The Gibraltar Nature Reserve has evolved and developed significantly since the Upper Rock was officially designated as a Reserve in 1993. As part of the continued effort to further protect biodiversity and natural habitats in Gibraltar, the then Upper Rock Nature Reserve was rebranded and its size extended in 2013 to include new areas that would further help protect important habitats and species.
The Gibraltar Nature Reserve now encompasses 2.33km2, which is approximately 36% of Gibraltar’s terrestrial area. It includes many distinct habitats, some of which support endemic and rare species of flora and fauna and some typical plant associations. The habitats are legally demarcated under the Nature Conservation (Designation of Gibraltar Nature Reserve) Order 2013.
In addition to its local designation as a Reserve, a large proportion of the Gibraltar Nature Reserve is protected under European Union (EU) law. The Rock of Gibraltar is included in the list of EU protected sites as both a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives respectively. These are some of the highest levels of protection that can be afforded to a nature reserve in the EU and both SACs and SPAs are collectively known as NATURA 2000 sites.
The Upper Rock hosts a wide variety of species, some of which are only found in Gibraltar and the Strait region. The Gibraltar Candytuft (Iberis gibraltarica) is perhaps the most distinctive and attractive of these plants. Large tufts of these very pretty, pink to lilac flowers colour the cliffs and ledges of the Nature Reserve in the spring. This species also grows across the Strait, where it is rare, and Gibraltar is its only European station. The white Gibraltar Chickweed (Cerastium gibraltaricum), which is found only in Gibraltar, grows, like many of Gibraltar’s special plants, along cliff habitats. Often found alongside this species is the Gibraltar Saxifrage (Saxifraga globulifera gibraltarica), a variety that is also endemic to the Rock. Stands of these plants hug the sides of cliffs and walls, and are characterised by their tiny white flowers and often-red, lobed and hairy leaves. The aromatic Gibraltar Thyme (Thymus wildenowii) is more common than the previous two species and is fairly widespread within the Nature Reserve.
Perhaps the most special plant found on the Upper Rock is the Gibraltar Campion (Silene tomentosa), a very rare species that is found only on the Rock of Gibraltar. After being seen for the last time in 1985, this plant was thought to have become extinct. However, it was rediscovered nine years later close to the site where it had last been observed. Although the Upper Rock currently holds diverse flora, with approximately 363 species recorded by Linares (2003), its vegetation is largely dominated by Mediterranean shrub habitat known as maquis. The maquis species composition found in Gibraltar today is unique in the region, largely due to the Rock’s alkaline soils influenced by the limestone which forms the bulk of the ground rock (Cortes, in Heath & Evans 2000).
A number of components make up the Gibraltar Nature Reserve and include:
The slopes of the Rock also serve as a staging site for large numbers of passerine and near-passerine migrants. Most migratory western European species can occur at Gibraltar during the northward or southward migration periods (Cortes 1996) and have an unfavourable conservation status within Europe.
In addition, many migratory birds of prey and storks congregate at the Strait of Gibraltar on their way towards their wintering grounds in Africa. When westerly winds blow across the Strait, Gibraltar itself sees the majority of raptor passage during both the pre-nuptial (northerly) and post-nuptial (southerly) migrations, and most of these birds fly directly over the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.
The Upper Rock is not only rich in wildlife, but also in natural and human history. The presence of early man is confirmed in archaeological remains in caves, being partly the reason why some components of the reserve have recently been designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Photo: Wild Olive - Finlayson Nature Photography