Making Faia Brava more sustainable with wild herbivores, soil enrichment and reforestation to increase biodiversity

The mission of ATNatureza is to conserve, enhance, know and disseminate the natural heritage of the Northeast of Portugal, through the protection and management of natural areas in the Côa, Águeda and Douro Valleys region. We focus on the management of habitats and species with high conservation value.

The last 20 years have resulted in a private protected areas network, with the Faia Brava Reserve as remarkable stepping stone with the conservation of endangered cliff nesting birds, such as vultures and big eagles. We improve the attractiveness and carrying capacity of our reserves for wildlife, in particular for wild ungulates (roe deer, red deer, wild boar), rabbits and also the wolf. We do our best to enhance the biodiversity in our parks.

In all our efforts, fire prevention is one of our leading guidelines to organize work. Through strategic management of the scrub and the trees we increase forest resilience to fire. To reduce the vegetable fuel, the natural grazing by free ranging bovines and horses play a key element in rewilding ecosystems. Our concept is unmistakably connected with forest ecosystems with many different niches, leading to higher biodiversity values. Large herbivores play a crucial role creating a so-called mosaic of open and closed habitats. In Faia Brava we introduced indigenous Portuguese horses in 2008 (the Garrano and Sorreia breeds) and cows in 2013: Maronesa breed. After 10 years of natural grazing in low to medium densities, we observe that trees and bushes reappear; in other words, the so-called mosaic landscape develops. 

One of the major bottlenecks in Faia Brava is the very poor acid granite soil, due to centuries of over-exploitation by sheep breeding and systematic burning of fields. The granite soils lack certain trace elements and have very low organic matter %. The last one is so important to absorb the water from rainfall and avoid that the water in the top soil disappears quickly. Due to the poor soil and the dry summer, many young trees died in our reforestation efforts. Next to forestry, the quality of soils is for a good reason one of the top priorities Worldwide (IPCC). Sequestering CO2 in trees and in the soil is one of our top priorities. When you only fence the land and try to avoid fires, based on the idea: let nature do its work, it will take a very long time to restore a living soil with trees as it was centuries ago.

In our view ATNatureza reserves are living laboratories for testing of innovative nature management strategies and study the restauration of these ecosystems. Our aim is to develop innovative models for nature conservation which can be replicated. Only by small experiments and mindful observations, we might get to understand the ecosystem and develop small meaningful interventions to increase the biodiversity. For example, a new approach has to be developed for reforestation. In particular the ‘west bank’ of the Coa river is devastated by human interventions for ages; restoring the nature ecosystem is there really a challenge.

We are also confronted with the limits of large herbivore management. Unlike northern countries, human intervention seems to be necessary. One of the most conspicuous interventions is to alleviate the lack of food during the dry and hot summers. Most of the year the number of animals is more or less in balance with the availability of food, but this changes in summer and then the carrying capacity of the system is in danger. The period of draught is more and more unpredictable i.e. can last only for 2 months or can be 6 months. In 2017 but also to a lower extent in 2019, due to the shortage of rainfall, almost all the natural ponds and wells were dry and the available food sources became very scarce. With the tractor, we had to collect water from the village to provide water…… So, balancing the number of animals in the herd to the summer period is not sustainable anymore. Only if we would reduce the herd drastically to be adapted to the worst drought, this could work. But then there would not be not enough grazing pressure to develop the mosaic landscape and reduce the risk of fires.

So, we felt obliged to buy straw and hay for the skinny animals.  And this means also a burden for ATN financially. Buying food for herbivores is not a sustainable practice within the rewilding principles, ecologically and financially. As far as possible we want to develop a sustainable park ecosystem within Faia Brava and buying external resources does not fit into that.

In the years to come we will experiment with new practices. We will produce food for the animals on agricultural land next to the reserve and include this in the system when it is needed. You might consider it as an assurance policy. So, the coming year we will try to produce our own fodder for the hot, dry summer period to feed the herbivores. Naturally we produce these crops in an ecological way.

In a few fenced plots at a small scale we will sow a mix of rye and vetch. For these crops the acidity of the soil is a problem, so we also improved the soil by adding chalk to increase the PH. We are aware that this is not included in the present manifestation of rewilding. However, we want to experiment if this might help. For us it is important to search for new possibilities, knowing the harsh conditions in Faia Brava.

With regard to reforestation, an ecological forestry expert, knowing the Faia Brava conditions, recommended that we should first revive the soil at selected spots, before planting young trees for reforestation. So, on the plots where we have sown this autumn a mix of rye and vetch, we will plant next autumn the young trees.

Trees, soil improvement and herbivores play all a crucial role to increase biodiversity, they are intertwined, well, it is a living ecosystem. The challenge is to find small interventions which will trigger the living ecosystem and subsequently the ecosystem (read nature) itself will evolve further.

This year we will inform you about the progress and results of these activities.