Mér­tola a town in tran­si­tion

An un­ex­pected al­liance of hun­ters, farm­ers and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists has trans­formed the for­tunes of wildlife around one pic­turesque town in south­ern Por­tu­gal, says

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Bat Rescue - Sheena Har­vey.

Alesser kestrel flies close over­head as I stand look­ing at a car­pet of wild flow­ers in vivid shades of pink, pur­ple, yel­low and blue lead­ing down to the Gua­di­ana River in south-east­ern Por­tu­gal. The bird is head­ing for its nest on one of the white­washed build­ings that form a jum­bled pile up the hill­side to a me­dieval cas­tle. A wooden nest­box is lined up with sev­eral oth­ers along the cor­nice of a river-fac­ing for­mer grain store in the town of Mér­tola.

The fields sur­round­ing Mér­tola, in the prov­ince of Alen­tejo, fea­ture small-scale wheat pro­duc­tion mixed with wild grass­land dot­ted with ju­niper scrub and holm oak trees, from which huge flocks of corn buntings rise in twit­ter­ing clouds. Else­where there’s na­tive broadleaf woodland with oc­ca­sional groves of um­brella pines. There’s the pun­gent smell of ver­dant life all around, and a ca­coph­ony of twit­ter­ing, caw­ing, chat­ter­ing and buzzing that rises above any man-made sounds.

This coun­try­side could be an English ru­ral scene of 50 years ago or more. But then a Mon­tagu’s har­rier glides over, inches above a wild­flower meadow, and you know you’re un­likely to be any­where in mod­ern Bri­tain.

The whole area, just an hour and a half’s drive from Faro and two and a half from Lis­bon, is a Nat­u­ral Park, a step back in time be­fore fields grew large and were cropped year­round, and pesticides less­ened the den­sity of in­sect life.

AT A CROSS­ROADS

To an ex­tent, cir­cum­stances have dic­tated that Mér­tola could not join the mono­cul­ture ranks that have over­taken a lot of Europe. The soil is of­ten poor, thinly spread over rock, and non-pro­duc­tive apart from sparse grass for graz­ing sheep and cat­tle. The land is good to cul­ti­vate um­brella pines for the pine nuts that have be­come so pop­u­lar in cook­ing, but grain crops have to be ro­tated with fal­low land to make the most of both. In other cir­cum­stances there might have been a temp­ta­tion to cash in with whole­sale cul­ti­va­tion of um­brella pines. But this has been cur­tailed by a re­mark­able al­liance of seem­ingly dis­parate agen­cies that recog­nised the most pro­duc­tive way for­ward for the peo­ple of Mér­tola. This far-sight­ed­ness has also had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on bio­di­ver­sity and the wel­fare of their na­tive species. Mér­tola flour­ished cen­turies ago, built in the val­ley of the River Gua­di­ana with its steep, wooded slopes lead­ing up to rolling steppe grass­land. It was an im­por­tant cross­roads, po­si­tioned close to the bor­der be­tween Por­tu­gal and Spain, with mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial traf­fic us­ing the river to pass from the Mediter­ranean to the in­te­rior. In the 19th cen­tury cop­per was mined, but the seam ran out in

the mid 1960s and much of the pop­u­la­tion was forced to move to the cities to find work.

When times got harder, the lo­cals sup­ple­mented their in­comes by host­ing hun­ters on their land to shoot deer, wild boar, rab­bits, hares and red-legged par­tridge. A sculp­ture was com­mis­sioned for the ap­proach to the town that de­clares Mér­tola to be the ‘na­tional cap­i­tal of hunt­ing’.

CHANGE OF DI­REC­TION

The sea­sonal shoot­ing brought much-needed com­merce, and lo­cal ho­tel and restau­rant own­ers were con­tent to make a liv­ing from it, aug­mented by an amount of tourism based on their his­tor­i­cal legacy. How­ever, a phi­los­o­phy of “pre­serve and pro­tect our her­itage” be­gan in the 1970s, and lat­terly came to rep­re­sent a new phi­los­o­phy of pro­tect­ing and en­cour­ag­ing pre­cious nat­u­ral re­sources with the cre­ation of the Par­que Nat­u­ral do Vale do Gua­di­ana in 1995. Over the past 20 years, since the cre­ation of the park, hunt­ing has been de­clin­ing in Por­tu­gal in gen­eral at an amaz­ing rate. A high of more than 600,000 reg­is­tered hun­ters in the coun­try in the 1970s had dropped to just over 100,000 last year. With th­ese de­clines, Mér­tola found it­self once again on a down­ward slide.

That was when the revo­lu­tion­ary idea was born. “It was our strat­egy to sur­vive be­cause it’s a very poor area,” says Rosinda Pi­menta, the co­or­di­na­tor of the Cab­i­net to Pro­mote Lo­cal Tourism. “We have made our weak­nesses our strengths by cre­at­ing an oa­sis in the midst of in­ten­sive farming else­where.”

