Volunteering on farms: the real story

By Laura Cleary and Patrick Hunt
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Garden in the French countryside we spotted out walking. Fab veggies!!

As part of our trip campervanning in Europe we were keen to volunteer on organic/sustainable and/or permaculture farms, small holdings and projects. We believed there were many good reasons to volunteer such as, learning a new self sufficiency skill, seeing how others live off the land, how they juggle between their alternative way of life and how they earn money, meeting like minded people, contributing to worthwhile projects, saving a bit of money whilst travelling to name but a few. We didn’t really know how much time we would spend volunteering versus how much we would spend travel but we got the books, signed up to the memberships and booked a small holding for the second week of our trip. Having done much volunteering before and worked in a variety of places we both had mainly very positive experiences here in Ireland. Patrick had volunteered and given his time to eco-projects, farms and worked teaching horticulture in the National Learning Network while I had volunteered in multiple charities for many years mainly in counselling and in the disability sector also. Our experiences were both in professional environments and more informal situations and we found we both enjoyed and learned much from them. We felt respected and in most cases people greatly appreciated us for giving our time and helping out.
However, our experiences volunteering abroad through Wwoof and Helpx were on the whole quite disappointing. Altogether we visited 8 farms but only stayed at 4 . We stayed only one night at 3 others before leaving and the last one was purely organised as a visit just to see the place. We were also in contact with many others and for one reason or another didn’t end up going as it didn’t suit either us or the host but these interactions also gave us a good flavour for what is on offer. Out of all those 8 I can honestly say that only 2 or 3 were really enjoyable and we learned a little. The others definitely had good points but overall were disappointing.
I won’t be naming names as it’s unfair in this forum but I just want to give a flavour to those who might read this and are thinking of volunteering to carefully consider where they go and to find out as much as possible before arriving at a farm. It might also be useful for hosts as it raises common concerns that volunteers might have.
Of the 8 places we visited only 4-5 farms treated us with respect. Others left us feeling quite exploited worked hard with very little to eat. We are not afraid of hard work. We normally were asked to work 4-6 hours which is fine but we did expect, as the deal stated, to be fed properly. We were already providing our own accommodation so all we expected was three meals a day for a fairs days work. Overall this feeling of being exploited for free labour and being made to feel like a third class citizen were the biggest issues we had. We’ve both had a range of jobs over the years from working in shops and abattoirs to working in all sort of organisations and even in our least favourite jobs where you might have an intimidating boss, bully or rude person we were never treated like a third class citizen, certainly not by other staff or employers (maybe customers!).
To explain further I’ll describe each farm:
1.  Small-holding run by an English ex-pat couple:
From the minute we arrived we were made to feel beneath them. When we arrived the man pretended that he was French and we were at the wrong farm, funny a first, but not after listening to a good few Irish jokes (as in jokes about the Irish). There was very little clarity about what we would be doing and it was awkward because we had arrived on a Sunday which was a day off (they could have told us it wasn’t convenient, we could have arrived any day). It’s very difficult to explain this one, but basically there was a lot of verbal and non-verbal signs that came across as very rude. At one stage I asked if I could help with something, the quick reply was “why? are you bored?”.
Another issue was that they claimed to be organic but none of the animal feed was organic and they claimed to be having a home reared chicken for dinner but we spotted it in the fridge and it was wrapped in plastic from the supermarket! Patrick helped the man collect some wood from a neighbour and they had a little joke, “oh yes…organic haha”. If it wasn’t for the put downs we would have stayed happily but after sleeping on it we decided to leave. They had no passion for what they were doing anymore with the man wanting on his mother in law to die (who was cared for onsite) so they could sell up and go travelling themselves. Why would we bother? So we moved on.
Lesson number 1: Make sure to pick a farm where people are genuinely interested in sustainability. Little information at the email stage can be a bad sign.
2.       3 acre organic homestay/garden run by a couple
Overall this was a very positive experience but there were a few major issues. While we had a dog with us we made sure to explain and clarify about the dog’s nature and that he would need to be accepted and he’s well behaved etc. However, in this case when we arrived we were soon to learn that he wasn’t allowed off the lead outside in the garden in case he would chase the cats…surely they could run up a tree and anyway we rarely saw them as they were never around. The welfare of the cats was prioritised, of course I have no issue with that, but they failed to consider the dog’s welfare who was often locked in the van for long periods and then tied up outside. We didn’t want to leave as they seemed so nice (I guess they just weren’t doggie people) so we made great efforts to walk the dog early in the morning and late at night, sometimes a struggle to get away to do this. On the positive side, the place was truly self-sufficient and they made great time for us always, chatting, teaching and working with us which was really nice. Sometimes, as a couple we found it a bit intense as we found it hard to get time alone and another volunteer said she didn’t get much free time either. I think some hosts get a lot out of having volunteers on a social level but they do need to realise it’s important to allow volunteers to have space to themselves. Living and working in someone’s home is stressful at first as you’ve got to learn their specific house rules, and you spend a lot of time getting to know each other which can be draining when it’s all day long.
