Category Archives: Environmental Conservation

Injured peregrine falcon recovers in the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro

At the beginning of December 2015, the Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Centre (Centro de Recuperação de Animais Selvagens) at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, Portugal, was entrusted with the care of a young, male peregrine falcon. Shot, presumably by hunters, near the town of Esposende on the Northern coast of Portugal, the bird was making his first migration south for the winter.

Since 2011 Symington Family Estates has supported the important work of this specialist centre with which it shares the values and commitment of protecting and preserving all forms of wildlife in the natural habitats of the Douro region. Of the Symington family’s total landholding of 2,118 hectares in the Douro Valley, approximately half is under vine and the remainder is largely made of natural vegetation, woodland, olive groves, fruit orchards, etc. —  besides which all the vineyards are managed under integrated production management and organic viticulture, which translates into minimum intervention in the vineyards. This helps safeguard a balanced environment and many of the properties are in effect havens for wildlife.

The young peregrine falcon was brought to the centre on the first of December with a broken wing resulting from a gunshot. He has since undergone surgery and is now being prepared to return to the wild. What is interesting about this particular bird is that he was ringed by the West Cornwall Ringing Group in Morvah, Cornwall in July of last year. As the first ringed bird the group have ever relocated alive in Portugal, it was with great interest that they learned of the 2000 kilometre journey he made before his unfortunate encounter. You can read what they say on their blog, here.

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The vets, Dr João Tomas and Dr Roberto Sargo examining the peregrine falcon

X-ray images show that the bird’s wing was fractured by a relatively close range shotgun blast and some of the shotgun pellets are visible in the x-ray (below), and will now remain in the bird.

Falco peregrinus
X-ray of the peregrine falcon
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The peregrine falcon’s injured wing

Since its surgery the bird’s fracture has consolidated, allowing him to move from intensive care to a semi-covered aviary in which he will be able to further heal. Although a fracture in a bird this size can recover in approximately 3 weeks, it takes significantly longer for a bird to once again become fit for the wild. If things are made too easy for them in captivity they have a tendency to become lazy, something that creates difficulties when they are reintroduced into their natural habitats.

The next step in the bird’s recovery is for him to be introduced into the centre’s flight tunnel. A two-storey, octagonal structure, it is the only one of its size in the Iberian Peninsula and enables recovering birds to fly continually at some height in order to recover muscle mass. It allows all but the largest birds to manoeuvre in mid-flight, something that would not be possible in smaller tunnels, and is thus a very effective facility for the rehabilitation of wild birds, and in particular birds of prey. When the peregrine falcon is capable of flying 500 meters without stopping he will be deemed to have recovered enough muscle mass to be returned to the wild.

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Dr Daniel Mosteiro, Dr João Tomas and Dr Roberto Sargo (left to right) outside the centre’s octagonal flight tunnel

Long considered a noble bird, since the Middle Ages the peregrine falcon has been associated with the title of prince in the hierarchy of birds of prey. It is also the fastest member of the animal kingdom, and has been recorded flying at speeds of up to 389 kilometres per hour when diving to strike its prey.

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Dr Roberto Sargo preparing to weigh a Eurasian eagle owl

Also in the care of the centre at the moment is a magnificent Eurasian eagle owl, which following several months of care should soon be returned to the wild in one of Symington Family Estate’s vineyards.

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The Eurasian eagle owl in the care of the rescue and recovery unit

Hopefully by March the peregrine falcon will be fit enough to return to the wild accompanied by a GPS tracker that will trace his flight to his summer destination. In the meantime, we will follow his recovery, and the outstanding work of the centre’s dedicated team with several follow-up blog posts over the next couple of months.

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The Veterinary Hospital at UTAD

World Congress on Climate Change and Wine

Paul Symington attended the III World Congress on Climate Change and Wine in Spain, on the 13th and 14th April.  This event was organised by The Wine Academy of Spain and Pancho Campo MW.  The featured guest speaker was Kofi Annan, past Secretary-General of the UN and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2001.  Kofi Annan spoke eloquently at the conference about the responsibility that all involved in wine have to help combat climate change.

