TeaThat gently sloping valley floor below the village of Ferraria de So Joo is so green and green that you can imagine the insects queuing up to take their turn in their arcadian abundance. Birds sing, bees buzz, and meadow meadows grow toward a blue sky.
It wasn’t always like this. Antonio Zuzarte recalls how, five years ago, a massive wildfire turned the landscape into a scorched, black wasteland. Everything was burnt to ashes, they say – trees, crops, animal life.
“For weeks, a pungent smell hung in the air,” says Zuzart, a telecoms engineer. “And the silence too: it must have been at least a year for the birds to return to the village.”
Up to his ankles in the water, he jams a spade into a swath of mud while he speaks. Along with a dozen or more villagers, Zuzart is part of a volunteer conservation group in Ferraria.
Due to the ecological devastation caused by the fires, the group helps every two months by planting new trees, clearing the ground from fallen branches, and generally bringing their valley back to its former vigorous self.
Today is ditch-cleaning day. An old irrigation channel and holding tank have become clogged with weeds and sediment, and members of the Eldia Viva (living village) set it aside to be cleaned on Sunday morning.
An empty wheelbarrow rests along the foot-deep watercourse, its knife-edged hoe and spike-top reed pullers distributed among volunteers.
I am here to lend a hand. Unfortunately, wildfires are a predictable occurrence in Portugal. For a few months every summer, TV news is flooded with images of tree fires, and the nation screams and protests. But then the season changes and it is forgotten for another year.
However, last summer it reached a whole new level. From Spain and France to Italy and Romania, the flames looked as if half of Europe was going up in smoke. It didn’t feel right to just moan from the couch: I was compelled to do my job.
Leaving Porto on a Friday afternoon, I headed south to the beautiful mountain town of Vouzela, where I break off my visit at the restored 15th-century Paco da Torre hotel. Constructed of the same dusty gray granite and quartz that juts out from the surrounding Serra do Caramullo, the eight-bedroom establishment looks out onto a garden of oaks, laurels, and fruit trees.
On my way out, I stopped for a walk in the nearby Camarinho Botanical Reserve, a 24-hectare conservation area filled with native and exotic trees. Leonor Alcoforada, my guide, explains sea pines, common alder and cork oak – sobreiros – among others.
The pride of the place consists of rhododendron shrubs, reminiscent of the days when this corner of southern Europe was covered in subtropical wet forest. Apart from a small corner of the Algarve, this wild native plant, rhododendron ponticumNow found nowhere else in Portugal.
“We have a project with the local school to collect seeds from our indigenous plants and trees,” Alcoforada says. “We keep them in a nursery and then replant them in early autumn.”
Unlike Alcophorada, Ferraria does not have volunteer specialists. They represent a cross-section of society, so I’m betting they know as much about dendrology (the study of trees) as I do – which is muito pauco, But they have seen firsthand the damage that wildfire can do and are inspired to turn their backs on cleaning up the mess and restoring what they can.
However, we are not completely without instruction. Joo Amilcar, an energetic expert from the municipality, is ready to guide us which weeds to remove and which sediments to remove. Tired as trench-clearing, the day passes to a soundtrack of chatter and laughter.
On the drive inland, I was reminded at almost every turn of Portugal’s status as a nation of trees. Only two-fifths of the country’s landmass is classified as forested (three times the UK figure). At their best, in natural and national parks such as Peneda-Geres, Montecinho and Sintra-Cascais, these forests are a vernacular delight.
Most, sadly, are not. A cash cow for rural landowners, eucalyptus and pine presses in isolated villages such as near Ferraria. These monocultures not only reduce local biodiversity, but also pose a great risk of fire.
Portugal suffered 150 separate wildfires in a single month, the flames that engulfed the home village of Zuzarte. In the nearby town of Pedrogo Grande, one such inferno killed 66 people – the country’s deadliest wildfire ever.
People in Ferreira acted immediately. For weeks after the fire, volunteers worked closely together to quickly rid the area around the village of Nilgiris. Within a buffer zone of 100 meters, they were able to remove the stumps of over 50,000 individual trees, which were burnt.
What started as a disaster response has since turned into a community activity. The laughter of the volunteers during our mornings never quelling the weeds and silt.
After four hours, the holding tank is slowly filling up. Tired but satisfied, we head back to the village for a hearty lunch of tuna, beans and country cabbage, all washed down with the local Bira wine.
“Come back at any time,” says Zuzart as everyone gets up to leave. “And bring the one you like.” My mind goes to my green-fingered friends. Count me, I tell him.
Paço da Torre, Figueiredo das Donas, Vouzela double room from €86 A Night, ,351 968 710 052, packodetore.pt
Convento da Certe Hotel, Certo double€120 . from s A Night, +351 274 608 493, conventodasartahotel.pt/n
The trip was supported by the Center for Portugal Tourism Board and was facilitated by Madomis Tours
Nature Volunteering Opportunities in Europe
Turtle Conservation: Greece Join environmental enthusiasts to study and protect turtle 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 crawl safely into the ocean.
April-October, £595. From For two weeks, working abroad.com
Dolphin Research: Italy Collecting data on population size, social structures, habitat use and acoustic repertoire of Ischia’s short-billed dolphin is critical to protecting this prized cetacean. From the deck of a 1930s wood cutter, GoEco invites volunteers to help contribute to this important scientific research.
May-September, €1,125 For Six Days, Family Option Available, goeco.org
Wolf Protection: Slovakia In the pristine winter forest of Slovakia’s Liptov region, work your way together with experienced nature conservationists to protect the country’s wolf and lynx populations. Activities include setting up camera traps and collecting DNA samples.
December-February, one week minimum, €950. From, natucate.com
Horse Care: Spain In the small village of Atazate, near Malaga, Time and Space Equine Education Sanctuary invites volunteers to help care for their small herd of seven horses. As well as feeding and taking out animals, participants can learn the skills of a force-free horse by using positive reinforcement.
during the year, One week minimum, from €612, volunteerworld.com
small forest: UK The charity Earthwatch Europe offers one-day tree planting opportunities across the UK. Inspired by Japanese botanist Dr. Akira Miyawaki, the Tiny Forests program focuses on creating forests for fast-growing native species in urban areas.