Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park is an authentic hot spot for biodiversity despite its small size. As an interesting fact, its surface corresponds to only 0.6 percent of the total area of Andalucía. However, in this small natural park, you can find 55 percent of the species of plants present in our region. This gives us an idea of the natural wealth contained therein. As for vertebrates, Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park has more than 200 cataloged species, of which 10 are amphibians, 24 reptiles, 44 mammals and more than 130 are birds.
All these species have in common the need to go periodically to a water point, which they will use, either as a drinking or feeding point, or as a breeding site. In the case of certain animal groups, such as amphibians, the relationship with these water points can be even more important, since they are essential for the success of their reproduction and their survival. However, due to the special geological and climatic characteristics of this region and a succession of unusually long dry summers, these water points are becoming increasingly scarce. Despite having one of the highest rainfall indexes in Spain, Sierra de Grazalema suffers severe summer droughts. The latter can be explained by the concentration of the rainfall over just a few months and the strong karstic nature of the limestone soils on which it sits. This causes natural water points in many instances to dry out rapidly.
In the absence of natural water catchment areas, the fauna has to search for water points created by man. Fountains, drinking troughs and small reservoirs become their best allies to withstand the summer heat. However, the vertical walls of these structures represent a serious problem for the fauna, since it can turn these points into deadly traps.
In the case of amphibians, it is their need to spawn which leads them to enter these water points from which they might not be able to leave. If they succeed in leaving, it might be their juveniles that will struggle to get out. Indeed, as the breeding season coincides with summer, the water level goes down progressively making the amphibian juveniles prisoners. In the case of birds or mammals, this decrease in water level increases the difficulty of access to the water surface, sometimes causing their fall, and death by drowning. As a remedy to this problem, O-Live Environmental Association launched the project “Restaurando puntos de agua, creando Fuentes de Vida” (Adapting water points, creating sources of life), funded by Banco Santander Foundation. Fuentes de Vida project is based on three basic pillars:
- First, the adaptation and the creation of water points in the vicinity of Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park.
- Second, the monitoring of the different species of fauna, especially amphibians, which use these water points.
- Third, the establishment of an educational and environmental awareness programme whose objective is to raise awareness on water points, their importance and the problems they face.
Adaptation and creation of water points
This project focuses principally on amphibians, as this is the most threatened animal group on the planet. However, by protecting, adapting or creating water points to give them potential breeding points, we also provide water points that serve as drinking or feeding points for the rest of the fauna sharing the same ecosystem as the amphibians. The project seeks to optimise the use of the current wide network of artificial water points by wildlife. Therefore, through a series of simple and low-cost measures, drinking troughs and small reservoirs become accessible and safe for wildlife. Furthermore, making the most of the remaining water from these structures or the runoff water, we can create new temporary ponds.
These simple interventions can make a difference in the survival of certain animal groups during long periods of drought. For the fountains, drinking troughs and small reservoirs, our actions are as simple as the installation of access and escape ramps. We try to reduce, as much as possible, the visual impact inherent to this action by keeping the most suitable constructive typology. This way we make these water points always accessible for all kinds of fauna, and if they fall, they will always have a ramp available to exit, no matter the water level. For the temporary ponds, to avoid creating artificial water input, we choose areas where waterlogging occurs naturally, either by remaining water from fountains or drinking troughs or by runoff water.
Once we have selected the area, we just do a small excavation; we put an impermeable material base and cover it with soil and stones so that over time, the aquatic plants can colonize it. This way, we get a water point as natural as possible. Each species has its own ecological needs. In the case of amphibians, these needs have to do with what type of water point is normally used as a breeding habitat. Whilst some species look for deep water points with some current, other species look for areas of temporary flooding. Therefore, by adapting some points and creating different ones, we create heterogeneity in the ecosystem that covers the needs of different species.
Monitoring of the new water points
We sample the potential areas of reproduction and monitor the water points that we created or adapted. The aim of these samplings is to know which species can benefit from our actions by determining the presence of species in each territory and the use of water points as breeding sites. The results obtained will be later analyzed and compared with post-adaptation samplings, which will allow us to know the response of the different species to the measures undertaken. Therefore, we will be able to evaluate their efficiency and it could serve as replicable models. In addition, during the months of highest temperatures and drought of 2017 (between June and October), we have been monitoring some of these new water points with camera traps.
Even though it was not a constant and continued effort, it gave us an idea of the quantity and diversity of species that come to these points to quench their thirst. It was mainly during the day when hundreds of birds such as Iberian green Woodpecker, Oriole, Hawfinch, Red-legged Partridge, Great and Blue tit, or even Common Buzzard and Tawny Owl, came to the drinking troughs and ponds to cool themselves. On the contrary, cautious mammals such as Egyptian mongoose, red fox, common genet, rabbits or boars, preferred the after dark hours. These are just a few examples of the huge diversity of animals that visited these water points, since there were not many natural ones in the area.
Education and environmental awareness programme
Wetlands and ponds have traditionally been reviled, as they are related to the presence of insects, vectors of diseases. At the same time, amphibians have been hunted for years under the mistaken belief that they are harmful or dangerous. For all that, we think education and awareness-raising work is necessary, not only with children but also with the people who manage and shape our environment every day. To this end, in 2017 several workshops had been undertaken with children from local schools, as well as the formation of activities for naturalists, farmers, livestock breeders and environmental agents.
We also organised some volunteering activities to enlighten people about the importance of these water points through the creation of them. Fuentes de Vida project was initially focused on the amphibians, but with time, this focus opened up to the need of water points for wildlife in general. This change did not result from decrease in our interest for the amphibians, whose situation is very worrying and needs our full attention, but because it has been seen that after several extremely dry summers, these points become fundamental for overall animal survival. In 2017, we provided Grazalema Natural Park with 46 new water points, either by conditioning the existing ones or by creating new ones. We expect those water points to improve both the amphibian fauna reproduction and the survival of wildlife in general. Fuentes de Vida continues its activities in 2018:
We have been monitoring the adapted and created water points since last autumn, and we will continue with this effort for the rest of the year. Additionally, we plan to adapt at least 8 water points that we identified as potential traps for wildlife. Also, we will expand the water point network through the construction of at least 14 new temporary ponds. Finally, we will continue with our education and raise awareness programmes. A new series of workshops and courses is planned for 2018 (get informed at www.facebook.com/olivemedioambiente).
From O-Live Environmental Association, we believe that nature conservation and applied research must necessarily go hand in hand. However, we believe that these two factors together will never work if they are not accompanied by education and environmental awareness. The day that professional conservation of nature is not necessary will be the day when we have a society that is aware of and responsible for the world in which it lives.