Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Early rain could help restore Eastside habitat

A dramatic image of Saturday's fire on the Eastside of the Rock of Gibraltar - Photo © DM Parody 2005
The eastside fire on Saturday may have made for dramatic images, but it is not expected to have a major impact on the environment.

Experts said yesterday that as long as rainfall levels this winter are normal, then the habitat should recover within a year or two. But a dry winter would set back that recovery and could even have an impact on the stability of the sand slopes.

“It’s not an ecological disaster, but it’s a step backwards,” said Dr John Cortes, general secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS) who described the incident as unfortunate. “But,” he said “Mediterranean ecosystems have a certain way of being able to recover from fire.”

The blaze on Saturday was fanned by a strong Levanter breeze and spread very quickly, covering a large swathe of the eastside sand slopes - Photo © DM Parody 2005
The blaze on Saturday was fanned by a strong Levanter breeze and spread very quickly, covering a large swathe of the eastside sand slopes.

While that proved a nightmare for firemen at the scene, it could ultimately prove beneficial from an environmental point of view. Because it extended swiftly, the fire did not have enough time to spread into the roots and beneath the soil. That means that the shrubs that were destroyed on Saturday have a good chance of recovering and, because the roots are most likely intact, the soil on the slopes should remain stable.

“We should be able to get back to the stage were within a couple of years, provided we get the right kind of rainfall in the winter,” Dr Cortes said.

“In many cases, fire actually promotes germination and growth. But if it doesn’t rain, then you could have problems of instability.”

Dr Cortes played down the loss of special plastic matting that had been put in place on the slopes to help the re-vegetation process.

When the corrugated iron sheets of the old water catchments were removed, the matting was installed to keep the sand in place while the plants took over. That matting was probably destroyed in the blaze on Saturday, though by then it was largely redundant.

“Once the plants took over, that matting was no longer serving any purpose,” Dr Cortes said. “In fact it was very brittle and was breaking away.”

GONHS, along with the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, had been involved in re-seeding the area after the iron sheets were removed, using seeds gathered in Gibraltar and Spain. The idea was to return the slopes to their original habitat, including plants that were extinct in Gibraltar, and in so doing encourage the return of wildlife.

Barbary Partridge - Alectoris barbara
Prior to the fire, Barbary Partridges had already returned to the area and pairs of these birds were nesting there.

Oukaïmeden, Morocco - Mar 17, 2004 © Alain Fossé
GONHS also had plans to re-introduce the Black Wheatear, a type of bird known by older generations of Gibraltarians as the ‘culito blanco’ but one that disappeared from the Rock over the past decades.

“Those birds were lost when the water catchments were built and out plans are to re-introduce them,” Dr Cortes said.

“We were going to do that this coming year. Now we’ll have to assess the habitat and see how it comes back in the spring to see if we can introduce them next year, or we’ll have to wait another year or two. The key is the rain, he concluded.

If we don’t get any rain this winter, then we’ll have to look at the whole thing again.”

All Rock Fire Images courtesy of © DM Parody 2005


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