However, the main problem with this place was the lack of food. While meals were always extremely well prepared, tasty and we learned a lot from their way of cooking, there was nowhere near enough food for people who were working physically most of the day. There was no carbs, no eggs, no cheese, no meat and no dairy. Meal times were varied every day so you never knew when you would next eat. I found myself getting very hungry on the first day or two of every farm and I realised it was a psychological effect because of the higher stress levels when starting on a new farm, feeling drained and also the fact that you didn’t really know when you’d next eat which made you more hungry and food aware. Having lived independently for many years we were used to feeding ourselves when we wanted. I think hosts should consider that it isn’t always easy starting off on a new farm for many reasons and each person’s experience will vary but volunteers should be reassured when it comes to food. Older volunteers don’t need to be treated like 18 year olds who’ve never left home.
One day as a treat we had chips in the afternoon for “dinner” but there was nothing other than apple tart at 8pm. The chips were what I’d called a 1-2 person portion divided between 5 people so that night we had to cook in the van. All of the meal times involved a huge amount of preparing because of the nature of the diet so there was always a lot of washing up to do which we did of course but it took quite a while before we’d be let out to bring the dog out walking. One day it was suggested we stay working after the 6 hours but we had to say no. We were also told about the idea of breatharianism, “the belief that it is possible for a person to live without consuming food. Breatharians claim that food, and in some cases water, are not necessary for survival and that humans can be sustained solely by prana, the vital life force in Hinduism” (Wikipedia definition). Coming from a background in psychology this sounded like a handy excuse for either anorexia or food issues or getting away with feeding very little to volunteers who are vulnerable to alternative ideas. If I was to be a host myself I would not impose my own diet on another. I could only imagine what it was like for big strong fellas who have high metabolisms. We felt hungry all week, yes an interesting experience, but it’s not fair when the deal is that you get fed for your work. And when I say fed, fed sufficiently. Patrick claims he didn’t go to the toilet for 5 days!!! Also the other volunteer was sleeping in a cabin and asked if the stove could be lit as she found it very cold at night but she was told no. When asked if I could use the internet I was told “no, not tonight” even though no one was using it. When the hosts went to the shop they asked if anyone needed anything, the other French volunteer said “pain au chocolat” to which they firmly replied “oh no”.
Lesson number 2: Don’t go to vegan farms and clarify further about dog rules and free time.
3. Large farm run by a family aiming to raise organic beef and practice regenerative agriculture and holistic animal management.
No complaints here. Very warmly welcomed, given time to be shown around, fed well, given independence in our jobs which were discussed creatively and negotiated fairly, a sense of fairness and autonomy around free time and cooking was done by everyone taking in turns with washing up. While being given a lot of time in the beginning you were then trusted to be left by yourself to work and also contribute as part of the team. A fantastic experience! Wine was allowed on a Saturday and we were treated to a wild boar in red wine sauce which was brought to us by a local hunter. Having a larger group of volunteers there too made it more social and fun for us also. Everyone else there had said they chose this place because it wasn’t vegetarian!
4.One night at a homestay/organic garden
This place was nice in many ways and I think we would have been fed well and treated nicely but for us it wasn’t going to be enough in regards to learning something new. Having already grown our own vegetables very successfully we were disappointed to see the veg plot which was referred to as our “permaculture garden” covered in weeds with no vegetables growing. In all the places we stayed I never saw vegetables as good as the ones Patrick grew in our garden except for some French houses we walked past. Patrick spent most of the evening giving a consultation to them which I learned lots more from compared to anywhere we’d been! They were very interested and grateful for the advice and also very understanding that it didn’t suit us as Patrick was at a more advanced level. They also had no animals and the house was already built so there wasn’t a whole pile going on. After being shown around we were left with the home schooled boy of 12 not knowing when we were supposed to stop working or when we’d be fed and there were no materials to do the work which was very disorganised. When you come to these places you’re time to the host is valuable but sometimes hosts don’t organise themselves and so it’s just wasted. It’s frustrating when you could get a lot of work done and be productive. Also when a friend came around we were ignored and stood around feeling like spare wheels as we couldn’t partake in the conversation in French. I don’t believe this was done in a malicious way or anyway intended but hosts should be aware of how they’re behaviour can impact on volunteers especially on the first day. After all they are getting free help from very willing, enthusiastic and often more experienced volunteers.
 
