The Greater Côa Valley: how rural architecture can help build a future for nature

Posted: 24th May 2019

By David Thomas

With griffon vultures soaring overhead, the warm air thick with the scent of rosemary, chamomile, lavender and wild thyme, and free-roaming horses drinking in the shade of mature cork oaks, one could believe the Faia Brava Reserve had always been this rich in nature. This part of the Côa Valley in Northern Portugal is, however, entering a new phase in its long social, economic and ecological history – and the signs of its recent past are all around us.

A traditional, red-roofed pigeon house set within the landscape of the Faia Brava reserve (Photo credit: David Thomas / ELP)

I’m visiting the Endangered Landscape Programme’s project in the Greater Côa Valley, Western Iberia, which is being implemented locally by Rewilding Portugal. The project aims to restore a biodiversity-rich, Mediterranean forest ecosystem, and link it to a sustainable, nature-based economy.

The northern part of the valley lies within the Côa Valley Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in which over a thousand engravings, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic (25,000 years ago), have been etched onto the valley’s rocks. The engravings provide a glimpse into the area’s former ecology – the now extinct Aurochs feature regularly, alongside wild horses and deer.

Paleolithic engravings depict a long history of human influence in the Côa Valley (Photo credit: David Thomas / ELP)

As I look out across the valley, I can see more recent signs of human influence. Scattered among the trees are many small, cylindrical towers, mostly painted white and topped by a roof of red tiles. These, I am told, are pigeon houses. “Go back 60-70 years and this valley was virtually treeless” explains Pedro Prata, Team Leader of Rewilding Portugal. “You can see this in aerial photographs taken by the Royal Air Force at that time. The forest had been cleared over many generations – for fuel, to clear land for agriculture, and to produce charcoal for smelting of iron ore”.

As a result, agricultural productivity was on a downward spiral. Times were hard, as soils were being washed away and losing their fertility and productivity. The pigeon houses were one response to these challenges. “The pigeons provided an additional source of food for people in these remote communities,” Pedro tells me, “and keeping them in pigeon houses also allowed people to collect their guano to be used as fertilizer”.

An abandoned house in the Faia Brava reserve; the Côa Valley has one of the highest rates of rural depopulation in Portugal (Photo credit: Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe)

Starting in the 1980s, there was a gradual migration of communities from the countryside to the city. Evidently, pigeon droppings weren’t enough to restore the land’s fertility and rescue the livelihoods of these communities; alongside the pigeon houses are derelict farmhouses and ruined field barns. Villages were abandoned, but in this new space the conditions for nature to start its comeback were created.

Walking in the south of the project area I am keen to hear more about the human history of this landscape. Here was a different kind of abandoned farmland along the banks of the Ribeira das Cabras, a tributary of the Côa River. Beside the river, at 100m intervals, are raised platforms built of large stone blocks, with a deep well at their centre. Pedro explains their purpose: “Donkeys were used to turn a wheel that would draw water up from the well, which was fed by the river, and deliver it into a stone canal that would take it to the top of the field. From there it would flow by gravity, irrigating the crops. The system is known as ‘noras’, its technology originating in North Africa”.

These constructions lie abandoned now, their machinery rusting as rushes and white-flowered broom reclaims the fields. It must have been quite a sight, 70 years ago, to have seen these farms at work, the donkeys doing their circular trudge on their stone daises. The fields are small, each no more than half a hectare, and farmers couldn’t compete with the productivity and low prices of products from industrialised agriculture. Now these fields are becoming open woodland and the wildlife is returning – the area has recently become a hotspot for Iberian wolf sightings.

Iberian wolf populations are recovering in Portugal and Spain (Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe)

The abandoned architecture here tells us a lot about the area’s past, but Rewilding Portugal are demonstrating how it can also be used to shape the area’s future. The pigeon houses are as much a part of the landscape as the cork oaks. Sara Casado Aliácar, Conservation Officer at Rewilding Portugal, explains to me: “We are restoring pigeon houses in the gorge, in places frequented by Bonelli’s eagle. The pigeons increase the food supply for the eagles, and this is now a hotspot for birders who come and stay here to get a chance to see the Bonelli’s eagle as well as other raptors like griffon, Egyptian and black vulture”. The pigeon houses are being repurposed, feeding pigeons instead of people but nonetheless preserving the region’s vernacular architecture and contributing to the revival of the local economy.

All the landscapes where the Endangered Landscapes Programme is working have been changed by human activities that go back many generations. Pigeon houses and the practice of noras are an important reminder of that past, and in planning for the future it is vital to recognise that history, and its importance in the making of communities and their culture. Yet these historic features need not be made obsolete – they can also be part of the future, a piece of a modern economy in which people come and pay to watch eagles soar above the Côa River.

You can read more about the Western Iberia project here.

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