Saturday 6 July 2019

Watching the Desertification of Portugal

Climate Breakdown and Desertification

Dried up pond (Photo: Steve Andrews)
I have been living in Portugal since late 2014 and over the years have been watching the changes in the weather and to the countryside. Every year we have had very hot weather and wildfires and droughts are becoming the new ‘normal’ here due to Climate Breakdown. It is getting worse and I feel I am watching the early stages of the desertification of Portugal.

Ponds Dry Up
Cracked mud (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I am sure that amphibians and other aquatic wildlife are having a hard time due to the lack of water. A river near where I live has run dry in the past and this year some roadside pools have already dried up and are just cracked mud. This is very unfortunate news for the small colony of Iberian Water Frogs that were breeding there. Only a month or so back there were thousands of tadpoles in these pools and Water Starwort was an aquatic plant that was growing.
Iberian Water Frog tadpoles (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Sadly the hot, dry weather has evaporated all the water before the tadpoles could complete their metamorphosis and they have all perished. I had moved some to the deeper pools but it was in vain because they dried up too.

French lavender (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The wildflowers here are spectacular in spring with so many species bringing a splash of colour to the countryside. French Lavender, Candytuft, Campanula lusitanica, Silene colorata (a bright pink Catchfly), Common Poppies, Three-leafed Snowflake, Narrow-leafed Lupin, St John’s Wort, Crown Daisy, Asphodel, Toadflax, Tassel Hyacinth, Blue Hound’s Tongue, Scrambling Gromwell, and Sage-leafed Cistus are just some of the colourful plants that beautified my country walks back in April and May. It is hard to think that all these pretty flowers were growing well not long ago on ground which is now brown and tinder dry. Where even the grass has died down and the paths are dust.
Flowers in Spring (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Earlier in the year there were countless butterflies. I would expect to see Swallowtails, Red Admirals, Green Hairstreaks, Spanish Festoons, Clouded Yellows, Speckled Woods, Small Coppers, and Small Whites and would never fail to be disappointed.
Green Hairstreak (Photo: Steve Andrews)

A bit later the Meadow Browns became the most commonly seen butterfly but now there are hardly any about.  There are hardly any flowers left from which they could feed and the vegetation has died back or is conspicuously brown and shrivelled up. In the four years before this year I have never seen it so dry and so dead looking as it is now. I live in Quinta Do Conde, a town between Lisbon and Setubal, so am not in the hot south of the country. If it is like this here I dread to think what it must be like in the Algarve.
Skeleton Weed (Photo: Steve Andrews)

But not all plants are doing badly in the hot and dry conditions. Some are colonising new ground and others are adapting. The Skeleton Weed (Chondrilla juncea) is a species that is happy growing in arid places and I see more and more of the plant on waste ground where I live and even growing in cracks in paving. It is an invasive weed that has become a problem in many parts of the world and after wildfires it will rapidly colonise new ground where other vegetation has been killed.
Black Mustard, or a species of mustard that earlier in the season looks very like Black Mustard, is forming bushy clumps when it goes to seed here. They resemble tumbleweeds and can easily break off helping to distribute the plant.
Mustard clump (Photo: Steve Andrews)

As already mentioned, wildfires are becoming a new ‘norm’ for Portugal and can now occur all year round, due to Climate Breakdown and droughts which can now take place even in the winter. These fires, in addition to destroying farms and houses, are killing animals and people, as well as vast numbers of trees of native species. Pines and Cork Oak can regenerate if not too badly burned but when the trees are weakened and if drought continues they become very susceptible to disease. The Pine Wilt Nematode, spread by various wood-boring beetles is killing pines throughout the country. When the rains finally do arrive another problem the countryside faces is the erosion of the fertile top soil that is washed away.
The Portuguese authorities have implemented legal measures requiring landowners to take action by clearing undergrowth,  brushwood and scrub that could easily burn. Many areas where this has been done will have destroyed wildlife habitat and many dormant and active species sheltering in the vegetation. Efforts to provide safety for farmers and residents of Portugal, are surely taking a toll on the flora and fauna of the country.

Permaculture as the Solution
Desertification of Spain and Portugal

I have known about the predicted desertification of Mediterranean countries including Spain and Portugal before I came to live here. Sadly I am now watching the problem in action. I was searching online for information on desertification in Portugal and found this very detailed and excellent lecture by Doug Crouch, who describes how the system of modern farming is degrading the land further. He also proposes permaculture as the solution. He explains what has been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the ongoing growth of what he calls the “New Sahara.”