Lesson number 3: Make sure you know what you want to learn, be specific, ask questions and don’t bother if you don’t think you will learn.
5. Herbal and aromatic farm run by a young family
Overall this was also very positive. We learned something new and interesting and were well fed. On our free day we went walking and brought our own packed lunch and so missed the dinner which wasn’t saved for us as the lunch sized meal was then had at dinner time. The French do it differently!
 
6.A visit to the rudest person I’ve ever met in my life-175 hectares
This farm is belonging to an academic animal behaviourist long involved in ecological farming and volunteering. We made an enquiry only to find out they had enough volunteers but their website, which showed a research centre said they accepted visitors and provided meals and allowed camping. The email response was very superior with a “have you read my book?” attitude and a lecture on how permaculture doesn’t cover animal welfare and basically only works in cities. Ok… so we thought we’d learn something being a research centre and finally delighted to visit a place that actually relied on science/critical thinking with people who didn’t believe in unfounded woowoo and quasi religions. Patrick read up on some scientific journals that she’d written which made some big claims. Having done research and having quite a lot of training in statistics and research methods I was surprised to see the figures. She explained in great detail how much food they grew and the methods used, but then multiplied it up to claim it was possible to feed 20 families as if she’d proved it. She didn’t even grow enough to cover herself and the family. I’m sure it was possible but it was all a bit jumping in its conclusions. We also read some highly critical reviews of her work. Anyway we went along as she said if we brought a bottle of wine we could stay for dinner to have a chat but she would not be available to see us before this so we were to look around ourselves and read the posters. We read them and learned about some previous projects. We bumped into some helpers and the man who also lived there. We understood they were busy and let them get on with their jobs while we looked around the site. After having a look we came back to the house for dinner as agreed. We couldn’t find anyone and didn’t know where to go so I wandered up a stairs to find someone. I found the woman sitting watching the TV so said hello…no reply…I said hello again…still no reply. On the third attempt she heard me and I introduced myself. She didn’t seem too happy that’d I walked in. I asked if she needed help with the dinner and she said “no” very firmly. So advised me to go down to the girls (her two volunteers) and help them. Luckily we got chatting with them and they were very nice. Eventually she and he came in and Patrick on first meeting her was asked to get another plate. No hello. When we sat down to boiled parsley (as it was the hungry gap) and white beans she enquired about Patrick’s background. When he said he taught gardening she shouted “what do you know about gardening? You need to be doing it forty years! What you should be doing as an architect is vertical gardening in cities”. She didn’t give any time to listen and made assumption after assumption. She was blatantly rude, very angry and bitter. Here we were young people who actually care about these issues she’s been striving to publicise for decades, eager to learn, willing to help and all she could do is put us down and make it all a competition a sort of but don’t you know who I am. The invite for dinner was really because she wanted an argument because of Patrick’s reply through email which politely enquired about her research and showed and interest. She believes most people should live in cities in urbanised, stressful environments while people like her who are landed from birth and know what they’re doing should do the real farming. She did have a good point when she observed the amount of holiday homes, second homes and people wanting to be self sufficient in the countryside actually waste a huge amount of fuel driving back and forth to work. But as we hiked up a hill above her valley that she owned all to herself we noticed her using the tractor instead of the horses…and that doesn’t use fuel? Nobody is perfect. This way of life is highly challenging and near impossible but you can only try your best. I’ve no doubt she has tried her best and met many a critic but she transferred her anger and resentment onto us and thought we were no different to anyone else who comes volunteering with “very little practical experience”. We tried to understand it from her eyes but it’s disappointing that people are hypocritical and assuming, turning young enthusiastic people off with bitterness and anger probably because she feels unheard and criticised. Anyway I’ll rant no more. The worst part was her rudeness and vicious attacks. Her volunteers are up at 6am and work all day. They get fed boiled parsley and are left to do the washing up as “the older people don’t wash up”. I wonder in her claims that she can farm ecologically on mass scale does she mention that most of the work is done by volunteers.
Lesson number 4: If you get bad vibes through first contact in email or just don’t feel enthusiastic don’t go!! This could definitely be said for all the experiences…your gut really does say a lot before you even meet them.   
