The Dehesa understood as a natural environment is an open forest populated by trees such as oaks and Holm oaks, and in its lower layer by grassland or scrub. It is a Mediterranean ecosystem.
“a type of pasture with scattered trees of evergreen and deciduous oaks…”
(Scarascia et al., 2000)
Dehesa is a term that comes from the old Spanish and means defence. It refers to the land reserved and bounded for the free grazing of “cattle nomads” which travelled to the Southwest of Spain.
La Dehesa occupies a large area of the Iberian peninsula, almost two million ha., extending from Salamanca to Malaga and including the regions of the Alentejo and Algarve Portuguese.
The Dehesa has great economic and social connotations, both in and out of the areas through which it extends; it represents an enormous percentage of the vegetation of Spain and thus plays a key role as a rural setting, reducing the flow of migrants and its logical consequences such as population aging, etc..
The main features of the Dehesa are:
– It can be used for various purposes: Most common would be grazing for several animal species although there is also a significant presence of cork trees –which are collected and after repopulated artificially-
– The presence of trees helps the conservation of the soil: Trees can regulate the hydrological cycle, helping to maintain a milder temperature, because under their tops temperatures are cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
– Proper management of livestock can perpetuate the existence of the Dehesa, as it serves as a tool for modelling the terrain.
– La Dehesa is mainly composed of two layers: The tree layer consists mainly of Quercus family trees and the herbaceous layer is formed by the family Leguminosae which main characteristics -the easiness of regeneration and rapid growth- make it ideal for the enjoyment of cattle. Shrub does not have a relevant presence in this ecosystem.
– The hand of man has been a determining factor in the creation of the Dehesa, as the primitive oak woods were thinned to gain territory and facilitate cattle grazing, thus giving us the forest as we know them today.
Nowadays, the two main animal species we can find in the Dehesa are the Iberian Pig and the Spanish Bull, both key to the preservation of these vast rural spaces. Without their existence, the sustainability of the Dehesa would be under question.
The Iberian Pig lives in the freedom of the Dehesa, feeding on weeds, insects and fruits. This is an ideal environment where they can exercise and develop physically.
The Iberian pig is a breed adapted perfectly to the environment of the Dehesa. Holm-oaks and gall-oaks produce acorns during the autumn until the end of winter, when the Iberian pig eats his favourite fruit: The Acorn. During this season the animal will consume first the sweet acorns of the oaks, leaving for the end the bitter ones. This period is called “montanera” (acorn season) and it is key in the development of the Iberian pig, as during this time it gains up to 60% of its weight!