Cattle in a montado in southeastern Portugal. The breed is authochtonous to Alentejo. Photo: J. Palma/AGFORWARD (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Landscapes of High Value — Changing Dynamics of Agroforestry on the Iberian Peninsula

Lush green pastures, scattered oak trees, and cattle grazing beneath: With the Dehesa and Montado, Spain and Portugal host some of the most exciting European agroforestry landscapes. Their high nature value is a result of decades of human land use and cultivation.

Imke Horstmannshoff
People • Nature • Landscapes
7 min readSep 13, 2021


With ongoing trends of globalization, however, these landscapes and the manifold services they provide are more and more under threat.

Based on a synthesis by Tobias Plieninger, Lukas Flinzberger, Maria Hetman, Emmeline Topp, Imke Horstmannshoff, Lynn Huntsinger, Maria Reinhard-Kolempas and Gerardo Moreno-Marcos.

Montado in Alentejo, Portugal. Source: Guy Moll, wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Dehesa and montado landscapes (for simplicity, we’ll just call them ‘dehesas’ here) extend across 3.1 million hectares in the southwestern Iberian Peninsula. They consist of individual dehesa farms, which are usually privately owned and a few hundred hectares in size. In these landscapes, farmers have been integrating extensive livestock farming with forest management (and at times cropping) for decades — thereby significantly contributing to their state and conditions:

Altogether, dehesa and montado areas today form Europe’s largest regional high-nature value (HNV) farming system.

Dehesa landscapes not only provide market goods, such as feed for animals (grass, browse or acorns) and cork from the oak bark, but also various non-material services to human society. Biodiversity is one of them: Hosting up to 140 species of conservation concern and providing feeding habitat to several globally threatened flagship species — such as Spanish imperial eagle and Iberian lynx —, dehesas have become internationally known for supporting outstanding levels of biodiversity.

In a recent synthesis, we have reviewed the existing literature on dehesa conservation — thus to provide overarching insights into the changing dynamics of dehesa landscapes that have been worked out in respective research during the last 35 years.

Two globally endangered species that find habitat in the dehesa: Spanish imperial eagle and Iberian lynx. Sources: J. A. Lagier Martín & Konrads Bilderwerkstatt on wikimedia (CC BY 3.0; CC BY 2.0)

Dehesas have especially been investigated in what can be considered their ‘heartlands’, the Portuguese province Alentejo and Extremadura in Spain. Not surprisingly, strongest research groups in this regard are located close by, in Evora (ICAAM, University of Evora) and Plasencia (Indehesa, University of Extremadura; see Fig.1).

Figure 1: Distribution of dehesa across the Iberian Peninsula (green) and number of studies conducted in each Spanish province / Portuguese district. Sources: CORINE Land Cover, European Environment Agency, Eurostat

When it comes to conservation management, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, characterized by the combination of social and ecological methods in a systems perspective and by the involvement of multiple stakeholders, have frequently been recommended: They hold the potential to result in stronger understandings of people-nature interrelations and land managers’ perspectives.

Our review, however, showed that such approaches have not received a lot of attention to date: For the most part, dehesa conservation research has consisted of place-based studies, focusing on individual aspects of the ecosystem. Social science and inter- and transdisciplinary approaches have been relatively uncommon — thus, the people owning, managing, using, or appreciating dehesa have only rarely been studied.

In order to shed light on the dynamics around dehesa conservation, we drew on the European Environment Agency’s DPSIR (Drivers-Pressures-State-Impacts-Responses) framework and assessed the sample of 128 relevant papers along the corresponding research questions (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Research questions organized within the DPSIR framework.

Broad underlying drivers, concrete pressures, and impacts

Broad causes of change affecting dehesas include the general low economic profitability of traditional land use, rising wages, rural outmigration, and natural drivers — climate change, pests, and diseases.

‘On the ground’ of dehesas, these drivers translate into diverse pressures directly affecting the landscapes. In general, studies pointed to the complexity of the system, resulting in interconnected, and often counteracting relationships between land-use activities and their impacts on biodiversity, which frequently also depended on environmental factors.

One of the key drivers mentioned is the repeatedly reformed EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As a basic support system, it exerts fundamental influence on dehesa management, depending on farmers’ reactions to its changing schemes.

