Spain's Natural Wonderland: The Dehesa

Jonathan Harris | September 2017

When I travel through southwestern Spain, it is tempting to hurtle through the countryside on a modern highway, barely glancing out the window as the hundreds of oak trees whiz by.  Without realizing it, I might miss one of the most beautiful and ancient cultural treasures of Spain - the dehesa.

The dehesa is a vast area of forested rangeland; it covers over almost 8,000 square miles, about the size of Belgium. This special habitat covers much of southern and western Spain, across large parts of Andalucía and Extremadura, and reaching into Portugal. The dehesa is especially important because it is one of the few ecosystems where humans continue to play a constructive role, improving and maintaining the landscape to benefit wilderness and mankind equally. And this has been going on since the Bronze Age and before.

The dehesa is the home to Spain’s most iconic domesticated animals. This is where the famous Ibérico pig wanders among the holm and cork oaks, feasting on sweet acorns. Local breeds of cattle, sheep and goats also graze the lands, each bred over centuries to be perfectly adapted to this special habitat. These animals gain nourishment from the land and in turn fertilize the soil. 

Spain’s magnificent fighting bulls spend most of their lives in the dehesa, growing strong and powerful while grazing on the plentiful grasses. You may remember the story of Ferdinand the Bull, who refused to fight, but loved to smell the flowers that grow plentifully in the idyllic dehesa landscape! Whether or not you agree with bullfighting, it is clear that these bulls spend most of their lives in a grazing paradise that can only be imagined by cattle elsewhere in the world.

The endangered Iberian lynx and Spanish imperial eagle call the dehesa home, along with hundreds of other species of wild animals which also thrive in this remote and protected landscape. Last year, my brother Tim and I visited the dehesa near Jabugo to drop in on a herd of Ibérico hogs that were contentedly munching on emerald green grass and sweet acorns under centuries-old oak trees. Unexpectedly, we spotted a tiny striped javali piglet emerging from the middle of the pack of rotund black pigs. This lost wild boar baby had been adopted by the Ibérico pigs. I was delighted and surprised, but in a way, it made total sense. The indigenous Ibérico breed undoubtedly descended from wild boars that were domesticated thousands of years ago in these very hills. Naturally they felt comfortable with this distant relative!

The backbone of the dehesa consists of the ancient oaks that dot the landscape. Each tree is pruned and cared for by the ranchers and foresters of the region. The space between the trees is cleared of brush so that the oaks get optimal sunshine and water. Some scholars think that this forested land is one of the original forests in Europe, predating man’s influence. 

I used to think of primeval forests as dense groves of trees, with a dark, cool understory, but this is not the case in the Iberian Peninsula. In prehistoric Spain, the western forests were inhabited by very large herbivores, including bison as well as the ancient aurochs - massive bovines that were the precursor to modern cattle. Their voracious grazing cleared away the brush and saplings in the forest, leaving open spaces between those oak trees that survived to maturity. When these huge animals went extinct, humans stepped into this role, allowing the prehistoric oak forest ecosystem to continue and thrive.

The dehesa is also the source of natural products such as wild mushrooms, honey and aromatic firewood. The cork oaks (Quercus suber) have a spongy, waterproof bark that is skillfully peeled away every nine to twelve years to make corks used for wine bottles. The cork tree must be about 25 to 30 years old before it is mature enough for harvesting. The trees are not harmed by the harvest and in many places, it is illegal to cut down a cork tree without government permission. One vintner told me that the corks for his finest vintages cost him more than 1 euro each! Finally, I learned that our famous Pimentón de La Vera paprika, that flavors every chorizo in Spain, is smoked over smoldering holm oak wood from the dehesa region. 

The dehesa forest offers so much bounty to humans that there is every incentive for people to protect and maintain its health and well-being. This tradition of stewardship of the dehesa has lasted throughout history. Over the millennia, Spain was conquered and reconquered, as the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Catholic monarchy and modern government each took control of the land. Throughout times of tumult, each wave of newcomers learned and appreciated the value of this very special landscape. I just spoke with a jamón producer from Extremadura who says that he fears there is not enough dehesa to supply all the acorns needed to meet the high demand for premium Bellota grade jamón (made from acorn-fed pigs)! 

In modern Spain, with its impressive infrastructure and fast-paced lifestyle, you might think the dehesa would be forgotten or neglected, an outmoded type of agriculture ripe for modernization. Thankfully, this is not the case. In fact, because of the ever-growing demand for iconic foods like Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, as well as free-range beef and lamb, the dehesa continues to be valued and protected from development. It is even conceivable that the dehesa will expand, as people plant more oak trees to meet the demands of the modern market.

Many of us are searching for authenticity when it comes to our food. How can we enjoy the finest quality meats and cheeses while ensuring that animals are treated well? How can we protect the environment from damage at the hands of intensive farming? How can we stay in touch with natural food ways without sacrificing the pleasure of a great meal? 
For me, the special relationship that humans have with the dehesa landscape is the perfect example of a way forward. With careful stewardship, the landscape can flourish, even as it sustains healthy animals and forests for the benefit of humans. Following this ancient and proven path, we can truly have our steak (or ham), and eat it too!