There were many speakers from all over the world, including New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, France, USA and Italy.  The overriding theme was the increased average temperatures that have been measured over the last 40 years in many of the world’s wine regions and the impact that this is having on the vineyards and the wine being made from them.  Increased sugar levels and earlier harvests are just two of several important factors resulting from this global warming.

Paul made a presentation on the family’s Douro vineyards and the data that the family has accumulated over many decades.  The measurements taken at the Symington Quintas confirm that the temperature in the Douro has increased by 1.2⁰ Centigrade in the period 1967 to 2010 on a ten year moving average, to just under 16.5⁰C.  It is important to note that the average annual temperature has actually dropped over the last four years in the Douro, with three of the last four years having an annual average below 16⁰C, although the long-term trend remains upwards.  The family’s data mirrored that given by other speakers from Champagne, Bordeaux, Italy and elsewhere.

The Symington family have over 925 ha of natural scrub, olive groves, almond trees and indigenous pine woods in the Douro, as well as 935 ha of vineyard, which significantly contributes to C02 reduction.

Paul also spoke about the serious problems that are faced in the Douro from working in the largest area of mountain vineyards in the world and the measures that the family have taken to prevent the on-going threat of erosion.  The Symington viticultural team lead by Charles Symington, Pedro Leal de Costa and Miles Edlmann have carried out pioneering research on erosion in the Douro vineyards and Paul was able to present some of the results of this data.  Miles Edlmann has concluded, after extensive field tests, that vineyard rows planted up and down the valley side (as opposed to contour terraces) can lose 1.7 tons of soil per hectare per year in average Douro conditions if cover crops are not planted in between the rows of vines to help control erosion.

The indigenous Port and Douro grape varieties are well adapted to the Douro climate.  Touriga Nacional in particular will continue to ripen its fruit even in very hot conditions and with little water available even when other grape varieties would need huge quantities of irrigation water in order to survive and properly ripen their fruit.

Finally, Paul pointed out the fact that the Douro is a region of multiple microclimates, which is a key weapon in coping with climate change.  With vineyards at higher altitudes on the valley’s sides growing at cooler average temperatures the Douro has some answers to the serious threats the region, like all other wine areas, faces from global warming.

A member of the company’s commercial team, Gonçalo Aragão e Brito, accompanied Paul to this conference and during breaks between seminars Gonçalo gave delegates the opportunity to taste Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage 2006, Graham’s Ten Year Old Tawny Port and Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 Vintage Port.

PDS, 14th April 2011

Update:  The Climate Change and Wine website has now posted videos of all the presentations.  Paul presented during Session Three, which you can view here.

Hydro-Electric Dam on the River Tua

José Sócrates, Prime Minister of Portugal, at Quinta dos Malvedos to inaugurate the Tua dam project

Yesterday, 18th February, the Prime Minister of Portugal, José Sócrates, visited Tua to launch the construction of a hydro-electric dam on the river Tua.  Graham’s and the Symington family were asked if they would make their Quinta dos Malvedos available for a lunch after the ceremony.  Thus after various speeches by the dignitaries, more than 100 people sat down to lunch at Malvedos in various tents arranged in the garden.  This lunch included the Prime Minister, various Government Ministers, the Board of the EDP (Portugal’s power-generating public utility), the Presidents of all the local District Councils and many others.  Members of the Symington family were on hand to receive the visitors.  The Quinta has never seen so many people, even at the height of the vindima (harvest).

From the road bridge just below Quinta do Tua, looking up the river gorge, October 2010
Plan for the dam across the River Tua

The dam is a large project that will employ 1,000 people locally for 5 years, with a further 3,000 employed indirectly.  While the dam will produce clean energy for Portugal, it is a controversial project.  The dam will flood the lower part of the historic narrow-gauge railway that runs from Tua to Mirandela, although the railway has been out of commission for some years.  This project will change beyond recognition one of Portugal’s most beautiful rivers.  The spectacular gorges created over millennia by the river in its lower reaches, one of the Douro’s most wonderful sites, will be under water in 5 years, so this unique river will be replaced by a placid lake.  The latter will undoubtedly look lovely and is likely to attract visitors who will enjoy what it offers, but it will not be the Tua that we have known.

