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
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.
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.