Science: Just a steppe away from extinction: The plains of central Spain are Europe's last habitat for the great bustard and other rare birds. Now, says Malcolm Smith, the grasslands are at risk from new farming methods

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The Independent Culture
THE PARCHED crops of wheat and barley, sunflowers and pockets of flower-full grassland stretch to the horizon on both sides of the dusty track. This is bustard country. Under threat globally, and with its European stronghold on these extensive plains occupying much of central Spain, the turkey-sized great bustard - one of the largest flying birds in the world - epitomises the haunting beauty of this thinly populated, arid countryside.

All the more ironic, then, that the first bustard we saw had been reduced to a pathetic scatter of chestnut and creamy-white feathers. Gabriel Gonzalez, a local member of the Sociedad Espanola de Ornitologia (SEO), had found several dead this year. All had collided with overhead electricity cables.

The cables make it possible to pump water from aquifers - natural underground reservoirs. Not surprisingly, crop irrigation has proved all too tempting for farmers used to eking out a living from low crop yields on a few hectares of dry, sandy soil. Well-watered sugar beet, cereals, fruit and vegetable crops - with generous helpings of fertilisers and pesticides - are rapidly replacing the traditional mix of cereals adapted to a dry climate, fallow and grassland which is home to a cornucopia of internationally important wildlife. Bird species range from bustards and sandgrouse to lesser kestrels and stone curlews.

Three million hectares of these plains, an area almost the size of Scotland, have already been developed. Another four million could be lost as wildlife habitat by 2010. Nor is it only the wildlife that stands to lose. A traditional farming way of life is also disappearing. So, too, is Spain's most precious natural resource - water - squandered for short-term profit.

Refreshingly, there are no battle lines drawn between farmers and conservationists over the future of the Spanish steppes. Farmers - led by the Asociacion Agraria de Jovenes Agricultores (ASAJA) and the Union de Pequenos Agricultores (UPA) - and conservationists, led by SEO, want an end to irrigation. Instead, they believe, farmers should receive payments for retaining or returning to traditional methods. They are campaigning for a long-term, sustainable existence for farming, precious resources and wildlife. They have the backing of the prestigious International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) - a federation of 360 organisations worldwide, which has just launched its Spanish Steppes Appeal.

The steppes hold some 12,000-14,000 great bustards - 65 per cent of the European population and more than half the world's. These huge brown, chestnut and white ground birds once strutted on the grasslands of southern England; the last one bred in Suffolk in 1832. Hunted to extinction, they have also suffered elsewhere in Europe because the intricate mix of grassland, cereal and fodder crops on which they depend has been replaced by intensively managed monoculture crops.

The great bustard is not the only threatened species in this part of Spain. The steppes also support 75 per cent of Europe's population of little bustards and provide feeding habitat for the lesser kestrel, 4,000-5,000 pairs of which now hunt over these plains. Spain had around 100,000 pairs in the Fifties. Many other species, all declining in Europe - including larks such as calandra and Dupont's and larger ground birds like stone curlew and sandgrouse - find refuge here too. There are no other extensive steppes left in western Europe, the nearest being in Hungary.

Agricultural crop yields here are low - a tonne of wheat or barley per hectare, compared with over 10 times that figure in eastern England. To add insult to injury, three unusually dry years in succession have meant that many farmers are not even bothering to harvest this season's pitiful crop.

Manuel Martin Partearroyo, a local president of ASAJA, farms 72 hectares of cereals, sugar beet and sunflowers in the Madrigal area, part of a vast steppe north-west of Madrid. His farm is larger than most. 'It is,' he says, 'very difficult to make a profit. It may be possible for me to survive for a year or two, but many other farmers will have to sell up.'

It comes as no surprise, then, that many farmers welcomed with open arms the chance to irrigate their land. Promoted by both the provincial and the federal Spanish government, irrigation schemes - and the attendant power lines and roads required to instal and service them - attract up to 75 per cent reimbursement from the EC.

The programme for Castilla y Leon, the province with over a quarter of Spain's remaining steppe area, was approved by the EC in 1989. It is costing pounds 54.5 million, half of this from the EC. In the Madrigal area, 60,000 hectares are due to be irrigated. A plethora of wells have already been drilled and over 90 kilometres of power lines installed by the state- owned power company Iberdrola.