Those in favour of the dam argue of course that it will produce clean energy and that it will diminish significantly the huge foreign-exchange cost currently incurred by Portugal which has to import much of its energy needs. It is well known that Portugal has serious economic problems which impact directly on public services, so in this sense the project is good for the country.

The stone inaugurated by the Prime Minister to begin construction of the dam

The Mayors of all the various local districts are content as they have been able to negotiate an arrangement whereby some of the revenue generated by the dam will remain in the area to be used to fund local services.  This has never been done before and is a major concession by the central Government and the EDP.  There is also talk of creating a natural park that will stretch from the Tua all the way to the Sabor, far to the East of the Douro region.  The on-going de-population of the interior of Portugal and of the Douro is a fact, so if this project helps reverse this trend, then that will be a good thing.

By 4.30 pm the last of the guests had left and Branca and Prazeres began to put the Malvedos house back in order and Alexandre Mariz and Snr Arlindo, the viticultor and  caseiro, could get back to their normal tasks of caring for the Malvedos vineyards.

Paul Symington, 19th Feb 2011

Cover Crops in the Vineyards

In his summer editions of the Douro Insider reports, Miles Edlmann occasionally alludes to the need to “mow the lawn” in Graham’s vineyards.  This may sound odd, but it is in fact one part of a very important and innovative system we have developed of using cover crops to manage the health of our vineyard environments.

There are several facets to the programme:  nutrition, disease and pest control, and water management, both conserving water in the dry summer months and managing drainage when we have heavy rains, usually in the winter.  Miles’s research into the effective selection and use of cover crops as a single solution to all these issues has made a significant difference in the quality of our vineyards.  This investment in research and the strategic application of our findings is one more factor which contributes to the outstanding quality of Graham’s Ports.

Nourishing the Vineyards

Look carefully, you can see the denser, darker clover at the far end of the row, and the change to grasses about half way down these vertical plantings at Vila Velha

The cover crops provide nutrients and improve soil quality for the vines in several ways over their lifecycle.  In a newly planted vineyard we use clover, which fixes nitrogen in the soil, to help the new vines get a healthy start.  When the crops are cut, the fallen plants form a natural mulch which ultimately decomposes and increases organic matter in the soil.

In mature vineyards we may mix clovers with grasses such as oats or ryegrass to either encourage or control the vigour of the nearby vines.  In the vertical vineyards particularly, where organic matter and nutrients tend to wash down the hillside, we plant clover at the top to nourish the vines in the poorer soil, and gradually introduce more vigorous grasses to the crop mix near the foot of the hill to compete with and thereby control the vigour of the vines at the nutrient-rich foot of the hill.

Cover crops also provide a little healthy competition for the vine roots in the upper soil, forcing young vines to reach even deeper than the grasses to find an adequate water supply, which is crucial for the vineyards’ long-term survival.

If you were a bee, wouldn't this be your idea of heaven?

Finally, the bees love the crops, particularly the clovers, and their presence in the vineyards is always desirable – not least because their hives give us the wonderful honey served at meals in our quintas!

Disease and Pest Control

Cover crops work in several ways to control both disease and pests in the vineyards.  First, by providing a distraction from the vines for potential pests:  in a chemically-managed vineyard weedkillers would be sprayed to prevent anything growing between or under the vines, particularly in the spring, during budburst.  This effectively left no food for hungry pests like the vine weevil except the young buds of the grapevines.  By planting cover crops we give the little darlings something else to eat, and lots of it, so they won’t go for the vines; also the crops provide a good habitat for the natural predators of the undesirable pests.

By sowing our own chosen cover crops, we can crowd out the growth of more pernicious weeds that would cause us greater trouble in the vineyards.  In this way we can minimise the use of herbicides, as our only other means of dealing with the really undesirable species is very time consuming manual weeding or cutting down.

