“Extensive reddish moors, between vineyards and steppe-like fields”
Area of La Mancha located to the south of the province of Cuenca, close to the limits with Albacete province, with a mean altitude of 750 m. The landscape is defined by extensively cultivated gentle plains, mostly unirrigated cereals and extensive vineyards. From time to time, there is also a clump of holm oak and stone pine groves mixed in with the ensemble.
Landscape in general monotonous and homogeneous, with beautiful shades of reds and ochres, which in spring go back to an intense green with the sprouting of the cereal. Trees have been very scant for a long time, and this steppe can be considered to be of anthropic origin, interesting because it is home to very important populations of steppe birds.
This natural space is located in the natural district of the Lower La Mancha of Cuenca, mainly in the municipality of San Clemente, although with some participation also by the municipalities of Santa María del Campo Rus, El Cañavate, Vara de Rey, Casas de Fernando Alonso and Casas de los Pinos. This district contains in its turn two sub-zones. The northernmost of these is larger and its relief is almost always flat or gently undulating, with the River Rus as the only geographic feature or notable channel, although it is only a temporary watercourse, remaining almost always dry in summer.
A large surface area is under cultivation, basically unirrigated cereals, mostly barley, although there are also vines and sunflowers. Grape and wine production is particularly relevant in this area. In the northern sub-area, there are small surfaces of pasture and low woody scrub land such as thyme bushes, mixed with gypsum-bearing steppe of Gypsophila struthium, occasionally re-populated with Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) and stone pine (Pinus pinea). In the southern sub-area, there is a much greater presence of vines, accompanied by small stands of stone pines and holm oaks.
SUMMARY TECHNICAL DATA
Natura 2000 N Code: ES0000390. Name: San Clemente. Province: Cuenca. Area: 10 678 Ha.
Municipalities: La Alberca de Záncara, El Cañavate, Casas de Fernando Alonso, Casas de los Pinos, San Clemente, Santa María del Campo Rus and Vara del Rey.
Characteristic habitats: crops, fallow lands, barren land, boundaries, grazing land alternating with islands of remains of Aleppo pine and stone pine groves. There are small areas of gypsum and young re-populated pine groves.
Outstanding values and most representative and unique species: great bustard, sandgrouse, black-bellied sandgrouse, lesser kestrel, Montagu’s harrier and hen harrier, stone curlew, Dupont’s lark and other steppe species.
Other protection concepts: not present.
Best time to visit and other recommendations: all year round, except in summer. For the contemplation of steppe birds, winter and early spring are better, especially for the mating season of great bustards in the months of March and April.
On some banks and next to the roads or paths, there is a presence of tanner’s sumac bushes (Rhus coriaria), indicative of the existence of ancient cultivation of this species, which was introduced by the Arabs for use in tanning and dyeing.
The basic importance of the area lies in a varied and well-balanced representation of the ensemble of typical steppe bird species, with colonies of lesser kestrel standing out (the most important in the province of Cuenca) and areas of grazing land and uncultivated land occupied by breeding Pteroclididae (sandgrouse and black-bellied sandgrouse). It is the second most important nucleus for great bustards in the province. It is also home to scant populational remnants of Dupont’s lark on the warmest steppes in the district. It is therefore the best preserved steppe area in the whole of the Low Mancha of Cuenca.
This area also contains the Hermitage of Our Lady of the Rus, a place of great religious and festive tradition in the area, presenting very good views over the whole district. Of note in its surroundings is a large dovecot, an original construction of its kind housing one of the largest colonies of lesser kestrel in the SPA.
ORNITHOLOGICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPORTANCE
There are several species that identify the steppe-like habitats on the Peninsula or rather the anthropic agricultural pseudo-steppes achieved through the alteration since ancestral times of holm oak groves on the plains. Particularly outstanding is the great bustard (Otis tarda), the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), the Iberian sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata) and the black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis), as well as two birds of prey closely linked to environments of this kind, such as Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus) and the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni). These habitats are also occupied by a cohort of passerines, led by the Alaudidae (common lark, calandra lark, calandrella and crested lark).
