As part of the second year undergraduate Zoology degree field course module, students were swept to south Spain to expeience in situ field conservation and survey skills of Andalusia.
The Andalusian region is the southern most autonomous community in Peninsular Spain – touching down in Malaga, the fieldtrip journeyed through Seville, El Rocio, The Doñana National Park, Bologne, and finally Gibraltar to experience the breadth of wildlife and natural spaces locally conserved.
The first accomodation was in the seasonally popular, and eerily ‘Wild West’ town of El Rocio, situated on the boarder of the Doñana National Park. The town is famous for weeks long pilgrimages from Pentercost Monday, the vast umbrella pine plantation provides shade for 1 million visitors, and horses which are traded and admired.
The expansive pine plantations provide an irreplaceable ecosystem service, the Spanish pine nut production represents 60% of world production! The mass reforestation of Pinus Pinea began in 1737, and currently occupies over 400,000 ha in Andalusia. Whilst these forests consolidate the sand dunes, protecting downwind villages, they have been critiqued that the mono-culture crop does not achieve the ecosystem processes provided by natural forests (Bullod et al, 2009).
An educational safari drove through the forestry tracks of the Doñana pine plantations, whilst Iberian Lynx have a stronghold population in Doñana, none were spotted that day. It was learned that their conservation depends on Cork tree hollows for successful breeding, and a varied diet, whereas currently there are too many rabbits and too little mature cork trees.
Doñana is perhaps famous for the strong population of the Iberian Red Deer subspecies, these charismatic ungulates were spotted numerously on safari, it was learned that the Lynx occasionally predate on young deer when suitable prey is scarce.
The safari’s route continued through a seasonally dry wetland, where a group of wild Boar were spotted streaking across the horizon of the desert, amongst a variety of bountiful bird life.
The next day, the field trip ventured to the protected National Park area of Doñana, revealing an abundance of marshes, cotos, dunes and beaches, weaving a complex patchwork of habitats for the bird life which migrates and resides there.
Storks, Ibis, Pink footed Geese, Egrets, Spoonbills, Griffon Vultures, Flamingos, Black Kites, Lesser Kestrels, Hoopoes and Purple Swamphens were but a few species observed all in one morning!
The second accommodation in Huerta Grande, swept students from the arid marshlands of east Andalusia to the dense Primordial forests, humid and green, isolated in contrast to the surrounding Olive tree plantations which cover 91.06% of agricultural land in the Jaen Province (2007)
Huerta Grande was a breath of fresh air, ecologically! The pristine primordial forests could not be compared to the most aged woodlands of the UK, where sadly only 20% of forested areas are of old growth. The primordial forest gave insight of how important naturally wild forests create habitat heterogeneity and stability for rarer species.
On the last day at Huerta Grande, a wondrous spectacle of >50 migrating black kites flew overhead, crossing the migration hot spot of the Gibraltar strait.
The Spain field trip was so engaging and diverse, students also gained a taste of the conservation challenges that habitats in Andalusia face, it was difficult to ignore the caveat that 43.3% of land was irrigated Olive plantations – the view from the coach rarely saw natural lanscapes. It was also observed that irrigation is the most limiting factor of expanding agricultural land into exisiting habitats, perhaps the Primordial forests have been left alone due to the unsuitability of agricultural production in that area.
Moving forward, I learned that the conservation of habitats alongside agricultural and economical needs is a balance that must benefit both sides, carefully considering how the natural habitats can provide ecosystem services for communities who may be threatened from future threats of climate change, land use change and re-wilding schemes.