Some viticulteurs argue to keep both under and between vine spaces clear of growth, lest the vegetation create a too-humid atmosphere that might encourage either oidio (powdery mildew) or mildio (downy mildew).  In general, we find this isn’t a concern – we do keep the under-vine space clear, and plant crops only between rows, which will be mown for the first time before they reach bunch or leaf-level of the vines.  Furthermore, the summer season – and the vegetation itself – is usually much too dry for this to be an issue in the Douro.

Water Management

In heavy December rains Miles admires the way the cover crops control the water flow in these vertical plantings

The cover crops are an incredible asset in aiding both drainage and water conservation.

When it rains, we want the water to soak into the soil rather than run off down a hillside.  The plants help accomplish this in several ways.  First, rain which falls and is caught and held in the grasses will course down the stalks of the plants and ultimately into the soil, where we want it.  Second, in heavy rains, the plantings form an obstacle course for any running water and slow it down, which gives it more time to soak in, and also minimises the erosion of topsoil and loss of organic matter in runoff from our vineyards, particularly any vertical plantatations.  Finally, the plant material  which was cut and left lying between rows as mulch acts as a sponge, soaking up water during the rains, and releasing it slowly afterwards, into the soil.

During the incredibly hot dry summers the cover crops, even when cut down and left between the vines, shade and hold humidity in the soil.  Our research has proven significantly lower soil temperatures and higher residual humidity where we have cover crops, which will help the vines cope with the summer drought conditions.  In addition the stubble impedes air movement at soil level, so the hot dry winds typical of mid-summer Douro afternoons cannot dry out the soil as rapidly as they do on barren hillsides.

All that in a blade of grass!

Drainage in the Douro Vineyards

Rainwater from vineyard terraces runs off in the roadside ditches as it should, though the drain needed to be dug out

Regular readers may recall Paul Symington’s article about the heavy rains last winter  and the damage they caused in our vineyards.  Whilst the climate in the port vineyards of the Douro is renowned for being dry, as much rain as we do get tends to occur almost entirely during the winter, so we are likely to receive a lot of rain in a short space of time.  Managing drainage when it does rain is critical for several reasons.

First, we want to encourage as much water as possible to soak deeply into the soil, rather than run off, in order to build the water supply for the roots of our vines to draw on during the summer months.  Second, we want any runoff to follow a path of our choosing, to avoid damage to the terraces and again to try to ultimately capture the water in some useful place.

Water collecting at the back of the terrace, as it should
The terraces are arched to encourage excess water to run off the ends

To accomplish these goals, the patamares (banked terraces) are carefully sculpted to direct the flow of water in a very distinct pattern.  The level terrace surface is in fact slightly sloped backwards, into the face of the hill, to encourage the water to accumulate in a place where it will ultimately soak into the vineyard soil.   Additionally, the length of the terrace is slightly arched, or  sometimes angled entirely to one end, so that any water that cannot soak in and needs to run off, will be led to the ends of the terrace, and from there into dug-out gutters that run along the sides of the vineyard roadways.  In strategic places we open up drains, where the water can empty off the roadway and into underground pipes.

On a recent rainy-day visit to Quinta da Cavadinha (the flagship quinta for our sister brand, Warre’s, in the Pinhão Valley) our research viticulturalist Miles Edlmann was very encouraged to see that although the patamares in the photos are still under construction, this water flow pattern is already in effect.

Above all, we do not want water to accumulate near, or cascade over the lip of any terrace – this is the most damaging possible scenario, as the soil quickly erodes under the rushing water, forming a deep cut in the face of the terrace.  In addition, if the talude, the bank, becomes saturated, that could undermine the stability of the entire terrace.  In the case of old walled terraces, this kind of accumulation or cascading is even worse.  Not only is it heartbreaking to see these beautiful old walls destroyed, but the UNESCO World Heritage status of the Douro Vineyards obliges us to repair the damage, naturally something we would rather not have to do.

