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SOS Playa de los Lances

John Muddeman
26/09/2009 13:32:00

SOS Playa de los Lances. Despite records of a number of rare migrant birds on the beach this autumn, the site is terribly disturbed, and Godfried Schreuer has emailed a number of authorities to convey his dismay over its condition.

Posted in: Birds, Endangered Wildlife and Habitats | Andalusia | Spanish Mainland, Southern Spain

The Playa de los Lances, just north of Tarifa and on the west side of the Strait of Gibraltar, is an impresive and beautiful beach, with a long history of rare bird sightings as well as being on a critical location on the bird flyway through the Strait. But despite its protected status, it has become notably worse in a short period of time, with several birdwatching groups who visited the area this autumn coming away deeply disturbed and disappointed by its poor and declining condition.

The first paragraph of an earlier blog entry highlighted the problem in the spring, and this has been repeated ever since.

Spanish resident Godfried Schreuer visited a few times with a group of birdwatchers this autumn and was appalled by what he saw too. So much so that he wrote an email to a number of authorities. And this has marked a trend, with several other tour leaders following suit and expressing their deep concern.

The problem derives from multiple sources, but is based completely around the high levels of disturbance the beach now suffers as a result of kite-surfers, dog walkers, joggers and general visitors. These, until just a couple of years ago, rarely ventured onto the middle sections of the beach -concentrating heavily at each end- given largely poor access. It also appears that the local authorities -Tarifa Town Hall and even apparently the wildlife branch of the Civil Guard- largely turn a blind eye to the situation, since kite-surfing, above all, brings plenty of visible income to the area, and birdwatching and wildlife tourism remains largely ignored.

Above all, the beach* and adjacent dunes behind are a crucial area for staging migrants (especially waders) and roosting seabirds (principally gulls and terns), plus retaining a smaller number of threatened breeding species (e.g. Kentish Plover). This is not to say that the sea itself is not highly important, and huge flocks of thousands of migrant Garganey have been recorded there on a number of occasions in spring.

*The topography of the beach is the main reason for its interest, with a long and quite wide flat strip behind the shore ridge flooding (shallowly) regularly, particularly when the Río Jara waters, which naturally drain out across the beach, are held up with high / spring tides and / or onshore winds. This provides abundant feeding areas for numerous waders and formerly quiet areas for roosting seabirds -threatened Audouin's Gulls are probably of greatest international significance, but the site is a regular resting area for large numbers of other gulls and terns, including rare Lesser Crested Terns, on migration through the Strait-.

Unfortunately, disturbance has markedly increased over the years, with sporadic horse-riding and quad-biking (the latter apparently and fortunately now a thing of the past?) on the flat sands also being a known problem, but the sheer numbers of visitors accessing the site on foot has rocketed since a long boardwalk was put in place a couple of years ago. Sadly, while having the desired effect of keeping people off the vegetated dunes, it runs close to the principal roosting areas for waders, gulls and terns, and so has greatly increased disturbance to these areas, and even from first light now that joggers and dog-walkers also go for exercise there. The great majority of the latter have their dogs off the lead and some even actively get their dogs to chase the birds present! While it could also be argued that a bird hide placed near the end of this boardwalk is beneficial, it is entered from the side and passed continuously by walkers, with no screening of these walkers possible, hence rendering it useless. To cap it all an access route has apparently now even been created for the kite-surfers to cross the beach and access the front shore, but of course, many simply ignore the signs and when the central strip of the beach is flooded, simply use this as a practice area!

While damage to the dunes has arguably been reduced, the enormously greater number of people accessing the site either wholly or partly via the boardwalk has massively raised disturbance to the central section of the beach as a whole, and while surfing -largely wind-surfing- was relatively limited on this beach, it is now at high levels, almost year-round. The visual effect of these kites, which tower up 20+ m is also hugely greater than those of wind-surfers, which are 2-3 m high, further adding to the impact.

The site is protected for wildlife under several categories: it forms an integral part of the Parque Natural del Estrecho (Strait of Gibraltar Natural Park) and part of the Natura 2000 network. It was originally declared as a Paraje Natural (Natural Landscape for want of a better translation) in July 1989, with increased protection measures also added the same month. It is also a Community Interest Site and Special Protection Area for birds (ES0000337) of outstanding interest for the concentrations of birds on migration in the Strait.

It seems tragic that not even a significant central section of the beach -from shore-line (or beyond?) to the back of the dunes- cannot be kept disturbance-free, while this clearly does not exclude the possibility of strictly controlled access along an adequately positioned boardwalk or similar path, and that there is no active wardening of the site to reduce the abundant and near-continuous illegal disturbance it suffers.

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