Doñana - a Key Centre in the World of Conservationism
The Parque Nacional de Doñana is one of Europe's most important wetland reserves and a major site for migrating birds. It is an immense area; the parque itself and surrounding parque natural or Entorno de Doñana (a protected buffer zone) amount to over 1,300 sq km in the provinces of Huelva, Sevilla and Cádiz. It is internationally recognised for its great ecological wealth. Doñana has become a key centre in the world of conservationism.
Doñana is well known for its enormous variety of bird species, permanent residents, winter visitors from north and central Europe or summer visitors from Africa, like its numerous types of geese and a colourful colonies of flamingo. It has one of the world's largest colonies of Spanish imperial eagles. The park as a whole comprises three distinct kinds of ecosystem: the marismas, the Mediterranean scrublands and the coastal mobile dunes with their beaches.
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The configuration of the Parque Nacional de Doñana is a result of its past as the delta of the Guadalquivir river, the 'big river', or Wada-I-Kebir, of the Moors. But it is a delta with a difference. Unlike most, the river has only one outlet to the sea, just below Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The rest of what used to be its delta has gradually been blocked off by a huge sandbar that stretches from the mouth of the Río Tinto, near Palos de la Frontera, to the riverbank opposite Sanlúcar, and which the sea winds have gradually formed into high dunes. Behind this natural barrier stretches the marshlands (marismas).
The effect of this extraordinary mélange of land and water was to create an environment shunned by people but ideal for wildlife. As early as the thirteenth century, the kings of Castille set aside a portion of the Doñana as a royal hunting estate; later the dukes of Medina Sidonia made it their private coto too. One of the duchesses of Medina Sidonia, Doná Ana de Silva y Mendoza, indulged her antisocial instincts by building a residence there that was more hermitage than palace.
As a result, the entire region came to be known as the 'forest of Doná Ana', or Doñana. In the eighteenth century, Goya is known to have visited the Duchess of Alba at the Palacio de Doñana when she was its proprietress. Subsequently, the land passed through many hands before the official creation of the parque nacional in 1969.
Meanwhile, adjoining areas of wetland were being dramatically reduced. Across the Guadalquivir vast marshes were drained and converted to farmland, until only the protected lands of the Doñana remained intact. For centuries there had been only a vacant spot on the map between Lebrija in the east and Almonte in the north west, but in recent years whole towns and villages have sprung up west of the Guadalquivir, and the resort town of Matalascañas has brought urban sprawl to the south-western edge of the Doñana, a place once occupied by reed-thatched fishermen's huts.
The proximity of these settlements has further complicated the work of the park's wildlife guardians. Two of the Doñana's precious lynxes, for example, have been run over by cars on the highway to Matalascañas; cats and dogs straying out of the nearest towns have killed animals in the park, and birds that have overflown the fences have been gunned down by trigger-happy hunters despite stringent conservation laws.
A more permanent threat to the Doñana's ecosystem are the new rice fields and other agricultural projects north of El Rocío, whose run-off waters sluice pesticides into the marismas and the sulphur mines upstream at Aznalcóliar which was effluvium into the river.
The park supports an incredible array of vegetation in a variety of virgin habitats. Inland are large expanses of stone pines, as well as Mediterranean scrublands, with narrow leaved cistus heather, mastic tree, rosemary, cistus scrub, glasswort, lavender, rosemary and thyme. There are also junipers and forests of cork oaks, known as "las pajareras" for the enormous quantity of birds that nest in them. Among the flowering plants are lavender, tree heaths, gladioli, irises and rock roses. In the spring the marshlands are covered with flowers.
This is a vast wilderness that supports an unrivalled wealth of fauna; 125 species of birds are known to be resident here, as well as 125 migratory bird species, 17 reptiles, nine amphibians and eight species of fish. There is a rich variety of mammals, 28 species in total, with some in danger of extinction, such as the lynx and the Egyptian mongoose. Also here are badgers, rabbits and otters. Game is also plentiful, with red deer, fallow deer and wild boar.
Doñana comprises delta waters which flood in winter and then drop in the spring leaving rich deposits of silt and raised sandbanks and islands. These conditions are perfect in winter for geese and ducks but most exciting in spring when they draw hundreds of flocks of breeding birds. If you're lucky you may also catch a glimpse of the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle, now down to 15 breeding pairs. In the marshes and amid the cork oak forests behind you've a good chance of seeing grey herons, lanner falcons, ring and turtle doves, partridges, oxpeckers, cattle egret, storks and vultures.
