The Dehesa’s of Andalusia. A working model for sustainable agro-forestry

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By Charlotte Blackler

In April 2019 a group of eight participants spent a week in Spain at The Fundacion Monte Mediterraneo, Dehesa San Francisco. Hosted by the force of nature that is Ernestine Ludeke. The group was a great mix of conservationists, ecologists, foresters, botanists, government advisors, fundraisers and myself a small free range food producer and scientist.

The Fundación Monte Mediterráneo was founded in 1994 and is registered as an environmental foundation. The foundation is based on the 700 hectare sized Dehesa San Francisco, a typical landscape in Southern Spain formed mainly by cork and holm oaks in the Nature Park Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche, province of Huelva. Since 1996 the whole farm has been certified organic. The Dehesa region plays a vital role in protecting Southern Spain from encroaching desertification from Africa. The Fundacion have been campainig to have the Dehesas recognised and supported

What is a Dehesa?

The agro-eco-system “Dehesa” is defined as a mixed farming practice that incorporates agriculture, livestock husbandry and forestry. A variety of livestock are employed for complimentary grazing habits in order to best promote conservation and bio diversity. The cork and holm oaks are planted at a density of 30-60 trees per hectare thus maintaining ample grazing between trees and creating what we would refer to as a ‘wooded pasture’.

The trees are the lynch pin of the whole system. They prevent soil erosion and desertification from nearby Africa. They offer additional grazing for livestock in the form of foliage and acorns and are harvested for cork providing additional income for the farm. Their presence in the landscape provides habitat for wildlife, sequesters CO2 and maintains soil structure.

This is a holistic, diverse, species rich approach to land management, could this be a sustainable model for farming in the UK?

‘A Dehesa is like an orchestra’……explains Ernestine. Income streams are many and varied. They are all interconnected and vital for the Dehesas’ survival.

The Dehesa San Francisco rely on a combination of:

Cattle to graze the long pasture and produce beef. Sheep for the short grazing, clearing cistus scrub, meat and Merino wool. Pigs to clear scrub for fire breaks, and to eat the abundant acorns to produce the renowned Iberico Ham. Bees to sell honey. They run educational courses and have accommodation to support this and tourism. Cork is also harvested from the oak trees.

Other Dehesas visited had a combination of the above that also included olive and olive oil production, alongside the breeding of race horses.

Could this work in Scotland?

This approach to mixed farming is nothing new and was how most small farms were managed just a generation ago. The driving force that has changed this system in the UK is the introduction of supermarkets. Where once a farm could make a living with 25 cows this is now 250 and they are still paid less for the milk than it costs to produce.

The holistic Dehesa style approach to farming goes against our current management system and returns to stocking densities of just 1 cow per hectare, 2 pigs PH, 3-4 sheep PH. Farming with much less intensity is what allows bio diversity to flourish. The need for chemical fertilisers and herbicides is obsolete. Pastures are not over grazed and soil is not depleted.

Economy

The Dehesas survive economically by producing small amounts of value added products rather than large amounts of cheaper products. This often takes much longer than factory farmed products. The Iberico ham for instance takes five years to grow and process. It is sold at a premium via direct marketing. The cork oak is another example. A cork oak will be Thirty years old before it’s first harvest. Cork can only be harvested every nine years and the first two harvests are of poor quality and not valued. So a tree will be Fifty years old before it is economically viable.

The CO OP’s

Small producers in the Dehesa region benefit from a great network of cooperatives.

Because many of the products are regional specialities and are sporadic in supply cooperatives are in place that facilitate a route to market for producers and a constant supply for customers. 60% of the lamb/wool producers in Andalucía are members of cooperatives.

The Future

It was wonderful to spend time in a sustainable tree based farming system that not only works in harmony with nature but actively protects it for now and future generations.

This is in stark contrast to methods used in Scotland. When we think of Agroforestry in Scotland we think of densely packed Sitka spruce. Planted with between 200-2500 trees per hectare. The forest floor is acidic and dead and biodiversity minimal. To regenerate and reforest Scotland a wooded pasture system would seem the ideal model for the poor quality upland soils. Livestock would gain shelter from the wind and the pasture would prevent soil erosion as well as providing wildlife habitat.

When the worlds soils are predicted to have only 60 harvests left in them, we need to find a more sustainable approach to our use of agricultural land. The Dehesa San Francisco is a beautiful example of what can be achieved.

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