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.

My name is Felipe Gonzalez Sanchez and I want to tell you about a restoration project that I worked on as a conservationist and that has brought great social benefits to the local people. It’s called Eco Astillero XXI.

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.

The Eco Astillero XXI project benefits the community in a number of ways. Thanks to funding from the regional government, unemployed people are hired every year to work on the site: removing invasive plants, digging ponds, planting trees, setting up nesting boxes and more. The project has so far employed 560 people!
Workers in El Astillero

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.

In terms of biodiversity, one of our greatest achievements was the creation of a new colony of common terns (Sterna Hirundo). They started breeding in 2011 in rafts that we created for them. During the breeding season, you can see them from all over the world thanks to the webcams we have set up. We keep seeing new species coming to El Astillero, such as otters or even the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus). In addition, the ponds we dug now house seven different species of amphibians: three newts and four frogs.

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.

Felipe Gonzalez Sanchez, Cantabria Regional Representative, SEO / BirdLife

Beyond Astillero

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.

The renaturation of the wetlands in the Le Bine nature reserve in northern Italy consisted in part of reclaiming an area that was previously used intensively for agriculture. Today, Le Bine runs an educational program with local schools to teach children the benefits of nature-friendly farming.
Fen Drayton Lakes in Great Britain was formerly a sand and gravel quarry. In 1992 mining was stopped and the quarries flooded. Today the place is full of life: it is a complex of lakes, lagoons and ponds where wildlife can be found all year round – otters, dragonflies and many different birds. It’s a wonderful place to forget your worries and just connect with nature. There is so much to see, the place has become an eco-tourist destination! Bring your binoculars: Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus), Eurasian bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) and Eurasian hobbies (Falco Subbuteo) waiting for you.
The Carpathia Project, funded by the Endangered Landscapes Program, amid the dramatic landscape of Romania’s Făgăraş Mountains, aims to create a world-class wilderness reserve to protect both local wildlife and some of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe while restoring and habitat Wildlife populations that have been lost to unsustainable logging, hunting and overgrazing. The project works closely with local communities to monitor human and animal coexistence, with teams on the ground working to prevent and respond to conflict, for example by installing electric fences to deter bears from targeting problem animals from villages expel and shepherds with traditional with guard dogs. They also create tangible economic benefits by supporting the development of nature-based businesses, including ecotourism, sustainable forestry and food production – which benefit the local economy and the countryside.

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