Friday, February 23

My volunteering trip to help bring a fire-ravaged Portuguese forest back to life | Portugal holidays

The gently sloping valley floor beneath the village of Ferraria de São João is so green and lush that you could imagine insects having to queue to take their turn in its Arcadian abundance. Birds sing, bees buzz, and meadow grasses shoot up towards an azure sky.

portugal map

It wasn’t always so. Antonio Zuzarte recalls how, five years ago, a raging wildfire reduced the landscape to a scorched, blackened wasteland. Everything was burnt to a crisp, he says – trees, crops, animal life.

“For weeks, an acrid stench hung in the air,” says Zuzarte, a telecoms engineer. “And the silence, too: it must have been at least a year before the birds returned to the village.”

Cleaning a ditch outside Ferraria de São João in Portugal with the volunteer conservation group. Even the dog gets his paws dirty

Up to his ankles in water, he never spades into a bank of silent mud as he talks. With a dozen or so villagers, Zuzarte is part of a volunteer conservation group in Ferraria.

Spurred on by the ecological devastation caused by the fire, the group gets together every couple of months to plant new trees, keep the ground clear of fallen branches and generally help coax their valley back to its former verdant self.

Today, it’s ditch-cleaning day. An old irrigation channel and holding tank have become clogged with weeds and sediment, and the members of the Living Village (living village) have put a Sunday morning aside to clear it.

An empty wheelbarrow rests by the side of the foot-deep watercourse, its charge of knife-edged hoes and spike-topped reed pullers distributed among the volunteers.

I’m here to lend a hand. Wildfires are, sadly, a predictable phenomenon here in Portugal. For a few months every summer, the TV news fills with images of trees ablaze, and the nation shouts and remonstrates. But then the weather turns and it’s forgotten for another year.

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This past summer reached a whole new level, though. With fires raging from Spain and France to Italy and Romania, it seemed as if half of Europe was going up in smoke. No longer did it feel right just to lament from the sofa: I had a compulsion to do my bit.

Replanting after the fire.  Portugal is a nation of trees, with two-fifths of its landmass forested
Replanting after the fire. Portugal is a nation of trees, with two-fifths of its landmass forested

Leaving Porto on a Friday afternoon, I drove south to the pretty mountain town of Vouzela, where I broke my journey at the restored Paco da Torre hotel, which dates from the 15th century. Built from the same dusty gray granite and quartz that jut from the surrounding Serra do Caramulo, the eight-bedroom establishment looks out on a garden of oaks, laurels and fruit trees.

On my way there, I stopped off for a stroll in the nearby Camarinho Botanical Reserve, a 24-hectare conservation area teeming with native and exotic trees. Leonor Alcoforada, my guide, points out maritime pines, common alders and cork oaks – overwhelm – among others.

In pride of place are the rhododendron bushes, a throwback to the days when this corner of southern Europe was covered in subtropical humid forest. Other than in a small corner of the Algarve, this woody native plant, Rhododendron ponticumis now found nowhere else in Portugal.

“We have a project with the local school to collect the seeds from our indigenous plants and trees,” says Alcoforada. “We keep them in a nursery and then replant them in early autumn.”

Unlike Alcoforada, the volunteers in Ferraria are not specialists. They represent a cross-section of society, so I’m betting they know as much about dendrology (the study of trees) as me – which is very little. But they have seen first-hand the damage that wildfires can do and are inspired to put their backs into cleaning up the mess and restoring what they can.

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We’re not totally without instruction, however. João Amilcar, an energetic expert from the municipality, is on hand to guide us on which weeds to pull up and which sediments to remove. Tiring as the ditch-clearing proves, the day passes to a soundtrack of chatter and laughter.

On the drive inland, I’d been reminded at almost every turn of Portugal’s status as a nation of trees. Just under two-fifths of the country’s landmass is classified as forested (triple the UK’s figures). At their best, in natural and national parks such as Peneda-Gerês, Montesinho and Sintra-Cascais, these forests are an arboreal delight.

Most, sadly, are not. A cash cow for rural landowners, swathes of eucalyptus and pine press close around isolated villages such as Ferraria. These monocultures not only reduce local biodiversity, but pose a huge fire threat.

Portugal suffered 150 separate wildfires in the same month that flames engulfed Zuzarte’s home village. In the nearby town of Pedrógão Grande, one such inferno left 66 people dead – the country’s most lethal forest fire to date.

In Ferreria, people took immediate action. For weeks after the fire, volunteers clubbed together to rid the area immediately around the village of eucalyptus. Within a 100-meter buffer zone, they succeeded in removing the stumps of more than 50,000 individual trees that had burned.

What started as a response to disaster has since morphed into a community activity. Never once during our morning of yanking up weeds and shoveling silt does the laughter of volunteers go quiet.

Volunteers set off with their wheelbarrows
Volunteers set off with their wheelbarrows

After four hours, the holding tank is gradually beginning to fill. Tired but satisfied, we head back up to the village for a hearty lunch of tuna, beans and homegrown cabbage, all washed down with a local Beira wine.

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“Come back any time,” Zuzarte says as everyone gets up to leave. “And bring anyone you like.” My mind turns to my green-fingered friends. Count me in, I tell him.


The Paço da Torre hotel in Figueiredo das Donas
The Paço da Torre hotel in Figueiredo das Donas. Photographer: Oliver Balch

Paço da Torre, Figueiredo das Donas, Vouzela Double room from €86 at night, +351 968 710 052,

Convento da Serta Hotel, Serta Doubles from €120 at night, +351 274 608 493,

This trip was supported by the Center of Portugal tourist board and facilitated by Madomis Tours

Opportunities for nature volunteering in Europe

Turtle conservation: Greece Join fellow environmental enthusiasts to study and safeguard turtles’ nests on the golden beaches of Cephalonia. As part of the experience, volunteers help protect newly hatched turtles from light pollution and ensure they can safely crawl to the sea.
April-October, from £595 for two weeks,

Dolphin research: Italy Collecting data on the population sizes, social structures, habitat use and acoustic repertoire of Ischia’s short-beaked dolphins is critical to protecting this much-prized cetacean. From the deck of a 1930s wooden cutter, GoEco invites volunteers to help contribute to this vital scientific research.
May-September, €1,125 for six days, family options available,

Wolf protection: Slovakia In the pristine winter wilderness of Slovakia’s Liptov region, join with experienced nature conservationists to do your bit to protect the country’s wolf and lynx populations. Activities include setting camera traps and collecting DNA samples.
December-February, one-week minimum, from €950,

Equinecare: Spain In the small village of Atajate, near Málaga, the Time and Space Equine Education Sanctuary invites volunteers to help care for their small herd of seven horses. As well as feeding and mucking out the animals, participants can learn force-free horse skills using positive reinforcement.
year-round, one-week minimum, from €612,

Tiny forests: UK The charity Earthwatch Europe offers one-day tree-planting opportunities across the UK. Inspired by the Japanese botanist Dr Akira Miyawaki, the Tiny Forest program focuses on creating woods of fast-growing native species in urban areas.

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