There was a re­al­i­sa­tion that the area’s great nat­u­ral re­sources could pro­mote a dif­fer­ent kind of pros­per­ity. The abun­dance of bird species, wild­flower mead­ows, nat­u­rally grow­ing herbs, a river deep enough for rea­son­able sized boats, in­ter­est­ing ar­chae­ol­ogy – there was more than just hunt­ing and sub­sis­tence farming to be ex­ploited.

PRO­TECT AND PROS­PER

The cre­ation of the Nat­u­ral Park was not enough to safe­guard its pre­cious bio­di­ver­sity, though. It is made up of parcels of land in pri­vate own­er­ship – noth­ing is owned by the State – so buy-in to a uni­fied plan was go­ing to take some work. There had to be agree­ment on strict con­trols – for agri­cul­ture, hunt­ing, and build­ing de­vel­op­ment. Un­like else­where, the peo­ple of the Mér­tola area wanted to cre­ate their utopia with the full co­op­er­a­tion of ev­ery­one with an in­vest­ment in it. The main ob­ject was to avoid con­flict that could scup­per even the most well-in­ten­tioned plans. Only by unit­ing could they hope to do some­thing sig­nif­i­cant enough to res­ur­rect the town’s for­tunes.

A com­mit­tee was formed by the Nat­u­ral Park team in 2006, con­sist­ing of farm­ers, hun­ters, traders and en­vi­ron­men­tal and con­ser­va­tion ex­perts, to get con­sen­sus on a set of rules for how the en­vi­ron­ment would be man­aged to ev­ery­one’s ad­van­tage. “The Nat­u­ral Park was much crit­i­cised for work­ing with the hun­ters,” says Rosinda, “but to deal with such a big area like this, you need to have the co­op­er­a­tion of the whole com­mu­nity.”

The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment had one over-rid­ing ob­jec­tive that would in­cen­tivise ev­ery­one – na­ture tourism as a way of bring­ing pros­per­ity to the area. “Tourism is not only a source of in­come, but also of peo­ple,” says Rosinda. “We want to at­tract the right kind of peo­ple to the town, who are in­ter­ested in her­itage and na­ture. And we want to stim­u­late the pro­duc­tion of lo­cal pro­duce.”

“Forty stake­holder in­sti­tu­tions took part in meet­ings be­tween 2006 and 2007,” says Ana Cristina Car­doso, a bi­ol­o­gist from the of­fice of the Nat­u­ral Park, “and they pub­lished a man­age­ment plan in 2008. There was a no­tice­able dif­fer­ence in at­ti­tude to the en­vi­ron­ment be­fore and af­ter we did this, and the lesser kestrel be­came the sym­bol of a com­mu­nity work­ing for con­ser­va­tion.”

Mér­tola is the only place left in Por­tu­gal with a size­able ur­ban pop­u­la­tion of lesser kestrels – sim­i­lar to the com­mon kestrels we see hov­er­ing over our mo­tor­way verges. There are 35 pairs breed­ing in the town, with the towns­peo­ple mak­ing the nest­boxes that dec­o­rate the eaves of build­ings and the over­hang of the old bridge on the river Gua­di­ana.

“Lesser kestrels de­pend on in­sect life in the sur­round­ing fields to feed their grow­ing chicks,” says wildlife guide João Jara, who has been pro­mot­ing the town as a bird­watch­ing des­ti­na­tion for many years. “But the growth of um­brella pine plan­ta­tions was swal­low­ing up the grass­lands and forc­ing the birds to fly fur­ther and fur­ther in search of food. Even­tu­ally, if the go­ing got too tough, we or­nithol­o­gists knew the birds would aban­don their last strong­hold. So, with the sup­port of the Park man­age­ment com­mit­tee, um­brella pine ex­pan­sion was cur­tailed so that food cor­ri­dors for the birds were main­tained.”

Pe­dro Rocha, di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture and Alen­tejo Forests, out­lines the strat­egy: “In the 1930s, al­most all the towns in Alen­tejo had a strong colony of lesser kestrels. De­vel­op­ment work in the ’40s and ’50s closed all the nest­ing holes in build­ings and the birds de­clined. We have worked with the pri­vate sec­tor – farm­ers and towns­peo­ple – to safe­guard feed­ing ar­eas by sup­port­ing new sow­ing plans and to in­crease breed­ing by pro­vid­ing nest­boxes. Last year we added 20 new ones.

“We have also been ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple not to use poi­sons to con­trol pests but to pro­mote nat­u­ral preda­tors. We have put we­b­cams on nests to en­cour­age en­gage­ment, es­pe­cially from the chil­dren, and have fit­ted 10 GSM trans­mit­ters on birds which help iden­tify prob­lems with the species.”

In the spring and sum­mer the streets are also full of house martins, swal­lows and swifts and their mud nests are stacked like avian blocks of flats on the sides of houses. Al­most ev­ery tall pole, tower and roof cor­ner holds a white stork nest, and the birds are tol­er­ated on py­lons in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side where they can form colonies of nests 20 or 30 strong. The Park’s guardians have been work­ing with the lo­cal power sup­pli­ers to mark the electric wires around the area and pre­vent bird strikes. And ar­ti­fi­cial, wind-proof nests have been pro­vided for the area’s many rap­tor species.