7.  Organic sheep farm and Chateau
In some ways this was a terrible experience. Keen to work with animals we decided on this place run by a family with a B&B chateau. Through emails she offered certain dates. I responded that we couldn’t come then and offered an alternative. She agreed. When we arrived we were met by the husband who quickly delegated us to the volunteer who’d been there a month to show us around. The lambs were gorgeous and the place seemed ok. The owners didn’t make much effort to welcome us or chat. While being shown around by the other volunteer he told us that as of from today the host had decided there’d be no food for dinner provided and we’d need to go to the shops for dinner because there would be two more volunteers arriving so there’d be six volunteers in total. We were very disappointed as at this stage we were starting to see a trend, feed the volunteers barely anything, use them as much as possible and treat them like third class citizens. The vibe here was very exploitative. We had just watched the films “The Help” and “The Butler” and honestly I felt like I was living in those movies without the violence of course! There was an older volunteer there for two years and he told us “you’re in France, you speak French”. Fair enough but that was not was agreed with the owner when I first emailed. We always explained we don’t have much French and only enquired to farms that stated they spoke English. He also proceeded to show Patrick how to wash up…he may not be great with housework but most men of 34 know how to wash up!! This was how it was going to be, getting bossed about by the second in command, a Kapo! The younger volunteer didn’t seem to have a clear idea of the hours of work after being there a month and he said he was just on call at all times. We decided to ask the lady, when she was free to speak to us, about the dinner situation. We’d just spent a week at a vegetarian farm and were feeling a little tired so we weren’t prepared to not get fed properly. She said she’d provide lunch but we’d have to manage on leftovers and buy our own extras. The kitchen was also filthy and she instructed us to organise the farm having only just arrived with no idea of how things are run. She explained she had 6 children and couldn’t afford food. Then why agree to have us? She then said we arrived too early and also that I had insisted we come on the dates I mentioned in the email. There is such a word as NO. Why can’t people use it? We suggested a date, it didn’t mean she had to say yes! She was acting like she was doing us a favour by squeezing us in. After trying to negotiate the meals, she said “you know what? I think it’s best you just leave, it doesn’t feel very nice anymore”. She then back-peddled and said “oh but stay the weekend or the night if you have nowhere else to go”. I think she must be used to having younger travellers with little money and no transport.
Having seen what it’s like to be a host I must say we feel much more reluctant to hosts ourselves in the future. She said she had to show one volunteer how to boil pasta! And we have met all sorts of lost and wayward souls volunteering. If having volunteers is more troublesome than it’s worth and costs you more than you receive then don’t do it! She made her problems feel like our problems. How were we to know she felt like this before even meeting her? A simple email saying “you know what? I’m too busy” would have been fine. We could have gone elsewhere quite easily. In fact we drove a big distance out of our way to get there.
Lesson number 5: Clarify you’re going to get fed for your work?
8. Small site owned by a person we met on another farm
This was an enjoyable week spent with good food, being well looked after and given plenty of time but also space to ourselves. Reconnecting with two people we’d met on another farm was fun and we joked and laughed a lot about our shared experiences of being under-fed as they also had these experiences in many places.
In conclusion, it seems there’s definitely exploitation of free labour going on. And we heard through one host that it’s being suggested that contracts are agreed on before starting work so as to manage expectations, as clearly there have been a lot of complaints to the organisations involved. We were surprised to be so consistently disappointed and we felt the worst aspect of all (only on some farms) was the lack of respect for another human and their time. The host always has an advantage as it’s their place, their rules and they can potentially get a lot more than the volunteer gets or potentially take advantage. We’ve also experienced hosts sneakily eating at other times while making out as though they eat the same as the volunteers. Also, worryingly is the amount of so called “organic farms” which either don’t practice organics, or try to, but with a lot of mis-information. Obviously we don’t expect organic certification as many are just people’s homes of course. But they should have an interest and certain level of knowledge or be open to listening to someone with skills in a particular area otherwise things are not designed well and won’t work. Another volunteer will come in and there’ll be no continuity.  Sometimes your skills and what you can offer are undervalued for fear that the host is shown up for knowing less.- This is just silly because everyone has something to share and offer. It should be an exchange. It’s not a competition.

