Restoration of nature, restoration of joy | Bird life
Restoring nature is a wonderful thing. It’s great for wildlife, of course, but it’s also of great benefit to humans.
El Astillero is a town in Santander Bay in Cantabria, northern Spain, known for its shipyard (“astillero” is the Spanish word for shipyard). It is also surrounded by swamps, which are ancient nesting sites for migratory birds. These swamps suffered immense damage over the course of the 20th century. The mining of iron and the deposition of excess sediment completely destroyed the landscape. In addition, auxiliary industries occupied land along the estuary and after the mines were closed; the ancient swamps have been taken over by invasive, non-native plants such as eucalyptus and pampas grass.
The place was in a terrifying state. And it was completely inaccessible to the local population.
At the turn of the century, the young mayor of El Astillero wanted to do it differently. He wanted to restore the destroyed landscapes and create a large public space for everyone. This idea was to become the Eco Astillero XXI project: a new, sustainable future for a new century. The project is carried out in partnership with El Astillero and SEO / BirdLife, the conservation NGO I work for.
We have restored 60 hectares of severely degraded land. We have invasive species like pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), restored the tidal area by opening dikes, creating new lagoons, remote landfills, building a network of 25 ponds and replanting native vegetation. We planted 40,000 trees in total! We have also created a 21 km long network of paths and cycle paths. The project started in 1999 and we still maintain the site today.
As you can see, it was a lot of work! But it was worth it: What used to be an inaccessible and degraded landscape in a crowded city is now a lush green space that everyone can enjoy. It’s hard to overestimate how important it is for humans to have nature in their lives – both for their mental and physical health. Today people go walking, cycling, picnicking and just enjoying nature! I think anyone who has experienced the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic knows the value of having access to nature close to their home.
Another great benefit is that people’s interest in biodiversity is growing. I notice more people with cameras and binoculars every day. In fact, we hold an annual biodiversity photography competition that attracts over 100 participants each year.
I hope that our success with Eco Astillero XXI will inspire other post-industrial cities to make way for nature; and inspires the European Commission to fund such projects. There is enormous potential for improving people’s quality of life, creating jobs and healing nature in the process. In addition, our experience has shown that restoring nature can be achieved on a relatively modest budget compared to the benefits that come with it.
I would like to thank everyone who was involved in bringing Eco Astillero XXI to life and keeping it running to this day: the people of the El Astillero community and SEO / BirdLife. I would also like to thank our donors: the Cantabrian regional government, the national authorities, the LIFE program of the European Union and local private donors.
As a conservationist, I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to take part in this project and see its brilliant results for both wildlife and humans.
The history of Astillero is unique, but at the same time it is one of many projects where the restoration of nature brings great social benefits to the local population.