Spain is Home To Over Half Europe’s Plant and Animal Species

It’s no secret that Spain is a countryside-lover’s paradise, with 16 National Parks, more mountainous than anywhere else in the EU and second only to Switzerland on the European continent, with almost every town being minutes away from an officially-protected Nature Reserve.

A third of Spain’s land is under conservation order

Conservation zones, under protection orders that means they cannot be built on and rules are in place to allow them to thrive, have increased exponentially in just over a decade: Back in 2009, an already-impressive 31% of Spain’s land and 1% of its seas were under conservation orders and the latter has multiplied to 12.3%.

By 2020, a total of 36.2% of Spain’s land was under official protection as National Parks, nature reserves or other ring-fenced green-belt areas.

Animal Triumphs

The Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila Adalberti) was on the point of dying out altogether in the 1970s, with only a few dozen males and females alive. By 2017, ornithologists had documented around 520 breeding pairs.

Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus Barbatus) have been successfully reintroduced to the Sierra de Cazorla (Jaén province) and the Picos de Europa mountains (Cantabria and Asturias). From just 22 breeding pairs in 1982, a total of 133 pairs were known to be in existence in 2018.

The Brown Bear, a rare species found in Spain’s northern mountains – particularly in the region of Asturias – is incredibly hard to spot, but less so nowadays. Only around 100 to 120 of them were in ‘circulation’ in 1989, but in just 29 years, concerted conservation efforts had managed to increase the headcount to an estimated 310 to 350.

Iberian Lynx, a highly-attractive feline that looks like a domestic cat with longer, pointier ears, has long been under extreme threat, but by the end of last year, thanks to various projects aimed at the continuation of the species, their headcount broke the 1,100 barrier for the first time in decades.

Wildfires and Other Threats

The less-positive news is that threats to the survival of Spain’s biodiversity have increased in the past 5-10 years. The more-positive news is that, through the recent report, authorities are now aware that they need to act. Changes in land use, over-exploitation of species of plants and of fauna used for food – such as over-fishing – the proliferation of ‘invasive’ species, or those not native to the country or area, but which pose a danger to the survival of the endemic ones, air and water pollution, among other factors, are a direct hazard to this wealth of nature, and climate change is an indirect, or longer-term, threat.

One of the main and most immediate dangers to wildlife – animal and vegetable – is forest fires and the risk of these is far greater at times of year with high temperatures, especially following weeks of little or no rain and made worse by high winds. Although the spring and summer ‘bonfire and BBQ ban’ – which normally makes it illegal to use a BBQ within 500 metres of a forestry area – and the fact it is against the law to throw cigarette ends out of a car window or drop them whilst lighted in a non-urban area are, it seems, obvious prevention measures, forest fires can also be started by glass or plastic bottles being left on unbuilt land, by chainsaws or other tools that give off sparks, by car engines and by overgrowth not being cut back. Fields and dry riverbeds filled with weeds and untrimmed plant life are a forest fire hazard, since they wither and dry up in summer and can catch light easily.

This said, the report does concede that wildfire management has drastically improved and is helping to curb the impact of these natural disasters – correct and fast emergency response and high-tech equipment, the availability of different teams to tackle them, including the Civil Protection and other volunteer groups, along with the Armed Forces emergency unit (UME) and a focused effort by everyone from local councils to regional governments to fund the tools for the job and enforce prevention measures are all proving effective.

One vital resource is aircraft – helicopters and small planes dump water on wildfires, often stopping them from spreading and the report recalls that 2021 marks the half-century of when the first Canadair fire-fighting planes were put in use in Spain.

Prevention as well as response is showing itself to be crucial and technology and research are constantly evolving for this purpose: The Level I and II Forestry Damage Networks, a database on woodland health and constant monitoring for and reporting on risks have enabled fires to be contained before they spread and to make decisions in advance to help stop them breaking out.

Tree Life

Iberian elms are enjoying a revival – over 50,000 have been planted in Spain in recent years Photo: José Luis Izquierdo for Madrid’s Sierra de Guadarrama National Park website
Iberian elms are enjoying a revival – over 50,000 have been planted in Spain in recent years Photo: José Luis Izquierdo for Madrid’s Sierra de Guadarrama National Park website

The Forestry Damage Networks show that the general health of Spain’s tree-life is reducing, largely due to drought, although the woodland areas under conservation orders have doubled in a decade – from 10% of forested zones in 2009 to 20% in 2019, which the report considers a significant step forward, albeit ‘lower than needed. Among the success stories the report highlights is the revival of the Iberian elm, including genetic modification to make as many of them as possible resistant to Graphiosis, (Dutch elm disease) – a scheme started in 1986. Over 50,000 elms have been planted since 2014, to replace lost naturally-growing examples and to introduce them to urban environments. They sit well in towns, since their abundant, dense branches and foliage provides shade. They are a highly-attractive addition to boulevards and plazas and like trees in general and particularly the more leafy ones, they ‘drink’ carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen, cleaning the air and reducing pollution.

Another key function of trees, is halting desertification. Their process, known as photosynthesis, whereby trees soak up moisture from the atmosphere and release it, leading to cloud formation, helps prevent drought and increase rainfall. Spain is the most vulnerable country in the EU in this sense and at least 18% of the country’s land-mass is classed as ‘high-risk’ or ‘very high risk’ for desertification. Spain’s ‘desert’ risk has been known about for decades, although the process of working out which parts of the country were most in danger has been a long and exhaustive research process. Within the last few years, the National Land Erosion Inventory was finally completed and will be a vital instrument in keeping watch over those pockets of land losing their greenery, working out the reasons for it and tackling the issue before it is too late.