Overall we wouldn’t recommend volunteering if you want to learn about Organic Gardening/Permaculture as there’s a lack of quality hosts and you’d be better off paying for a decent course or just learning from books and having a go yourself.

Garden we spotted in French countryside while out walking. Fab veggies!!

Garden we spotted in French countryside while out walking. Fab veggies!!

Dohyle Lough Rathkeale

15/08/15

It was getting late into the evening after the dinner when dad and I decided to head down to Dohyle Lough with its abandoned public swimming pool and boating canal. Once upon a time people used to come here for fishing but the place is long since abandoned. Many times I have passed the entrance wall with its locked gates but never made it around back to the lake.
I was to be shown two rare plants the Marsh helleborine Orchid (Epipactis palustris) and Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris). There really is no access so we crossed fields under electric fences until we came to the man made canal that links the old public pool and boat storage area to the lake. The ground is dryer here than the lake edge. Along this access way we saw Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) a secondary food plant for 18 species of butterfly including the migrant comma, Painted lady and Clouded Yellow butterfly . Also here we saw Square Stalked St John’s wort (Hypericum tetrapterum) among the meadow grasses. By the canal edge the tall March Figwort (Scropularia auriculata)was growing with its blunt toothed leaves and square winged stem. Other plants spotted along the canal were Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) the primary food plant for the March Fritillary butterfly. Other plants on the canal edge include Wild carrot ( Daucus Carota ), Angelica (Angelica Sylvestris), yarrow ( Achillea millefolium), Agrimony Hemp (Eupatorium cannabinum) loved by butterflys, Oxe-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), Stinging nettle ( Urtica dioica), Silverweed (Potentilla anserinea), Spear Thistle (Cirsium vulgare),Meadow Sweet ( Filipendula ulmaria), Lesser Burdock (Arctium minus- The inspiration for the invention of Velcro by the swiss inventor George de Mistral) .On the canal White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba). Trees included Sycamore, Willows, Ash, and Hawthorn

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Marsh Pennywort

As we moved closer to the lake edge the ground became much softer and it was here that we saw Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) which is edible, Yellow Rattle ( Rhinanthus minor). This plant is semi parasitic using root like organs called Haustoria to take water and minerals from neighbouring plants. It’s an excellent plant to grow if you are trying to establish a wildflower meadow as it suppresses grasses. We did eventually find Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) with a beautiful single white flower on its stem. We found it growing in large groups many are just about to flower.

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Grass of Parnassus

The Marsh helleborine Orchid (Epipactis palustris ) was also eventually found but it’s flowering period is finishing. We heard the call of the Water Rail in the reeds and as night fell we listen for the call of barn owls in the paupers graveyard nearby. A fantastic evening was had.

Permaculture gathering and other visits

It’s been a busy few weeks and it feels like I haven’t stopped traveling, visiting friends in Clifden then up to the Permaculture Gathering in Northern Ireland, making a start on the survey phase of a garden project in Dublin and down to Limerick for exams with the Organic College. I’m nearly finished the 2 year distance cert in Organic Horticulture. I would highly recommend the course and the staff involved and have really enjoyed all the research that goes with it. It does take quite a bit of time but I loved it. I’m getting ready to start my own business teaching Permaculture Design and Organic Gardening in Schools in Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford this September.

On the way to Clifden we spent the night at Aughnanure castle near Loch Corrib; it’s a 16th century tower house with 2 bawns. The setting along the river Drimneen is magical and a great place to visit near Oughterard.

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The section below is through a typical 16th century towerhouse giving an idea of how it was lived in and defended. I especially liked the clockwise staircase designed to give sword weilding advantage to those inside and the long drop toilets.

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Along the Drimneen river bank Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris) and Meadow Sweet (Filipendula ulmaria) are now in flower. I also spotted Water Figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) with its square shaped winged stem.

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On our wandering around Clifden we visited the ruins of Clifden Castle built in 1818 in the Neo Georgian style. Cattle, sheep and horses graze the surrounding land and the former stables are now used as cow sheds. In the hedges and along the road edges hazel, Gunnera, Fuchsia, and Montbretia grow. Down in the harbour area we nibbled on sea beet and spotted sea lettuce, serrated wrack and bladder wrack that had been washed up.

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I’ve never made it along to the annual all Ireland permaculture gathering before so didn’t quite know what to expect. This year it was held up north near Hillsbourough, Co.Down at Tubby’s farm. We had a very enjoyable weekend with some lovely people. There were interesting talks and workshops on all manner of subjects from upcycling old batteries to growing vines for winemaking in Ireland. Below is an image from the garden that had been made to provide some food for the event. A large rock is being used to provide a heat sink and create a microclimate. It’s a great use for what might be otherwise considered an obstruction. This is what I like about Permaculture. Turning the problem on its head.

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I was also very impressed with how the shower water for the event was heated. A pile of woodchips generates a lot of heat as it breaks down. Water from an I.B.C. tank was pumped to a 100 metre coil of water pipe buried on and under a metre of woodchips. When not in use 5 litres of water sitting in the pipes heats by the woodchips to over 70 degrees in about 15 minutes.This is then mixed with a little cold water to shower in. The design is brilliant as each person gets about 5 litres of warm water before it gets cold. That’s more than enough to wash in. By the time they have dressed it’s ready for the next person. The pile will stay warm for 6 weeks before it needs turning.

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All the cooking for the event was done in a pit fire by a lady named sue making it an off grid event.
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A little survey work

Dublin mountain garden: Survey

Back in the mountains I’ve started a little garden by setting up a compost pile and sowed some seeds in trays for veg into the autumn and winter. The objective is to grow as much as we can instead of buying it in the shops. I’ve managed to negotiate the sunniest spot available to make a little garden. Conditions are far from ideal as its on a North facing slope on thin soil that sits over granite. To have any chance with vegetables up here I will have to create a microclimate and use a raised bed style approach to increase soil depth. It’s also on a slope so that’s a consideration. From our discussions we identified this spot and a number of other areas within the half acre site as possibilities.

