On the trail of wild horses
Once again, I’m out and about on foot. We have left the off-road vehicle behind where the terrain became impassable. We carefully follow the tracks on the paths over the hills. It has been raining, the weather bringing moisture and the cold over from the Serra de Estrela. There are hoofmarks of wild horses in the ground. Here and there, some quite fresh horse droppings can be seen in the grass of the reserve, a few older cowpats too. The ones that are still warm show us that we are on the right track. Far below us in the gorge, the torrential waters of the Rio Côa surge towards the north. It is the only river in Portugal that flows from south to north, down from the mountains into the Rio Douro. In winter, the river is full, with dangerous rapids and whirlpools. In summer, in contrast, it shrinks to the size of a small rivulet, João Quadrado, a biologist from the university of Coimbra and Aveiro explains to me. He comes from Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, a village with a population of little over 2,000 in Beira Interior; this is a region with 25 municipalities in the northeast of Portugal, from where the young people are leaving in droves for the big cities, and to where only a few return on holiday to visit those who stayed behind. But the young 29-year-old biologist came back as soon as he’d finished his studies, because he found a good, suitable job, working for a conservation association.
Three degrees celsius. Pouring rain. Last week, it snowed here. I had travelled to Guarda by train via Lisbon and Coimbra, killed two and a half hours waiting at the station with a cheese roll and a coffee, and then bought a six-euro ticket to Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo from the bus driver. Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo? I rummaged around in my rucksack for my map. The village is another 49 kilometres from Guarda heading north along the N221. Finally, at twenty to five in the evening, the bus arrived. I got on, but was still not quite sure what I was letting myself in for. The bus rumbled off, stopped, continued, stopped again, and drove at 40 kilometres an hour in every direction except northeast, which is where I wanted to go. After an hour, we stopped at the border town of Vilar Fomoso for a horde of schoolkids to get on. But first the driver got out, opened the bonnet and carefully checked the oil level with the engine still running. And then the journey continued. The bus stopped in one village after another, and a few of the schoolchildren got off each time. Eventually, I was the only one left on the bus, and we continued through villages and across fields. Sometimes he stopped, in others he whizzed through. I was still no clearer about the rules governing this bus trip. Slowly it began to get dark. After almost three hours, the bus driver and I reached Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo at 7.30 pm. The local public transport system in Portugal, by bus and train, still leaves something to be desired.
The next day, the dark rain clouds had dispersed. João Quadrado and Barbara País, who is in charge of the association’s PR work, walk
with me through the 850 hectare Faia Brava nature reserve, much of which the ATN association (Associação Transumância e Natureza, see www.atnatureza.org) has been able to acquire bit by bit over the last twelve years. It belongs to a 2,000 hectare nature reserve of the Rede Natura 2000 network, which is managed by the charitable conservation association. This makes it the first and only private body in Portugal to be putting an idea into practice here on the ground that works almost nowhere else, captured by the concept “Rewilding Europe”. At the moment we’re on the trail of a small herd of wild horses of the old Iberian breed Garrano, which were released in Faia Brava in 2008. What started as a group of just five horses has now grown into a herd of 20. When I ask the question why, João Quadrado answers that the danger of forest fires has been significantly reduced by releasing horses and cows, and the ground has become more fertile. At present, there are also another ten aurochs of the old Maronesa breed in the Rio Côa conservation area, part of a project for back-breeding this robust, ancient breed of cattle. After a two-hour walk and close to a stream, we finally come across the first horse, then there are five more including a mare with her new-born foal. When they get wind of us, they stop without showing any fear. But they won’t let us get closer than 50 metres. Slowly they cross the stream and keep out of our way. We withdraw and move away from them again slowly.
Anyone who goes walking here will once again find almost untouched nature.
The landscape is full of rocks, but the vegetation also includes lichens and mosses of all colours, and bushes, herbs and holm oaks. Here and there we come across an olive grove with centuries-old trees, spreading out freely as its natural growth is unimpeded and there is no undergrowth around. In the Faia Brava reserve, the olive harvest is celebrated every year. The association produces between three and a half and five thousand litres of organic olive oil. From every half litre bottle sold for seven euros, an amount of €2.50 is paid into a savings account. This money is used to buy more land. Our walk also takes us past some very old almond trees; the almonds too are harvested and then roasted in sugar and cinnamon. Jams, honey and other organically grown products complete the association’s range of produce, which they use to make themselves less dependent on state subsidies. A new 220 kilometre long footpath has just been waymarked and officially opened. Through the Portuguese crowdfunding organisation PPL, they have also funded eight tents to be able to offer children and youngsters with their teachers from the district’s schools the chance to sleep in a completely natural setting. Anyone who goes walking here will once again find almost untouched nature. Only shepherds with their flocks sometimes cross the path as they move up or down to the gorges of the Rio Côa. Above us, there are two griffon vultures circling (Gyps fulvos, see http://www.avesdeportugal.info/gypful.html) in the silence of the conservation area. With their huge wingspan of nearly three metres, they are even bigger than eagles. We have planned to visit the vultures in the afternoon. When it starts raining again, we seek shelter under a tree. It’s not much further back to the off-road vehicle that will take us back to the association’s head office.
After lunch, we set off on a second walk. The association’s tasks include not only reforestation with cork oaks, but also passing on ecological knowledge about the region’s flora and fauna. The fauna of the Côa valley is diverse. There are a total of 149 vertebrate species living here, including six species of fish, nine amphibians and nine reptiles, more than 100 species of bird and 25 mammals, some of which are endangered. The staple of traditional agriculture was rye, and pigeons were also reared for their fertiliser. We carefully approach the project of the vultures, which feed only on carrion in the wild. With his team, João Quadrado has fenced off an area of one hectare within the main reserve, where dead animals are left. Where do you put a dead sheep? The shepherds have access to a safe and hygienic resting place for their dead animals at this special location in Faia Brava. Some 30 vultures of different species regularly come here to feed. From a hide (abrigo), scientists from different countries observe the eating habits of Neophron percnopterus, the endangered Egyptian vulture, which only visits between March and September. They analyse their preferences, characteristics and feeding habits. Several scientific studies on the subject are in progress. During the photo shoot, João Quadrado emphasises that “Conservation for us always means back to nature. We run Faia Brava purely in order to preserve nature and biological diversity.” Through a telescope, we can observe the breeding places of the birds of prey in the rocky valleys of the Rio Côa. Here, they can live healthily, undisturbed and safe from the toxic inventions of humankind and its industry producing chemicals for agriculture.
ECO123 is offering its subscribers an exclusive ten-day trip with a hike in the Faia Brava nature reserve. The trip will take place from 6th to 15th June and is limited to a small group of six subscribers. You can find more information about the expedition, the cost and the necessary equipment at www.eco123.info.