Spring water runs clean from the pipe that leads it out of the hillside

Occasionally it isn’t just rain that causes trouble – after a bank collapsed two years running, we felt certain there was something more than the winter rainfall causing the trouble.  Sure enough, during the dry summer months we watched the hillside closely and found distinct wet patches in an otherwise dry landscape.  We dug down and discovered a spring inside the hill which was keeping the whole area saturated year round.  Ultimately we created a stone-filled soakaway space around the spring and installed drainage pipes to channel the water out of the hillside, so the bank could dry out and stabilise.  During our recent visit to Cavadinha the spring water was running out from that pipe almost crystal clear, as opposed to the rainwater runoff which was clouded with soil.

Miles was also pleased to see how the dense cover crops between vines in the vertical plantings were preventing runoff and erosion, but the many uses of cover crops is subject for another article.

River Levels at Malvedos

Another gem from the photographic archive at Graham’s, which focuses on the river at the Quinta dos Malvedos, a bit upriver from the winery – here you can see a little sand bar of sorts alongside the shore, and see how low the river was, and the very narrow navigable channel which veered towards our shore, back at the turn of the 20th century, before damming in the 1970s.

River at Quinta dos Malvedos, circa 1900

In a photo taken just a few days ago, you can see that that sand bar now has trees and shrubs growing on it, and has built up a bit on the outside edge, creating a shallow lagoon nearer the shore.  Just where the water is reflecting the sun you can see the marker for the navigable channel, which seems to follow the same route as it did over 100 years ago.

Sandbar October 2010

Finally, those of you who have followed Graham’s blog or conditions in the Douro generally this year, may recall that March was our sixth straight month of 100mm or more rainfall.  This photo was taken at the end of March from the train passing through en route to Tua.  Not only are most of the trees in over their heads, you can see from the white water around them how fast the river was moving.

At that time, the train service was terminating in Tua because those heavy rains had caused some rockfall and washout further up river, and it took another month or more before they could safely restore service.  Even now, work is ongoing just up the line from us, around Alegria, to secure the cliff faces so we don’t have any more rock falls and washouts on the train line.

Flooding in March 2010

It Ain’t Just Grapes

Olive grove at Tua on old northwest facing terraces
Arlindo's kale at Malvedos
Bumper crop of pumpkins and squashes at Vale de Malhadas

On average, Graham’s quintas have vineyards over about half of the land.  What’s on the other half?  Lots of things.

This landscape doesn’t lend itself to monoculture – too vertical, rocky and unuseable in too many places, which have been allowed to remain wild.  Many old terraced vineyards that were abandoned after the phylloxera are now too badly damaged to be repairable for vineyard use, so have been planted with olives, and at Vale de Malhadas we also have an extensive almond plantation.

Nearly all our properties have a resident caseiro – the property manager who lives there year round – and most of them have gardens and vegetable plots tucked into the terraces adjacent to their houses or wherever there is a break in vegetation.  Kale is a staple everywhere, Tua had a fine plantation of tomatoes on an old terrace, and the winter squashes and pumpkins at Malhadas were formidable – one vine even making it out into a nearby tree.

There are citrus groves yielding lemons, oranges and grapefruit, so much so that the family often brings back cases of citrus to their homes in Porto and Gaia.  In his memoir, James Symington tells a story that during one of the periods of political unrest the police were keeping an eye on the cars as they crossed the bridge into Porto, and after three or four Symington cars full of citrus passed the checkpoint, they stopped the next one, convinced it was some kind of cover for smuggling arms – no one could possibly have or need so much fruit!

Olives starting to ripen at Tua
Bird of prey over Malvedos

The olive groves are extensive and every year the olives are harvested and the oil made at a local co-operative for the family’s use.

Needless to say, such an incredibly diverse landscape supports a diversity of wildlife.  There is a constant murmur of songbirds, wildfowl on the river, and birds of prey are common – eagles, falcons and hawks of every kind.  A walk through the old terraces at Tua on a quiet afternoon recently put up two good coveys of wild partridge.  We’ve seen all kinds of snakes and lizards, a frog the size of a grapefruit tripped up a visitor one evening in the middle of the road, and we have bats living in the winery at Malvedos – we were watching their antics in the floodlight the other night, but haven’t been able to get photos yet.

And then there’s Paul’s personal favourite, the wild boar.  Still haven’t sighted one of those for a photo either, but frankly hope not to.