Europe and Central Asia
24 Aug 2018

SEO/BirdLife calls on all to show they truly believe in Doñana’s uniqueness

By Christopher Sands

Madrid/Seville. The spring rainfall, generously flooding a large part of Doñana, has made it a hotbed of fauna and flora this year, pride of place going to the hundreds of bird species that live there. The Spanish Imperial Eagle, with nine breeding pairs and 11 chicks this year, is continuing its slow recovery, while herons, spoonbills and ibises have formed many breeding colonies, such as the famous “pajareras” of Doñana Biological Reserve (Reserva Biológica de Doñana), the lucio (saltmarsh pool) of Cerrado Garrido or the El Rocío saltmarshes (hard by the Francisco Bernis Birdwatching Centre). These are Doñana’s flagship spots where various Spanish Presidents have sought their summer rest amidst scenic beauty and open-air recreation. Today, however, there are several unresolved threats hovering over these sites.

This dire situation has prompted Carlos Davila, head of SEO/BirdLife’s Ornithological Office in Doñana, to point out that “according to the very monitoring reports drawn up by the Regional Environment and Land-use Ministry of Andalusia (Consejería de Medio Ambiente y Ordenación del Territorio de la Junta de Andalucía) the picture is as follows: half the systematically monitored threatened birds that take refuge in Doñana are showing a downward trend (2004 and 2017); some, such as the Marbled Teal, are running a serious risk of extinction, and others, such as the Ferruginous Duck, can already be classed as locally extinct”. According to this same report, the twin threats of drainage and pollution are exacerbated by other equally worrying perils like the overgrazing and trampling effect of livestock, predation by Wild Boar and feral dogs and climate-change-driven effects.

The sheer beauty of Doñana National Park (Parque Nacional de Doñana), designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, still lies under the real threat of permanent collapse. Roberto González, head of SEO/BirdLife’s Water Programme, reminds us that “overexploitation of aquifers is without any doubt the biggest threat to Europe’s most biodiversity-rich nature site. Doñana is water; as such it is completely dependent on its quantity and quality. Despite this, the official 2016/17 monitoring report of Doñana’s underground water shows overexploitation of its aquifer”. This report claims that if the current aquifer-exploitation rate and method is kept up, the state of the underground water and associated land ecosystems will be jeopardised.

Improper livestock-farming practices

Extensive farming of autochthonous livestock races forms part of Doñana’s time-honoured sociocultural heritage: as such it represents an intrinsic value of its landscape. Carlos Davila, however, rues the fact that “the current livestock practices are not governed by the overarching objectives of preserving this Natura 2000 site and preventing any adverse effect”. As things stand today overgrazing is one of the site’s most serious problems, impinging adversely on species and habitats of community interest. The presence of c. 4000 heads of livestock (cattle and horses) poses the multiple threats of general trampling, specific treading of nests and vegetation damage from overgrazing. The huge number of livestock is considered to be a serious threat to many protected species, including Marbled Teal, Red-Knobbed Coot, Black Tern, Collared Pratincole and Squacco Heron.

Rampant Wild Boar populations

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

The effects of predation by opportunistic species, Wild Boar to the fore, have made Doñana a veritable “fauna blackspot”. The Wild Boar systematically devour the eggs and chicks of dozens of protected ground- or low-level nesting species. Wild Boar predation is now reckoned to be a critical or high threat to at least two dozen species, occasionally affecting complete waterbird colonies. Among the most highly affected species are Avocet, Black-Winged Stilt, Black Tern, Whiskered Tern, Little Tern, Collared Pratincole, Black-Necked Grebe, Purple Heron (with nearly 800 nests predated in 2017) and even one, at least, of the Bittern nests found this year. The Bittern is a heron species in danger of extinction.

Fencing off a National Park

One of the most important factors of success for birds breeding in Doñana is whether the nest lies inside or outside a fenced-off zone to keep out Wild Boar and livestock.

According to Davila, “Doñana’s most productive heron breeding colonies lie in Cerrado Garrido, Juncabalejo and El Chujarro, all of them saltmarsh zones that have been closed off by wire-mesh fencing.” He adds “never before have we had to resort to fencing as a way of preventing overgrazing, livestock trampling and Wild-Boar predation in Doñana. This is a clear indication of the fact that the natural values of Doñana are all too often overridden by other vested interests in the area”.

Loss of Biodiversity

Doñana is now losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Grassland breeding birds have suffered a sharp fall and some have even disappeared altogether, such as the Great Bustard and Black-Bellied Sandgrouse. Unfortunately, if the current trend continues, they are likely to be joined soon by the Little Bustard and Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse. It is becoming increasingly difficult to spot a Black Tern, Red-Knobbed Coot or Marbled Teal, while Ferruginous Duck is now almost impossible and Ruddy Shelduck completely impossible. It has been some time now since anyone heard an Andalusian Hemipode, while Doñana’s Red Kite population, representing practically the entirety of Andalusia’s breeding pairs of this species (50-60), continues its inexorable decline. The effects of climate change such as prolonged and more extreme droughts, the risk of frequent, large-scale wildfires are all making it even more difficult to get out of this impasse. From Doñana, SEO/BirdLife calls on all competent authorities to show they truly believe in the uniqueness of this particular corner of Europe.

To find out more:

Press release in Spanish

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.