They all share habitat preferences, selecting for all or part of their biological cycle exclusively open terrains used for extensive farming, with a flat or gently curved topography. All the ecology studies conducted to date for these species coincide in indicating that the intensification and simplification of farming operations represent an alteration that, depending on their entity, entail the loss of steppe status and, therefore, the disappearance of its most emblematic and distinctive birdlife. This leads to local extinctions that are generally difficult to reverse, aggravated by the low breeding rates inherent to these species.
This SPA constitutes an important space particularly for the populations of steppe birds mentioned, especially the lesser kestrel (the largest accumulation of colonies in the province of Cuenca), the great bustard (it is the second most important nucleus in the province of Cuenca), the little bustard, the Iberian sandgrouse (over 500 specimens), the black-bellied sandgrouse (with at least 100 individuals), the stone curlew and the presence of Dupont’s lark. There are also abundant populations of Montagu’s harrier, over-wintering hen harriers, calandra larks and calandrellas.
The populations of steppe birds in the area of San Clemente are in contact with those located in the north of the province of Albacete and those in the Upper Mancha of Cuenca, forming a single nucleus and, at the same time, a corridor of vital importance for population exchange.
|NOMBRE COMÚN||NOMBRE CIENTÍFICO|
|Aguilucho cenizo||Circus pygargus|
|Aguilucho pálido||Circus cyaneus|
|Alcaraván común||Burhinus oedicnemus|
|Alondra de Dupont||Chersophilus duponti|
|Avutarda común||Otis tarda|
|Calandria común||Melanocorypha calandra|
|Cernícalo primilla||Falco naumanni|
|Ganga ibérica||Pterocles alchata|
|Ganga ortega||Pterocles orientalis|
|Sisón común||Tetrax tetrax|
|Terrera común||Calandrella brachydactyla|
THREATS AND MANAGEMENT
Some of the potential threats for steppe birdlife in these locations are the transformation into irrigated land for some crops, the channelling of certain stretches of the Záncara and Gigüela rivers and the preparation of the margins at the confluence of the Záncara and the Rus.
A strong intensification of farming activity can be seen in the area, with the execution of dredging and channel digging as well as the construction of new transport infrastructures on the margins (dual carriageway from Atalaya del Cañavate to San Clemente). These large new roads represent communication obstacles for steppe species, as well as a major landscape disruption and an additional mortality risk due to collisions. Spillage, pollution and the use of biocides are always threats in environments of this kind.
It is necessary to promote ecological agri-environmental practices, such as the maintenance of unploughed fallow lands and pastures, the use of long-cycle cereal varieties, the adoption of precautions when using mechanical harvesters in order to protect the young of Montagu’s harrier, a reduction in the use of pesticides or rotation with unirrigated legumes. This transformation from dryland crops to irrigated crops is one of the actions leading to the disappearance of steppe habitats, as is happening in areas adjacent to San Clemente and also on the outside of the north-eastern limit of the SPA.
Year after year, the Regional Government conducts awareness-raising campaigns among farmers on the occasion of the implementation of the programme to save Montagu’s harrier nests, which somewhat attenuates the losses of clutches due to the harvesters.
Another threat is the conversion from the traditional cultivation of vines “in goblet mode” towards their cultivation “on espaliers”, with the installation of lines of posts with supporting wires, intensely alter the characteristic open steppe habitat. This phenomenon has already been verified in many cases.
The colonies of lesser kestrels are evolving favourably, with the number of small colonies increasing year after year. These constitute the seed for other larger colonies in future and replace those that, due to the deterioration or collapse of traditional farm buildings, are gradually disappearing. Work aimed at the maintenance and improvement of the nesting substrate for lesser kestrels has been undertaken in the main colonies in order to facilitate the conservation of old roofs, as well as to install nesting cubicles on modern roofs.
Finally, the existence of some high-voltage power lines implies proven risks of collision for large flapping birds, particularly the great bustard, with the loss of specimens for this reason every year, especially on the power line crossing the hillocks of Los Calvos. To mitigate this impact, signalling has been applied to the line, with a clear reduction in the number of incidents observed.