Tail of the Unexpected: Canine Country

Follow Bo's lead to the Algarve

As the spring days lengthen into summer and southern Europe warms, early holidaymakers are beginning to make their way to the Algarve, sunning themselves on the sandy beaches and filling up the cafés.

But the terrain at the eastern end of Portugal's south coast is more suited to wildlife than to human visitors. Along the shore between Tavira and Faro, sandy scrubland and marshy salt flats provide a habitat for a rich variety of birds, animals and wild flowers. This is the Ria Formosa, a 50km expanse of coastal parkland established to preserve the natural environment and protect its delicate ecosystems. The park occupies the area between the Algarve railway and the Atlantic Ocean, and is signposted off the main coastal highway.

The best way to explore the Ria Formosa is to start at the visitor centre and follow the waymarked trail, a peaceful track through pine woods and olive groves that never meanders far from the water. Storks nest on distant telegraph poles, while fiddler crabs can be spotted sidling in and out of mud holes. About halfway along the path, though, the sound of distant birdsong is drowned out by the barking of a colony of dogs.

These are the Portuguese water dogs for which this part of the Algarve is now enjoying some global recognition. With their curly black coats, they resemble overgrown and overly enthusiastic poodles as they jump up to greet any visitor who heads in their direction. But these are no ordinary hounds: one of their breed, named Bo, this week took up residence in the White House as First Dog. A glance down at their paws reveals another important difference between them and the average domestic pet: these dogs have webbed feet. They acquired their name – and the membrane between their toes – from the role that they carried out on the Algarve coast for centuries, guiding fishing boats towards their catch. Diving from the boats and swimming underwater when necessary, the dogs would sniff out the shoals of sardines or tuna, bark to alert the crew, then head into the water to round up the fish and steer them into funnel-shaped nets.

While most dogs navigate through the waves using doggie paddle, these working animals use their distinctive paws to swim more like humans. Traditionally, a dog was part of the crew, working alongside the fishermen and paid for its work – although in the case of the dogs, payment was in fish rather than cash. Canine coats were trimmed into a lion cut, thick and shaggy at the front so that the animals didn't feel the cold when they jumped into the water; short at the back so they could swim faster and dive deeper.

The main fishing grounds are out to sea, beyond the line of sandspits and islands which protect the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean with a barrier of dunes forged by centuries of wind and tidal currents. Boats from Olhao, the town nearest to the entrance to Ria Formosa, take passengers to the islands of Armona and Culatra, whose sandy beaches and waterside cafés are popular with visitors; and to Farol, where a cluster of attractive fishermen's cottages nestle around the base of a lighthouse.

More modern methods of fishing were introduced in the 1950s, and when traditional fishing nets were finally abandoned in 1972, the water dogs were no longer needed. The breed came dangerously close to extinction until a colony was established in the Ria Formosa park. It is now one of the most fascinating attractions on the entire coast. Like the old tuna boat lying by the water's edge at the far end of the park, these dogs are a reminder of the traditional way of life which once existed along the Algarve.

There are other memorials to bygone times in the park, too. Near the kennels is a waterwheel, designed by the Moors who once occupied this part of Portugal. Donkeys and mules plodded monotonously around a circular path, attached to a system of wheels and pulleys that irrigated orchards full of apricots, plums and citrus fruits.

A little further along the coast is a tide mill, one of nearly 40 that once existed in Ria Formosa. Built in the 13th century to harness energy from the tide to grind cereals, it was used almost continuously until the 1950s; by then, mechanisation had made this practice obsolete, too.

Fishing remains the most important industry in Ria Formosa. There are an astonishing 1,600 shellfish farms on the tidal flats, their boundaries visible at low tide like maritime allotments. Seven thousand tons of clams and oysters are harvested each year, while visitors pick up cockles and razor clams that are half-submerged in the sand. Dogs have no role to play in the modern fishing industry, but the small colony in the park continues to prove popular with those visiting. And now that there is a Portuguese water dog in the White House, perhaps one day the Obama family will be among the visitors.

Ria Formosa park (00 351 289 700 210; icnb.pt) is on the outskirts of Olhao. It opens 9am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm Monday to Friday; admission costs €2.50 . The water dogs come out of their kennels 11am-1pm and 2-4pm Monday to Friday.

Suggested Topics
News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
News
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
News
news

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
music
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
books

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London