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veg bed location

In permaculture design we approach any project with a survey.

The inlaws: We are living with my wife’s family for the moment and not sure for how long. They are very keen gardeners themselves, mainly growing ornamentals and have 40 years experience of what will and wont grow up here. They laughed when I said I recon I could get some vegetables to grow but I’m gonna try anyway. They are happy for me to try something but have concerns over how it might look and what will happen to it when we move on. The garden maintenance up here is ongoing and if they have less work to do then that would be very positive. They are also really keen on getting a share of the produce if there is any.

For a number of weeks now I have been slowly enquiring about different parts of the garden, what areas need the most work and helping out with maintenance. We identified there are simply too many beds in the front garden to look after and I could use some of those. The dogs in the back garden make it very difficult to work without being disturbed and they often dig up plants. One dog in particular is totally mad. It is common to get snowed in up here during the winter which is also a concern.

Surveying the Site: The site is divided into two distinct gardens with the house in the middle. The back garden is built completely of raised beds in rockeries directly down onto granite. The southern boundary is at the top of the sloped site and beyond the fence is a Coillte forest leading up onto Cruagh mountain.

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Only in the summer does the sun get above the treeline here but it is quite shelted from strong winds. There is a small fenced vegetable and fruit garden to the rear of the house but it has always been a struggle with germination and growing of vegetables and has almost been abandoned due to the dogs and soil conditions. Fruit on the other hand does quite well.

The front garden is more exposed to the Northern winds but does receive more light being further away from the treeline. When the foundations for the house were excavated the soil was moved down the sloped lawn in front of the house and the soil depth here is about 12 inches before you hit rock. I’m waiting on a soil test at the moment.

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Surveying the neighbours veg patch: I called into the neighbours veg patch down the road to take a look at what they were managing to grow. This would be the closest vegetable patch to the garden but I am sure the soil conditions here are completely different. As you cross the road in front of the house and look down hill you see fields of cattle and horses grazing on much more fertile land with deeper soils. Cruagh road marks a boundary between this and the much poorer acid soils up the hill. On this better soil they are able to grow peas, broadbeans,potatoes, beetroot, lettuce etc. They buy transplants from a garden centre. Fruit like raspberries do best here and are rampant.

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Rainfall and water collection: water is currently collected from the roof of the garage and stored in a 220 litre drum. There is a second barrel beside the composters. Both are above the proposed area for veg growing and could be linked by a hose connection. The bed adjacent to the proposed veg area is prone to becoming waterlogged especially in winter. Iris grow here.

Plants growing in and near the veg area:  On the sloped lawn above the veg bed Selfheal, mosses and  lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) grow in the grass. the upper slope is supposed to be a meadow but the lady’s mantle is causing problems. The bed I have been given to work with is approximately 20 x 4 feet  and curretly growing are hebes, geraniums more ladys mantle and Bergenias among grasses. The soil is thiner here than on the slope as it has been cut away to make it level.

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The neighbouring bed to the west has a large Newzeland flax plant which can be harvested for making ties for support frames etc. To the north across the drive way a leyland cypress hedge provides some shelter from the north winds.

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Resouces available: Locally there are horse stables that can supply fresh manure. They are happy to give this away but it would need to be composted or used in creating a hot bed. Granite Rock and fallen timber is in abundance and both could be used to make raised beds. There is a lot of woody compost available in the existing composters onsite as a result of years of rabbits and guineas pigs being kept as pets. The material is not suitable for vegetable growing but could be considered as a surface mulch. Green materials for composting such as nettles, leaves cleavers and woody material are in abundance.

Pest: Slugs have never been a problem up here, the main pests are rabbits and birds (blackbird) . All fruit needs to be netted if you want a harvest. By far one of the biggest pest is midges and working outdoors with them. In the evening if the weather is calm as the temperatures drop they come out of disturbed grass. I have been eaten alive over the past few weeks especially at the backs of my legs and lowerback and have been forced into wearing a head net and covering all skin.

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rabbit dropings on lawn

Wildlife: There are a number of ponds in the garden which support frogs, perhaps why slugs have never been an issue even on plants like hostas. The garden location by a forest attracts red squirrels, jays , Redpoll, greenfinch, chafinch, great tit, among others observed daily from the kitchen window. Bird feed is regularly put out.

