Donana fire

Map of area of fire from Google maps

I spent c12 days in the Doñana area in late April/early May, with Ruth Miller, and we were researching a potential book – which we are now writing.

And so it was even more interest and concern than usual that I have watched the news of the massive fire that has consumed large areas of woodland to the west of the National Park (see here, here, here).

If you have ever visited Doñana then you have probably birdwatched at El Rocio and may well have driven south to (or at least towards) Matalascañas on the coast and perhaps called in at the visitor centres to the west of the road, south of El Rocio, at Acebron and Acebuche.

The area affected is to the west of the El Rocio-Matalascañas road and north of the coast.  The fire started in the area between Moguer and Mazagon and headed west towards (but not I believe reaching) the tiny place of Los Cabezudos (we went there but I bet not many readers of this blog have!).

Here’s a map of the fire-affected area…

Almonte, El Rocio and Matalascañas are the red areas to the right (east) of the map. Los Cabezudos is more or less in the centre.  The red line indicates the area of massive fire and the arrows show which way it was heading.  Ruth and I drove through this area one evening after visiting the coast by the Parador at Mazagon.  This area is not part of the Doñana National Park but it is part of a slightly lower level of protected area and, essentially, it is a very rich area for wildlife. In particular it is a great area for the very rare and endangered Iberian Lynx – the most threatened large cat in the world with only c350 individuals, c35 of which are in the Doñana area.

Mediterranean vegetation has evolved in a fire-rich environment and given time we can probably expect the area to recover well – but it will take time.  Large parts of this area were covered with mature forest and pine plantation.

When such an event happens, it’s a bit difficult to predict how either nature or humankind will react. There is the possibility that habitat recovery could be even better than the habitat which has been lost – that certainly ought to be the aim. On the other hand, in an area under so much human pressure (from water abstraction, agriculture, built development, introduced species, human disturbance, illegal hunting etc etc) it wouldn’t take too much for things to be made worse by crackpot schemes for new roads, industry or dwellings within the affected area.  It’s good to see WWF Spain, who have a long and generally very honourable long history of activity in the area, calling on the Spanish authorities to ensure that the whole area is protected for its wildlife into the future.

By José María Alvarez – (Consultado el 24 de marzo de 2009), CC BY 2.5,

The future of the Iberian Lynx does not wholly depend on Doñana, in fact I think other areas probably ought to be higher priorities, but we can’t be too sanguine about any part of such a small world population.  And the area affected by fire could, as I say above, potentially be restored to an even better area for Lynx with thought, care and time, but there has been another impact.

In the evacuation, the Lynx reintroduction breeding centre, near the Acebuche visitor centre, had to be evacuated too. Staff there had some agonising decisions to make. They could only take some of their breeding stock with them (and just think about it – you can’t ask half a dozen Lynx to get in your car and put their seatbelts on) and so 14 Iberian Lynx (including five kittens) were relocated and another 13 (presumably all adults or near-adults – but I don’t know that) were simply released to take their chances. One of the translocated Lynxes died of stress during the relocation.  I expect they had a contingency plan for such an event but you certainly wouldn’t want to be thinking on your feet with winds of 90kph bringing an inferno in your direction.

It seems that the fire is under control now and things have been less disastrous than might have been the case. I haven’t seen any reports of human deaths.

But the worrying thing is that there are rumours (but there always are rumours) that the fire might have been started deliberately.  Arsonists don’t always need a motive apart from doing it for the hell of it, but other motives might include wanting to facilitate economic development in the area through a literal scorched earth policy.

Doñana is wonderful – but it is still highly threatened. And this fire is yet another assault on its ecological integrity.

Best wishes to all friends in the area and all wildlife in this amazing area too.

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Thousands more to eat lead-shot game

The Food Teachers Centre has a lot to learn!

GCSE students will be taught how to serve up meat containing high levels of lead thanks to the naivety of teachers and the lack of responsibility of the shooting ‘industry’.

