana National Park, a huge (>530 km2) area of coastline and its hinterland to the south-west of Sevilla on Spain’s Atlantic coast. Its importance as a bird-rich wilderness area was highlighted in the 1950s, leading to its designation as a protected area and its international recognition as an ecosystem of outstanding value. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Ramsar wetland.

Pine woodland on the dunes
Pine woodland on the dunes

We were taken by bus from Sevilla to the Park’s visitor centre, where we transferred to massive Mercedes 4×4 dune buggies that each carried about 20 passengers. From here we first toured the system of mobile sand dunes just inland of the coast. The most conspicuous vegetation was pine woodland but this is under constant change. Shifting dunes slowly encroach on existing woodland, killing the trees, but the woodland re-establishes in new dune hollows and slopes. The dunes and woodland are home to a variety of mammals (we saw trails of Red Deer footprints and other paw marks) and reptiles but during this visit there were few birds. We were surprised to learn that this dominant vegetation was not in fact the original woodland of the dune system; it had formerly been stands of Juniper but these trees had been removed for construction and fuel, indicating the huge historical influence that man’s activities have had on the area.

Wild horses on the extensive, but dry "marismas"
Wild horses on the extensive, but dry “marismas”

We then made our way into the marshes. These were bone dry after a long hot summer but we were told that following autumn rains the marshes become an enormous wetland, teeming with waterbirds of many kinds. This represents a vital wintering area for waterbirds from a vast area of Europe and western Asia, a breeding area for species that have spent the northern winter in Africa, and a transit area for birds on migration. At the interface between the dune woodland and the marshes we were treated to close views of Wild Boar, Fallow and Red Deer, the last rutting. In addition, we had close encounters with wild cattle and horses, which are the progenitors of the long-horn cattle and the mustangs that were shipped to the Americas, initially via the Guadalquivir River that flows from Sevilla to the Atlantic Ocean along the eastern border of the National Park.

Where are the ladies?
Where are the ladies?

Our final stage was a drive along about 30 km of beach. This is used by fishermen (and women) and tourists but during our visit the most numerous visitors were sea and shore birds. Most of the seabirds were gulls, Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls and also large numbers of the once rare but now much more abundant Audouin’s Gulls. The shorebirds were dominated by Oystercatchers (including a very odd-looking leucistic bird) and many parties of 30 or more Sanderlings, running like clockwork toys as they searched for food at the water’s edge. Other notable bird sightings of the day were an Arctic Skua, Osprey, Booted Eagle and a large dark eagle being mobbed by a Honey Buzzard.

During the tour we learned of the many threats faced by the Park, including alien invasive species that we had heard so much about during the conference. These included a range of mammals such as Racoon and Racoon-dog, plus an important invertebrate, the American Red Crayfish, and a virus, Rabbit Haemorrhagic Virus. This last decimated the rabbit population in 1990 leading to a collapse of the main food of the endangered Iberian Lynx and Spanish Imperial Eagle. Both species have subsequently experienced serious population declines in the Park.

Other threats are also largely down to human activity. The park boundary is being eroded by ever-increasing development, especially tourism and its requirement for housing, hotels and sports amenities such as golf courses. Parts of adjacent areas are used for intensive agriculture, including rice and fruits of various kinds. Apart from their need for space, these activities are highly water demanding, leading to excessive abstraction from underground sources in this arid area, and run-off of agricultural chemicals.

One of the roles of the Estación Biológica Doñana, based at the University of Sevilla, is to undertake a wide range of monitoring programmes to determine the Park’s developmental health in terms of geomorphology, hydrology, and plant and animal life. This monitoring is vital to identify and quantify the many adverse influences on the park in order to formulate corrective measures where appropriate and assess the efficacy of their implementation.

On our return to Matalascañas, one of the large urbanisations that is competing for land on the Park boundary, we were treated to a delicious typically Andalusian lunch leading, for many delegates, to a slumber-filled bus journey back to Sevilla! Soon after our departure, however, we stopped briefly at the village of El Rocio. By pure chance I had visited here a few years ago in May, to discover that it is the site of a massive annual pilgrimage that attracts over one million people, many arriving in caravans, often horse- or tractor-drawn, that create traffic problems even in Sevilla, 50 km away! This quantity of people creates further pressures on the Doñana environment, albeit for a brief period. However, the fame of El Rocio, with its unpaved sand streets and abundant horses resembling scenes from a wild-west movie, is leading to its attraction to tourists year round and risking further urbanisation of this part of the Park, and the replacement of horses by 4 x 4s!

Once again, big thanks are due to Juan Beltrán and Jordi Figuerola, and the drivers and guides who made this such a fascinating tour.

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