LAGUNA DE EL HITO

“Seasonal wetland of great importance for water fowl in the Upper La Mancha in Cuenca”

GENERAL DESCRIPTION

The lagoon known as Laguna de El Hito is a seasonal wetland of great importance for water birds even though its water level is extremely variable depending on the rainfall. Located about 830 m above sea level, it is in the central-western are of the province of Cuenca (Upper Mancha). Its relative isolation and distance with respect to other sizeable wetlands strengthen its value as an obligatory stopping-place in the annual migratory routes of cranes and multiple species of water fowl.

It is a seasonal endorheic lagoon, saline and with a steppe-like appearance, hosting halophilic plant communities with a high-priority conservation status. Its seasonality is determined by the modest annual rainfall and the high summer temperatures that cause its total desiccation most years. The salinity of its waters, with a high proportion of sulphates and magnesium, is due to the wash-through of the abundant myocenic gypsums making up the substrate of its reception basin. After evaporation, deposits of salt accumulate on the bottom of the lagoon in summer, giving it a striking whiteness in a landscape dominated by ochre tones.

The lagoon’s pan is shallow, with a depth of less than one metre, but very extensive (about 350 Ha) and it collects the sub-superficial run-off from an endorheic basin covering about 2 500 Ha.

The lagoon presents areas of accumulated salt in its basin and a border of marginal hygrophilic plants of great botanical interest, surrounded by cereal crops and patches of grazing land on flat or gently rolling terrains.

The sheet of water sustains extensive meadows of carophytes that live in the transparent shallow water. As we move further away from the centre of the pan, we encounter pioneering formations of fleshy halophilic plants and graminoid pastures with an appetite for salt, particularly meadows of salt-loving grasses based on Aeluropus littoralis and Puccinellia fasciculata. On the outermost strip we can find communities of sub-saline and rarely floodable soils, defined by different species of Limonium and rare patches of Lygeum spartum esparto grass. In view of the lagoon’s ecological characteristics there is no presence of marsh plants. In summer, the red communities of Salicornia sp. stand out against the saline landscape.

SUMMARY TECHNICAL DATA

Natura 2000 N SPA and SCI Code: ES0000161. Name: Laguna de El Hito. Province: Cuenca. Area: 23 188.56 Ha.

Municipalities: Almonacid del Marquesado, El Hito, Huete, Montalbo, Saelices, Villar de Cañas, Villarejo De Fuentes, Villares del Saz, Zafra de Záncara.

Characteristic habitats: steppes, grasslands, esparto grass groves, areas of salt deposits, crops and free water.

Outstanding values and most representative and unique species: the population of cranes is very important in terms of over-wintering and migratory passage. In addition, it hosts various species of waders and Anatidae of interest. In flora, we can highlight the presence of such species as Limonium soboliferum, Lythrum flexuosum and Lepidium cardamines.

Other protection concepts: Natural Reserve of Laguna de El Hito y Humedal Ramsar.

Best time to visit and other recommendations: spring and early summer. For sighting cranes, the end of October and November, as well as in February. There are two belvederes with informative panels next to the villages of El Hito and Montalbo. These belvederes are linked by means of a marked itinerary running along the north of the lagoon and is equipped with informative panels and a bird observatory.

The main interest in terms of fauna lies in the bird life living at the lagoon in the winter months, coinciding with the highest levels of water following the autumn rains. The concentrations of common crane during migration periods are noteworthy. In addition, it is worth highlighting the nesting and migratory passage of black-winged stilts and avocets, as well as lapwings. Over-wintering species include many other water fowl such as common teal, pintail, northern shoveller, shelduck, widgeon, gadwall, mallard, common pochard, red-crested pochard, common redshank, etc. The passing presence of migrating spoonbills, garganeys and common snipes, among other species, has also been verified. Associated with the cultivated surroundings of the lagoon, there are several steppe species, such as great bustards, little bustards, common sandgrouse, Montagu’s harriers and stone curlews.

