The protection of wildlife habitats and native species in Spain is focussed on its officially protected areas. Here we look at National Parks in Spain and how they relate to the country’s Natural Parks.
Mainland Spain contains 11 of the country’s 16 National Parks, with the additional five being one in Mallorca and four in the Canary Islands.
All were so designated because they are considered of national interest, containing some of Spain’s principal natural systems, and an ecological heritage representative of the whole country.
They comprise extensive areas in which development is controlled, landscapes are managed in the interests of nature, and eco-tourism is encouraged.
This distinguishes them from Spain’s Natural Parks, which range from small reserves or single natural features to wider landscapes, considered worthy of government protection but not necessarily as untouched by human influence as the Spanish National Parks.
The difference between National Parks and Natural Parks in Spain
Both National and Natural Parks in Spain have been created with the same aims – to safeguard and ensure the long-term sustainability of native wildlife, and to maintain biodiversity, in particular by protecting and managing rare or threatened habitats.
They can work in a complementary fashion, with National Parks, for example, often being surrounded by a buffer of Natural Parks, so that there’s less of a sharp divide between protected and unprotected areas.
While the levels of protection offered by each don’t always differ a great deal, Natural Parks generally offer unrestricted access, tempered by the need to avoid disturbing breeding birds, for example, and are less separated from built-up areas.
National Parks in Spain
Aigüestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici, Catalunya
Created in 1955, it was the first in the Pyrenees, and in 1988 the Catalan regional government took over ownership. At 1600-3000m above sea level, it’s home to a number of birds and mammals hard to find elsewhere in Spain.
Photo credit: Carles Oliver, Barcelona Birding Point, Lammergeier
Of the former, Lammergeier (or Bearded Vulture), Capercaillie and Wallcreeper are the most significant. While other key species include Golden Eagle, Chough, Ptarmigan, Griffon Vulture, and Black Woodpecker. Pyrenean Chamois and Brown Bear are the key mammals, while Pyrenean Brook Salamander is endemic to the region.
When is the best time to visit Aigüestortes I Estany de Sant Maurici
A summer visit is recommended when the weather is fairly reliable. Cars are not allowed, but 4×4 taxis are available. The nearest airport is Barcelona; there is no railway station nearer than La Pobla de Segur, 60km away.
The Ebro Delta
A good example of one of Spain’s Natural Parks, and a nationally important wetland area, the Ebro Delta can be found in the Tarragona region of Catalonia, 120 miles south of Barcelona.
The region attracts thousands of migrating and overwintering wading birds in spring and autumn. There is also a large resident population of Greater Flamingos that began to colonise only as recently as 1992. When the area became more hospitable for wildlife – over 2,700 breeding pairs were recorded in 2017. The Delta has the world’s biggest colony of Audouin’s Gulls and is a good place to find Purple Gallinule and Little Bittern.
A large part of the Ebro Delta was declared to be a Natural Park in 1993, including saline marshes, lagoons, salt pans, rice paddy, reed beds, riparian forest and coastal sand dunes.
The area covered by the designation was extended in 1986. Now a quarter of the Delta is fully protected from development or drainage for agricultural purposes.
To get to the Ebro Delta you can fly to Barcelona, Tarragona or Valencia and take a train to Carmarles, Ampolia or L’Aldea.
Cabañeros National Park, Castile-La Mancha
Designated in 1995, this Park has the best and largest intact area of Iberian Mediterranean forest, and wide plains dubbed the “Serengeti of Spain”.
While there have been occasional sightings of Iberian Lynx, the bird life generally takes centre stage. Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle and Black Stork are all present. While the threatened, and enormous, Black (or Cinereous) Vulture has its second most important Spanish stronghold here. Mammals include Wild Boar and Red Deer.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding-Extremadura, Black-Vulture
When is the best time to visit Cabañeros National Park
Spring provides an explosion of colourful wild flowers, while winter sees gatherings of Cranes.
Madrid is the nearest airport, from where you can get trains to Toledo, and buses and taxis on to the Park itself.
Doñana National Park, Andalusia
This area of marshes, dunes and streams around the delta of the Guadalquivir River became a National Park in 1969, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its unique habitat and location close to the bird migration hotspot of the Straits of Gibraltar.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, White-headed Duck
It is an important breeding area for wetland species such as Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Purple Heron, Marbled Teal and the endangered White-headed Duck. While you can also see Iberian endemics such as Azure-winged Magpie, plus Red-necked Nightjar, Black-shouldered Kite, Black (Cinereous) Vulture, and Short-toed Eagle. Mammals include Iberian Lynx, still very elusive after being reintroduced in small numbers.
When is the best time to visit Doñana National Park
Visit in spring to see migration in action, but a November visit can produce peak numbers of wildfowl.
Nearest airport is Faro in Portugal, but you’ll find it easier to transfer from Sevilla or even Malaga. Huelva railway station the most convenient destination.
Guadarrama, Castile and Leon/Madrid
The fifth largest of Spain’s National Parks, it was finally designated in 2013 after a long process begun in the 1920s.
Photo credit: Jose Luis Sanchez, Iberian Lynx Land, Spanish Imperial Eagle
Its importance lies in its being the only Iberian example of high Mediterranean montane habitat, home to the likes of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black (Cinereous) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Chough and Citril Finch, plus Honey Buzzard, Goshawk, Bluethroat and Dipper.
Mammals include a pack of Iberian Wolves recently discovered after a long absence, Wildcats and Wild Boar, and it contains extensive pine forests and oak stands.
