Unfortunately here in Spain, like everywhere else in the world we hear with depressing regularity about natural habitats being destroyed in the pursuit of profit. So it’s good to learn about a project where the opposite has happened, thanks to the hard work and persistence of a group of environmental conservationists. Such a project is the Laguna de los Tollos, near the town of El Cuervo just north of Jerez.
Until 1976 this lake was an important stopover for wetland birds, including flamingos in their thousands, winging their way between the Coto Doñana and the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra in Málaga Province.
Then along came Hefran SA, a mineral exploitation company, who dug a pit next to the lake to extract the special clay needed to produce Fuller’s Earth – a mineral used in the pharmaceutical industry and in the production of cat litter. The effect on the lake was catastrophic. The water level dropped and the extent of winter flooding was dramatically reduced. The clay pits and waste encroached into the lake itself and polluted the water.
Unfortunately the site was not protected by any environmental legislation and there were no legal constraints on Hefran. It was finally designated as a conservation area in 1986, but the destructive mining activity continued. Various groups of ecologists and conservationists organised protests and petitions demanding that the Junta de Andalucía put an end to the clay extraction, and in 1994 a report by the Junta’s own Environment Agency confirmed that the quarry was causing serious environmental damage and should be closed. Four years later, after a lengthy court case, the mining consortium gave up and abandoned the site – but there was no requirement to restore it to its former glory.
Over the next few years Los Tollos was used variously for clay-pigeon shooting, off-road 4×4 racing, and the general plundering of nests and protected wildfowl. The tenacious ecologists didn’t give up though. With the Junta de Andalucía now firmly onside and prepared to make a substantial financial contribution, they managed to procure additional funds from the European Union’s “Life” programme and begin the process of acquiring the land and planning the project.
Work began in the summer of 2013 to restore the hydrological status quo. They had to pump millions of gallons of water out of the clay pits and back into the lake, refill the pits with sand and the clay previously extracted, then remove the dyke which separated the pit from the lake to let the water find its own level again. An educational programme was launched to engage the local population, who participated enthusiastically in the task of replanting trees and vegetation. The total cost was around Eur 8 million.
The restoration work was completed last year, and already the birds have come back. Soon it will be another lovely area for those guests here at El Guarda who are interested in nature and especially birdlife.