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woodwasp

Plants and trees growing locally: Species include beech, rowan, elder, hawthorn, bilberry, marsh thistle, soft rush, foxglove, lesser bur dock, wood sorrel, sheeps sorrel, bramble, honeysuckle, crab apple, ash, willow, bracken, gorse, heather, meadow grasses, sitka spruce, norway spruce

Propagation area: There is little space indoors for propagating plants. Window ledges and a small back porch are already crammed with pots.

Time constrains: no rush

Chemical use on site: Glyphosate based herbicides are being used on the driveways and stone paths to the rear of the site.

What we don’t have and would like to grow: salads, leafy green vegetables, potato, tomato, courgette, garlic, onion, carrots more herbs and some edible flowers.

What we forage or have: range of muchrooms including ceps, chanterelle, birch bolete, brown deceivers, amathist deceivers, pedistal  puff balls, wild strawberry, sorrels, variety of berry including hawthorn, rowan, elder, blackberry for jams etc. Nettles, dandelions, plantains, rose hips and petals.

Who will do the work: I,m working on my own with this project but 3 others will be happy to help me eat what grows. I want to use available resources and come up with something which can be maintained into the future.

Composting:  while there is an abundance of suitable materials available this needs to be started immediately to build soil fertility. The organic matter content of the soil sample looks to be very low. A couple of straw bales could be used to capture and store nitrogen if you get my drift.

Other general survey observations: There is far less insect activity in the front garden,it’s much more exposed to the wind and these is much less diversity of plants and animals seen here. The close proximity of the veg bed to the camper will help to deter rabbits. Finding soil to increase soil depth without resorting to buying it in will be difficult.

Southern Portugal into Spain

A much belated travel blog for Feburary 2015. Heading south to where we would soon meet a friend from home we came across some wonderful places. The beautiful beach of Carrapateira with its sand dunes, totally unspoiled, just miles of coast to walk and enjoy. This is campervan heaven and there is no hassle in staying here. All sort of folk were here from retired Germans, French and Dutch in Modern vans to converted army trucks.

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Laura being a keen knitter wasloving this crochet art

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As you round the south western tip of Portugal at Sagres everything begins to change. The Atlantic winds begin to ease and it becomes much warmer with sheltered bays and high cliffs above pristine beaches. We barely knew the day of the week nor the time of day spending most of our time outdoors.

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On to Faro where we met our mate Ruth

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We headed inland to the border with Spain at Alcoutim  and walked in the surrounding countryside to a small village called Corte pereiro. We enjoyed a beer with some locals while trying our best to communicate. Portugal is such a genuine place, locals coming and going from the fields for a drink and a chat. The Almond trees were in flower at the time.

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On to Seville and the Real Alcazar palace where these Swiss cheese plants Monstera deliciosa caught by attention. These are shade loving house plants back home which gives some indication of the climatic difference here. It was strange to see this.

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An example of Aerial roots giving the tree better support. Amazing

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Hard pruning of plane trees to restrict size is common in France , Spain and Portugal. You can see where Dali got his ideas for those elephants with long spindly legs.

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From seville we moved out into the moutains passing through El Bosque and hiking a gorge to Beamahoma. Looking through my diary are excited entries regarding Grazalema. On the 19th of Feb I wrote:

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Up in the mountains near Grazalema today we saw Holm Oak and down by the van black Iberian pigs are feeding on the acorns. The ground up here is limestone rock a climbers paradise. Our walk today took us up into a plateau before returning via the valley. The views were amazing no matter where you looked. The lives of the people here are so different from the lives we know. We have been watching this shepard grazing his flock along the road edge and leaning on his crook down in the valley. He seems so happy chating with passers by. We exchanged a hearty hello or Ola. I could see myself living somewhere like this. The smell of cooking wafting onto the streets in the afternoon and hoping against hope that you might be invited in to eat. It’s gonna be good, I recon is’t always good.This has to be the most outstanding place we have traveled to on the trip.

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Cattle were traditionally grazed and secured in enclosures up the valleys. Beans are widely grown in this area.The spanish fir tree Abies pinsapo grows here in the Sierra de Grazalema one of only 3 places it is found in Spain.

Back in an Irish garden

It’s good to be back and getting out into the garden again. Some of my plants found a home up in the Dublin hills and are doing quite well. This is a Whinhams Industry Gooseberry in a bucket which is now almost ready for harvest. It’s got deep red fruit and seems to have escaped the attention of the birds so far. The growing conditions up here are 3 to 4 degrees cooler on average, on thin acidic soil directly onto solid granite. It’s going to be a challenge but the blueberries will thrive. It’s a far cry from the light sandy soils and micro climate of Dundrum.

