The Dehesas of Southern Spain

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By Taylor Smith (RSPB)

Dehesa San Francisco

Imagine a mobile, hanging over a baby’s cot. Each of its whimsical shapes – a cluster of tiny stars, a crescent moon, and a large fluffy cloud – suspended from the frame in perfect balance. While this may seem like an arbitrary metaphor, this is exactly how Ernestine Lüdeke, the host of our study visit, described the dehesas of southern Spain.

The dehesa is a landscape that was shaped by the settlers in the Mediterranean basin over thousands of years. What remains is a mix of grassy pasture, meadows and open-forest habitats where they could cultivate the land and raise their livestock. These dehesas now represent an important cultural, social and environmental landscape that support biodiversity, mitigate climate change, protect against desertification and provide a wealth of speciality products that support local economies.

Unfortunately, globalisation, intensification of agriculture and rural depopulation all threaten the survival of the dehesa. There is a real risk that, without continued traditional management, this important landscape will disappear.

Ernestine and her team at the Fundación Monte Mediterráneo manage an area called the Dehesa San Francisco. Here, they follow traditional methods to maintain this unique landscape and work to highlight the benefits of its sustainable production and management system. This report will take you through our visit at the Dehesa San Francisco and explain how Ernestine’s “mobile” metaphor applies to this multifunctional agroecosystem.

The Dehesa San Francisco

Since 1995, the Fundación Monte Mediterráneo has been based on the land known as the Dehesa San Francisco (hereafter referred to as ‘the Dehesa SF’). Located an hour north of Seville, the Dehesa SF sprawls across 700 hectares of hilly terrain; the landscape is a sparse woodland pasture, dotted mainly with cork and holm oak trees.

The Fundación’s mission is to maintain the dehesa’s traditional agriculture productivity, whilst supporting its forestry system and hosting as much biodiversity as possible. They strive for an organic and sustainable management system that respects the cultural heritage of this land and provides maximum environmental and social benefits. Ernestine also undertakes several research projects and a variety of teaching activities through the Dehesa SF’s education centre. She invites groups, such as ours, and provides traineeships that encourage people to come learn from the landscape.

One example is her participation in a local horticulture programme. In its first year, ten people from a severely deprived local area were invited to a traineeship at the Dehesa SF. During the programme, Ernestine provided education, training and skill development in organic, sustainable horticultural practices to jump start their careers in this field. The trainees were then introduced to a community horticulture garden, where they could secure employment and put these new skills to use. The programme went a step further to help minimise waste by creating small women-run businesses that used the extra produce to make preserved products, such as jarred tomato sauces. The organic and sustainable ethos of this programme was a theme that was reflected regularly throughout our week.

Environmental Benefits: Wildlife, Climate Change and Desertification

The word dehesa come from the Latin word meaning “defence”, which is appropriate considering the dehesa’s role in environmental defence against climate change and desertification.

When standing in certain areas of the dehesa, it is quite easy to picture that it is the last barrier between the deserts of northern Africa and the south of Europe. We spent several days exploring the landscape and noticed a significant difference between the north and south facing slopes. One afternoon we found ourselves amongst predominantly southern facing slopes in an area called La Solera, where the sun beamed down for hours on end. In contrast to the slightly cooler, north facing slopes, this area was relatively barren and resembled a desert more than a woodland. It was clear that the heat and nutrient-poor, easily erodible soils made it difficult for oak to establish. The lack of mature vegetation here means that, when it does rain, the surface water runoff continues to erode the soil and any remaining nutrients run down the hillside, perpetuating the conditions that lead to desertification, in a vicious cycle.

In established dehesas, mature oaks are pruned to create wide umbrella-like canopies across the landscape. These provide a canopy structure and ground cover that protects the soils from erosion and ultimately prevents desertification from taking hold. Established mature trees also provide more CO2 sequestration capacity than other traditional agricultural systems.

The mosaic of habitats across dehesa also support an incredible array of wildlife. We learned that, during a Bio Blitz in 2016, there were over 700 species found on the site. We excitedly observed a wide variety of species ourselves during the study visit. Ranging from a wide array of birds – including the ever-present bee-eater, the distinctive hoopoe, and majestic Griffin and Black vultures soaring overhead – to snakes and frogs and thousands of bees hovering around the wild lavender plants, we were amazing by quantity of wildlife that could be found across this agricultural landscape. Of course, the landscape also supported several populations of free-roaming livestock, including sheep, cattle, pigs and horses.

Protecting New Planting

Active management and tree replanting are required to maintain the ideal 60 tree per hectares density that provides these ideal dehesa conditions. The system is in a delicate balance – any more trees and the landscape starts to resemble a traditional woodland, any fewer and the diversity mosaic of pastoral and wooded habitat would decrease along with the amount of biodiversity it could support.

