Portugal’s cork oak forests are a valuable ecological resource, buffering against climate change, recharging the water table and as a habitat for native wildlife. But they need help right now if they are to survive. We aim to regenerate the cork oak forest in which we live, using the traditional principles of the Portuguese montado and modern ecological understanding We want to see it thrive for future generations
Come help the land thrive!
Monte de Nossa Senhora, a 100 hectare farm in South Alentejo, Portugal, was owned by the same family for 2 centuries. In the 1970s, the land was divided into three parts of approximately 30 hectares. Each one inherited by a separate branch of the family. We bought 30 hectares from the original family, 6 brothers and sisters who grew up here, but left to earn their living in Lisbon as young adults. For 40 years our part of the farm was kept to the best of their ability, cleared of weeds, harvested for cork, and the house used for holidays. In their hearts they wanted to return but the practicalities of life made that impossible, so they finally decided to sell it. To let it go into the care of people who wanted to live on the land and revive the place before it was too late. That’s us.
With the help of our horses (large herbivores are an integral part of successful land restoration) we want to help our farm thrive and revive. Using traditional Portuguese principles and modern ecological understanding we aim to have this land provide humans and horses with food and a comfortable life, without damaging it. Productivity is not our goal, we don’t want to take more than we need, or exploit resources. We want to live in a way that benefits all. We are already seeing our woodlands return to health, grazing for our animals increase, and valuable medicinal plants flourish. Wildlife has increased and the bird and insect population flourish. We interfere as little as possible and as much as is needed, allowing nature to do its thing, and supporting it where we can.
The Portuguese Montado
Portugal has a uniquely special system of land management called the montado. When managed properly this is a sustainable and harmonious system that can support, people, animals and the land. Unfortunately, with the population leaving the land for urban life, much of the montado has fallen into neglect. The land is becoming desertified, trees are dying and topsoil degraded.
A healthy montado relies on animals and humans moving among the trees, fertilising, cleaning up, and breaking down undergrowth. These days that job is done by tractors with discs. This is destructive to the trees’ roots, destroys topsoil and disrupts the bacteria that are essential to a healthy eco-system. It also destroys habitat of the animals and insects that are an integral part of tree health. So the cork oaks are dying at an alarming rate, infected by fungus as their immune system is repeatedly stressed.
We aim to reverse this cycle by keeping tractor work to a minimum, doing only what is necessary for fire safety. Otherwise, our herd of horses and grazing sheep will help us control the overgrowth of invasive species, fertilise, and keep the woodlands healthy. We are also reforesting by encouraging young tree growth and planting to increase bio-diversity, as well as seeding native grasses and nitrogen-setting legumes. We try to mimic what nature would do and help it along.
Land husbandry is never finished, every day we are busy with caring for the land and the animals, harvesting, distilling, clearing, seeding and all the multitude of tasks required. We are always happy to have helping hands, and this is a great way for visitors to connect with the land, support nature and experience the totality of a life lived well. Far away from the madness of modern city life, it’s easy to hear your own heart speak.
Part of our vision for the land is to harvest the aromatic plants that grow here and distill essential oils. Locally these medicinal herbs are viewed as weeds, but Nayana is an aromatherapist and sees the value of these plants. This could be a valuable source of income for a region that is cash poor. We hope to encourage the local community to understand the value of what grows around them and provide a reason for the younger people to stay on the land and care for it. The human factor is an important part of any regenerative initiative.
A work in progress
When we moved onto the land there was nothing but nature, a ruin and a water well. We arrived with 4 horses, 2 pups and a vision. We’ve done a lot since then and learned more than we could have imagined.
We will see what the future brings, but every day is an exciting adventure and we are always learning as we become more intimate with our eco-sphere and it becomes more clear how we can help it flourish.