The Alcornocales Natural Park stretches across Southern Andalucia in an enormous expanse of natural woodland, which is jointly administered by seventeen municipalities, the largest of which is Alcalá de los Gazules.
The park consists of 400,000 acres of protected land which contains a wonderful mature cork oak forest, the largest in Europe, along with examples of the acebuche or wild olive, and robles and quejigos, varieties of oak, and the terrain varies between gentle dehesa slopes and vertiginous mountain crags, deeply eroded valleys called canutos, and reservoir lakes called embalses.
The Natural Park stretches from the Sierra de Grazalema in the North right down to the coast at Tarifa, from the edge of Benalup Casas Viejas and Alcalá de los Gazules in the West across to Jimena de la Frontera in the East. As a Natural Park rather than a National Park, a certain amount of industry is permitted within its borders so there are cotos privados or private hunting lands as well as the farming of livestock and of course cork.
Because of the variety of the terrain, the park supports an immense richness of bird life including eagles, buzzards, goshawks, tawny owls, storks, vultures, bee-eaters, so much so that it has become an important locations for many bird watchers. Lying on the migration route for many birds to and from Africa, it is a prime location for sighting rarer breeds.
The commercial hunts in the cotos privados are based on large game, including jabalí or wild boar, and deer, and smaller game such as rabbits, hares, and foxes. These activities are licensed and heavily controlled.
Water conservation plays an important part of the ecology of the area and the main embalses of Guadalcacín and Río Barbate are essential repositories for the supply of irrigation and domestic water. Land erosion is common during the Winter months and in the deep grooved valleys are found some of the finest examples of sub-tropical forests, alas now amongst the few remaining in Europe. The botanical diversity is the subject of intense scientific study: in this area alone there are over forty species of woodland fern.
The mountain peaks of Aljibe (1100m) and Picacho (882m) afford fantastic views of the region and both are accessible to the reasonably fit walker. It is best done outside of the Summer months as temperature frequently reach the high 30s and beyond making the ascent arduous.
With so much forest land, during the dry Summer months there is a serious fire risk and there are helicopter patrols extinguishing the outbreaks of small fires before they can take hold. Along the hillsides one can sometimes see the cleared fire breaks, wide earth tracks cut into the landscape, a necessary precaution against such a devastating risk.
One of the most significant risks to the park is the gradual rise of global temperatures which has resulted in a consistent drop in overall water supply in the region. Despite occasional wet periods, sometimes intense, the overall pattern is one of falling water levels. This will inevitably have an effect on the ecological balance of the park.