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Dehesa: a unique ecosystem.

 

The dehesa is an ecosystem which resulted from the transformation of the original Mediterranean forest by humans over the course of millennia, with the objective of maximising the diversity of its production without compromising the environmental viability in the lifetime of the ecosystem.

 

Etymologically speaking, the word “dehesa” originates from “defensa”, as it refers to terrain with a physical boundary, reserved for livestock farming. However, in reality, the term dehesa has greatly surpassed this single meaning.

 

The dehesa is, then, a semi-natural, pastured forest. The end result is an “agrosilvopastoral” system of savannah-like forest, made up of oak woods (Quercus ilex and suber) and pastures, complex and multifunctional, which is not only used for its farming and forest potential, but also for grazing, timber, fruit, cork, hunting, fishing, charcoal, agriculture etc.) and where its many elements interact beneficially in both ecological and economical terms.

 

They are also resilient, agrarian systems which have been able to adapt the productivity of the medium to difficult edaphoclimactic conditions, such as poor soils and extreme climate, which is of vital transcendence for the water cycle, the recycling of nutrients in the soil, the regulation of temperature and the fight against climate change, in all of which shepherding and transhumance play a vital part (link to CC of the MCNC document)

 

The management of the dehesa hugely enriches the local biodiversity by creating types of habitats, which would not be present in totally natural conditions, that play host to a large variety of particular species of flora and fauna. For example, the communities of herbaceous plants in the dehesa stand out for their amazingly high number of species, which would be comparable to that of the richest ecosystems found on planet Earth. Equally, they sustain a selection of fauna which would not survive without the existence of the dehesa and pastoral management. It is because of this that the EU considers dehesas as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and the Habitats Directive demands they be protected, as they are considered “Priority Habitats”. In the same way, the dehesa is a paradigmatic ecosystem which contributes to the Mediterranean being considered a biodiversity hotspot on a global scale. 

 

The dehesa also conforms a “cultural landscape”. This means that it is a fabulous construction of social engineering which has its foundation in a huge accumulation of knowledge, history, literature, folklore, gastronomy, craftsmanship and religious and spiritual tradition, in which sustainability and culture go hand in hand.

 

The dehesa is found exclusively in the Southwest quadrant of the Iberian Peninsula, and spans almost 5 million hectares, the majority of which are part of Spain while the rest are found in Portugal (where they are known as “montados”).

 

Dehesa de la Luz: Europe’s First Cultural Dehesa.

 

The “Dehesa de la Luz” is situated in the municipality of Arroyo de la Luz, in the province of Cáceres, which belongs to a region found in the southwest of Spain known was Extremadura. It is the region with the largest expanse of dehesa in the entire country.

The dehesa is located between the World Heritage city of Cáceres, and one of the most superb Roman constructions in Europe, the Roman bridge of Alcántara.

 

The Dehesa de la Luz is the first “Cultural Dehesa” in Europe. This statement emphasises that the dehesa is a “product of cultural engineering”, and that “the idea is to give a global and integrated vision of the different elements that make up the dehesa”: material resources and the production of goods, as well as commercial and environmental services, various ways of exploitation, social relationships, historical evolution, future perspectives, etc.

 

It also shows that the Dehesa de la Luz is part of a cultural context shared by the entire Southwest of the Iberian Peninsula.

 

Cultural Dehesa: a Dehesa of emotions. 

 

To understand the idea of a Cultural Dehesa we wanted to offer the opportunity to experience it in ways that trigger positive emotions, which allows us to understand its meaning and purpose as a means of providing well-being to humans.

 

From this idea stems a project based around interactive and formative tourism which offers the following:

 

  • A series of routes on which the Dehesa de la Luz can be toured on foot, on horseback or cycling through a sea of holm oak and cork trees.

 

  • Getting to know the management of the dehesa and the indigenous species in danger of becoming extinct

 

  • Fishing for tench and carp in one of more than 20 ponds

 

  • Birdwatching and observation of local pond life.

 

  • Visits to one of the traditional local pottery workshops and creation of clay pieces.

 

  • Visits to the local organic orchards and vegetable gardens

 

  • Night-time routes for stargazing

 

Setting of the Dehesa de la Luz:

 

The setting in which the Dehesa de la Luz is located has been used since the neolithic period as a grazing ground, conforming to the occupation of the Romans, the Visigoths, the Arabs, and finally the Christian reconquest, which ultimately consolidated the dehesa system, since pastoralism was their main method of repopulating these areas of poor productivity with what small workforce they had.

 

The Dehesa de la Luz would thus become part of the winter and autumn pastures for the herds and flocks that migrated between the North and South of Spain. From this process there originated 120,000 Km of drovers’ roads across Spain which are still preserved today.

 

Today, the Dehesa de la Luz is a sea of holm oak and cork trees which span 977 hectares in a perimeter of 18.6 km, where one can get to know the remarkable natural and cultural wealth it offers.

 

Natural wealth.

