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Monday, 28 May 2012

Are wood-pastures built to last?

The holm oak and cork oak parklands of the Iberian Peninsula – termed dehesa in Spanish and montado in Portuguese – are iconic of Mediterranean wood pastures as a whole. They have attracted attention of scientists and the public as one of the most extensive and best-preserved low-intensity farming systems in Europe. The integration of traditional land use and biodiversity conservation in dehesas has been frequently declared an example for the sustainable management of the countryside as a whole. 
I am one of many (mainly Northern) European environmentalists who discovered the dehesa landscapes in the 1990s and came back many times as researcher, tourist, and friend. My research covers the ecology, history, and management of the dehesa as a land-use system. I am particularly interested in the extent and the land-use related drivers of oak regeneration failure. It is a common problem in many wood pastures of the world that tree stands are mostly aged, while seedlings or saplings are almost nonexistent. My research generated two insights – one that is a bit hard to accept for enthusiasts of “traditional” land use and one that may show a path to the future of wood pastures. First, I didn’t find any evidence that active regeneration of oaks has ever been part of traditional management in the dehesa. “A dehesa is not constructed to last perpetually”, is my main conclusion. Although traditional “high-nature value” land use has an important role to play, I argue that we should accept that traditional ecological knowledge and management do not offer solutions for all current conservation problems. Second, my research into land-use history showed that most dehesa wood pastures are much more recent than commonly thought (although the origins of the dehesa system reach back far in history). The golden age of dehesa creation was the late 18th and the 19th century. Actually, evaluation of aerial photographs highlights that some dehesas had been created out of shrublands as late as in the 1950s. The positive message for wood pasture conservation emerging out of this is: we do not have to wait for hundreds or thousands of years until a wood pasture develops ecological and cultural values. It is certainly crucial to preserve the remaining ancient wood pastures of Europe; but we should complement wood pasture preservation through a strategy of developing new wood pastures.

Ancient holm oak trees  in extremadura (Photo: Tobias Plieninger) 

A more recent cork-oak dehesa (Photo: Gerardo Moreno)

Tobias Plieninger

Ecosystem Services Research Group, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jagerstr. 22/23, 10117 Berlin, Germany

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1 comment:

European Business Conferences said...

I take part as European environmentalists who discovered the dehesa landscapes in the 1980s and came back many times as researcher, tourist, and friend.