18 May 2018

Spain's traditional saltpans: an unlikely bird haven

A surprising solution to the decline of migratory birds and sustainable rural development in Andalucía, Spain, is found in a link between culture and nature: food. All that’s needed is a sprinkle of passion (and salt).

Traditional saltworker, Bay of Cádiz © Salarte
Traditional saltworker, Bay of Cádiz © Salarte
By Shaun Hurrell

Rays of sunlight break through a cloud of dark orange dust as the trundling van’s door slides open. It doesn’t feel right to be driving along in an enclosed box, and despite the dust, the warm air is a welcome link with the outside. And what a sight: pink hues in the lagoon’s water, rustling plants, and a blue sky that hums with the presence of birds. More species than some have ever seen in their lives, in fact. In just one glance there’s the clumsy patter of flamingo feet warily moving away, the blacks and whites of Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris, spoonbills, avocets, and countless shorebirds bobbing on the breeze-nudged salty water, whilst two Ospreys Pandion haliaetus eye the whole vista from above.

It’s an idyllic scene, somewhere near Doñana National Park in south-western Spain; surely it’s in a nature reserve. Juan Martín’s voice shocks the tranquility: “Here there are birds because there are saltpans.”

Saltpans: large flat areas where seawater is pumped and slowly evaporated in man-made basins of increasing salinity to produce sea salt, at artisanal or industrial scales. You imagine an extreme, barren land of white crystals, not a bird haven, but Juan Martín’s words are trustworthy. He’s a trained ecologist, bird-guide author, ex-Director of the Natural Parks Administration, and has now cast himself a tough life of dedication, to birds, nature, rural development and ecotourism through his NGO, Salarte (which works closely with SEO/BirdLife). After just a brief chat in a van, he’ll enrapture you with his vision for the region of Andalucía: to reconnect people with nature and a thriving local economy. How? Through salt and birds.


Seawater is pumped over flat land and left to evaporate: a habitat and an industry © Salarte


Internationally, more than 40% of migratory bird species are declining. They’re on an energetic knife-edge flying between habitats where they need to rest and refuel, ever-diminishing as coastlines develop (particularly here in southern Europe). Natural saltmarshes and coastal lagoons are vital sites, but not enough are left to support the vast numbers of birds funneled through Andalucía on migration between Africa and Europe. Martín says that saltpans here are invaluable, and the flocks before our eyes are clear proof. It’s a rare case where the human impact of managing land for industry (often reclaimed from the sea) actually benefits birds.

Saltpans are a rare case where land managed for industry actually benefits birds

Birds love saltpans: with many dykes circulating nutrients, salt-loving vegetation, fish, gravel banks to nest on, and basins of different, but stable, water levels, there’s something for a huge variety of leg and bill lengths. They even trump natural saltmarshes, which are inundated by the tide for a large proportion of the day. An industrial salt company in the Bay of Cádiz, Grupo Asal, is going one step further, too, under Salarte’s spell: they’re thrilled to show their installed Osprey nesting platforms and posts, adapted lagoon banks for nesting plovers, and they’ve set aside part of their land as a bird reserve. “Three years ago they pumped water through – now there’s so much beautiful habitat”, says Martín. But the benefit of such work is even more important when you look at the whole region.

Doñana is dying of drought. Spain’s celebrated National Park, an extensive wetland wonder home to half of Europe’s bird species, is still an incredible landscape of fan-like palms, umbrella pines, extensive marshlands, and the Iberian Lynx Lynx pardinus (Endangered) and Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti (Vulnerable), but is only a fragment of what it once was. In 1998, Doñana famously suffered a horrific environmental disaster when a mine’s dam burst and poisoned the Park’s waterways with deadly heavy-metal sludge. It woke the Spanish authorities to the region’s environmental value, but there’s the ever-present risk that this is forgotten.

The biggest threat today comes from industrial fruit-growers that illegally suck water from Doñana to fuel our demand for out-of-season strawberries. As baselines shift, it’s hard for people collectively to remember what a landscape used to be, but some have watched it closely. “As Doñana dries, we’re increasingly seeing birds use saltpans, fish farms and rice fields”, says Martín. Macarena Castro, University of Cádiz, agrees: “To preserve birds here, and support local people, you need to restore the artisanal saltpans.”


80% of the world's salt is now chemically mined, a far cry from these crystalline grains © Salarte


Because it’s not just about restoring saltpans for birds, or inspiring environmental action to save Spain’s flagship National Park (at which SEO/BirdLife are doing a very good job at their Doñana education centre in El Rocío); conservationists see many problems in Andalucía as symptomatic of people’s disconnection with the landscape, and in particular, their food. Nip into a local restaurant – where is the salt on the table sourced? It’s either chemically mined rock salt likely from Asia (fine-grain “vacuum salt” – like 80% of the world’s salt), or for the connoisseurs of crystal-like sea salt (which is higher in iodine and with more character), Spanish restaurants ship in big brands (from the UK, for instance) – despite neighbouring saltworks struggling to survive.

“I don’t understand why the salt business collapsed so quickly”

A few decades ago, Andalucía had a thriving artisanal salt business, with a 5,300 hectare network of small, ancient saltpans. Today, all that’s left are crusty white ornate buildings – derelict relics of a strong tradition that suffered with the advent of the refrigerator and was outpriced by foreign salt. Jobless “Machaca” ex-saltworkers walk the streets as now only three of the 170 small, artisan saltpans remain, one of which is supported by the University of Cádiz and bordered by many Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus nests.