Ideal Breeding Ground
What you see at Doñana depends on the time of year and the luck of the draw - November, December and January constitute the off-season for visitors but is an ideal time for waterfowl, since the autumn rains have brought life back to the marismas and filled the lagunas.
Gradually, the water attains a uniform depth of 30-60 centimetres (12-24 inches) over vast areas and the resulting marshes attract huge flocks of wildfowl, ducks, geese and other water birds of the most varied kind. These are freshwater marshes, incidentally, although there are traces of sea salt in the underlying silt. Here and there small islands (vetas) rise above the water. These remain dry throughout the year, creating an ideal breeding ground for waders and terns.
Towards the end of February the geese that have migrated here from northern Europe commence their return journey, but at the same time the spoonbills arrive from North Africa to nest in the cork oaks. In March the waters begin to recede and spring begins in earnest. This is also the time when the imperial eagle hatches its eggs: 15 breeding pairs of these formidable hunters were counted recently in the park - above a third of all the imperial eagles known to survive in Spain.
Each pair requires nearly 2,600 hectares of land to hunt over in summer, and even more in winter. This is a far from perfect environment for these great birds and Doñana pairs seldom raise as many young as those elsewhere in Spain.
Marismas in Spring
In spring the marismas are alive with birds - some settling down to breed, others en route for more northern climes. Huge numbers of kites hang in the air, harriers send the duck scurrying skywards in fear of their lives.
There are black-tailed godwit and ruff on their way to Holland and beyond, greenhank and wood sandpiper bound for Scandinavia, little stint and curlew sandpiper heading for northern Siberia and usually a marsh sandpiper that should be a thousand kilometres or more further east.
Overhead, vast flocks of whiskered terns wheel and circle along with a few gullbilled terns and racy pratincoles. There are swallows galore, some of them red-rumped, and bee-eaters and rollers perch on post and wire. All of these and more can be seen from the bridge at El Rocío - perhaps the best free birdwatching in Europe.
From bird hides at the reserve centre, just south of the bridge, you will hear Cetti's and Savi's warblers and watch egrets, herons and little bit terns come and go. Marsh harriers and kites are continually on view and sometimes a majestic imperial eagle will soar from the woods of Doñana over El Rocío to the Coto del Rey.
In mid-summer the temperature in the parched marismas easily exceeds 40°C. Aquatic birds that remain in the stagnant pools die of botulism, and each year thousands more die during the advancing drought in the Doñana.
In August, there is almost nothing left of the marsh's aquatic fauna, but it is a good time for observing dozens of summer residents, which include griffon vulture, booted eagle, red and black kites, short toed eagle, Baillon's crake, purple gallinule, great spotted cuckoo, Scops owl, red necked nightjar, bee eater, hoopoe, calandra, short toed and thekla larks, golden oriole, azure winged magpie. Cetti's and Savi's warblers, tawny pipit, great grey shrike, woodchat shrike and serin.
As part of the Guadalquivir delta, the park is riddled with creeks and streams, the main ones being the Brazo de la Torre, the Caño de Guadiamar and Caño Real. The park is dotted with ponds (lucios) that, like the marshlands themselves, can dry up almost completely in summer.
The core of the park is off-limits to independent walkers. There are footpaths, often with bird hides, leading from the following visitors' centres: El Acebuche, La Rocina and El Palacio del Acebrón. You can also walk alongside the park boundary on the Playa de Castilla, near Matalascañas. A signposted walk, the Sendero Laguna del Jaral Medano del Asperillo, is off the A494 at Km 47.
Coming from Matalascañas, there is a car park on the left with an information board and map. It is a challenging circular 5.6km trail that crosses sand dunes and pine woods and will take around 3½ hours. It has superb views of the sea. Make sure you take plenty of water and go when it is not too hot.
Also signposted is the Sendero Cuesta del Maneli. This is a circular trail through the dunes and pine woodland between the road and the beach. It is 2.3km long and takes around 1½ hours and is easier than the Sendero Laguna del Jaral Medano del Asperillo. To get there, take the off the A494 Matalascañas-Mazagón road and at Km 38 there is a car park and information board.