It is also worth highlighting the presence in winter of merlin and peregrine falcon that use the area for hunting.

ORNITHOLOGICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPORTANCE

This wetland is of great importance as an area of passage for the common crane, also present in winter, with concentrations in excess of 10 000 specimens in wet years. Other water fowl that nest in the lagoon include the black-winged stilt, the avocet, the Kentish plover or the red-crested pochard, with a very high number of species of water fowl using the lagoon as an over-wintering refuge and for their migratory passage.

With respect to the flora, there is an outstanding presence of several species included in the Regional Catalogue of Threatened Species in Castilla La Mancha, such as Limonium soboliferum, an endemism exclusive to this locality and declared in danger of extinction, Lythrum flexuosum, Lepidium cardamines and Gypsophila bermejoi, as well as certain charophyte algae of interest (Tolypella salina, Chara galioides, Ch. canescens) and the aquatic phanerogam Ruppia drepanensis.

SIGNIFICANT SPECIES

AVES

NOMBRE COMÚN NOMBRE CIENTÍFICO
Alcaraván común Burhinus oedicnemus
Alondra de Dupont Chersophilus duponti
Andarríos bastardo Tringa glareola
Avoceta Recurvirostra avosetta
Chorlito dorado Pluvialis apricaria
Cigüeña blanca Ciconia ciconia
Cigüeñuela común Himantopus himantopus
Combatiente Philomachus pugnax
Esmerejón Falco columbarius
Fumarel cariblanco Chlidonias hybridus
Grulla común Grus grus
Lechuza campestre Asio flammeus

Otras especies de aves presentes: pato colorado (Netta rufina), tarro blanco (Tadorna tadorna), avefría (Vanellus vanellus), ánade rabudo (Anas acuta), pato cuchara (Anas clypeata), cerceta común (Anas crecca), ánade silbón (Anas penelope), cerceta carretota (Anas querquedula), ánade friso (Anas strepera), ánsar común (Anser anser), porrón común (Aythya ferina), focha común (Fulica atra), garza real (Ardea cinerea), etc.

FLORA: Limonium soboliferum, Lythrum flexuosum, Lepidium cardamines, Limonium longebracteatum, Gypsophila bermejoi, etc.

THREATS AND MANAGEMENT

The lagoon has suffered the tipping of rubble at numerous points, a habitual occurrence in the past for marginal land of little economic value. The situation forced the environmental authorities to arrange for the removal of this waste in 2000 from the whole of the pan and its periphery. Nonetheless, there is still a major rubble tip on the margin of the SPA related to the town of Montalbo, diminishing the landscape quality of the surroundings.

Some power lines have caused the death of cranes, although the number of incidents has reduced notably after the signalling of the main lines with anti-collision devices.

On the other hand, the centuries-old ploughing of the margins of the lagoon caused in the past the disappearance of a large part of the surrounding sub-saline plant rings (esparto grass groves), that are now quite scarce in the Natural Reserve. These communities also serve as a brake on the dragging of sediments into the lagoon as they might fill it up and also the diffuse agrarian pollution of the surroundings. For this reason, a programme is being developed to acquire land of interest in order to recover these communities following the withdrawal of crops.

Extensive animal husbandry and, above all, the operation of a cattle-farming operation located inside the SPA require greater regulation and planning, and its removal to outside the area would be desirable, as these activities imply a disruption in the landscape and a source of eutrophization for the lagoon. In addition, the fencing associated with the farm has caused collisions with birds, so the removal of the fences is a priority. Hunting at the lagoon has been banned since its declaration as a Natural Reserve in 2002, in view of the ornithological interest of the wetland.

Since 1994, an agri-environmental programme has been applied at this lagoon to improve the habitat of the common crane, albeit rather intermittently; the continuity of measures like these over time is necessary to encourage the extensification of farms and their compensation in the event of damage from cranes.

Urban and industrial growth in nearby towns (especially Montalbo) seriously alters the traditional landscape setting of the lagoon, so greater consistency is required in the territorial organization and urban planning.