A Montagu's harrier, as photographed by birding guide Frank McClintock who runs "Paradise in Portugal "

Portugal’s birdlife “disappearing at dizzying rate” from Alentejan plains

Portugal’s once rich and wonderful variety of wild birds are disappearing at a “dizzying rate” from the Alentejan plains – and it seems fairly clear that intensive agriculture is to blame.

Environmental association ZERO has today filed a complaint with Brussels. Its target, the ICNF (State-run Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests).

ZERO’s contention is that the ICNF has not simply not been doing its job: it has violated bird protection legislation, turning a blind eye to “poor management of European funds destined to agriculture”.

Areas like the Alentejan plains are meant to be protected with ZPE status (meaning zone of special protection). Birds like the Great and Little Bustard and Montagu’s Harrier thrive in conditions of ‘traditional agriculture’. Yet over the last 10 years, alterations in the use of land have been approved which have damaged and reduced habitats – and the ICNF has done “nothing” to help balance the situation, says ZERO.

To give an example of the urgency, the population of Montagu’s harrier (image above) that used to live on the plains is down by 85%; Little and Great Bustards have reduced by at least 50%.

The ICNF acknowledges the problem – having described the situation in a letter to ZERO as “extremely worrying”. Its solution is to “realise an Iberian census in partnership with Spanish neighbours” this year and monitor the birds of these species “with a view to better understanding their behaviour and better design measures for their conservation”.

But ZERO is clearly not convinced this is enough. There needs to be a change in agricultural policies. For example, the birds at risk require habitats in which crops are seasonal, and based on cereals. This necessity is written into the bird protection directives – yet it is being ignored.

Says ZERO in nearly all ZPEs “situations of intensive agriculture of illegal origin associated with irrigation that has altered the use of the soil” have been allowed to proliferate, without the ICNF having carried out due diligence.

Satellite images show that more than 50% of areas that should be given over to traditional agriculture are occupied now by ‘permanent (intensive) crops, and that 35,000 hectares of plains’ habitat has been lost to agriculture using irrigation.

“This is a very alarming situation”, ZERO’s Paulo Lucas tells TSF radio – and if not taken care of, the Alentejo will lose its signature birds due to Portugal failing to preserve its once enviable biodiversity.

ZERO is pinning its hopes on being able to alter what is known as the ‘PEPAC’ (standing for Strategic Plan for Common Agricultural Policy) 2023-2027. If Brussels can authorise change, the birds could be saved from extinction, it says.

But the change will require “rethinking support for farmers” so they can be compensated for measures which could see them losing income, and so that they can qualify for subsidies to reintroduce the kind of agriculture with which the birds can thrive.

It’s a big ask – particularly bearing in mind the response thus far from the Ministry of Agriculture, which told Lusa that it did not know about Zero’s complaint, but that the PEPAC in its opinion “respects European regulations and is in line with the proposed framework for priority action for biodiversity”.

And this perhaps is the real problem: the total understanding of the ‘experts’ on the ground about what is needed – and the absolute opposite when it comes to policy makers in ministries.

Expresso’s Miguel Sousa Tavares recently wrote another excoriating text on the subject – Agriculture and Environment: the suicide – centring on the two ministers currently in charge of Agriculture and Environment having no understanding or even grasp of their responsibilities.