Power lines are death-traps for great bustards. They also break up the large quiet refuges, distant from human activity, which the birds seem to need. Apart from the crop changes caused by irrigation, there is another risk: water guns can soak eggs and chicks, killing them. More intensive agriculture also means more disturbance for these birds.

'Farmers were encouraged to invest in the schemes, often under pressure from companies looking for the construction work,' says the SEO's Carlos Martin. An economic assessment carried out for his organisation shows that most farmers were sold a pig in a poke.

The average initial investment by a farmer in the Madrigal area was pounds 32,000 for irrigation equipment, a water pump and a power line to the farm. Forty per cent of this was claimed back by the Castilla y Leon government from the EC. Even so, with equipment maintenance, running costs and loan repayments, he will be out of pocket to the tune of over pounds 1,000 a year.

With prices for cereals and sugar beet set to fall by a third over the next four years - a result of the revised EC Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - Nacho Senovilla, general secretary of UPA, which represents over 50,000 members, sums up the farmers' plight: 'Many still owe a lot of money to the banks. They see now the folly of trying to grow crops which depend on irrigation, but it seemed like the only way of raising their incomes at the time.' With Spain's very limited social support measures, many farmers face bankruptcy.

Yet, incredibly, the Spanish government is even now consulting organisations like SEO on its plans for irrigating up to 4 million hectares of dry land using aquifer pumping, 200 dams, and enormous canals to carry water from several major rivers. The schemes proposed in the Duero and Tajo river basins alone threaten 70 per cent of Spain's great bustard population.

According to Sancho Belgado of the EC's Agriculture Directorate, the impact of existing schemes on wildlife has been exaggerated. But he admits that much of the detail of these schemes has in the past been left to the Spanish authorities. Carlos Martin argues that the

wildlife implications didn't even get an airing, especially since most of the money was coming from the EC and work for Spanish companies was at stake. No one seemed to care, either, that underground aquifers would eventually dry up. Farmers are already drilling deeper to find water and numerous streams are bone dry.

Under the EC Wild Birds Directive, in force since 1981, all member states are legally obliged to protect their most important areas for endangered bird species as Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The Spanish steppes have no less than 15 of these species.

In general, Spain's record for SPA designation isn't as bad as some member states. It has designated 109 SPAs out of 288 identified. In the steppes, however, the story is very different. Out of 63 SPAs identified, only nine are either wholly or partly designated - a measly 5 per cent of 2.5 million hectares.

But with the Spanish government conscious that its regional development lags behind northern EC member states, it expects a larger share from Commission coffers to raise living standards than these states - especially the UK - are willing to allocate. With John Major's avowed objective of reducing the UK's contribution to the EC, there is no chance of a change of heart during the UK's presidency. Without more cash, the Spanish say they cannot afford to protect wildlife habitats.

The conservationists and, increasingly, the farmers, see a better way of spending what EC cash the Spanish government can attract. It involves what are known as ESAs - Environmentally Sensitive Areas. Within an ESA, farmers get payments for retaining traditionally managed land - without irrigation, pesticides or fertilisers. Higher payments are available for converting from irrigated crops back to traditional ones, so habitat maintenance takes priority over crop yields. Unlike other EC member states, Spain has - so far - not designated any ESAs.

Pressure from conservationists and the farming unions - and a slow realisation by the Spanish provincial and federal governments that irrigation has no future - has put ESAs on the political agenda. Fifty per cent of the payments to those who farm within these areas will come from the Commission; CAP changes will make that 75 per cent by the end of this year. ESAs suddenly look very attractive.

At the regional government's request, SEO has drawn up a scheme for two steppe ESAs in Castilla y Leon. UPA's Nacho Senovilla is confident of EC acceptance of the scheme. It will be welcomed as a lifeline by farmers. According to Thomas Berrer of the Commission's Agriculture Directorate, both proposals have Commission support and he expects them to be approved later this summer.

If he is right, some of Spain's dry steppes could be saved. The ICBP, assisted by the SEO, has identified a further three ESAs, all in Extremadura province. That would still protect only a fraction of the wildlife areas. But conserving the bulk of the plains will require a lot of money, most from the EC taxpayer. Ironically, the future of this haunting landscape and its bustards, larks and sandgrouse is more in our hands than those of the Spanish farmers who somehow survive there.-

(Photograph omitted)