IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
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Dehesa is a sparse wood pasture made up principally of holm and evergreen cork oak, grazed by livestock, and without scrub undergrowth. It is unique to Iberia and Morocco. Also described as "a traditional Mediterranean silvopastoral system
linking production and nature conservation". (pdf below)

Huge forests of holm oak or encina, believed to be the climax species of the true Mediterranean forest , once stretched over great swathes of Spain. This virgin forest has long-since disappeared through grazing, charcoal-burning and felling. A few patches of something approaching this vast primeval forest survive on isolated higher slopes and particularly in the Sierra de Guara on the edge of the Aragonese Pyrenees and in the Sierra Morena in Andalucia. Many of these forests grew on poor and arid soils, and when felled these could not support agriculture for long and were soon abandoned to be taken over by maquis and garrigue, which covers much of Spain and the Mediterranean in general today. However, elsewhere in Spain and parts of the Maghreb , instead being felled, huge forests of holm oak were thinned out, creating the sparse pasture parkland known as dehesa , which together with evergreen cork form a unique man-made, managed and bio-diverse ecosystem. These are grazed on by the classic Iberian pigs and to a lesser extent by cows and sheep. Dehesa often combines holm oak with evergreen cork trees, as the latter bears its acorns in winter, providing a staged supply of animal food. A hybrid between the two trees (known as a mesto ) bears acorns between the two peaks, giving a constant supply. The holm oak and the dehesa system play an essential role in European bird migration. Dehesa is also vital to the survival of many Spanish bird populations, such as the incredibly endangered Spanish imperial eagle.

 Dehesa landscape with free-range Iberian pigs 

The Dehesa in Extremadura ( 3 min 27 sec) Introduction to this unique habitat by TVE, Click on play.

More Spain nature videos

The dehesa was beautifully depictured in Mario Camus' "Los Santos Inocentes". The film, set on a cortijo in Alburquerque in Badajoz , is a harrowing indictment of the semi-feudal relations of absentee landowners, estate managers and peasants in 1960's rural Spain . Although we may indeed praise the dehesa as a production system, there should be no nostalgia felt towards the retrograde social system that all too often in the past operated around it. Essential viewing for any dangerous nostagics for the "Real Spain". 

Paco Rabal as Zacarías in "Los Santos Inocentes" with his pet 'Milana' - a female kite. The bird is actually an eagle owl. 

boalar (Arag.) Sparse wood pasture in Aragonese Pyrenees but here grazed by cows. Also known as ' dehesa boyal ' (boyal from bueyes - cows/oxen)

External links

This pdf "Opening paper. XXIst General Meeting. European Grassland Federation " has some beautiful images of the dehesa. It concludes:

  • The dehesa is not a mere productive system. It is also a highly diverse and valuable ecosystem.
    • Traditional (extensive, integrated, efficient) management is not just a tool for producing resources. It is also (and more and more so) a powerful conservation tool
    • This is why the dehesa has been included as a protected habita, in the 92/ 43/ EEC Habitat Directive, and therefore in the Nature 2000 network
    • The dehesa provides a wide variety of services, or environmental benefits: stability, landscape, tourism, cultural heritage,...
    • The dehesa is the habitat of many endangered plant and animal species and communities.
    • Special care must be taken with soil, as it is the less renewable resource of the ecosystem, and crown coverage