Only six old 'salt-of-the-earth' men in the Bay of Cádiz remember how to work them, with long-handled scrapers, and large sun-weathered hands that operate the wooden sluice gates as skillfully as they pick green, salty samphire for supper. “I don’t understand why it collapsed so quickly,” one of them says. “It’s a feeling of loss, all my life. I want it back.” And with this cultural loss, there’s the associated loss of habitat for birds, and the vast potential for nature tourism.


Only three of Andalucía’s 170 small, artisan saltpans now remain © Salarte


Yet Andalucía is steeped in culture. White-painted houses and castles, such as the Palace of Medina Sidonia Foundation that contains documents from the time Columbus left Sanlúcar de Barrameda for the Americas, featuring sketches of what look like Caribbean birds; the tuna lookouts of the Strait of Gibraltar; a 3,000 year history from the Phoenicians to today; and Jerez – the proud home of sherry wine (such as the bodega of Lustau founded in 1896). But why is this pride not extended to salt? Or a deeper connection to the landscape? The region could be a fantastic model for sustainable rural development, but it’s not quite there yet.

Agricultural intensification was seen as a solution for the region’s many farmers, but it has backfired. Some of the fields in the region look only a strong gust away from desertification, with farmers seemingly importing soil to try and keep nutrients in the ground. “This is partially a legacy of a broken Common Agricultural Policy,” says Inés Jordana, Agricultural Policy Officer, SEO/BirdLife. “This EU Policy is not fit for purpose, and the local farmer does not receive the benefit.” And it’s the same for birds: farmland birds have declined by 50% in Europe since the 1980s. “But with the right policies, agriculture can be environmentally and socially sustainable.”

Not convinced by the link between nature, food and culture? Well, what better example of “you are what you eat” than flamingos. Every morning, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus flock to the Bay of Cádiz en masse to feed. The salt-loving phytoplankton and crustaceans that they filter out of the pans with their unique bills contain pigments called carotenoids, and it turns them as pink as the water their long legs are immersed in. Likewise, there are people in Andalucía who are very connected to the land, despite a changing climate and the movement of people to cities.


José Luis Muñoz's traditional organic vineyards support a wealth of bird species © Shaun Hurrell


One such person is José Luis Muñoz, who is committed to making traditional fortified wine the way his grandfather did at Dehesa del Duque, Trebujena. Opening a dusty family wine bottle from 1913, he toasts to maintaining organic traditions, to landscapes being a bridge between generations, and to the Rufous-tailed Scrub-robins Cercotrichas galactotes that nest among his grapes. This bird has seen significant declines in Spain, but nature-friendly farming is helping: a recent study in Trebujena found 130 breeding males in 300 hectares of these vineyards. The wine-makers don’t mind if the robins steal the odd grape, because they also eat the insects that would otherwise devour the pesticide-free crop. What’s more, it brightens their day to see this beautiful bird flitting between the vines on their land as they go about their daily work.

Thus the connection exists in some places, but there’s no reason why it can’t be revived in salt. So visit Andalucía, pay for local birdwatching tours, revel in migratory birds refueling in the salty lagoons, stay in nature-aware hotels (there’s one with a giant spoonbill sculpture in the foyer), sit in restaurants overlooking bird colonies, drink organic wine, try artisanal salt-making, and buy local food and salt: it could have a bigger impact than you think.

Sustainable, local food of the future

The saltpan offers much more than artisanal salt: algae, saltmarsh plants, and herbed “gourmet” salts are key to reaching new markets, says Spanish chef Ángel león


The restaurant’s bird-watching terrace © Aponiente


The microscopic organisms that support life on the saltmarsh are also the subject of a new enterprise in Andalucía: that of TV star, “Chef of the Sea”, Ángel León, who uses gastronomy to tell Spain about sustainable seafood. Ángel says phytoplankton are the “taste of the sea” – and indeed the future – as he’s started creating “phytoplankton pâté” sourced from a saltmarsh (restored by Salarte), a turnstone’s throw away from his Michelin-starred restaurant, Aponiente. “People thought I was crazy,” says León. As he looks out over the marsh, he explains what can be achieved when you follow a dream, even if no one understands it at first.

Andalucían food for a natural connection

Wine-makers cherish the presence of the scrub-robins on their vineyard © Juandie Andrades

  • Restoring SaltpansMore than restoring a nostalgic tradition, Salarte is a call for a
    pragmatic, profitable future for Andalucía that is good for birds, people and tourism. Re-open the sluice gates!
  • Respectful AgricultureCastillo de Canena olive groves (part of an Olivares Vivos project with SEO/BirdLife) and the Trebujena organic vineyards (see photo) are proudly committed to nature and shared with nesting birds.
  • Fish FarmsWith 600 ha in the Barbate marshlands, Estero Lubimar is a bird paradise. As is Veta La Palma, the largest private, natural reserve in Europe, which hosts 80% of Doñana’s bird species during migration. Both are fish farms…
  • Rice Paddies“With Doñana drying, the standing water of rice paddies could have a real role in the recovery of Marbled Teal in the area”, says Juan Martín, Founder of Salarte.

This article originally appeared as "Salt of the Earth" in BirdLife: The Magazine

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