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.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Sheena Har­vey

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.

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