A Quinta land restoration Project South Western Portugal

Located 8km inland from the Atlantic on the west coast of Portugal and within a national park A Quinta is a young and ambitious land restoration project of some 132 hectares of rolling hilly grasslands, forests and lakes. It is run by Ferry Elsinga and Francine  Burghoorn who are in the process of moving here from Holland having run a successful seed business there.


Tea in the mulched veg garden


The dirt track in.


The van in the landscape

The big idea with this project is to regenerate the land using  keyline and rotational grazing. Keyline is a method developed by PA Yeomans in Australia and is use for retaining water within the soil thus allowing increased biological activity, fertility and increased soil depths over time .It is used especially in dryer climates not so steeply sloped so as to use terracing and is an alternative to swales ( ditch on contour) but where retention of water in the soil is critical to prevent erosion and degredation. Yeomans and his sons developed a special type of subsoiler plough with a very flat shank of 8% which is used at the depth of the hardpan created by conventional plowing methods over the years. The keyline is done on contour creating a series of underground channel which penetrate the pan and allow the water to penetrate. This greatly slows down the rate of rainwater run off after a downpour. The keyline channels can be flooded using sluices and channels when needed. Francine showed us where  water can be seen pissing out of the soil profile above the level of the hardpan. They will have to repeat the process twice for it to be effective. The soil is not turned as such so the soil structure is maintained. Its like lots and lots of mini underground swales.


Soil profile at La Quinta

The second part of the plan is to use rotational grazing as developed by Allan savory. Animals are bunched and moved in a controlled manner as they do in a natural migration. They intensly feed on a small area ,intensly shit in a small area then they move on to look for fresh grass. The grass is then given a chance to regrow after being fertilised by the herd. While we were at the farm one of the jobs we did was moving a mixed herd of sheep and goats to new patches of ground that were being converted to pasture. The goats will eat young thistles and brambles and all manner of herbs. Over time these plants will give way to the grasses.We were using light weight portable electric fences to quickly make new enclosures. Below the sheep and goats are grazing below some orange trees.


Francine is a fantastic host, we were well fed with the wwoofers taking turns to cook. She was very generous with her time and allows you to choose what you feel inspired to contibute. We spent the first afternoon walking the land to look at the ponds, springs, pastures and woodlands and discussing what they are trying to do and how they are in the process of testing ideas for how to inplement keyline and rotational grazing here. Their main business is going to rely on the sale of beef.

The land is fortunate to have a large water catchment area and there are a series of existing ponds. There is running water throughout the year and a natural spring also.


Below is a picture of one of the grassland valleys that has been over grazed and suffers from compaction and hardpan. Dock and Ragwort were growing here. It has a gentle bowl shape. Keyline will be used here.


Grassland valley

They have recently dug a large pond at a keypoint high up on the farm. This is lined with clay and fills after heavy rains.The man on the digger (who worked in Dubai on the palms) being creative made a palm shaped edge!


To help keep the house cool in summer they have made a water channel in the floor.


There were 7 wwoofers, the family and a few builders knocking about with all manner of projects happening. One of the things needed was a small pond in the garden that could be emptied and used for irrigation. A dug pond wouldn’t work as this would then be lower than the vegetable beds so I came up with a daft idea of building it above the surrounding  ground level made from stones collected from the land. This could then be covered with soil and lined with clay taken from the upper pond. A 38mm pipe was put in place which would be kept above the waterline to prevent silting. This could be lowered when it needed draining. Our backup plan was to use a liner but we wanted to try it without that first. They were looking into getting ducks for slugging in the garden and the pond would be for them to splash around in. There was a more natural place for a pond just below the vegetable garden where water was collecting with rushes growing but this area was earmarked as the site for a geodesic aquaponics setup.


Other projects included a large multi level tree house and a 20 bird mobile chicken house.


The tree house up a cork tree

The tree house was a fairly fancy job designed in such a way that there were no fixings to the tree,it had evolved into a multi-level place where one of the wwoofers slept.



A nice detail where the cork and roof meet.  Below a pic taken from the balcony.


The house is off grid with compost toilets, pv and solar to generate power and hot water.


A traditional rammed earth cottage awaiting restoration

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We were very fortunate to have come to this young project.



Alentejo to the West Coast of Portugal

While in the Alentejo near Castelo de vide the van broke down. It turned out to be the gear linkage, the bolt had sheared off and not the box itself. This was fixed by a kind local mechanic without a word of English followed by celebrations of beer, cheese, breads and chorizo at his garage/pub. Through our translator (the younger barman) he told us he was delighted to see young people travelling and I imagine he sort of took pity on us. We stayed the night in the garage and the following morning we were on our way. Not having any plans as such we decided to move in the direction of the West coast aiming for the town of Porto Covo. On the way we stayed in Estremoz, Redondo, Evora, Monsaraz , Luz, the Alqueva Dam and the Mina de St Domingos.