 

The Dehesa de la Luz is a mosaic of habitats, a product of the combination of two key factors: its peculiar geomorphology and its agricultural and woodland management, which generate various sources of refuge and nourishment for flora and fauna alike. This mosaic is made up of pastures, wooded areas, scrubland, rocky outcrops and aquatic mediums composed of over 20 seasonal streams and ponds. The presence of artificial elements is also important, such as stone walls and the ruins of ancient buildings, all of which serve as refuge for numerous species.

 

It is because of this that part of its surface is integrated into the Natura 2000 network and has been declared a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

 

Amongst the diverse array of species of flora, there are an estimated 200 different varieties of grasses, legumes and composite plants, just in the pastures. The terrain’s relief and the frequency with which it is grazed by livestock create an effect known as “the vaguada effect”, through which sediments and nutrients are exported from the high zones to lower ones. These have their own communities of plant and animal life.

 

In deep soil pastures and those which are rarely grazed, one can find certain threatened species, most notably various types of orchid, for example.

 

In the same way, the Dehesa de la Luz is home to an enormous number of animal species. Over 30,000 trees occupy the Dehesa (roughly 600 cork tress and the rest holm oaks), which, thanks to their huge range in ages and sizes, provide a key stratum for the biodiversity of the area by creating the perfect habitat for thriving communities of insects (such as nocturnal moths and diurnal butterflies) and tree-dwelling species (such as the short-toed treecreeper, the wood nuthatch, the golden oriole and the cuckoo). The ancient trunks of these trees, pocked with orifices, serve as refuge for troglodyte species such as the tawny owl, the blue tit and the great tit, as well as for various mammals, from rodents to carnivores to reptiles, such as the ocellated lizard.

 

In the rocky habitat we can find numerous species of smaller mammals (rodents, shrews, hedgehogs) and medium-sized carnivores, (badger, fox, genet, marten, mongoose and weasel) as well as reptiles, such as various lizard species (the large psammodromus and the iberian lizard, the Salamancan lizard and the ocellated lizard) and various snakes (the Montpellier snake, the ladder snake and the horseshoe whip snake).

 

In the abundant bodies of water of the Dehesa there exists a rich community of amphibians (the common toad, the common midwife toad, the natterjack toad, the Iberian water frog, the European tree frog, the Iberian ribbed newt and the marbled newt) as well as reptiles which incorporate the water or surrounding vegetation into their life cycle, such as the viperine water snake, the Spanish pond turtle, Bedriaga’s skink and the Iberian worm lizard.

 

The Dehesa de la Luz is also a hunting ground for large birds of prey and waders, such as the black vulture, the Griffon vulture, the Egyptian vulture and various species of raptors, like the Iberian imperial eagle, the short-toed snake eagle, the booted eagle and the common buzzard, as well as the black stork, the grey heron, and, during the winter, the common crane and the great cormorant.

 

Most of these species are threatened, and their breeding grounds are located in areas of the sierra that are hardest to access, such as the neighbouring Sierra of San Pedro.

 

Livestock breeds.

 

The management of the dehesa is based on extensive farming of sheep and cattle. From the milk of merina sheep, exquisite local cheeses are obtained. Some of the sheep are indigenous breeds in danger of becoming extinct, such as the black merina sheep, precocious merina sheep and the white Cáceres cow, as well as the Cordoba donkey. There is also raising of various breeds of horse, owned by the town council and local people.

 

Stonework architecture:

 

One of the most notable characteristics of the Dehesa de la Luz is the abundance of large granite rock formations, which are mostly found in the western side of the estate. This, historically, has allowed settlers to build different structures which have aided them in the management of the dehesa, such as walls, barriers for containment, “bohíos” or huts useful not only for storage but also biodiversity, as they are a sanctuary for numerous species. The dehesa contains some beautiful buildings, semi natural, which integrate both nature and manmade elements, resulting in the following:

 

(photograph by Susanne Schanbel of stone walls and granite rock formations)

 

Also, theSedum caespititium, a plant which has adapted to lack of water, forms extensive quilts of red over the rocks when springtime comes, creating an impressive visual display of colour:

 

(photograph)

 

There are also Visigothic tombs which have been discovered carved into the rocks at various spots in the Dehesa:

 

(photograph)

 

Spiritual values: Ermita de la Luz.

 

The Dehesa is also a spiritual cradle, as it contains a hermitage where one can find “la Virgen de la Luz”, patroness of the town from whom the Dehesa’s name is derived. The building and current representation of the virgin are substitutes for the originals, which were destroyed by incineration at the hands of French troops in 1808 during the war of independence to great dismay of the local people.

 

Each year there is a popular pilgrimage held in the Dehesa to celebrate the return of the Virgin’s statue to the hermitage after spending 9 days in the town’s church during Easter. This pilgrimage is one of the most prominent local events and it symbolises identity as well as a strong emotional tie between the community and the Dehesa. In 2014, Pope Francis granted the Virgin and the Ermita de la Luz (Hermitage of Light) the year of the Jubilee, which led to the Dehesa being visited by thousands of pilgrims.

 

Further information can be found here:

Tourism office of Arroyo de la Luz.

Person, email and contact phone number

 

 
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