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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
How the EU saves, and kills, the lynx
Lynx cubs in the Donana national park

By Mark Mardell
Europe editor, BBC News

On the edge of the Donana national park in Andalucia, just about at Spain's south-western tip, the pine forests hide a very special building.

It's a breeding project for one of the rarest wild cats in the world, the Iberian lynx.

They only live in this part of Spain, and while it's impossible to tell for sure, it's estimated that only about 150 of them are left in the wild.

So the fact there are 20 of them here and they are breeding is a triumph. The animals are monitored so carefully their every act is caught on camera. And microphone.

Some say the European Union has in effect saved them. Others that it backs projects that could be their final downfall.

Loss of prey

Dr Astrid Vargas, famous for her work to save the lynx in Spain, shows me the control centre where they are monitored.

A lynx
The lynx is like a domestic cat... with the hint of a tiger
To my disappointment, I am not allowed to see the animals in the flesh: there is the risk of them catching diseases and becoming unsettled if there's a stream of visitors.

But it's entrancing enough watching them on the monitors, as Astrid tries to find the cubs by panning cameras and switching between angles.

Two cubs are out for a morning walk but eventually join their brother in their den. They cuff each other, bite and play.

A three-year-old is about the size of a cocker spaniel, and they have wonderful faces, a little like a domestic cat, but then the hint of tiger flashes through. There is something both fey and ancient about their faces, it's probably the tufted ears and pointed beard that does it.

They are at risk partly because disease has killed their main prey, rabbits. But environmentalists say what really threatens them is that the wetlands of this national park are drying out.

"Encroachment by humans has been brutal. If we do not protect the lynx's habitat, there's no point in having them in captivity - the purpose of this programme is to re-introduce them into the wild," Astrid says.

"The reason the lynx is going extinct is because of our pressure. The Mediterranean maquis is shrinking fast, the natural vegetation is slowly but surely being changed."

Golf and strawberries

Outside, this part of the park is typical Mediterranean scrub. The scent of pine trees, mixed with rosemary and other herbs, is heavy in the air.

The land is drier than it should be. The wetlands further in, with their reeds and green grasses, have less water. Some say the dunes near the coast are spreading and whole areas are becoming desert.

Just a few miles away there's a big tourist complex.

The EU does not ensure that local authorities restrict subsidies to legal farmers
Guido Schmidt, WWF

Direct payments from Brussels are linked to the respect of a number of environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards
Michael Mann, European Commission

Everywhere sprinklers play on the lush glossy-leaved bushes and the bright purple flowers. Doubtless the brightly coloured pseudo-Moorish houses hide swimming pools, so tempting in this broiling heat. I watch golfers take a swing on the immaculate fairways, as green as the lawn of an English country house in a perfect summer.

The Scottish-born commercial director of the Golf Dunas de Donana says they use recycled water and he can't see how his course harms the environment.

"We water through the night, not during the day, we're limited to the amount of water we're allowed to use. A golf course is basically a nature reserve as well - we have a lot of animals from the national park that come here. It's very, very good for the environment," he says.

Perhaps surprisingly, environmentalists don't demur.

The WWF's Guido Schmidt tells me that he worked closely with the builders and designers when the project was first mooted and he's pleased with the result. It shows what working together can achieve. And anyway, even a less environmentally friendly course isn't any worse than a field of maize.

To him, the villains of the piece are local people, farmers who in the last couple of decades have switched from olives to a much more lucrative crop - strawberries destined for British supermarkets and the Christmas trade.

Sinking groundwater

Scores of such farms - at this time of year just lines of black plastic covering on the ground - can be seen along the roadside.

Many of them are illegal, relying on illegally taken water. Guido takes me into the pine forests and in a clearing we find a curious contraption: a rusty box with pipes running in and electricity cables running out, and a hole.

It's an illegal borehole.

Our voice echoes up as we peer into the well. Guido drops a stone and there's three seconds before the splash. That means it's 30m - about 90ft - deep, in an area where it should be just 25ft beneath the surface.

