It’s been a busy couple of months at Ecosystem Restoration Camp Altiplano. More than twenty volunteers have helped out over the course of July and August so we’ve been able to get a lot done!
July marked the first anniversary of restoration work at Camp Altiplano and we’re proud to be launching our first ever Camp Altiplano Restoration Report. This report gives you an overview of the journey so far; from why ecosystem restoration is needed in this part of Spain to the earthworks, cover crops and other approaches we’ve implemented. The first year has laid the foundations for improved soil health that will enable us to begin developing our planned regenerative agroforestry and forest garden systems in future.
Now into our second year we’re moving into the next phase of our restoration plans. End of August we began by bringing 500 sheep to graze the cover crop at the camp. Holistic grazing cycles nutrients from the crops back into the soil via the manure the sheep produce. Along with applications of compost tea this manure will increase the organic content of the soil and create favourable conditions for the growth of the next cover crop. Cover crops protect soil from erosion by wind and rain while penetrating it with their roots. In the long run this alleviates compaction and allows water to infiltrate more easily.
With the Spanish summer sun making the afternoons suitable for siestas only, we’ve been rising early in the mornings to get on with construction of the roundhouse and the 100 Founding Friends funded kitchen cabin. If you’ve been following our Facebook page you will have seen the walls and roof structure of the roundhouse going up and the foundations for the kitchen cabin taking shape. It’s exciting to see the camp infrastructure coming together so we can host visitors and volunteers in comfort.
At Camp Altiplano during the month of August we spent time thinking about how best to return the seed and biomass from our cover crop to the soil. After consulting with our restoration advisor Ramis Kent we came to the conclusion that the carefully planned use of livestock offered some useful benefits over other methods such as chop and drop. By passing through the digestive system of a sheep the organic material will be delivered to the soil in a partially decomposed state with a multitude of beneficial microbiology. This will help to increase nutrient cycling within the soil and should increase the rate of seed germination. The use of livestock is particularly relevant at Camp Altiplano as, due to microbially impoverished soils and the semi-arid climate, rates of decomposition in the soil are low. Therefore using livestock will allow for more plant available nutrients in the short term, kick-starting the process of soil restoration. The movement of the herd will also create disturbance that scatters seed, and the trampling of their hooves will break up clods and create a surface that promotes improved rates of seed germination.
We consulted with local expert Andres Fajardo to create a holistic grazing plan covering four of our five hectares. First we assessed the density of our cover crop and worked out the area of land needed to feed one sheep for one day, whilst leaving some organic matter for the soil (25m2). We had initially negotiated the use of 500 sheep with a local shepherd, and calculated we would need them for three days to graze 3.75 hectares. We formulated a movement plan so that the sheep would pass over the land once and not return to an area once it had been grazed. Finally we borrowed portable electric fence from our landlord Alfonso, to contain the flock in each area for the allotted time. It was important for the grazing to be carried out at the right moment, once the crop has matured and as close to the wet season as possible. If the manure was left without moisture for a prolonged period of time it would desiccate and much could be lost to the wind.
As with most of our best-laid plans we ended up having to adapt to the unpredictable. Our shepherd informed us just a few days before he was due to arrive that he would only come with a full flock of 1000 sheep. We could make this work by simply halving the amount of time the sheep would spend in each area, however we no longer had enough electric fence to contain them and were unable to source any more. We had to improvise, using an electrical barricade on one side with the shepherd and his dog containing them from the other.
When 1000 very real and very hungry animals finally arrived at camp there was a brief but definite moment of panic, as we realised they had no interest in respecting our carefully placed fence. We had to enlist every available volunteer to form a human shield protecting our tents and precious vegetable garden. This actually worked very well, as the animals would turn and head in the other direction if you waved your arms or clapped your hands. Within a couple of hours the sheep began to respect the electric fence and thanks to the shepherd’s skill the sheep were guided through each area in almost exactly the amount of time that we had planned. Some areas of the plot, adding up to 1 hectare, were left ungrazed and will be scythed, so that we can gain some initial indications of how the land responds to different processes.
(For more information on the plants making up our cover crop please see the restoration report)
Some of our favourite photos taken by volunteers in July and August:
The bell tents under the milky way – photo by Marco
The kitchen garden freshly mulched – photo by Linde
Some very welcome rainfall in August – photo by Ondrej
Abrazos from all the team at Camp Altiplano.