Acorn Andalucian Walking Holidays
Jimena de la Frontera, Andalucia, Spain
The Parque Natural de los Alcornocales covers 170,000 hectares of forested mountain ranges. These buckled and folded mountains are not of great height but are of outstanding natural beauty, with a complex geology. The majority of the park is covered in cork oak woodland. As a terrestrial habitat this is second only to tropical rain forest for biodiversity.
The cork oak Quercus suber is the most noticeable member of this ecosystem. It is generally the largest tree in the canopy, though not always. What really stands out about these trees are the stripped trunks and lower branches which are blood red when freshly cut. The cork oaks of southern Spain and Portugal along with a smaller area in Italy produce most of the world's cork.
The fauna include roe and fallow deer, foxes, badgers, martins, genets and mongoose, many lizards and snakes, turtles and frogs. Insects include praying mantis, scorpions, giant centipedes and numerous crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas. The successful re-introduction of the Iberian Lynx in the nearby Donana National Park, has lead to them being spotted in the Alcornocales Park near to the villages of Jimena, Gaucin and Ronda
Although the weather can vary considerably from the coastal south to the mountainous northern borders of the park, it is generally hot and dry from May until mid September. The rest of the year is mostly warm with periods of heavy rain, short spells of cold weather with the occasional overnight frost. There are several valleys in the park that have very localised weather systems. The resulting microclimates support unique plant communities with species that were left behind after the last glacial period.
During the summer months, skilled workers use axes to strip the "bark" from the cork oaks. In fact this is not bark proper, but a product of a symbiotic relationship between the tree and a fungus. The axe men work with mule drivers who gather the stripped cork and carry it to a patio where it is weighed and stacked ready for transportation to the buyer's yard.
The cork is harvested once every nine years and represents the most intensive use of this wilderness. In addition, firewood, speciality woods and mushrooms are also cropped seasonally. This system of use has been sustained for over two thousand years.
However, it is the bird population that is the truly magnificent feature of this area. Songbirds abound, some of which are familiar to northern Europeans but most are Mediterranean residents or visitors from Africa. Colonies of storks, flocks of cattle egrets and the more solitary herons are everyday sights. Several species of eagle and vultures are resident but also visit from across the straits. Owls, buzzards, kites, falcons and kestrels are common birds here. The other main group of birds are the true migrants, who make the journey down through Europe funnelling into Andalucia in order to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to overwinter on the African subcontinent. Migrants from Africa are often seen in the Park recovering after making the crossing. If the weather on the coast is bad, vast flocks of birds rest and wait on the fringes of the park, until the weather improves enough for them to make the crossing south.
It is not easy adequately to describe the profusion of wild flowers in Andalucia. One botanist stated that 80% of all the wild flower species in Europe are to be found in the Iberian Peninsular and 80% of these are found growing in Andalucia.