Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

João Ferreira

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

Ricardo Ferreira

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

Landscapes of rocky cliffs and oak forests

Andoni Canela

Landscapes of rocky cliffs and oak forests

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

Ricardo Ferreira

Serra, cliffs and montado landscapes

The Greater Côa Valley, a beautiful yet relatively unknown place in northern Portugal, is located close to the Spanish border between the Douro River and Malcata mountain ranges.

Characterised by its river gorges, oak forests, rocky heathlands and scattered fields, this is an area where wild nature is now returning to the landscape.

The abandonment of a significant part of the Greater Côa Valley presents an unprecedented, large-scale opportunity for rewilding and the comeback of wildlife. More than 100,000 hectares of land have already been set aside for conservation in the form of Natura 2000 areas, boasting an interesting mix of natural and semi-natural habitats.

The Greater Côa Valley is home to a growing population of wild herbivores such as wild boar, roe deer, and red deer, while river gorges are popular with cliff-loving animals such as vultures and eagles. On the poorer soils above granite bedrock, the landscape is dominated by very small landholdings that have been cultivated for centuries – these are now also increasingly being abandoned. The top predators here are the Iberian wolf, which is present in the form of a small pack, and the Iberian lynx (which should naturally be present, but remains absent for the time being).


Rewilding vision

For each rewilding landscape we developed an inspiring vision that shows our ambition for the next ten years. Together with our local partners we work to make this vision a reality.

What are we doing here?

Grazing fire brigades

Rural depopulation and associated land abandonment have seen grazing livestock numbers plummet across much of the Mediterranean. Left without grazing, many landscapes have become increasingly covered by young, often monotonous forest or dense scrub. In Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley – a region with one of the highest levels of land abandonment in Europe – the proliferation of bushes, coupled with the close plantation of pine and eucalyptus trees – has left the landscape very susceptible to catastrophic wildfires. Although fire is a natural process, the current frequency and intensity of these fires causes severe environmental degradation, economic losses, and even loss of human life.

This situation is complicated by the fact that generous EU agriculture subsidies have seen cattle grazing increase on smaller plots of land across the Greater Côa Valley in recent years. This can lead to overgrazing, habitat fragmentation, and an increased chance of conflict with wolves.

Rewilding offers a viable alternative to this approach. Bringing back grazing with wild/semi-wild herbivores such as wild horses and Tauros supports the creation of better connected and more biodiverse mosaic landscapes, and also helps to create open spaces that act as effective firebreaks. In this way, Rewilding Europe and its local partners can significantly reduce the risk of fire in the Greater Côa Valley.

Supporting local enterprise

Through financial loans and expert business advice, Rewilding Europe Capital (REC) is helping a growing number of local entrepreneurs create rewilding-focused enterprises across our operational landscapes. Since 2013 REC loans have so far helped a quartet of nature-based businesses become established in the Greater Côa Valley rewilding landscape. Casa da Cisterna, Wildlife Portugal and Matreira are all pioneering nature-based tourism models which are helping to reinforce the rewilding agenda here.

The Greater Côa Valley rewilding landscape is well-placed for such nature-based tourism. Situated between the Douro River to the north and the Serra da Malcata in the south, the Côa Valley is a spectacular mix of riverine gorges, Mediterranean oak woodlands and shrubs, rocky heathland and former cropland and orchards which are now returning to nature. The 200-kilometre long Côa Valley Grand Route takes tourists and nature lovers through several rewilding sites, enabling them to enjoy its diverse wildlife and beautiful landscapes. With the landscape now welcoming more than a thousand visitors annually, revenue growth for the nature-based enterprises here has already been substantial.

Shaping the Greater Côa Valley

Rewilding Europe is working with its local partners to shape the Côa Valley through the development of a 120,000-hectare wildlife corridor – the Greater Côa Valley – that connects the Malcata mountain range in the south with the larger Douro Valley in the north. Innovative land-use models will be applied in a region with one of the highest land abandonment levels in Europe, transforming threats of landscape degradation, rural depopulation and economic downturn into new opportunities based on rewilding principles.

