The Cranes at La Janda

The haunting noise of calling cranes is one of the loveliest sounds you can hear when out in the countryside at this time of year. 

Common Cranes breed in the north of Europe particularly in Sweden, Finland and Denmark then winter with us in Cadiz province.

La Janda, the ancient lake was the birds ancestral home and former breeding ground, sadly the area was drained and this habitat lost to agriculture.

One of  the sad facts about this special bird is that it is still under threat from Man. Habitat loss is the principal factor and the drainage of wetlands and change of land use for agriculture are probably the two main problems. La Janda is a typical example of habitat loss. Common Cranes haven't bred in Spain since the mid 1950's when La Janda was drained. Prior to the draining there was a small breeding population of Demoiselle Cranes as well as Marsh Owls, Osprey and lots of heron, ibis, crakes and rail species breeding along with many duck, deer and other wildlife.

Much of this naturally flooding plain that supported the ancient lake is around 6m below sea level. Between Benalup and Alcala de Los Gazules a huge dam was built to keep back flood waters that connected the Marismas de Barbate to La Janda in winter. The whole area was a massive wetland and increased in size dramatically when there was a lot of rain in the winter months. The dam, called the Presa de Barbate also serves to irrigate the rice field complex in summer. The rice is planted in May and harvested from September to November. Incidentally, Spain is the biggest rice producer in Europe. Most of the rice is short grain and is milled for rice flour. Part of the flour goes into food bulking in the processing industry and a lot gets used in the brewing industry. Thank goodness that German beer production is controlled by a law which states that only water, barley and hops can be used with the yeast.

Cranes flying south from Scandinavia use staging sites all the way down to Africa. They feed and rest at these sites, through Germany, France and onto Spain.

Cranes feed on the remnants of the rice, maize and sunflower harvests at la Janda. This area is also used as a staging site for cranes that continue on to Morocco.

The largest groups of cranes winter in Extremadura. Cáceres and Badajoz provinces have over 47,000 birds between them in winter. On the Iberian peninsula there are around 60,000 birds that winter here. The main population is in Spain but there are a few sites in Portugal along the border with Spain.

Food sourcing and avoiding the cold temperatures of the north are the main motivating factors for most migratory species. One of the big attractions in the Extremaduran landscape is the huge amount of open space particularly between trimmed Holm Oak dehesas or semi-natural meadows famous for the Iberian Black pigs.

The acorns from the Holm Oaks are a main source of nutrients for the pigs but the cranes benefit from the acorns, fresh shoots, seeds, bulbs and other fruits.

Sunflowers now growing on the ancient site of the Laguna de La Janda.

Rice-fields, dykes and irrigation canals now dominate the landscape of La Janda. There are thousands of people who would love to see part of this natural asset returned to it's former glory and managed as a Parqe National. La Janda has such importance as a major staging and breeding site for many species but the sterile practice of draining rain water off the land in winter and restricting irrigation in spring in order to keep weeds and other plants from germinating as the planting of rice takes place in May. Few breeding birds are able to use the area and only the fringes are able to support breeding birds. The land is public land and even today 60 years after one of the greatest ecological disasters in Spain, it still has no protective status. The eco-tourism potential is phenomenal and as yet, the local and national governments fail to appreciate the prospect of development of such a natural and public asset,  for the good of the people and the environment.

Various campaign groups are active such as Los Amigos de La Laguna de La Janda, COCN (Colectivo Ornitológico Cigüeña Negra)  and the Ecologistas in Accción. 

Here is a link to an excellent paper proposing a model for the sustainable regeneration of the Laguna of La Janda


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