Now, the spa­ces open for hunt­ing are reg­u­lated, and clearly marked by fre­quent signs on fence posts. Ev­ery­where else is pro­tected for wildlife. The crops are

A LARGE POP­U­LA­TION OF GREAT BUSTARDS THRIVES ON THE HUNT- FREE AR­EAS OF SCRUB.

ro­tated so there is al­ways mead­ow­land to pro­mote in­sects, which pol­li­nate the crops and pro­vide food for a host of small song­birds. On the hunt-free ar­eas of scrub a large pop­u­la­tion of great bustards thrives – enor­mous birds, at 16kg the heav­i­est fly­ing birds in the world. Lit­tle bustards also pros­per and, in spring, the males of both species put on a spec­tac­u­lar courtship dis­play for the fe­males.

PEO­PLE POWER

An abun­dance of rab­bits no longer solely fu­els hu­man hun­ters, they pro­vide prey for a healthy pop­u­la­tion of rap­tors – Im­pe­rial ea­gles, Mon­tagu’s and marsh har­ri­ers, ea­gle owls, buz­zards and black and red kites. Rab­bits are also key to the Nat­u­ral Park’s lat­est project: re­turn­ing the lynx to the area as an apex preda­tor. Thanks to the un­der­stand­ing that has grown be­tween con­ser­va­tion­ists and the lo­cal com­mu­nity, the lynx rein­tro­duc­tion has been greeted pos­i­tively. To pave the way, com­mu­nity talks and work­shops were held to dis­pel fears and erase myths.

“Ev­ery­one was en­cour­aged to be a guardian, to see that lynx would not threaten their chick­ens, and a rab­bit a day would sus­tain them,” says Rosinda. “When peo­ple saw it was only a small cat, they were much more sup­port­ive.”

To pro­mote a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of rab­bits, the Nat­u­ral Park team set their nest­box-mak­ing skills to con­struct­ing 100 wooden homes that are buried in ground that is too hard for the an­i­mals them­selves to dig war­rens. And they dig and main­tain hol­lows in 30 hectares of fields to catch wa­ter that sus­tains both birds and mam­mals on the steppes.

“Now, when a lynx is rein­tro­duced peo­ple go in buses and take their chil­dren to see it be­ing re­leased. It has be­come a com­mu­nity project,” says Rosinda. At the head­quar­ters of the Nat­u­ral Park in the town cen­tre the walls are dec­o­rated with draw­ings of lynx that the lo­cal school­child­ren have made. Ana Cristina and the Nat­u­ral Park team, as well as other lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions, are work­ing on chil­dren’s and com­mu­nity ed­u­ca­tion. A bird­watch­ing guide for young peo­ple, as well as field guides to plants and in­sects for ages from kinder­garten up, are be­ing pre­pared. The Mu­nic­i­pal­ity pro­vides op­ti­cal equip­ment in the form of 15 pairs of binoc­u­lars and two spot­ting scopes for the use of lo­cal schools, it pro­duces mer­chan­dise in­spired by lo­cal birds and has a web­site to in­form the com­mu­nity about the area’s nat­u­ral re­sources and projects be­ing de­vel­oped.

Thanks to all th­ese co­op­er­a­tive mea­sures, Mér­tola is mak­ing the tran­si­tion to a tourist trade based around vis­i­tors to their flower- and an­i­mal-rich coun­try­side – for walk­ing, bird­watch­ing, mam­mal-spot­ting, fish­ing, kayak­ing, sail­ing, and con­sum­ing the fresh lo­cal pro­duce. Now, its towns­peo­ple en­joy not only a bet­ter way of life eco­nom­i­cally, but en­vi­ron­men­tally as well.

One of the best out­comes is that the lesser kestrels that fly over­head as I lux­u­ri­ate in the sounds and smells of this lush, wildlife filled val­ley will con­tinue, and a whole ecosys­tem will thrive as a re­sult of a great col­lec­tive ef­fort.

Lesser kestrels have be­come a sym­bol of a com­mu­nity work­ing to­gether in Mér­tola.

Top left: wild­flower mead­ows in Gua­di­ana Nat­u­ral Park sup­port in­sects, which feed the area’s abun­dant birdlife. Above: white storks nest on a py­lon. Be­low: the area has a healthy Mon­tagu’s har­rier pop­u­la­tion.

Above cen­tre: great bustards in­habit steppe, grass­land and open, agri­cul­tural ar­eas. Above left: a sculp­ture high­light­ing the game to be found in the Gua­di­ana Val­ley greets vis­i­tors to the town given the name of the ‘na­tional cap­i­tal of hunt­ing’.

Clock­wise from top left: lesser kestrel nest­boxes line the cor­nice at the top of one of the town’s build­ings; Ibe­rian lynx are be­ing re­leased into Gua­di­ana Nat­u­ral Park; lo­cal school­child­ren dress up as lynx for a car­ni­val pa­rade as part of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment in the re­lease project; mud nests of house martins on a build­ing in Mér­tola.

SHEENA vis­ited the town in spring 2017 cour­tesy of the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Mér­tola, as­sisted by João Jara of Birds & Na­ture Tours Por­tu­gal.

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