Overall, though, I was most struck by the interplay and interdependency of the different land uses and incredible attention to detail in the management of the trees, pasture and livestock. Just one example of this was learning of the special calculation done each year into the anticipated acorn crop and limit set accordingly on the number of pigs that can be reared in order to retain organic status for pork production. Such an ethos is surely something that John Muir would have approved of, regardless of whether in sunny, southern Spain or on the side of a somewhat soggier Scottish mountain:- “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
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.
I have a newfound appreciation for this sense of balance that maximises environmental and social priorities, something that can be difficult to achieve. This study visit has emphasised the global importance of this system (in terms of preventing desertification), whilst also providing a shining example for sustainable, biodiversity-friendly land management systems elsewhere in Europe.
Transhumance is an ancient practice of moving animals between regions to benefit from the best grazing at the best time of year. The loss of this transhumance has impacts in both Andalusia and the north. In Andalusia the sheep remain on the same ground throughout the year which increases the pressure on the available grazing and is detrimental to the soil. In the north the lack of annual grazing has led to abandonment of pastures, which are infilled with continuous forest or scrub cover, which lowers biodiversity and increases the risk of fire.
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.