Lessons learn from the Spanish “dehesa”: a new model for Scottish agriculture & woodland management?

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Lessons learnt from a study tour to a Spanish “dehesa”: a new model for Scottish agriculture and woodland management?



  • the ancient “dehesa” system of land management in Spain – typically a feature of land considered “marginal” due to topography and relatively low soil fertility – is characterised by carefully-managed woodland as an integral part of the farmed landscape;
  • the trees provide shelter for livestock (typically cattle, sheep, pigs and goats) from extreme weather/temperature, nutrition and some wood products;
  • grazing is extensive/low-density and carefully managed, to maintain soil stability, fertility and rich pasture; cereals may be grown for fodder to reduce the amount of supplementary feed required during the dry months when grass does not grow;
  • the combination of livestock farming and productive timber gives a multiple income stream (especially for products produced under an organic label); this diversity of production can also spread financial risk but it is costly due to the high labour costs involved;
  • land managed under the dehesa system is typically rich ecologically, as well as visually attractive due to the presence of trees and diversity of plantlife;
  • the extent of the tree cover makes a valuable contribution to carbon storage and mitigation against flooding;
  • lessons could be learnt from this holistic approach to land management and which might be applied in Scotland


This briefing has been written following a NET Key Action 1 project (funded by Erasmus+) during which representatives from several Scottish organisations[1] involved in the natural heritage sector took part in a study tour to Andalucia in southern Spain in spring 2019, focussed on the work of the Fundacion Monte Mediterraneo on its land near Santa Olalla de Cala. The visit was co-ordinated by the firm of ARCH (archnetwork) to learn more about the “dehesa” system of land management.


Much of the historic dehesa landscape is found in the south west Spain in Andalucia and Extremadura, and also in the Alentejo region of Portugal where it is dry in summer and relatively cold in winter. Dehesas – typically ownership units of between 100-100 hectares, have evolved over hundreds of years in land considered “marginal” land due to its topography (which is hilly or flat but not rugged) and relatively low soil fertility.

The system can be traced back as far as Neolithic times when the dense original tree cover began to be felled but developed in particular from the Middle Ages. It has evolved to take advantage of limited natural resources and seasonal variations in a sustainable and self-sufficient way, in common with many other historic farming systems. A modern definition of this system of land management is often given as “agro-silvo-pastural” or “pastoral-silvo-agriultural.”

The landscape is typified by spaced oak trees – typically 60-80 per hectare at maturity, but sometimes lower – with a carefully-managed pasture of grass, herbaceous and shrub species below. The open canopy, combined with the diversity of palatable species, allows for a range of different livestock to be reared, typically cattle, sheep and pigs. Goats and horses may also feature.

The trees are integral to the landscape, rather than on the margins as shelter belts. The species are predominantly evergreen/holm and cork oak, with some wild olive and other species in lesser quantities. The oaks are carefully pruned to create a characteristic “copa” shape – a tall, straight stem with a spreading canopy. This gives space for livestock to graze underneath as well as providing shade and protection. The trees are not managed as a productive timber crop as such but primarily for the protection and nutrition of livestock. Evergreen oaks can tolerate a certain amount of browsing of their lower branches and pruning creates fresh, palatable fodder, whilst in the autumn acorns provide a nutrient-rich food for pigs. Cork oaks provide a high-value cork harvest at nine yearly intervals once a tree has reached sufficient maturity (around 50 years old). Firewood is a useful by-product. Careful management is required to ensure regeneration of the woodland.

Responsible grazing is of paramount importance to protect soil structure and fertility, the diversity of pasture and, ultimately, the profitability of the farmer and sustainability of his/her livelihood. Livestock are therefore kept at low/sustainable stocking densities and are moved between different parcels of land according to the characteristics of the estate, seasonal variations and the grazing preferences of the different animals. In the case of the estate visited, total cattle density was 0.042 livestock units per hectare (LUha), sheep 0.104LU ha-1, goats 0.004 LU ha-1 and Iberico pigs 0.90 LU ha-1) but slightly higher densities can also be sustained depending on the particular characteristics of the estate, including topography and individual management practices/ethos. The role of robust, indigenous species which have adapted to take advantage of different plants as well as this particular environment and climate, is important. Cereals may be grown to provide supplementary feed during the dry months when grass does not grow, reducing the need to buy this in. Historically, transhumance (the moving of flocks to more northerly pastures during the summer) played a vital role in ensuring adequate summer fodder as well as protecting soils and allowing for pasture to regenerate.

The diversity of land use, combining woodland, pasture and livestock management, requires a relatively high number of staff, including some with specialist skills/seasonal workers, such as for the cork harvest where workers who can earn up to three times the average agricultural wage. Farming and processing co-operatives play a significant role in the local and regional economy as well as society.