When is the best time to visit Guadarrama
Visit in late spring for best results. Visitors fly into Madrid, with train connections available to Puerto Navacerrada, a couple of miles away.
Islas Atlánticas de Galicia, Galicia
Combining four archipelagos of rocky islands – containing habitats such as dunes, laurel forests and cliffs – with marine areas, it was declared a National Park in Spain in 2002.
The key species here are all seabirds, with large breeding colonies of Yellow-legged Gulls, small breeding numbers of the Iberian subspecies of Guillemot, plus Shag and Cormorant.
Cetaceans are a key reason to visit, with Orcas and Basking Sharks possible as well as a number of dolphin and porpoise species. The secluded location is also a prime stargazing location.
Nearest airports are Santiago and Oviedo, with trains running to Vigo.
Monfragüe National Park, Extremadura
Although it only became a National Park in 2007, Monfrague had long been recognised as a uniquely important area for birds, particularly raptors.
It has the world’s largest colony of Black (Cinereous) Vulture, plus large numbers of Griffon Vultures, while Spanish Imperial, Golden and Bonelli’s Eagle, plus Eurasian Eagle Owl, are all present.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Iberian Lynx
The soaring raptors are best viewed from Monfrague Castle. Look for the rare White-rumped Swift. The meadows and grassland areas can be excellent for species such as Great Spotted Cuckoo and Azure-winged Magpie. Iberian Lynx are present, but elusive.
The historic town of Trujillo makes an excellent base. Madrid airport is nearly three hours away by train to Monfrague railway station. Alternatively fly to Lisbon, and take a bus (runs twice daily, takes 4.5 hours, and costs up to £35).
Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, Aragon
One of the first National Parks, dating back to 1918, its boundaries were enlarged in 1982. It forms part of a cross-border UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Photo credit: Manuel A González, Wallcreeper
Consisting of beech, pine, oak and birch forests, at elevations of over 1500m, its wide range of montane species include Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper, Alpine Chough, Rock Bunting, Crested Tit, Snow Finch and Ortolan Bunting.
Mammal interest is high, too, with Pyrenean Chamois, Alpine Marmot and Pyrenean Desman (Water-mole) all seen.
When is the best time to visit Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park
Avoid high summer, with late spring being the time of most birding interest. Toulouse, in France, is the most convenient airport (Pau is also close), with Canfranc the closest railway station.
Picos de Europa, Asturias/Castile and Leon/Cantabria
Created in 1918, at the same time as Ordesa y Monte Perdido, it is similarly a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Its renown in the avian world is down to two species in particular – Wallcreeper (this is probably the best place in Europe to see them), and Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), which can be seen soaring above the highest peaks and mountain valleys.
Photo credit: More Than Birds, Brown Bear
The Cantabrian subspecies of Capercaillie (smaller than the nominate race) and the likes of Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Snow Finch and Alpine Chough are also present. Iberian Wolf, Brown Bear, Cantabrian Chamois and Western Spanish Ibex are the main mammal interest.
When is the best time to visit Picos de Europa
June and September are the best times to visit. Asturias and Santander airports are the most convenient, although there are no railway stations closer than Santander and Oviedo.
Sierra Nevada, Andalusia
Declared a National Park in 1999, it is largest and one of the most famous parks in Spain, containing more than 20 peaks over 3000m and a corresponding wealth of montane wildlife. The key birds including Golden and Bonelli’s Eagles, Griffon Vultures, Alpine Accentors, Rock Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush, plus the likes of Short-toed Treecreeper and Rock Bunting.
Photo credit: Carles Oliver Dorado, Barcelona Birding Point, Spanish Ibex
Spanish Ibexes are the most commonly seen mammals, with Genets and Wild Cats also present. Among its important invertebrate species are the endemic Rhinoceros Beetle.
When is the best time to visit Sierra Nevada
Avoid the ski season (November to May), with late spring the best time to appreciate the bird life.
Granada Airport, 45km away, is the nearest location to fly into, with Granada railway station nearer.
Sierra de las Nieves, Andalusia
Still in the process of being declared a National Park in Spain, this range of mountains between Ronda and Marbella is particularly noted for its eagles, with Golden, Bonelli’s, Booted and Short-toed all present, the latter feeding on the abundance of reptile life.
Photo credit: Manuel Morales Holgado, Birding Tarifa, Bonelli’s Eagle
Eagle Owl, Crested Tit, Choughs, Alpine Accentors, both rock thrushes and both Black and Black-eared Wheatear are possible, plus Western Olivaceous and Orphean Warblers, and Egyptian Mongoose is among the mammals.
When is the best time to visit Sierra de las Nieves
Late spring is the best time to visit. Malaga airport is less than 100km away, and Jimera de Libar railway station has connections to Granada, Algeciras and Ronda.
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Tablas de Daimiel National Park, Castile
A seasonally inundated floodplain in the middle of a mostly arid plain, this is the smallest of National Parks in Spain, created in 1973 and expanded in 1980.
Wetland birds such as Little Bittern, Squacco Heron and White-headed Duck are key species, plus Greater Flamingo, Whiskered Tern and Purple Swamphen.
The steppe areas can even yield Dupont’s Lark, plus Stone-curlew and both Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, while Otters and Water Voles are abundant.
When is the best time to visit Tablas de Daimiel National Park
Visit in spring for best results, although it is also excellent during late autumn migration.
Madrid Cuatro-Vientos is the nearest airport, with train connections to Daimiel.
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