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Ria Formosa Nature Reserve

1st May 2012: Algarve Property For Sale

By Janet Johnstone From Faro to Cacela Velha near Tavira, the Ria Formosa area is a protected lagoon landscape which was formed in large part by the 1755 earthquake and its dunes and islands continue to be shaped by tidal influences.

The park consists of a vast area of marsh (sepal), salt pans (salinas), creeks, dune islands and two freshwater lakes. In addition to nature, man has made an impact by creating canals and inlets through the islands which create something of a light barrier before the ocean greets the shore.

The isles of Faro, Barreta, Culatra, Armona and Tavira form natural interludes between land and sea. Swathes of dunes lie closer to the land behind the isles and interspersed with dune and land is a labyrinth of lagoons, mud flats and canals.

This valuable ecosystem was designed a Natural Park in December 1987 as it was under serious threat from building, sand extraction and pollution, all resulting from the rapid rise of tourism. Sixty kilometres of coastline and a full 18.400 hectares of the whole area came within the Natural Park’s remit.

This remarkably diverse area of international importance has an enormous variety of natural habitats providing refuge, feeding or breeding areas for an astonishing array of animal life, from zooplankton to fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, such as the otter. Low tide unveils further salty habitats. All life here has adapted to whatever food is available and to the various amounts of salinity. The preservation of the area is a prerequisite for survival for many species.

The ecosystems’ diversity attracts many bird species which can choose between fresh water and salt water areas for breeding. Notable among the many is the purple gallinule or sultan chicken, which has been chosen as the symbol of the Natural Park. Known only to breed in the Ria Formosa and not found in any other part of Portugal, the sultan chicken, with its violet-blue feathers and bright red beak and legs, is rare and endangered. It reached near extinction when, it is told, Vale de Lobo (at the western end of the park) built a freshwater lake in order to irrigate its new São Lourenço golf course with the happy side effect of providing the gallinule with a passport to the future. Through protection, its population is growing steadily, although still small.

An important breeding area for wetland birds, the area is home to cattle egrets, red-crested pochard and purple herons amongst many others. Drier areas are inhabited by pratincoles and Kentish plovers.

Moreover, the population swells dramatically during the spring and autumn migratory periods when many winged visitors break their flights, some choosing to spend the winter there. Residents and visitors include the dwarf sea swallow, the grey plover, the tailor bird, the waders, the common hawthorn, the straight beaked kingfisher, ducks, water cocks, flamingoes and some birds of prey such as the hunting kestrel.

More than 50 species of fish as well as little known crustaceans such as Monte Gordo shrimp, estuary shrimp and Moorish crab can be found. The waters are rich in shellfish while amphibians like toads and frogs as well as reptiles such as woodland lizard, water snakes, snake mouse and chameleon are part of the Park’s fauna.

Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and Christians alike used the land and the sea and left behind some evidence of their activities. Today the area surrounding the Park, and even parts of the Park’s waters, contributes to the region’s economy with salt farms, seafood farms harvesting mussels, clams, oysters and cockles. The shellfish is bred here and comprises 80 per cent of the nation’s mollusc exports. The port of Faro is also within the Park’s boundaries. Apart from fish and shellfish farming, salt panning and the activities of the port, all other human activities which could encroach on the park’s ecosystem are strictly controlled.

It was in the park’s area that the Portuguese water dog was brought back from the brink of extinction and bred. With its origins in Asia, the water dog eventually arrived in Europe with migrating tribes. In Portugal the dog was used particularly by fishermen to work on their boats, having been trained to herd fish, retrieve nets and even take messages between boats. As more modern fishing techniques evolved, the water dog’s utility waned.In the 1930s Vasco Bensaude, a shipping magnate, determined to save them when he learned that they faced extinction. From a fisherman he bought Leão who was to become the founding father of the modern breed. Bensaude established a planned breeding programme to meet demanding standards, such as intelligence, energy, swimming and diving techniques, resistance to fatigue, and balance. Despite having wound up in the White House and as pets and working dogs here in Portugal, the breed is still considered rare.

Sights and activities in the Natural Park include:

São Lourenço nature trail One of the most interesting introductions is to follow this 3.2 km nature trail which will bring you into close contact with two different types of wetland – salt marches and the freshwater lagoons. Along the way is an elevated public hide from which you might to able to spot the sultan chicken.

Quinta da Lago nature trail This partly shady trail highlights the flora of two widely varying eco-systems – woodland and marsh. The path skirts past umbrella and maritime pine trees.

Portuguese water dog Kennels The kennels allow visitors to see and learn about the unique, web-footed Portuguese water dog which was bred back from near-extinction here. Visitors can see and stroke the dogs, talk to their handlers and learn more about the breed. Talks about the dogs are often given as part of an education programme. You can reach the kennels by entering the park at the Olhão entrance, which is about 1 km east of Olhão off the EN125. Open Mon-Fri 11-1 and 2-4.

Recuperation centre for birds This is an innovative hospital for sick and injured birds and has an area for visitors to observe the recuperating birds via closed-circuit TV. Birds of all species are taken in, including birds of prey.

Freshwater lagoons and hides These lagoons provide vital refuge for nesting and migrating birds as well as a plethora of aquatic mammals. Observation hides allow you to view this marine oasis.

Coastal conifer woods Coastal conifer woodland is sparse in the eastern Algarve, but what does exist provides an efficient means of coastal protection.

Tide Mill Tide mills were a late 13th century invention and once were very common in the lagoons and river estuaries along the Portuguese coastline. They were powered by using the changes in water levels according to the shifting tides. The one here is the last of 30 which used to operate.

Roman salting tanks Five salting tanks can be explored near the freshwater lagoons. They dated from the 2nd century AD and were once used for salting fish prior to being shipped to all parts of the Roman Empire.

Coastal dunes Sweeping tracts of sand guard the mouth of the estuary and constitute a fragile eco-system, held together in part by the vegetation which has colonized the dunes. There is a 2.4 km nature trail across the dunes.

João Lucio House Lucio was a 19th century poet, lawyer and mayor of Olhão. He owned much of the land on which Quinta de Marim, the park’s headquarters, is situated. His former villa, near the river’s edge, is now an environmental study centre.

Park headquarters is Quinta de Marim, 3 km east of Olhão, has an excellent visitors’ centre with lots of information about the flora and fauna, the sites and trails in the park.

There is a small entrance fee. Open 9am to 5.30pm daily. Tel 289 704 134, email

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