Guido says: "One of the problems is the groundwater level is dropping. Some of the water species have been disappearing. The river that goes into the marshes has lost half of its stream flow."

This sort of allegation infuriates Antonio Soltero.

Antonio Soltero
Antonio Soltero: Farmers need water, and this is our land
He's a big talkative man, worried that he'll get into trouble with supermarkets for giving us an interview, but passionate about his case.

He's also passionately proud about the standards in his packing rooms and warehouse, showing us labels and awards from British supermarkets and stickers marked "99p".

He points proudly to signs, in English and Spanish, forbidding eating, drinking and smoking on the premises.

He takes us to the heart of the pine forest to land that is an inheritance from his family. In a clearing there are about seven football pitches' worth of strawberry fields with their black plastic wrappings, hemmed in by the ubiquitous pine trees.

Intensive production

A couple of rather mangy dogs bark as we approach the little concrete building that houses a computer controlling irrigation.

To the side of the fields, behind a wire fence, there's a big square pool, containing 30m litres of water. He points with delight to a flight of partridges, and says he has seen lynx many times since he was a child. But where does all that water come from?


But there's been a drought, I point out.

"And from a borehole," he says.

A legal one? "Legal, legal, yes."

But what does he think of farmers who do use illegal ones?

"I don't think there are illegal farmers, there are people who need resources. They have land and they need water. If they've got one borehole and that's not enough, well, this is our land we were born here, we grew up here, we inherited it."

He questions how small plots like this can harm the lynx. He's vague on support from the European Union. He's part of a co-operative and gets loans at least but he doesn't seem to know the detail.

But Mr Schmidt argues the EU for years encouraged and rewarded intensive farming and high production, and although that policy may have ended, farmers are not now persuaded to switch back to older methods.

The damage has been done and isn't being reversed.

Road kill

The EU is part-funding a massive water project in Spain, including building new dams or expanding old ones, and he claims this rewards illegal farmers as well as damaging the environment.

Road through national park
The EU is against this road, which has led to the death of two lynx
"The EU does not ensure that local authorities restrict subsidies to legal farmers or those that haven't burnt down the pine forest," he says. "It does not give adequate funds to nature conservation projects. The EU is still pushing too much money into development and infrastructure, not enough into conservation."

But there's no doubt the EU is often on the conservationists' side. Very soon there will be an announcement that the European Commission is taking a case to the European Court of Justice, to deal with a road that runs through the park.

It used to be a rough forest track, but since it's been tarmacked over, two lynx have been killed on the road.

One senior Andalucian government official told me that the EU was the best thing that ever happened to Spain's environment, and that the changes would be historic.

The EU's spokesman on agriculture, Michael Mann says that the water projects are in fact aimed at reducing water use and that there is clearly now a co-ordinated policy to put the environment at the centre of concerns.

"Direct payments from Brussels are linked to the respect of a number of environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards," he says. "This means that we can, and do, cut subsidies to farmers who fail to meet these standards."

Insects and vipers

In the pine forests, one form of wildlife is thriving - the insects sting and bite, as Astrid shows me around. "Watch out for vipers!" she says. I marvel as a tiny lizard darts beneath my feet. "Yeah, yeah, there's lots of stuff," she says rather dismissively.

She thinks the EU is in a muddle.

"This happens with lots of conservation projects - the big national or international policies, the agricultural policies and the environmental policies, don't mix together," she says.

"So maybe Europe is giving money for preserving the lynx - it's given 26m euros (18m) - but the agricultural funds give money that helps destroy the lynx's habitat.

"The same institution is protecting and destroying habitat at the same time."

This is the third of a series of three articles by Mark Mardell on the EU's environmental policies. See also Winds of change shake Romanian farms and Poland mired in wetlands row.

Euroblog: Iberian cat fight
10 Sep 07 |  Europe
Poland mired in wetlands row
31 Aug 07 |  Europe
EU 'put Portugal wildlife under threat'
08 Apr 07 |  Science/Nature
Hopes raised by Spain lynx births
30 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature

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