To reach this goal we are focused on securing strategically located core areas purchasing them – supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme – and connecting them by signing land-use agreements with landowners and hunting associations, and on restoring natural processes such as herbivory, carnivory and scavenging in the zones between them. By allowing species such as Iberian ibex, wolf and Iberian lynx to make a comeback, this will hopefully boost biodiversity significantly and underpin a burgeoning nature-based economy that serves as a regional role model. Once a more natural state has been reached, the Côa Valley has the potential to become one of the main migration routes for wildlife in this part of the Iberian Peninsula.

Improving connectivity south of Douro River

The Portuguese subpopulation of Iberian wolf south of the Douro river is currently fragmented and highly isolated from the rest of the Iberian population due to geographic, ecological and social barriers. Supported by LIFE WolFlux the rewilding team aims to promote the ecological and socio-economic conditions needed to support the viability of this wolf subpopulation.

The Iberian wolf is the top predator in the Greater Côa Valley. As numbers of this keystone species increase, so balance will be restored to the ecosystem. This will have a positive impact on wildlife at all levels of the food chain –  from rabbits benefitting from reduced red fox numbers, to vultures enjoying greater access to wild carcasses. Increased wolf numbers will also change the behaviour of wild herbivores, which will affect vegetation within an evolving landscape of fear.

“Top predators return to the Greater Côa Valley”

Pedro Prata
Team leader of Greater Coâ Valley

How would you characterise your rewilding landscape?
The Greater Côa Valley is a biodiversity hotspot where rewilding can really take shape. It is a large arid open forest landscape, with steep valleys and inaccessible areas, where wildlife has been able to survive. This compact landscape boasts a multitude of habitats and species, as well as signs of human activity and wildlife that go back nearly 30 000 years.

What have the major achievements been in your rewilding landscape to date?
One of the main achievements has been persuading people that wildlife comeback and land abandonment represent an opportunity, rather than a problem. It has been fantastic to see top predators like the wolf return, more and more vultures nesting, and the Iberian lynx and imperial eagle starting to reappear. We have also built a cluster of nature-based businesses that are now going from strength to strength.

What would you like to see achieved in your rewilding landscape in the next five years?
I’d love to see 100 000 hectares of real rewilding landscape stretching along the Spanish border. That would connect two mountain ranges and two main canyons, strengthening the wildlife connection between northern and southern Iberia. And it would obviously be great to see species such as ibex and lynx return.

Our main achievements

Visit the Greater Côa Valley

Experience spectacular views of riverine gorges, oak forests, rocky heathlands and former cropland returning to nature. Your travel here combines the finest natural and cultural experiences in the area, supporting local people and new independent nature reserves.

Learn more

JUAN CARLOS MUÑOZ ROBREDO

Image gallery

Team members

Pedro Prata

Team Leader

Marta Calix

Project Manager

Sara Casado Aliácar

Rewilding Officer

Kayte Philliphs

Finance and Administration Officer

Fernando Teixeira

Communication Officer

Daniel Veríssimo

Enterprise Officer

André Couto

Field Officer

Miguel Pontes

Surveillance team

Gonçalo Matos

Surveillance Team

Pedro Ribeiro

Field Officer

Marta Vieira

Veterinarian

Sofia Capelo

Administrative

Board members

  • Paula Alexandra Faria Fernandes Sarmento e Silva
  • Hendrick Adriaan van Beuninguen
  • Cristina Maria Branquinho Fernandes

Partners

Rewilding Portugal

In the Greater Côa Valley, Rewilding Europe works with Rewilding Portugal. The organization is working to achieve the shared goal of making Portugal a wilder place.

Rewilding Portugal is currently focusing on the areas of Riba-Côa and Beira Alta in northern Portugal, a region where high rates of land abandonment have created opportunities for bringing nature back.

This region is an important wildlife corridor for many species in the region. Reinforcing ecological restoration and natural processes will boost the recovery of rare species such as the black stork and Iberian wolf.

Rewilding Portugal has established itself as an innovative and inspirational initiative that resonates with many national and international sectors.

Contact

Website: rewilding-portugal.com

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