How to Get There
Entrance to the park is strictly controlled. You can take half-day trips with official guides or explore the environs of the visitors' centres on foot. To visit the principal visitors' centre at El Acebuche, take the A483 south of Almonte and about 12km from El Rocío is the sign posted turn at Km29 for Centro de Recepción El Acebuche (959-44-87-11), 1½km from the main road. Alternatively, you can drive 3km north of Matalascañas to the turn-off at Km29.
The centre has an exhibition about the park, a café and a shop selling maps and books. From the centre is a sign posted 5km trail through scrubland and pine trees. Next to the centre is the El Acebuche lagoon, with bird hides, where you can see purple gallinules, among other birds.
From El Acebuche there are four-hour trips into the park run by the Cooperativa Marsimas del Rocío (959-43-04-32), which must be booked in advance. The four-wheel drive vehicle can seat 21 people and guides speak some English. There are two trips a day (excluding Mondays), at 8:30 and 3:00 (5:00 in summer).
Full day trips can also be organised for groups, with lunch in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. A typical trip will take in all three ecosystems in the park - dunes, matorral and marshland - but the amount of exposure to each environment varies with the seasons. One thing is guaranteed - no two visits will be alike.
The nearest visitors' centre to El Rocío is La Rocina (959-44-23-40), 500m from the village and just off the Matalascañas road. It has information on the park and a 3km-long nature trail along the freshwater lake and marshland Charco de la Boca, which feeds into the Madres de la Marismas at El Rocío.
The trail has five bird hides and it's possible to see purple gallinules, hoopoes, herons and Savi's warblers, among other birds.
Interesting Places to See
Seven kilometres on from La Rocina is the Palacio del Acebrón, an old hunting lodge containing exhibitions on the park. In the grounds is a pleasant 1½-km nature trail through woodland and around a small lake, the Charco del Acebrón.
The Centro de Visitantes José Antonio Valverde on the northern edge of the park has some excellent birdwatching opportunities. It is 30km south of the town of Villamanrique de la Condesa, from where it is signposted.
The Playa de Castilla beach, reached on foot east of Matalascañas, runs alongside the park boundary and although you can't enter Doñana here, it is a beautiful, unspoilt stretch of coastline with good birdwatching possibilities.
The park can also be reached (but not entered) by taking the ferry boat across the Guadalquivir river from Sanlúcar de Barrameda where there is a visitors’ centre, the Centro de Visitantes Fábrica de Hielo (956 38 16 35), with exhibitions on the Doñana. You can take the Real Fernando boat daily (except in January) from Sanlúcar for 13km up the Guadalquivir river, stopping in a few places for guided walks into the park.
It's advisable to book in advance, especially during the summer and holidays.
Where to Stay
The closest accommodation to the entry point of El Acebuche in the park is in Matalascañas, about 3km from El Acebuche. Ten kilometres north of El Acebuche in the park is in Matalascañas, about 3km from El Acebuche. Ten kilometres north of El Acebuche is the village of El Rocío, with various hotels. Alternatively, between Matalascañas and Huelva there is Mazagón or Villamanrique de la Condesa to the north of the park. Accommodation will be very hard to find (or extremely expensive) around the time of the El Rocío pilgrimage at Pentecost.
During the summer months Matalascañas and Mazagón are also very busy, so book ahead at this time.
El Cortijo de los Mimbrales (959-44-22-37) Conveniently located for the park on the A483 El Rocío-Matalascañas road, 3km south of El Rocío. A former farm in an orange grove with delightful rooms set in beautiful gardens. Excellent bar and restaurant.
Hotel Toruño (959-44-23-23) This is the best hotel in El Rocío. It is in a great location overlooking the marismas, so you can even birdwatch from your bedroom, if you choose your room carefully (ask for rooms 219, 221, 223).
There are many campsites close to the Playa de Castilla beach along the A494 between Mazagón and Matalascañas, which runs alongside the park boundary. In the summer it's well worth booking in advance when the campsites could be full, particularly in August.
Camping Doñana (959-53-62-81)
At the Mazagón end of the A494 at Km34.6, this shady campsite has wooden cabins and tents for rent and a swimming pool.
Camping Rocío Playa (959-43-02-38)
On the A494 Mazagón-Matalascañas road at Km 45.2, 1½km west of Matalascañas, is this large campsite. Facilities include a restaurant, tennis court, football pitch and a bar with wonderful views. There are wooden bungalows and tents for hire.
Camping La Aldea
Located inland on the edge of El Rocío village near the marismas, this campsite has bungalows for hire, a bar and a shop.