The magical Ebro Delta
Some 180 kilometres south-west of Barcelona lies a fragile area of precious wetland habitats, beset by natural and man-made challenges.
How a landscape in Spain, home to a variety of fauna and flora, is overcoming its natural and man-made challenges
The fields in front are very flat and brown, divided roughly into squares with raised edges, separated from each other by verdant drainage ditches, and pockmarked by shallow lagoons. Behind, a town of white blocks with flat roofs has sprouted out of the landscape – barrack-like, shaded by palm and orange trees.
In the distance there is a flock of birds. As they get closer they reveal themselves to be greater flamingos – a dozen or more – heading over the lagoons to distant saltpans. Close by, in one of the ditches, a squacco heron stalks, eyes fixed on the murky water for a hint of an edible ripple. On the right the cheep-cheep-chirp of a reed warbler. We could be in North Africa, or the Middle East, but we’re not. This is Europe, specifically Spain, specifically the Ebro Delta, just two hours’ drive south of bustling Barcelona.
The isolated town of Poblenou del Delta sticks out among the rough square fields that are, in fact, rice paddies. They don’t look like much because this is September and the rice has been harvested, but in spring and early summer Poblenou is surrounded by brilliant green. The 32,000ha of alluvial plains that make the Delta one of Europe’s most important rice-growing areas produce 120 million kilos of rice a year of the type most popular for paella and risotto.
Behind the Delta, Catalunya’s Els Ports mountains rise up to 1,400m. Collectively this area is known as the Terres de l’Ebre and the combination of wetlands, coastal lagoons, salt marshes, sand dunes, riparian meadows and mountainous Mediterranean woodland hosts 343 species of birds, dozens of reptiles, countless invertebrates and a significant number of mammals. The whole area, of which the Delta is part, was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2013 and
We could be in North Africa, or the Middle East, but we’re not. This is Europe, specifically Spain.
is internationally important ant for its flora and fauna. Approximately oximately 180,000 waterfowl overwinter in the Delta and 95 species breed here. The harvested rice paddies, which remain waterlogged in the winter, attract more than 50,000 ducks, from shovelers and wigeon to mallards and teal, and 13,000 coots. From the early 1990s a colony of greater flamingos has also made the Delta its home, with more than 2,700 pairs recorded in 2017.
Home to rare gulls
Since the last ice age the River Ebro has deposited the silts that form the soil that is so good for rice. The river’s action also created the wetland habitats that are crucial al as nesting and overwintering areas for so many birds. This dual natural benefit has led to a conflict of interests between farmers and conservationists over the years, but that has resolved itself into a co-habitation of sorts.
At the mouth of the river a teardrop-shaped sand spit spreads out towards the south where the fresh, particle-rich waters of the river meet and are diverted by the sea. This area became a Natural Park in 1983 and was protected from further rice paddy expansion. Commercial salt production at the southern end of the Delta coexists with the flamingos, providing safe breeding grounds with no access to the public.
Elsewhere in the Delta, the ancient saltpans of La Tancada, which have a history of
being turned into fish farms that were subsequently b l abandoned, bd dh have b been regenerated in recent years. The lagoons have been improved and breeding islands have been created for little terns, avocets and one of the rarest gulls, Audouin’s. The Delta has the world’s largest known colony of these gulls, numbering 15,000 pairs in 2006.
On the site of the old saltworks and fisheries there are now an interpretive centre and viewing platforms, and the t reserve is the venue for the annual Delta Birding B Festival in September. The restoration of this area into an educational centre was funded by the Catalunya-La Pedrera Foundation, a philanthropic offshoot of the famous Antoni Gaudi-designed mansion in Barcelona called Casa Milà, a popular tourist attraction, nicknamed La Pedrera or The Rock Pile because of its outer cliff-like appearance.
This regeneration is one of a number of initiatives that are restoring the Delta to the rich biodiversity of its past, following a
period of intense agricultural expansion in the 20th century that threatened its ecosystems. The clash of interests between farmers and ecologists began after the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, when the Delta was a focus for food production. Rice had always been grown, but on a subsistence level that hardly interfered with wildlife. But the government encouraged expansion of agriculture into mass rice production, market gardening and fruit growing.
The Delta had never been a place of much human habitation. The isolated town of Poblenou was built in 1956 to house an army of farmers relocated from other parts of Spain to exploit the nutrient-rich plain. Rice production grew from 4,200ha in 1870 to 16,900ha by 1960. In the late 1970s the pesticide DDT was introduced, with catastrophic effects on bird life.
The realisation of what was being lost in these important wetlands, coupled with threats from external developers to drain the lagoons in order to build tourist accommodation, led to public protests in the early 1980s. Ironically, it was a coupling of wildfowl hunting interests with ecological ones that provided the impetus. This upwelling of local feelings and concern from conservationists, alongside the adverse publicity of people throwing themselves in front of bulldozers, led Catalunya’s regional government, the Generalitat, to protect the area by declaring it a Natural Park.
Protecting the ecosystem
At first, only the left-hand side of the Delta became protected, which included a large area of rice paddies, but the hope was that farmers in other areas would become more receptive to the idea of protecting the ecosystem if they saw the benefits from attracting visitors.
The farmers’ change of heart was also aided by some more unwelcome visitors. Invasive species have proved catalysts for a thawing of relations between those who make a living from the Delta and those who would keep it as a natural environment. In the 1980s local restaurateurs began importing Louisiana crayfish. These are bigger than native crayfish and therefore better for eating. The crustaceans escaped the confines of their commercial pens and colonised the rice fields in their thousands. Their habit of digging into riverbanks makes them undesirable, as they break down the dividing mud walls of the paddies and drain water from the crops.
The other invader was the rice apple snail, imported for the aquarium trade and inadvertently released into the water system.
With both these species, alongside the man-made weapons the farmers have been employing to get rid of them, the birds have proved valuable allies. There’s nothing that a purple heron likes more than a fat juicy crayfish or a plump crunchy snail.
The latest and perhaps greatest threat to the Delta is once again man-made. The proliferation of dams along the River Ebro’s length has reduced the flow of silt that’s needed to replenish the alluvial plain that has, over the millennia, been changing shape and size. But the size is shrinking more than it has in the past and sea levels are rising. This combination is reducing the wetland habitat already, with the Delta losing 5mm in height each year. A sea level rise of 1m would mean its complete disappearance.
But the Delta has proved itself resilient to all its changing circumstances, so there’s hope that this last hurdle can be overcome if ways can be found to satisfy human needs alongside environmental requirements.
Standing, as the sun goes down, by a lagoon filled with a dozen species of wader probing the mud and multiple types of gulls and terns wheeling overhead, you cannot believe that it will not go on forever, as the will for it to survive has already been demonstrated.
The greater flamingo colonised Spain's Ebro Delta, an internationally important area for fauna and flora, in the 1990s.
Above: extensive rice paddies on alluvial plains near the town of Poblenou del Delta are an important overwintering site for waterfowl.
Right: rice farming and conservation co-habit in the Ebro Delta, which feels eels remote yet is just two hours’ drive from busy Barcelona.
purple heron ( inset,above). Right: the squacco heron is one of 343 bird species in the Terres de l'Ebre. Above: imported Louisiana crayfish damage the rice paddies but are a tasty snack for wildlife including
SHEENA HARVEY was introduced to the Ebro Delta by the Catalan Tourist Board and Audouin Birding Tours.