Shooters are being encouraged by Taste of Game to donate shot game to schools – in this era of austerity the schools are unlikely to say no.

Much can be learned from a dead Pheasant (duck, partridge, pigeon or grouse).

    1. Ask the donor what the bird was shot with – and watch the shifty look pass across their face if they have to say ‘lead’.
    2. Ask whether lead is a poison (it is, here and here)
    3. Ask whether tiny fragments of lead ammunition (too small to see and remove) spread through the carcasse of a shot bird and elevate its lead content (they do – see the pictures here, here, here and below).
    4. Ask whether there is an agreed safe level of lead intake (there isn’t and your donor should know this).
    5. Ask whether small children and pregnant women should be particularly careful about their lead ingestion (they should, but there is no agreed safe level of intake).
    6. Ask whether lead levels in pheasants and grouse shot with lead are, on average, much higher than those which would be allowed in other meats (they are, see here and here).
    7. Ask whether eating lead-shot game is consistent with the scientific advice that ‘exposure to lead should be reduced as far as possible’ (it isn’t).
    8. Ask why the shooters in the UK continue to use a poison to shoot into food when non-toxic alternatives are available and used widely in Europe and elsewhere in the world (for evidence see here, here, here, here).
    9. Ask your donor to come back when they can assure you that non-toxic ammunition (steel is the most likely one) has been used.
    10. Ask yourself what sort of ‘sport’ behaves like this?

A x-ray of a shot partridge showing the lead shot (shiny white circles), a deformed shot, a fragment of bone (green arrow) and some of the tiny fragments of lead shot (red arrows).

Oscar Dewhurst – Glossy Ibis

Oscar writes: For the second part of our stay we were in El Rocío, in the Doñana National Park. On our first evening I lay down in the grass by the edge of the marsh, and before long a flock of Glossy Ibises came down to feed.

Nikon D800, Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR lens, Nikon 2x TC


Sunday book review – Flying High by Anneliese Emmans Dean


This is a bird version of the same author’s Buzzing which was reviewed here three years ago.

Anneliese is a poet, writer and performer and her bubbly personality comes across in her book. It consists of c50 double-page spreads of bird species – in each of which there is a poem and a bunch of facts and photographs.  This is said to be a book for young people but I enjoyed it a lot – and at the very least it is a book that young and old could enjoy together.

The species are arranged fairly sensibly by season, and in ‘summer’ you will find the Hen Harrier which, I’m flattered to hear, displaced the Sparrowhawk after Anneliese read Inglorious.

I like the poem for the Hen Harrier which I reproduced on this blog yesterday. But after reading that one, I found myself smiling as I read other poems here.  They are simple, they are easy to read, but they contain a lot of the truth about the birds they celebrate, portray and introduce.

This is a delightful book and one which will be enjoyed by ‘young’ people of all ages.


Flying High by Anneliese Emmans Dean is published by Brambleby Books.


Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review and it’s now out in paperback.

Tim Melling – Marbled Murrelet


Tim writes:  For much of the 20th Century nobody had been able to find a nest of Marbled Murrelet. By the mid twentieth century the National Audubon Society was even offering $100 reward for the finder of the first documented nest as all other nests of North American birds had been found by this time.  The mystery was finally solved in 1974 when a tree-trimmer in California’s Big Basin Redwood State Park discovered a nest.  It was 148 feet off the ground on a mossy branch of an old growth Douglas Fir.  They usually only nest in old growth forests and have become a flagship species for forest conservation in North America.

They are easy enough to see off America’s west coast but they are fiendishly difficult to photograph as they either dive or fly away if anything approaches within 100m or so.  It took me ages to get this close picture of a breeding plumage adult in Alaska’s Prince William Sound where a significant proportion of the world population breeds.

Taken with Nikon D500 Nikkor 300mm f4 with 1.4x converter (420mm) set at f5.6  1/1250   ISO 1800