It was a big day! We had to ride the 28km from Vila Nova de Foz Coa to the village of Algodres, where we were to meet Barbara the Faia Brava communications manager and join her taking some Canadian film makers on a safari around the site.
We set off from our hostel around 9am. The sun’s glare was dampened by a haze of Saharan sand blown in from the south so it wasn’t as hot as the last few days. We came out of town and straight down the side of the valley at 50kph, crossed the river and started pedaling back up the other side. The gradient was manageable though and we made good time. Past roadside wildflowers of green, purple, lilac, yellow and splashes of poppy red, speckled butterflies dancing between them.
As we rode up, we were coming to a plateau where we enjoyed an undulating ride into Algodres. We arrived at the café Barbara had told us about and gave her a call. She came along in the Faia Brava Land rover to collect us and took us to meet the Canadian film crew in another town, where we all went for lunch and talked about the area’s history and each other’s travels.
Wolves used to be common in this region but declined until they were gone from the area around 40 years ago. They are now starting to come back, but the people are no longer used to them and take issue with their return. Until now there have only been a few lone wolves passing through, but there is recent evidence of a small pack here. This creates conflict with the farmers because they have stopped using protection measures and now lose sheep to the wolves.
The rural areas in the region are becoming depopulated. There used to be a lot of people living here but after the war, there was a big emigration. The soil is poor and the economy wasn’t doing very well after the war finished. Now the people who are left here have grown old, their children have moved away and if the current lack of new young people continues, the villages will be completely deserted in about 15 years. The town of Algodres that we are in has 30% of its population in the old people’s home.
The reserve has benefited from this mass exodus – it used to be poor quality farmland but now that the people have left, nature is on its way back. On our way around the reserve, we saw abandoned farm houses and shepherd shelters, stone walls marking land boundaries, planted olive trees and cork oaks that were left standing on field boundaries to collect cork. The cork oak trees take 50 years to mature and grow their first outer layer of cork bark, which is fire protection for them. The cork can be removed without killing the tree but it takes 8-10 years for the cork to regrow.
The soil is basically sand, it’s hard to believe that people grew cereal crops here! There was no way for people to bring manure up the hills to use as fertiliser, so they built pigeon houses and used the pigeon poo as fertiliser. Most of the reserve is not suitable for growing vegetables, so people probably had about 0.5 hectares per family here but lived elsewhere and only came for 3-4 weeks a year to harvest the cereals, olives and almonds.
After the people abandoned the area, scrub moved in – broom and other small bushes. When the Faia Brava reserve was created, the first job was to remove a lot of the scrub so that the horses and cows could come in and graze. The idea is that this will allow trees to come back, but it’s difficult because seed banks have been obliterated by farming and repeated burning (by shepherds) and the grazing animals eat the small trees that do grow! They are starting to try planting trees and creating grazing exclusion zones to speed up the natural succession.
The first stop we made with the film crew was to the bride over the Coa river. There used to be just a little boat crossing here, used by villagers and their chickens, pigs and goats! Then the guys who managed the boat crossing died and the first bridge was built. After surviving for years, a flash flood took the bridge and a new one was built, but this one only lasted 4 years and the villagers were again without a crossing. Two years of being isolated went by before an engineer heard about the situation and offered to design a new bridge. But the villagers didn’t have any money to build it and had to fundraise for the materials. They secured enough to buy materials but couldn’t pay the workers, so they had to take turns feeding the workers as they built the bridge, so it is called Union Bridge and it hasn’t washed away yet!
We spent the rest of the afternoon touring around, learning about the reserve and the film crew and enjoying the scenery. We haven’t seen any of the horses or cattle yet but we saw a lot of vultures! They have many pairs breeding at the reserve on the cliffs by the river. The reserve is named after these cliffs, Faia meaning ‘cliff’ and Brava meaning ‘brave’ or ‘wild’.
In the evening, Barbara dropped us off with one of the reserve interns Johanna and we had dinner with her and stayed at her house in the village. She has made good friends with the neighbours and Mario from next door invited us all to drink his home made wine with him – it was delicious! Then he took us to two of his gardens and sent us away with freshly picked broad beans and salad, which we took back and ate with tortilla.
We had lovely chats about rewilding and local people and another Faia Brava employee Pedro joined us for wine after dinner. He told us about his time as a political activist in Lisboa before he came back to the country to escape the never-changing world of politics.
Hopefully we will find some interesting things to do and see at the reserve over the next few days, it seems like a great place with brilliant people.