Jamón Ibérico

Jamón Ibérico, or Iberian ham, is one of the most well-known products that comes from the dehesa. Iberian pigs move freely across the dehesa and feed predominantly on acorns during the fall and winter months. During a 3-year process, the ham of the Iberian pigs undergoes an elaborate process of salting, drying and curing. Due to their high-acorn diet, the ham develops rich “olive oil-like” fats that melt in your mouth and a distinctive nutty flavour that is highly revered. The dehesa SF produces their own brand of jamón Ibérico, which is entirely organic. From start to finish, production takes 5 years before the final product can be sold.

Typical of the harmonious balance within the dehesa, we learned that these Iberian pigs are also an essential component of maintaining the landscape. Their active grazing and affinity for oak acorns prevents too many saplings and other plants from taking roots, which would otherwise slowly transition the landscape into a dense woodland.

Wool, Lamb and the Ancient Art of Transhumance

Several products come from the dehesas’ most plentiful grazing animal – sheep. The dehesa SF is home to 400 Merino sheep that freely roam and graze its grounds. We visited a wool cooperative, where we witness the processing of Merino wool from the dehesa SF and other farms across the area. Organic lamb is produced in a similar cooperative model. This allows for these seasonal and specialities items to be marketed and produced in a stable fashion, whilst also enabling another source of income on the dehesa to maximise the profitability of its products.

In Ernestine’s words, “sheep have a golden hoof” and are a key grazing species that make and maintain the dehesa landscape. Like the cattle and pigs on site, sheep graze any undergrowth that would otherwise become overgrown and transform the dehesa into a dense woodland. Sheep have also been used in trial eradication programmes, to remove resilient and invasive plants, such a rockrose. Sheep were restricted to graze specific sections overrun with rockrose for several nights. Once they sufficiently reduced invasive plant growth, their excrements acted as a fertiliser to encourage a variety of native plants to grow, replacing the rockrose before it could return. This is yet another example of the Fundación’s innovative and sustainable approach to a persistent issue, using the natural interaction between elements on the dehesa to achieve their intended goal.

Sheep are also key to the Fundación’s transhumance restoration project. Transhumance is an ancient practice of moving grazing animals to maximise the benefits of their grazing throughout the year. Last year, Ernestine moved 5,000 sheep from the southern dehesas of Andalucía up to the northern province of Palencia. The dehesas in southern Spain require grazing between the months of November and April (their cooler, rainy season), but cannot support sheep during the drier summer months when grazing vegetation is sparse. In seemingly perfect synchrony, the cooler climate of northern Spain mean that grazing is optimal between June and October, the summer months of the southern region.

Not only does transhumance alleviating grazing pressures and allow for some regeneration when sheep are in the opposing region (minimising the likelihood of overgrazing), but the practice also minimises supplementary food production or costs needed to sustain the sheep while grazing vegetation is sparse.

Although the practice is less popular nowadays, Ernestine continues to encourage the re-establishment of this mutually beneficial and sustainable system. By targeting historical and socio-cultural ties to the practice (e.g. encouraging the use of wool products and fashion, sheep cheese making as part of celebration when sheep move through small villages, etc.) she is motivating the uptake of this practice in modern times.


One of the dehesa’s most lucrative products is the cork harvested from the cork oaks dotted across the land. Harvests are a carefully orchestrated process, carried out manually by local specialists, once every 9 to 12 years. We learned that the first and second harvests produced relatively useless cork by-products, meaning that this was not an economically viable product from the outset. Ernestine emphasised this was a theme across the dehesa – many of the products required investment and patience, and only provided some financial return many years later. She went on to explain that the interaction between each of the dehesa’s products and the ability to have multiple sources of income are what make this system work.

Cork Harvesting from the Cork Institute Archives

Olives and Horses

Organic Olive & Horse Breeding Farm

While the Dehesa SF did not package its own olive products, this is yet another potential product that can contribute to the balance within a traditional dehesa system. We travelled to another farm, where the owner, Ricki, produces her own olive products. Her annual operations produce relatively small batches of olive oil, that she sells on a local basis. Her flavoured olive oils where particularly unique, with strong flavours such as wild garlic, lemon and hot chili, that she sourced from cultivated and wild plants that grow on her land. She supplements this income with horse breeding and horse-riding lessons, where visitors come and learn to ride one of several horses she keeps on her farm. This day visit emphasised that a multi-income system, that used multiple parts of the land, seemed to be a relatively common concept in southern Spain.

A Harmonious Balance

It was clear that each element Ernestine shared with us was going to have a lasting impact on how we saw the interaction between wildlife, forestry and agriculture. It seemed that the dehesa was the ideal system – maintaining a perfect balance between supporting wildlife and the environment, whilst also balancing several products and projects to provide lucrative jobs and social advancements. 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.

The threats that the dehesa faces, particularly the intensification of agriculture, also exist in Scotland. Ernestine’s general principles of interactivity and balance between each element of the landscape can be applied here, to encourage agroforestry systems that support not only agricultural productivity but wildlife, forest systems and the local economy.

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