An olive grove on route

The now closed mine of St Domingos where the British company Mason and Barry extracted gold and pyrite has left a toxic landscape. They exploited the people and the mineral wealth in the area until it closed in the 60’s. The river here is caustic and the scale of the site  vast . It really makes you think!


Abandoned Mines of St Domingos and the toxic river


The main pit

In the town of St Domingos outside the one-room miners’ cottages the locals were growing Brassicas under trees on the footpaths. Perhaps the legacy of using small spaces is still here within the community. Even an old toilet bowl has a use!



The landscape surrounding St Domingos is characterised by low rolling hills covered in Lavander, Cercis and Holm Oak . Oxalis are now in flower growing everywhere.


The hill top Village of Mertola lies on the confluence of two rivers, a town of terraces that run on contour and a very interesting place to visit. It was normal as one explores towns like this to stumble across small well tended gardens.

Some plants seen in the region include this Oxalis now in flower, Asphodelus, Malva, Prickley pear , American Agave and a milk cap mushroom.


Milk cap




Prickly pear (Opuntia spp) edible too!


Agave americana naturalised

In the fields, storks follow goats and cows and every so often you pass a pile of harvested cork. Burning of plant material is carried out at this time of year to reduce the fire risk and everywhere you see smoke rising from the fields. Porto Covo and its crashing waves reminded us of the West of Ireland only sunnier. Hotentot fig carpets the ground in places. It’s an African plant and invasive. The colours of the landscape are breathtaking with the constantly changing sky and flora. We spent a few days walking sections of the fishermans trail and the historical way which run for hundreds of kilometres along the coast to the southern tip of Portugal. In a few days time we were to go volunteering nearby at A Quinta.


Porto Covo


The Fishermans Trail


Hotentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis )

The Alentejo Portugal

For Christmas we headed inland to Madrid to stay with some friends. Their place was right on the edge of the city at Alcobendas where it was possible to go for walks out into a forest of Holm Oaks. The kids loved it here playing hide and seek and making a fort.


We took a trip up into the mountains north of Madrid. A landscape of boulders and rock the perfect playground for fearless climbers.


The temperatures inland were much colder than anything we had experience on the trip so far. Leaving mid 20s in Valencia just a few days previous the nights were dipping down to freezing. Getting back into the van in the newyear we soon discovered the cold of inland spain. Taking the direct route we drove up into the mountains on route to Segovia passing the ski lifts at 1800m and  realising that we probably need more detailed maps.  We made it just about, the driving nerves shot and went to the three kings festival the big day for the children of spain when they get some presents.

We had a vague idea that we would head west to Porto in Portugal. An english man Roderick a great story teller whom we had met on our travels earlier recounted finding a sort of paradise of wildflowers and lakes out that way where he lay in the grass and recomend taking the back roads. We made it as far as Salamanca when days of driving and living in freezing fog and night time temperatures of minus 3 in the van froze the dogs water and all the pipes. We were in effect forced to turn south. For several days we drove through the fog untill we reached the border with Portugal and suddenly popped out to bright sunshine and the hill top village of Marvao. Marvao and the Alentejo region was one of the highlights of the trip. The quiet hill top village is dotted with well kept gardens and the surrounding countryside is like a model for self sufficiency and small holders.


In the following weeks we would travel slowly through the Alentejo region of Southern Potugal a place some regard as the closest thing to Ecuador in Europe. There is little industry here, we never came across a supermarket chain, or industrial estate or those plastic grow tents you see 5 minutes after you cross the border into Spain. Here people live on small holdings or in old villages, shop locally and eat locally and grow much of their own food.Everyone smiles and says hello. The houses here have large chimneys for smoking  pigs and everywhere you went you would see old men in the fields tending their trees and vegetables and cycling back into town with a crate of greens for the dinner. The chorizo, cheese and bread here are exceptional. It was common to see Oranges , lemons , figs , chestnuts, cork trees, kiwi, olives and almonds growing.



Typical streetscape




Walking an ancient road in the Cork Oaks


Alentejo Region


Castelo de vide


Cistus ladanifer or Rock Rose

It was common to see an entire landscape of Rock rose here.



Cranes nest

The Alentejo region is considered the poorest part of Portugal primarily due to its lack of industry. The region is very dry and home to europe largest resevoir. In building the resevoir the original village of Luz was demolished and flooded to make way for this project which it was promiced would bring jobs and industry to the region.Its residence were relocated “a house for a house and a plot of land for a plot of land” to a new village a few kilometers away on higher ground. Its a sad and depressing place lacking any character that every other village in the region has. A modern museum was built to keep the memory of the old village alive and houses photos and objects from the old Luz. A documentary film includes interviews with people form the old village as they are being relocated. One man talked of his fields, his trees he had tended and the land he worked to grow food and share with his friends and neighbours.The move had destroyed much more than homes. None of the promiced modern prosperity has arrived 10 years on to the region and this is perhaps not a bad thing as people adapt their modern homes and replant their trees and gardens.