Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Forests in Portugal growing on sand

Sand bank in a forest showing the depth of the sand and what the trees are rooted in. Photo by Steve Andrews

In some parts of Portugal there are mixed evergreen forests that are growing on sand and very sandy soil. There are some of these woodlands around Quinta do Conde, a town in the municipality of Sesimbra between Lisbon and Setubal. 

For some reason there is very little information available on the Internet about these areas of forest and heath, although I would have thought they would be especially interesting to naturalists, as well as anyone who likes rambling in the countryside. Although you are miles from the sea you are walking on sand!

Not in sand dunes but inland. Photo by Steve Andrews
 The forests merge with sandy heathland and offer a very interesting habitat for many plants and animals. In many places the ground is nearly pure sand and, although this is inland, it looks far more like an area close to the sea.

Cork Oak Photo by Steve Andrews
 There are a mixture of evergreen trees that somehow manage to thrive despite the poor quality of their soil, evergreen conifers including the Stone or Umbrella Pine (Pinus pinea), as well as the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and Cork Oak (Q. suber), the Eucalyptus and other trees. The undergrowth consists of many shrubs and wild flowers and is very colourful in spring.

Silene species Photo by Steve Andrews
 Pink-flowered Catchfly species, (Silene), and the bright blue Scrambling Gromwell (Lithodora diffusa) provide floral eye candy, along with the white, pink and yellow Rockrose species (Cistus spp). The French Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) can be found on the outskirts of these woods and in clearings.

Shrubby Gromwell Photo by Steve Andrews
 Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) grows in aromatic anise-scented clumps and this herb provides a food-plant for Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio machaon).   The Swallowtail is a very rare British butterfly but is quite common in Portugal.

Swallowtail Photo by Steve Andrews
 There are also plenty of Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria ssp aegeria) butterflies. The Speckled Wood found here is a subspecies of those seen in the UK and have lighter coloured wings. 

Pine Processionary moth caterpillars In Public Domain
 The caterpillars of the Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) spin their overwintering nests in the branches of the pines and then descend in March to look for suitable places to pupate. This species of moth is named after the long head-to-tail processions its larvae make. These caterpillars should not be touched because they are covered in hairs that can cause extreme irritation. Look but don’t touch if you find any of these!

Coronella girondica in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, Portugal. Photo by Esv - Eduard Solà Vázquez
  I would think the dry sandy conditions would be good for reptiles so was not surprised to find a Southern Smooth Snake (Coronella girondica) hiding under a slab of stone in a grassy area near one of these forests. 

As its name suggests, this snake is very similar to the Smooth Snake (C. austriaca), which is a very rare species in Britain and confined to a few sandy heaths in England. These snakes are harmless and they feed on other small reptiles and mice.

The forests growing on sand in Portugal make a wonderful place to explore all year around.

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