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IOS members Paul Manos (Duke University) and Andrew Hipp (...
Andrew Hipp | Jun 16, 2021
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Quercus cerris champion tree in spring 2016. Photo from Šušić et al. (2016)
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Plant Focus

The Compton oak at Colonial Williamsburg
A natural hybrid between Quercus lyrata (overcup oak) and Q. virginiana (Southern live oak)

The Renature Monchique Project

In August 2018 a fire started in a remote area just west of the mountain village of Monchique in the Algarve region of southern Portugal (Plates 1 & 2). The Algarve region, and more specifically this western area, has had its fair share of wildfires. But not since 2003 has there been a fire as damaging as this one—many people lost their homes as well as their livestock and livelihoods.

Plate 1
Plate 1: Village of Monchique
(Source: Wikipedia.org)

Landowners in this region are mostly small-scale farmers, who own Castanea sativa (chestnut) and Quercus suber (cork oak) groves, and shrublands of Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) producing fruits from which a local liquor, medronho, is distilled. Other landowners, some present on their land, others not, have given their lands over to plantations of the non-endemic Eucalyptus globulus, primarily, and the endemic Pinus pinaster.

Plate 2
Plate 2: Location of the Monchique Municipal District
(Source: Wikipedia.org)

This southern region of Portugal forms part of the Mediterranean Basin, a biodiversity and conservation hotspot1, and has a history of fire, both natural and anthropogenically driven2. Owing to the long, dry summer periods this region experiences, vegetation consists mostly of sclerophyllous shrublands with trees like Q. suber, Q. rotundifolia (Iberian holm oak), and the ever-present A. unedo. During drought conditions, such as during the last few years, there is a high risk of wildfires. Adding to this risk is the abundance of eucalyptus and pine plantations, both fire-prone species3, where stands are contiguous and trees planted no more than a meter or so apart (Plate 3). 

Plate 3
Plate 3: A typical eucalyptus plantation © Justin Roborg-Söndergaard 

During the month of August 2018, the combination of dry vegetation, high temperatures, and low humidity, along with winds in this region and the density of the trees in these contiguous plantations, resulted in an intensely damaging wildfire. Over the seven days that this fire burned, it impacted around 28,000 hectares, mainly concentrated in the Monchique Municipal District (see photos here and here).

The area impacted by the fire is representative of the Europewide Natura 2000, “a coordinated network of protected areas” consisting of “valuable and threatened species and habitats.” The need to recover soils and restore ecosystems (habitats), both terrestrial and riverine, is therefore paramount. In January 2019, GEOTA (a Portuguese national environmental NGO) was approached by the regional Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF), who were already partners on another project in this area. The decision was taken to create a project focused on the recovery and restoration of the natural and semi-natural areas relating to the Natura 2000 habitats found in this region. Primarily, the focus was on recovering the endemic semi-natural agroforestry-type systems, the C. sativa and Q. suber groves, and the A. unedo shrublands that make up this mountainous landscape.

Plate 4
Plate 4: Increasing densities of Arbutus unedo in a naturally recovering shrubland © Justin Roborg-Söndergaard 

The process of the Renature Monchique project is to engage landowners needing support for the restoration of their land through the planting of endemic species (Plate 4). Seven species were selected for this purpose, with the overall goal of planting 75,000 trees. Apart from C. sativa, Q. suber (Plate 5), and A. unedo, other associated species were selected such as Q. canariensis (Monchique oak), Q. faginea (Portuguese oak), along with riverine species such as Alnus glutinosa (common alder) and Fraxinus angustifolia (narrow-leafed ash), which were also impacted by the fire.

Cork oak seedlings
Plate 5: Quercus suber seedlings ready to be planted out © Justin Roborg-Söndergaard 

Ryanair, which is funding this project via their Carbon Off-Set Scheme, and GEOTA, which is responsible for managing the operational activities of the project, along with the regional office of the ICNF, the Algarve Directorate for Tourism, and the Monchique Municipal Council, are partners in this endeavor. The first objective was to recover around 250 ha of lost, damaged, and degraded semi-natural habitats—this objective has been achieved. The second objective is to establish a foundation of land plots for initiating the natural process of carbon sequestration, or long-term carbon storage. Ryanair and their passengers play an important role in this process as both financial support and time are important factors for achieving this objective, as it not only involves the planting of trees but also the restoration of soils and habitats, building the future potential for long-term carbon storage. So far, the planting has reached 61,860 trees, with many more needing to be planted—the outbreak of the Coronavirus has unfortunately slowed this process though (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

1 Myers, N., R.A. Mittermeier, C.G. Mittermeier, G.A.B. da Fonseca, and J. Kent. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature, vol. 403, no. 6772: 853–858. doi:10.1038/35002501.

2 Mateus, P. and P. M. Fernandes. 2014. Forest Fires in Portugal: Dynamics, Causes and Policies. In: Reboredo, F. (ed.) Forest Context and Policies in Portugal: Present and Future Challenges. Spiringer. Chapter 4: 97–115.,doi:10.1007/978-3-319-08455-8_4.

3 Catry, F. X., R. Tujeira, J. Silva, and F. Moreira. 2013. Post-fire survival and regeneration of Eucalyptus globulus in forest plantations in Portugal. Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 310, pp. 194–203. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2013.08.036.