It was reading Guy Mountfort’s iconic book “Portrait of a Wilderness” (1958) in the late 1960s that inspired me and a group of friends to first go birding in Spain in 1970. There were no guides back then, no internet and little information about where to see birds beyond the maps in Peterson’s field guide. As a result, the closest thing we had to a site guide in southern Spain was Mountfort’s book but, as I recall, that only mentioned three sites, the Coto itself, Bonanza saltpans and La Janda.
Surprisingly we got permission to visit the Coto, but found access to Bonanza saltpans denied by a locked gate and so went in search of the Laguna de la Janda. We knew where to go as it was marked on the cheap roadmaps we’d picked up at petrol stations en route. So it was with some excitement that we headed along the road from Vejer towards Tarifa. When no laguna appeared, we just assumed that, such was the scale of the map, we'd somehow missed it or, perhaps our map reading skills weren’t as good as we thought. In reality, our error was not one of map reading, but of timing as the last remnants of the laguna had disappeared in 1967. I still rather resent the fact that after decades of trying the drain the place, they finally managed it just before I got there! Had we been better informed we’d have still turned off the road and explored the site as even the ghost of the old laguna is good for birds.
The historic maps on the excellent Asociación Amigos de la Laguna de La Janda blog (http://blog.lagunalajanda.org/cartografia/) show that the exact shape and extent of Laguna de la Janda was never fixed but shifted and changed according to the amount of rainfall and by season. These changes could be extensive as the laguna was shallow being no deeper than 3m so rapidly changed shape as the water evaporated or the laguna was fed by rainfall. At its greatest extent Laguna de la Janda may have had a surface of 7,000 hectares but could shrink to around 4,000 hectares. Hence on maps it sometimes it appears as a thin sausage-shape, a lozenge or, at its greatest extent in wet years, a huge boomerang stretching north-east to include Laguna de Espartinas. In fact, in some ways the name Laguna de la Janda is a misnomer as Lagunas de la Janda (as it is sometimes styled) would be more apt since in drier times it became a string of smaller lagunas – Aguila, Rehuelga, Espartinas, Jandilla, Tapatana y la Haba, Tapantanilla and Cabrahigos. I've not found the latter on any map so I've assumed (quite possibly incorrectly) on my map that it's synonymous with Laguna del Hiero which I have found. Laguna de Alcala and Laguna del Torero usually (if not always) seem to have been comparatively isolated outliers . Some of these satellite lagunas were close in size to Laguna de Medina so must have been impressive sites for wildlife in their own right. Today the Rio Barbate (with a minor road beside it) still squeezes between two low hills just east of Vejer before opening out at the site of Laguna del Torero. Occasionally heavy rains mean that the old laguna tries to reassert itself and by squinting your eyes you can almost imagine it's still there. I've seen various herons, White and Black Stork and Cranes there in the past but birds like Red-knobbed Coot are long gone (although the odd one has turned up on La Janda in wet years).
Ownership of La Janda has been a matter of dispute for decades with the Asociación Amigos de la Laguna de La Janda (https://www.lagunalajanda.org/) playing a significant role in the fight to demonstrate that it remains public, not private, land. A definitive legal opinion was sought and eventually came down in favour of recognising public ownership. However, in Andalucia (as elsewhere) de jure facts seem slow to trump the de facto occupation of the land by powerful agricultural interests.
However, ambitious new plans give hope that a small part of this laguna may be restored. Plans to restore – or in modern parlance rewild – La Janda aren’t new. At the turn of the century modest proposals were made to create small wetland (a) just north of the turning to Zahara. Nothing came of the proposal partly, I assume, due to the then unclarified legal position but also, as I recall, because it was predicated on mitigation funds being available from upgrading the N 340. For good or ill, converting the road to Tarifa into a dual carriageway has got no further south than Vejer. Not all improvements to the local environment have been unsuccessful as the work at El Cañillo in the Marismas de Barbate shows (b). Unfortunately, ambitious plans to convert the pastures in the valley between Barbate and Vejer into a wetland reserve with hides and shallow lagunas (c) appear to have stalled despite the involvement of Barbate council and optimistic comments about funding being available (see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/a-new-wetland-proposed-near-vejerbarbate). Talking to local environmentalists it seems that this project is unlikely to go ahead in the near future, if at all. This is a pity as, on paper at least, the proposals looked excellent and would, in conjunction with the next project make the area even more of a birding hotspot.
At the Global Bird Fair in July 2022 a new and very exciting plans were unveiled to improve the habitat in a relatively small but significant part of the old Laguna de La Janda. This time, however, there seems grounds for quiet optimism. First, the legal position now seems more clear cut than it was twenty-five years ago. Second, the plans are a result of collaboration with half-a-dozen or so local organisations and have the support of still more national and international organisation (inc. the IUCN, WWF & SEO). Third is the eventual success of the campaign to open a previously closed pedestrian/cycle route on La Janda along the Canal de Churriana and on to El Canal. Perhaps most importantly, the fourth reason is that publicity and funding from the Global Bird Fair should ensure the plans have a high profile and sufficient financial backing.
The ambition, scope and detail presented at the bird fair were impressive. I’ve drawn a map of my own to put the plan into context within the area involved (highlighted in green on the main map) and inserted a map showing Stodmarsh NNR to give some idea of context for British birders (or at least those in SE England) who don’t know the place. The similarities don’t stop with a broadly comparable size but also the mix of farmland and wetland.
The attractive artist’s impression of the site and maps give a good idea of what is intended. If additional land is purchased, then the area involved will be a shade over 400 ha of which almost 100 ha will be farmed (irrigated & unirrigated), 100 ha converted into a wetland (including small lagunas and reedbeds), 62 ha restored grasslands, 7 ha of woodlands (some of which will screen the site from the road) and 2 ha improved flooding. The plan also includes better access, hides, a visitors’ centre and its use as an educational resource. One of the aspects of the plan which makes it, in my view, a more viable prospect is that the area devoted to ‘ecological farming’ will not only provide a model for others to follow but also provide funds to run the reserve. In my experience too many projects of this nature in Spain founder because there isn’t a regular source of funding. The area may be minuscule compared to what has been lost but it's a start.
When, not if, this scheme goes ahead it will owe much to the tireless work over decades by the Asociación Amigos de la Laguna de La Janda and many other Spanish enthusiasts. Without their ambition and determination none of this could have happened. Despite setbacks and disappointments, they have continued to fight not only for what was and is their patrimony but also for hispanophile birders everywhere. I've only given a thumbnail sketch of the plans here so check out their website Laguna de La Janda (lagunalajanda.org) for more details and how you can support their work. For an excellent explanation (despite the indifferent quality of the video watch the talk given by Javier Elorriaga and Manuel Morales at the Global Bird Fair at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=480j8sVUgIc&t=1s
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks (all of us are still birding!) at Taunton's School in Southampton. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired I now spend as much time as possible in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.