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Coto Doñana National Park, Spain

We found ourselves with a day to kill somewhere around Seville, so we decided to make a quick trip to Coto Donana, somewhere I have never been before, but always wanted to go. It takes about an hour to drive there from Seville, and the first real sight that you get of the park is a remarkable one. As you head through what can only be described as the cowboy town of El Rocio (Not because there are cowboys but because the roads have to tarmac, the houses have wooden posts for tying up horses and the magnificent church is straight out of a Mexican cowboy film set.) the town is bounded to the south by a magnificent lagoon teeming with flamingos, egrets, spoonbills, heron, wild horses and any number of birds. 

Coto Donana National Park 

El Rocio village and lagoon. Copyright Wildlife Extra.

Situated in the delta of the Guadalquivir River, just south west of Seville, Coto Doñana National Park is one of the world's most valuable wetlands. The park's marshlands, natural beaches, dune systems, woodlands and heaths provide a haven for six million migratory birds as well as endangered species such as the Imperial eagle. Doñana is also home to one of the last surviving populations of the world's most endangered cat species, the Iberian lynx.

The park consists of a core area and a much larger "buffer" zone, which together cover some 1,300 square Kms. Like many of the world's wildlife reserves, some of Donana started life as a hunting reserve some 800 years ago before finally becoming a National Park in 1969

Doñana is famed for a vast variety of birds, some resident all year as well as winter visitors from northern Europe and summer migrants from Africa. It is often the resident flamingos that many people are amazed to see in Europe, but is also well known for its population of Imperial eagles. You will also see plenty of black kites, various species of egrets and herons, spoonbills and the beautiful Azure magpies are amongst some 250 species to be seen here.

Acebuche visitor centre
The Azure magpies can be seen vary easily at the visitor centre at Acebuche, which is a great place to spend a few hours with a variety of boardwalks linking several bird hides that look out across the lagoons. There are plenty of facilities here, with a shop, exhibition centre and very pleasant café. The centre is also the start point for the official tours of the park. The centre lies on the A483 south of El Rocio, not far from the resort of Matalascañas.

Palacio del Acebron
Not far from El Rocio is the old hunting lodge of Palacio del Acebron which has a nature trail through a woodland, and a small lake with turtles. The Palacio lies just south of El Rocio on the A483.

Coto Donana bus tour. Copyright Wildlifeextra.com

Coto Donana bus tour. Copyright Wildlifeextra.com

Coto Donana tours
These tours start from the Acebuche visitor centre and last around 4 hours. They are run in huge 4 x 4 buses which are just about the only vehicles that can cover the terrain in the park. They start with a long straight drive along the beach which is more than 30 kilometres long. The tour then turns inland and winds its way through the dunes and scrub forests, with occasional glimpses of the marsh along the edge of the river. We saw dozens of wild boar, plenty of red and fallow deer, semi wild ponies and a wide variety of birds. There is a running dialogue with a guide, but ask if there is a driver/guide who speaks English as there appeared to be a lot of in Spanish jokes but not much attention paid to overseas visitors. There is normally a tour in the morning and another in the afternoon, but they can be booked up so check before hand.

It is also possible to book private tours of the northen park, into the buffer zone, with various companies based in El Rocio.

Threats
Donana is under threat from all sides, despite being probably the most important wetlands in Europe. The road that runs through the centre of the park leads to a beach resort, which has been trying to extend its borders. The road itself is a major threat and several critically endangered Lynx have been run over. The edges of the park are under pressure from farming, and water extraction is drying some areas of the park. Run off from agriculture, toxic waste from mines, rampant fishing along the coast and hunting are all threatening the wildlife.