Various stages in CAP reformation have created incentives for intensifying and simplifying the complex dehesa system.

With its agri-environmental funding, the CAP on the one hand allows farmers to improve their marketing or to maintain nature-friendly land uses. On the other hand, the so-called ‘coupled payments’ have been— and partially still are — , for instance linking subsidies to livestock numbers, thus encouraging dehesa farmers to increase livestock densities on their land. The consequence: While livestock production is frequently intensified, forestry and crop cultivation are rather undergoing processes of extensification (for instance, when cultivation is abandoned).

Photo: AGFORWARD/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Traditional dehesa management, however, is characterized by intermediate disturbance levels. Thus, both over-use and under-use are destructive to dehesa systems:

Together, they create a shift from a complex multifunctional agrosilvopastoral system to a simplified system focusing on livestock raising.

Suggested management and policy responses

The studies examined pointed to a plethora of available tools and models for nature-friendly dehesa management. Maintaining but also advancing the EU CAP was most central to the policy responses suggested.

Montado and pasture in South Portugal. Photo: João HN Palma/AGFORWARD (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Especially concerning rangeland management, studies criticized the CAP-induced intensification trends: Low to medium livestock grazing levels, rotational practices and the creation of temporary fallow lands were recommended instead.

Reconfiguring CAP payments toward collaborative, regional-level action for biodiversity and toward a results-based payment scheme for ecosystem services may be the most comprehensive pathway toward dehesa stewardship.

Concerning general land management, studies especially recommended the implementation of diverse land uses and features, and elaborated on ways to ensure the effective regeneration of oak stands. Additional suggestions in the fields of business management, regulation and knowledge included:

  • a stronger cooperation between farmers, and the promotion of a broad product range through certification, labeling, and value-based marketing,
  • the establishment of protected areas, governance directed at ‘land stewardship’, and the development of ‘good practice frameworks’ for dehesa management,
  • trainings for land managers, participatory approaches in planning, and environmental education of citizens.

Conclusion: Four lessons

In dehesas, long-established Mediterranean land management practices have created a social-ecological system with an extraordinary wealth of actors, practices, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.

The prevailing political and administrative organization of agriculture, forestry and nature conservation into separate, monofunctional sectors fails to address the needs of multifunctional dehesas. Landscape-based approaches to management, planning, and policy appear most useful for addressing the multiple drivers and pressures affecting dehesa and maintaining a desirable state. This requires better coordination between sectorial activities and policies, especially between the sectors of agriculture and conservation. In such approaches, participation and self-organization and a broader integration of the different interests of the many actors involved have to play a more important role. These would ideally lead to a joint vision of all stakeholders, contributing to effective agri-environmental governance.

Dehesa in Castile-La Mancha, Spain. Photo: Miguel A. Masegosa Martínez/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Such participative approaches have the potential to incorporate shared learning, monitoring, and evaluation in policy measures, thus creating cultural and social capital.

Our synthesis of existing literature from a DPSIR perspective has led us to formulate four lessons, which can complement ongoing research and ecosystem service assessments tackling global biodiversity loss and environmental problems:

  1. Future dehesa studies would benefit from more integrative systems perspectives and from a stronger involvement of landowners and farmers in research processes.
  2. The CAP has created complex and sometimes ill-suited rules for dehesa, targeting certain separate components. It neither addresses the emergent whole of the system, nor the multiple societal values it provides.
  3. Any conservation action should ensure maintenance and restoration of essential landscape features, and the interactions among components, in a high nature value farming system.
  4. Plenty of management and policy responses are available, but there is a need to move from single-topic to cross-sectorial, landscape-level approaches that fit dehesa complexity.

Accompanying this process by innovative governance models is the beginning of what we hope will be a long story of successful conservation of this valuable and rich social-ecological system.

Full paper: T. Plieninger, L. Flinzberger, M. Hetman, I. Horstmannshoff, M. Reinhard-Kolempas, E. Topp, G. Moreno & L. Huntsinger (2021): Dehesas as high nature value farming systems: a social-ecological synthesis of drivers, pressures, state, impacts, and responses. Ecology & Society 26(3):23.



Imke Horstmannshoff
People • Nature • Landscapes

MA Global Studies | Research, Education and Culture | Sustainability and Social-Ecological Change