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I’ve a 5 year old grape vine which lives in a pot and is now in its 3rd residence. I  ruthlessly  pruned it about a month ago leaving 6 or 7 bunches on. It had gone a bit mad while I was away and the mother in-law was afraid to touch it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, it’s behind a bit for August. The strawberries planted around it in the large pot are now producing well provided I can get to them before the birds. Netting for birds is necessary up here.

At 350 metres altitude fruit does best. Tayberries, blackberries, and blueberries all do well. Vegetables are going to be a challenge.

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We’ve been out picking bilberries which are now in season. The South Dublin mountains are covered in them. The best bushes seem to be younger low growing specimens with red tipped foliage. The deer and the jays like them too. The high rainfall recently has meant there is a huge crop this year.

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There have been some big winds over the winter and a natural coupe has been gouged out running West to East nearby. The sitka spruce trees have become too tall for the thin soil to support them leaving a dramatic landscape of toppled trees. Shelters are being built in the base of these trees which have been known to right themselves suddenly.

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Below the scene of devastation is a forest track with a bank on the lower side of the slope. More open to the sky this has provided conditions for meadow grasses, soft rush, wood sorrel and the odd thistle to find a toe hold where the soils are deeper and not covered in pine needles.

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At the edge of the plantation a stream flows through a more open clearing of bracken, gorse and the odd rowan. It’s a peaceful place with the sound of the stream in the dip.

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I’m giving an elderly gardener a hand in Dundrum. We started by making 2 compost heaps. There is lots to compost. Should be cooking in a few days.

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Up on the hill there is a patch which has been won!

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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.

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Tea in the mulched veg garden

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The dirt track in.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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A traditional rammed earth cottage awaiting restoration

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

See:

http://aquinta.org/about/the-land/

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.

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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!

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Abandoned Mines of St Domingos and the toxic river

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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Milk cap

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Malva

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Prickly pear (Opuntia spp) edible too!

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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.

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Porto Covo

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The Fishermans Trail

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Typical streetscape

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Marvao

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Walking an ancient road in the Cork Oaks

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Alentejo Region

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Castelo de vide

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Cistus ladanifer or Rock Rose

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

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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.

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Delta de L’erb

South of Barcelona in the seaside town of Sitges Date Palms line the beach. The dog was busy eating these at every opportunity.

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Date Palm

Dotted along the coast are small pockets of protected foreshore and back shore where the public are asked not to walk. This allows a miriad of mediteranean coastal plants a chance to survive. Below is a pic of some back shore on the Calafat coast.

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Backshore Calafat

The foreshore at Calafat

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Foreshore Calafat

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Further down the coast we reached the Delta de L’erb and spent a few days at Casa de Fusta Amposta . This area is a birdwatchers paradise and covers 360 square kilometers of wetlands providing overwintering habitiat. Here we saw Flamingos, Egrits and Marsh Harriers.

The area is used for rice growing with 21000 hectares of Paddy Fields. Irrigation chanels supply and drain fields with fresh and waste water. To assist the bird life the fields are kept flooded over the winter and only drained in March when they are ploughed leveled and sown again. It’s such an unusual landscape and probably best visited in the winter as they warn about the Mosquitos which I can imagine must be horrendous..

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Fresh water supply channel to the Paddy Fields

Little mud banks around the field edges retain the water. A break in this bank is used to drain a field shown below.

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Drainage ditch

A traditional building in the delta surrounded by Paddy Fields

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The causeways / diches that divide the fields are useful as access walkways but also as places to grow vegetables that can be eaten with the rice such as Broadbeans. The origins of Paella as a peasant food came about by combining rice with shellfish found in the mud and adding whatever vegetables were to hand.

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Vegetables growing on the dividing ditches/ access ways

Our base was becide a restaurant ( Casa de Fusta) that allowed vans to park. Wifi was free with a meal. We really enjoyed this place.

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View from hide near restaurant

All along the coast south of Delta de l’erb high rise holiday apartments line the shore. However just behind this strip of beachside holiday accomadation one finds agricultural farmland. The area between Peniscola and Benicarlo a few hundred metres behind the highrise looks like this. Also in this area are enormous Orange and Mandarin plantations where one can buy them for about 30 to 35cent a kilo. ( Non Organic)  or about 1.50 a kilo (Organic). . Other crops included brassicas and everything is on drip irrigation. Traditional farm houses dot the landscape but you get the feeling these are no longer used as residence but more as a base while working in the fields. Each has a pump and large water resevoir used to pump water though channels accross the fields.

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Artichoke

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Drip irrigation

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Fieldscale production

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Traditional farm house

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Crops at various stages all on drip irrigation

While I was here I was looking about for some slugs for an assignment. It seems too dry here, all I could find were some snails under a log beneath an olive tree.

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In the town of Cuenca wild rocket growing along the footpath.

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