Beef, lamb, ham and wool are the main, typical products. Some farmers have converted more recently to organic production and are benefiting from the premium prices these attract. Income may also be derived from hunting of deer and other game, such as wild boar and red-legged partridges, as well as the gathering of mushrooms. Some estates also bring in income from tourism, leisure and educational initiatives.

The combination of tree cover and the careful maintenance of the pasture means the dehesa landscape can be extremely rich in plant as well as animal, bird, invertebrate etc species, as well as appreciated in landscape terms. Many dehesas include sites protected under the EU Habitats Directive and some dehesa land is situated within National Parks or other protected areas.

In summary, the system is characterised by an understanding and appreciation of the inter-dependency of all the elements of the land and its use, requiring a holistic approach. As a result this tradition is an effective conservation tool which also provides benefits to the economy and society.


The dehesa system has come under threat and the extent of the land managed in this way has reduced in the face of societal changes, in particular rural depopulation and the loss of shepherds with their expertise in animal husbandry and pasture management. The high labour costs associated with managing land in this way are also problematical. Financial drivers arising from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have also had – and continue to have – an impact, with some of the dehesa lost to more intensive farming, primarily in areas where soils are relatively rich. A particular concern in more recent times given the vital role trees play in this landscape is the loss of mature trees due to the “seca” – a fungal disease with climate change being implicated.


The value of trees in the dehesa landscape cannot be underestimated in the context of climate change given their vital role in storing carbon as well as their contribution to soil stability. Similarly, the maintenance of the grass pasture associated with the system is also critical – without this scrub would encroach, bringing an increased fire risk and subsequent destabilisation of soils which could result in desertification of these areas in the longer term.


The dehesa system is labour-intensive and requires a range of workers with a range of skills so labour costs are relatively high. These higher costs are being recouped to some extent by farmers who have achieved organic certification, due to the premium prices that can be charged for meat, wool and other organic products. Notwithstanding the challenges of making such land profitable, it is increasingly recognised that the dehesa system provides an exceptional example of how marginal land can be managed for economic (as well as ecological) benefit, retaining and creating rural jobs and bringing economic benefits to the wider local economy in terms of associated services and businesses.

At a more global level, this system of land management provides significant public benefits in terms of carbon storage, the maintenance of stable and fertile soils and from the contribution that tree cover makes to holding flood water within a catchment. These benefits are challenging to measure and “price”, especially given the long timeframes involved in creating and maintaining the landscape in this way. To date, the contribution of the dehesa system has not been recognised per se in the Common Agricultural Policy due to its sectoral approach and focus on ecological rather than wider environmental benefits.


The holistic approach to land management that is the defining feature of the dehesa system of land management provides an opportunity to consider how the historic, largely sectoral approaches to Scottish agriculture and woodland/forestry could be better integrated for the benefit of people, nature and the wider environment. Such a shift in thinking could be of particular value to agriculture on marginal land. Tree and animal species would necessarily differ from those in Spain but, for example, fruit trees could be expected to have a particular role given their nutritional value for livestock as well as opportunities for a crop and fruit-related products.

Current policies and funding in Scotland appear currently, however, to be particularly incentivising large-scale forestry and woodland creation schemes. These are immensely valuable from the perspective of carbon storage and as productive timber but potentially a deterrent to the wider take-up of wood pasture farming. Furthermore, whilst grants are available for agro-forestry projects, take up appears to be low and funding is dependent on a higher density of trees (200-400 per hectare) than would appear to genuinely facilitate livestock rearing in a similar way to the dehesa system.


  • that greater publicity and promotion is given by government agencies, industry bodies etc to the potential to manage land in this way and encourage take-up;
  • that the environmental, ecological, economic, social and landscape benefits that could be brought about by greater integration of livestock with woodland are fully recognized in and incentivised by Scottish land use policies and financial incentives, particularly through the reform/replacement of CAP;
  • that, specifically, the current tree density requirements required to benefit from agro-forestry grants be reviewed to encourage greater and more successful integration of livestock with woodland.


Melanie Nicoll, John Muir Trust

mel.nicoll@johnmuirtrust.org 01796 470080

The views expressed here are personal reflections rather than agreed policies and positions of either the Trust or the other organizations participating in the study tour.


NET – Managing our natural and cultural aspects: reports from Spain 2019 https://archnetwork.org/category/reports/spain-2019/

Fundacion Monte Mediterraneo


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  1. Scottish Natural Heritage, Woodland Trust, RSPB, John Muir Trust and a small free-range food producer/scientist. Visit to Dehesa de San Francisco hosted by the Fundacion Monte Mediterraneo, funded by Erasmus+ and co-ordinated by the Firm of ARCH.

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