Los Alcornocales Natural Park

Los Alcornocales Natural Park
 

Overview
Los Alcornocales natural park covers 167,767 hectares from Tarifa in the south to the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park in the north. Los Alcornocales means 'The Cork Oak Groves' and the park's forests are exploited for the production of cork which is harvested from the cork oak (Quercus suber).

Cork is generated by a specialized layer of tissue called cork cambium, a spongy layer of material which grows between the outer surface of the bark and the underlying living layer called the phloem. The harvesting of cork can be done every ten years or so without damaging the tree and the work is done by local co-operatives who work huge areas of forest in strict rotation. This activity provides much needed additional income to local families and acts as a strong incentive to preserve and manage the forests. Cork is used commercially for insulation, as a sealing material, a flooring material and of course for wine corks.

Los Alcornocales is the largest cork oak forest in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most important in the world. It is probably the best example of what the densely wooded, primeval Iberian forests may have been like.

The park is contiguous with the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park which it borders to the north and the Estrecho Natural Park to the south.

 

Walking
There are two visitors' centres: Huerta Grande is found south of Algeciras. El Aljibe is in Alcalá de los Gazules.
The area is superb walking country, with woodland, river and mountain areas to choose from and 20 signposted walks. 
Sendero Subida al Picacho is a 2.3km walk  It leads up to the peak of Picacho, at 882m, with stunning views over the park. El Picacho is also the starting point of the short 1.2km walk (Sendero Garganta de Puerto Oscuro), the trail passes by the Laguna de El Picacho.  Sendero Laguna del Moral is an easy walk of 2km.  It takes you through densely wooded cork groves and ends at Laguna del Moral.

Sightseeing
Castellar de la Frontera Castle is a 10th century Moorish fortress, built on a rocky outcrop over the remains of a Roman settlement. Also worth visiting in Castellar de la Frontera is a Moorish watchtower, Torre de la Almoraima
Cuevas del Tajo de las Figueras are a series of caves southeast of Benalup village. Discovered in 1913, the Tajo de las Figueras features Neolithic cave paintings and tombs.

Climate
The climate of Los Alcornocales is heavily influenced by its geographical position at the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar and the north to south alignment of the mountains. These combine to produce a climate which is not strictly Mediterranean as winds from the west carry a lot of moisture and are responsible for the high rainfall that occurs in the area. This helps to smooth the effects of summer drought typical of Mediterranean climate on the high ridges leading to a particular vegetation type known as cloud forests.

The total annual rainfall is between 7 and 18 cm and falls mainly between the months of September through to April although it is not spread uniformally as between 30 and 60 percent of the monthly total can fall in a single day. The average wind speed over the more exposed parts of the park is around 50 mph, with gusts of 70 to 90 mph regularly recorded. This is due to the 'Venturi effect' produced by the Betic and Rif mountain ranges, which narrow like a funnel in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Geology
The far south of the region is crossed by humid, deep, narrow V-shaped valleys, called canutos, which have been eroded by rivers and provide the ideal habitat for subtropical forests of great ecological value.

Animals/Birds
Los Alcornocales has a rich variety of birds of prey, with 18 species recorded here including booted eagles, Bonelli's eagles and peregrines. Los Alcornocales is also home to vultures, which while not as numerous as in the limestone mountains of neighboring Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park can usually be seen circling at high altitude. Along the water courses are kingfishers, sand martins and dippers. As it is located close to the Strait of Gibraltar, the cork forests are often full of migrant birds of prey in spring and autumn. The region is populated by many mammals, among them Egyptian mongoose, foxes, badgers, genets, and dormice. It is also home to an impressive variety of bats: 20 species of bat inhabit the caves of the park, of a total 22 species recorded in the whole of Andalucia.  Otters and terrapins are found in the rivers and roe and red deer are abundant.

 

Plants
Los Alcornocales Natural Park is characterised by a great variety of vegetation. As well as the cork oak, other native trees include holm oaks, portuguese oaks and wild olive trees.

The cork oak (Quercus suber) is a tree that can reach about 20 feet in height. It is evergreen and thrives where there is high rainfall and a sandstone based soil. It grows between 400 and 1000 metres above sea level and blooms from May through early summer. The acorns are prized as food for pigs and ripen from September to January. The understory of the cork can be formed by various species and quite distinct. So on the sunny slopes are found jaguarzo, barberry, white broom, jargon, gorse, matagallo, torvizco, etc. While the shady areas are dominated by heather and bracken.

The wild olive tree (Olea europaea) is found on the lower slopes, where because it is branced from the base it presents an impenetrable tangle of growth. It blooms in May or June and livestock uses its fruit, the acebuchina, which matures in autumn and winter. It's a very long-lived species that can withstand drought and heat, but is sensitive to frost. Los Alcornocales has the largest area of wild olives in Andalucia where they cover just over 17,000 hectares out of a total of 19,000 hectares present in Andalusia.

The holm oak (Querqus rotundifolia) is fast growing and long-lived. It grows in all soil types, is resistant to cold, heat and drought and can be found up to to 1,400 meters above se level. The leaves are evergreen and almost round, it blooms in spring and fall off in autumn. The acorn of the oak is very characteristic, being ovoid in shape with a hat that covers the base. The bark is highly prized and used for tanning, but the timber is difficult to work and prone to splitting as it dries.

On the poorer soils of Los Alcornocales Natural Park is Mediterranean scrubland, made up of Kermes oak, rock roses, and tree heather amongst many other species.

 

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